Mexican Culture

Core Concepts

Primary Author
Nina Evason,
  • Class
  • Pride
  • Diversity (Mestizaje)

Mexico is a North American country bordering the United States, Guatemala and Belize. It is extremely geographically diverse, with deserts, high mountain plateaus and tropical coastlines. More than half of the Mexican population lives in the central regions of the country, whilst the arid north and tropical south are more sparsely populated. The dominant culture of Mexico reflects a blend of indigenous and Spanish customs; however, traditions vary greatly across the country. Many of the things often thought of as distinctively ‘Mexican’ have a local or regional origin. For example, tequila, mariachi music, embroidered sombrero and costume of the charro (gentleman rancher) originated in the west of Mexico. Each region/state generally has a unique cultural identity and accompanying cuisine, folk songs and craftsmanship that residents are very proud of. Cultural customs may also vary on a more local level, between communities, towns and cities within states.

Settlement Patterns and Regional Identities

Roughly 80% of Mexicans live in urban areas while 20% live rurally.1 The growth of urbanisation is a continuing trend as many rural poor are attracted by the economic opportunities of industrial areas. However, city living does not ensure financial security. Differences in attitudes and practices are very noticeable between urban centres and rural areas. Those in rural towns generally continue to follow traditional lifestyles and hold quite conservative beliefs. They often maintain strong identities that are particular to their specific town or region. These may be referred to as ‘patrias chicas’ (small homelands). Such regional identities are particularly important to many indigenous communities.

On the other hand, many towns and cities are highly industrialised and cosmopolitan. Popular coastal towns are generally also quite Westernised from the influx of tourism. People from cities tend to be less conservative; however, this is still highly dependent on which region the city is in. For example, those from Guadalajara are generally more traditional than people from Mexico City. Indeed, Mexico City is somewhat of a cultural outlier in the country. It is the second biggest metropolitan area in the world. Being a global economic and cultural centre, it tends to attract more liberal and unconventional Mexicans from other areas of the country. Roughly one in six Mexicans live in the capital.2

Social Hierarchies

Systemic inequalities and historical factors have made class differences very distinct in Mexico. Class often defines the daily activity and lifestyles of people, as well as the employment opportunities afforded to them. This becomes very noticeable when observing the difference between those who have steady employment in professional fields and those working in the informal economy (e.g. as street vendors or merchants). Indeed, there has been a marked increase in income inequality in the present era, especially following the economic crisis in the 1990s. The vast majority of professional jobs do not offer adequate pay. This has seen the middle class struggle to expand and find adaptive solutions as formal employment opportunities diminished. As a result, more than half of all Mexicans work in the informal sector.3

Generally, the majority of the Mexican population is in the lower socioeconomic bracket. This is the case in both rural and urban areas. In the countryside, many people do not own the land they work on. Instead, they depend on small wages paid by elite agricultural landholders. Meanwhile, most cities have extensive areas of surrounding settlements (slums) that lack adequate services and resources. These situations contrast starkly with the middle and upper classes that enjoy cosmopolitan lifestyles and greater access and influence over social and economic activity. Due to these big differences in wealth, labour is cheaper and it is common to hire household services at very little cost (e.g. cleaners, nannies, dog-walkers, etc.). This is normal amongst the middle and upper-middle class, not only the elite.

Social status can be determined by one’s socioeconomic level, regional background, education and/or family name. However, class is also strongly correlated with . Research has found that Mexicans with fairer skin have a greater chance of being in higher socioeconomic positions.4 Meanwhile, those with darker skin (the majority) are generally in the lower classes. For example, most of the rural poor have dominant indigenous ancestry. This differentiation reflects the historic affluence of the European colonists over the indigenous population and the fact that centuries of economic, political and social policies favoured European inheritance of wealth.

As the effects of extreme poverty are widespread, there is a strong importance placed on having ‘simpatía’ (sympathy) towards those in disadvantaged positions. Even privileged Mexicans are usually exposed to the effects of poverty enough for most to recognise what difficult living conditions people have. However, such sympathy does not always amount to assistance, as many Mexicans have grown accustomed to this reality. Indeed, the national culture has a score of 81 according to Hofstede’s dimensions; this indicates that people tend to accept the social as the natural order and do not necessarily seek to change it.

Colonisation and Diversity

Mexico has been deeply influenced by Spanish that began in the 16th century and lasted for almost three centuries. Before European occupation, the land of Mexico was home to expansive Mesoamerican civilisations, such as those of the Olmec, Toltec, Teotihuacan, Aztec, Maya and Zapotec people. The Spanish colonists conquered the existing empires in the 16th century and encouraged ‘mestizaje’ (mixing) among the population (between the indigenous and the Europeans). The aim was to assimilate the population to become more racially homogeneous in order to develop a stronger national identity. This diminished the proportion of people who identified with their indigenous heritage; however, the population of contemporary Mexico remains incredibly diverse.

The majority of the population is mestizo, meaning they share a mixture of European and heritage to some degree, while approximately 21.5% self-identify as indigenous.5 There are also many people with mostly European ancestry. As international migration increased over the 20th century, communities of people with Central American, South American, Middle Eastern, Asian and African heritage have also grown. Despite this diversity, the Mexican identity is thought to supersede any differences. The national discourse professes that a white person (un blanquito or güero) is just as ‘Mexican’ as someone with mostly indigenous ancestry (and vice versa). However, it cannot be presumed that all Mexicans share this view.

By incorporating Mesoamerican history into the contemporary setting, the Mexican practice of traditional Spanish and Catholic customs tends to be particularly unique and colourful. However, the ‘blend’ (mezcla) of Spanish and indigenous identities has not been free from controversy. Historical factors have changed opinion over time. Mexicans have had to reach a point of acceptance that the majority of them share ancestry with both the oppressors (colonists) and oppressed (indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica). In reconciling this, pride in diversity has become a major unifying theme. Today, Mexicans celebrate the day that Columbus arrived in America as ‘Día de la Raza’ ( Day). This day recognises and honours the diversity of Mexico’s population, rather than commending Christopher Columbus or . Many people are very proud of the ancient indigenous heritage (indigenismo) of the country. Nevertheless, while ancient Mesoamerican cultural legacies continue to be revived and glorified by Mexicans, the indigenous people of contemporary Mexico remain marginalised.

Indigenous Peoples of Mexico

There were over 85 different ‘pueblos indigenas de Mexico’ (indigenous peoples of Mexico) when the Spanish first arrived. Today, roughly 65 survive, speaking over 60 languages and 290 dialects. These include both ‘detribalised’ groups, as well as those that continue to follow their traditional lifestyles and social systems, known as “Usos y Costumbres” (customs and traditions). Over the period of , many indigenous peoples died of diseases introduced by the Spanish, as well as violence.

Most indigenous Mexicans do not speak their own language and speak only Spanish.6 Of those who do speak a native language, they are usually bilingual in Spanish as well (often just fluent enough to do business). However, some may refuse to speak Spanish in order to maintain their indigenous roots. Many have retained local forms of organization and customary law to defend their culture and livelihoods. Constitutional recognition protects their right to have this cultural autonomy. However, some have witnessed the collapse of their traditions under the burden of poverty. 

The indigenous peoples of Mexico continue be substantially disadvantaged. According to official figures on multidimensional data from the National Council for Evaluation of Social Development Policy, 72.3% of Mexico’s indigenous population lives in poverty.6 Many live in small peasant communities in rural areas. Others have had to integrate into society in order to improve their living conditions.7 Today, many make a wage by selling crafts and performing traditional dances in costume for tourists.

National and Cultural Pride

Mexicans are very proud of their country. However, this generally relates to the culture and people rather than the nation state or its institutions. The population has become very sceptical of the government, systems and authority figures due to pervasive corruption at all levels of society. Therefore, national pride is generally directed towards Mexico in the cultural sense. Many Mexicans feel their country has great cultural depth and wealth in comparison to others. There is a saying “como México no hay dos” (There is none other like Mexico), which reflects how people believe Mexico has a particular uniqueness.

Much foreign knowledge of the cultural traditions in Mexico gravitates around ideas drawn from popular culture (e.g. tequila, tacos, tortillas, mariachis). The real Mexican love for these famous aspects of their culture should not be underestimated. Furthermore, one finds that almost all Mexicans have an incredible knowledge of their country’s history. People are very proud of the Mesoamerican legacies (such as the Aztecs and Mayans) and are often very educated on the events in history that shaped the identity of their society. It is common for the average person to able to list off many ancient stories and cultural achievements. Mexicans take particular delight when their culture receives global recognition or foreign appreciation. For example, UNESCO has listed traditional Mexican cuisine as a global cultural treasure, listed as a part of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.9

Mexicans have generally been very careful to preserve their cultural character amidst rapid globalisation. The country’s close proximity to the US has seen people adopt many Western cultural influences. However, most foreign customs are generally assumed with an extra Mexican flair added on. For example, if one orders pizza at an Italian restaurant, they are still likely to receive chillies on the side. A person may be regarded a ‘malinchista’ if they have a tendency to revere or prefer foreign things. The term has negative connotations of disloyalty or treachery, as its origins trace back to an indigenous woman submitting to Spanish conquerors. 

Safety, Fatalism and Prediction of Events

The global media’s portrayal of Mexico often concentrates on the country’s struggle against corruption and the violence of drug cartels. It is true that safety and security is a common concern for most people. Hard social conditions and government policies have influenced a rise in violence and crime (la delincuencia) in the present era, both anarchic and organised. Therefore, many people have to restrict their movements to avoid crimes of opportunity. It is common for friends and family members to stay in close contact with one another. For example, independent adults may have a continuous group chat with their family members or a location notification system on their phone so that each person generally knows one’s activities, whereabouts and when they have arrived home safely. 

Due to past experiences where Mexicans’ safety has been directly threatened, some people may interpret the physical onset of anxiety as an omen. For instance, the panic of anxiety that triggers a feeling of the tightening of the chest may be seen as a signal for danger. If a Mexican is in a safe situation when feeling the sensation, they may then interpret it to mean an earthquake is coming or a member of their family might be in trouble.

There is a common belief throughout Mexico that God predetermines events and one’s destiny is in his hands. This has been influenced by the practice of Catholicism throughout the country. Many devout Mexicans see the Virgin of Guadalupe as the appropriate messenger and means to reaching God (see Catholicism in Mexico under Religion). It is common for people to try and change their circumstances by revering her and asking for her to grant their prayers. Indeed, the amount of regarding one’s personal control over events often varies depending on how religious one is.

Interpretations of Death

Mexico had more homicides in 2017 than any previous year on record.10 Due to such crime and poor public health, death is quite pervasive in society. However, Mexicans have a unique relationship with death. They are generally very fearful of it, but do not hide it or keep it as a taboo subject. Instead, they keep quite a good-humoured familiarity with it. For example, there is a longstanding tradition of celebrating the ‘Day of the Dead’ (Día de los Muertos) on the 2nd of November. During this period, it is thought that the deceased can visit family and friends. The celebration of this concept somewhat reflects the contemporary integration of past Mesoamerican traditions (the Aztecs historically venerated the goddess of death – Mictecacihuatl).

Foreigners may observe Mexicans’ close cultural proximity to death and interpret it to mean that they are not scared of dying. On the contrary, Mexicans are often extremely fearful of death; this embracement of it is a way of coping with their mortality. Underneath the jokes, Mexicans generally have a very strong respect for the deceased and can feel very uncomfortable “playing with death” for fear there will be reprisal. See Folk Religions and Magic in Religion for more information on Mexican superstition.

Organisation and Time

Mexican society is not tightly organised and rules are not closely followed. As systems are often unreliable, people need to be adaptable. The cultural tolerance for imprecision and flexibility can encourage spontaneity and a light disregard for law and order in daily life (i.e. getting out of a car stopped at a traffic light). In some cases, people may have to pay ‘mordida’ (a bite) to public officials or authority figures to get things done. Ultimately, Mexicans have to rely on their own personal networks. People tend to structure their lives around the immediate social relationships important to them. This is largely driven by necessity, as the government cannot be depended upon to provide security and support.

To foreigners, this approach to problem solving can seem disorganised or frivolous. However, such actions are practically minded and seen as a capable way of navigating around the reality of situations. Ingenuity and improvisation are important tools for solving daily problems. One can observe this in the way Mexicans have adapted the informal economy to create job opportunities for themselves.

Mexicans have a strong work ethic, largely driven by necessity. According to data in the , Mexico has the longest working week on average (41.2 hours). However, this does not always translate into high productivity.11 This can be partly attributed to the mañana attitude. “Mañana” literally means ‘tomorrow’, but the term is also used in conversation to refer to ‘some time in the eventual future’. The mañana attitude is related to the more fluid, laid-back approach to time keeping. People often hear it employed in the context of procrastination whereby one will assure another that a task will happen at some point, so in the meantime it’s best to relax and not worry about it. A slow pace of life is particularly common among the older generation and in rural or coastal areas.


Mexico scores 97 out of 100 on Hofstede’s cultural dimension of , indicating that it has a highly culture. As such, people generally exhibit a willingness to realise their impulses and desires with regard to enjoying life and having fun. In cultures, there is a general tendency towards optimism, and people may place a higher degree of importance on leisure time. One commonly hears this trait of Mexican culture described in the saying that “Mexicans don’t live to work, they work to live”. Indeed, Mexicans generally devote much time to social occasions, sometimes prioritising individual relationships over other commitments.

Mexicans love socialising, and cantinas, bars, town squares and other public spaces often provide great atmospheres to do so. There is a lot of social spontaneity and improvisation in Mexico. Invitations to occasions are often open invites, and engagements progress naturally as people sense the mood to make decisions about further movements. Many Mexicans feel there is a social rigidity in the English-speaking West as many plans have a lot of detail as to who can come, what one should bring and when it starts. Some Mexican migrants may feel that social engagements are designed too meticulously.



1 Central Intelligence Agency, 2017
2 Central Intelligence Agency, 2017
3 International Labour Organisation, 2014
4 Vazquez Maggio, 2013
5 National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, 2015
6 National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, 2015
7 International Fund for Agricultural Development, 2014
8 Minority Rights Group International, 2018
9 UNESCO, 2010
10 Meixler, 2018
11 OECD, 2018

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