Mexican arts, craft and culture

We look at the roots of some of Mexico’s best-loved cultural arts, including dance, music, fashion and the fabulously colourful folk arts.

By Kieran Meeke

Published 7 May 2024

Indigenous roots, Spanish and French colonialism, and its close links with the United States have all played a role in shaping the distinctive cultural icons of Mexico today, so read on if you're interested in learning about the vibrant culture you will encounter on a holiday to Mexico.

No one really knows for sure where the word for Mariachi came from. It was thought to be a corruption of the French word “mariage” (marriage) but it’s more likely to be a native word for the wood used on village dance floors. Dance is still essential to traditional Mariachi but we now more often think of it in terms of the distinctive music and costume of the performers.

Its roots are lost in the indigenous past but Mariachi spread after the Mexican Revolution in the 1920s when many haciendas laid off their workers. Taking to the streets to earn a living using what skills they had, Mariachi exploded.

They still wear the formal Spanish rider’s costume, traje de charro, of tight-fitting trousers, short jacket, boots and sombrero. Since sombrero means “hat”, Spanish speakers call this distinctive style a “sombrero mexicano”, while Mexicans call it a “sombrero charro” (peasant hat).

Today, a group will consist of several violins, two trumpets and a guitar but the distinctive instrument is the bass guitarrón. That is matched by the high-pitched, bow-backed vihuela, an instrument with indigenous roots.

A typical Mariachi band is expected to know more than 1,000 songs and will play to serenade a lover, at a wedding, christening, birthday or even a funeral, as well as being the sound of Mexico’s fiestas.

Mariachi’s roots lie in the regional Son style – Son Abajeno is from Michoacan, while Son Istmenos is from Oaxaca, for example.

A Mariachi band can play many different styles, however, from polka to pop, so it’s important not to confuse the name of the band with the music they play.

Among the many other types of music you might hear in Mexico are the brass-led Banda, typical of village fiestas, and the catchy accordion- and drum-led Norteño.

Mexico also has the largest music industry in Latin America, producing rock and pop stars famous throughout the continent and further afield who build on the fame of older influences such as Ritchie Valens and Carlos Santana.

There is also a tradition of jazz, classical music and opera, and you can hear the best of it in venues such as the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, which also hosts the National Symphonic Orchestra and Ballet Folklórico.

Dance has a central place in Mexico’s folklore and in any fiesta. There are wide regional variations but the national dance is recognised as the flirtatious Jarabe Tapatia. Better known as the “Mexican hat dance”, it is taught in every public school.

The Folklorico dances of each region reflect their history. Veracruz is one of the oldest cities on the eastern coast and its dances mix Caribbean, African and Spanish influences, including flamenco.

Nayarit Jarabe from the sugar-rich state of Nayarit has male dancers wielding the machetes used to cut sugar cane, while their simple costumes reflect the poverty of the region.

La Grulla from the north now shows definite borrowings from across the US border in its Western costumes and cowboy-style foot stomping, although it was originally a polka.

It’s worth a special mention for the Voladores de Papantla, or Flying Men. Native to Totonacapan in Veracruz state, this centuries-old tradition is dedicated to the Maya solar deity in honour of rain, fertility and a good harvest.

The Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 was a civil war that left a sharply divided country, mostly illiterate.

Incoming president General Álvaro Obregón saw an opportunity to unite the new country by using murals on a nationalistic theme.

Artists David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco – now known as “Los Tres Grandes” – had studied in Europe and brought the techniques of Italian fresco to an art form with roots deep in Mayan and Aztec history.

They created an entirely original modernist style that championed social reform. Rivera in particular made use of Mexico’s pre-Columbian history in his images, finding inspiration for his Communist beliefs and creating a self-image for the emerging country.

However, he is now equally well known for his marriage to bisexual, famously mono—browed artist Frida Kahlo, whose life itself was a work of art.

The stormy relationship included Rivera cheating with her sister, among many other lovers. Twenty years older than Kahlo, he still declared himself “unfit for monogamy” and she retaliated by having affairs with the likes of French entertainer Josephine Baker and Leon Trotsky.

The colourful story has helped bring their art to its present fame and both appear on Mexico’s 500 Peso bill.

Frida Kahlo made a point of dressing in embroidered indigenous clothes, a rebellious act at a time when European clothing was the norm for women in her circle.

Hand-embroidered blouses, dresses and shawls have now become an essential part of Mexican identity and every region has its own style.

Oaxaca is perhaps the most famous, with a number of indigenous communities that preserve traditions, down to growing their own plants for cloth, thread and dyes. The designs symbolise dreams and hopes or borrow motifs from nature.

Some of these designs are hundreds of years old, passed down for generations. Buying them for a fair price can help preserve a culture in danger of dying out in the face of cheap imports and better job options for younger women.

Mexico City artist Pedro Linares (1906-1992) specialised in papier-mâché work, producing traditional pinatas and Judas figures for carnival until a fever dream supposedly inspired him to start making fantastical creatures.

More likely, he was commissioned by anti-establishment painter José Gómez Rosas, famous for his stained glass window in Hosteria de Santo Domingo, Mexico City’s oldest restaurant.

Freely mixing parts from various animals, birds, fish and mythical creatures, these “alebrijes” were promoted by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and eventually brought Linares international fame.

Today, a whole neighbourhood in Mexico City produces art in paper, wood and metal inspired by him. An annual parade in the historic centre of Mexico City every October features giant papier-mâché figures to celebrate this folk art form.

It is hard to look at them without seeing deep pre-Hispanic roots and they have been described as Mexico’s 'most true' art.

Oaxacan woodcarvers, who traditionally represented totem animals such as a bird or leopard, have also adopted the idea of carving ones born only out of the artist’s imagination. The region’s brightly painted alebrijes are now in even higher demand than the original style developed by Linares and his family.

From Mesoamerican pyramids to thoroughly modern buildings, Mexico’s architecture provides some of its most striking sights.

The Spanish built Baroque churches and neo-gothic cathedrals, while local architects enthusiastically embraced styles such as Art Nouveau and Art Deco.

Modern architecture in the country owes much to Juan O’Gorman, who built a joint home for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and the mural-clad Central Library at Ciudad Universitaria (UNAM). Luis Barragán, much influenced by Le Corbusier and European modernism, also helped develop a distinctive Mexican identity.

Visit Guanajuato to see some of his early work. The church of San Cayetano in Guanajuato is a prime example of Churrigueresco, the Spanish 17th-century baroque style that can also be seen in buildings such as the Cathedral Basilica, Zacatecas, and in Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral.

Every region of Mexico has its own traditional costume, so the idea of a national costume is heavily influenced by that of the Spanish colonisers who took over the whole country.

Men wear a wide sombrero hat, the colourful woven wool shawl-like serape, and an embroidered guayabera shirt. The hat and shirt have their origins in the Spanish but the serape has indigenous roots.

For women, the huipile is the most obvious garment with indigenous origins. This sleepless tunic can be worn in various lengths, as a dress or a sort of waistcoat, and is often heavily embroidered. It is worn over a skirt and can also be worn with a quechquémitl, the female serape that is also indigenous. It was originally a full body covering but has shrunk in size so as not to conceal the blouse’s ornate designs and is now purely decorative.

The indigenous people of Mexico consumed a mainly vegetarian diet with staples such as maize, beans, tomatoes, peppers, squash and sweet potatoes supplemented by meat from wild turkey, rabbit and deer. The Spanish Conquistadors brought cattle, chickens, pigs, sheep and goats, new ingredients that were quickly merged into a new cuisine by the Indian women used by the all-male arrivals to cook for them.

Chicken and pork were particular favourites, with beef still not being a major ingredient in Mexican dishes. Wheat was a less successful sport in the Mexican climate and corn (maize) remains the base of many meals. Even if not an ingredient, it will appear as the flatbread-like tortilla, handmade at home or bought fresh every day from a local tortillería.

The indigenous ingredients generally remain the most popular, and a pot of “refried” beans – frijoles refritos actually means “well-fried beans” – is another constant in many kitchens.

This can be eaten at any meal, even breakfast, perhaps in Huevos rancheros: fried egg, black beans, pico de gallo, and cheese. Pico de gallo is a salsa made from chopped tomato, onion, coriander leaves, fresh serrano chilli, salt, and key lime juice.

The use of chilli, which originated in Mexico before being spread around the world during the 16th century, is another distinct characteristic of its cuisine.

Comida (lunch) is the main meal of the day and is often three courses as is the Spanish style. Soup is followed by meat with rice and tortillas, and dessert could be simply fresh fruit.

Cena (supper) should therefore be a light meal but the habit of going out for a meal in the evening is gradually displacing traditional ways.

Snacking is common at any time of the day. Antojitos ('little whims') might consist of a taco (tortilla wrap) or a quesadilla (a tortilla sandwich with melted cheese).

Mexico is one of the most influential countries for Spanish literature, with writers such as author Carlos Fuentes and poet Octavio Paz Lozano, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 1990.

For those in the English-speaking world, its cinema is much better known. Directors such as Luis Buñuel, Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro have made an impact in Hollywood, and famous actors include Salma Hayek and Anthony Quinn (born Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca), the first Mexican Oscar winner.

Making more of an impact in daily life are the many Mexican telenovelas, or soaps, whose melodrama makes them instantly addictive for many viewers. Look out for titles such as El Chema – a spin-off from another famous series, El Señor de los Cielos about drug cartels – and Guerra de Idolos – about the seemingly equally vicious world of the Latin music industry in the USA.

Experience the colourful arts, crafts and culture of Mexico for yourself on one of our escorted tours of Mexico.

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