Here’s an interesting thing: In last year’s annual survey on happiness, hope and economic optimism by the “Happy Planet Index,” Mexico came in 2nd place.
(Don’t know how these Happy Planet Index people figured this out, maybe Mexicans use LOL a lot in their emails.) Anyway, there seems to be something to this idea of a happy Mexican ethnicity.
You rarely see a Mexican angry or upset or distraught when others are around to notice. As a nation, they do seem to control their bad feelings with greater success than norteamericanos and as a result seem happier. Psychologists are often offering advice to norteamericanos when one gets angry with another:
- Repeat a calming word over and over, but be sure it’s a calming word. (Bonehead, Sorryass are not.)
- Visualize a relaxing, humorous experience. (This may be the technique that finally stopped Jack the Ripper.)
- Take a moment to distract yourself: tie your shoelace, count to ten, clean your glasses. (For me, 2017 would have required a year in a monastery.)
I’m no expert on anthropology, but I thought maybe DNA influences behavior and the degree of emotional control for ethnic groups. In this case, that would be the indigenous peoples and in particular the Aztecs, who called themselves the Mexica.
According to Mesoamerican historians, this phenomenon of controlled emotions might be the result of the Aztec genes, which bequeathed to modern Mexico a kind of stoicism toward tragedy, misfortune and, based on my years here, loud noise. The Aztecs placed a great value on discipline. Today, I believe that stoicism has transformed into what we observe among Mexicans and call “being laid-back.” Laid back is “Oh, I know my foot is black, so maybe I will go to the doctor next week.” Laid back is also, “Tourists are here. The snowbirds are coming. Let’s rip up the highway!” We’ve all seen a version.
The New World Encyclopedia states that Aztec children were admonished to be humble, obedient and hard working. Also, Aztec teachers propounded a Spartan regime of education – cold baths in the morning, sweat labor all day, physical punishment, such as bleeding with maguey thorns and daily endurance tests. If you were under 60 and got drunk, they executed you. Forget about “community service.” This was a tough life.
What’s more, the Aztecs created a cosmology that was quite advanced in terms of its understanding of human nature, both its kindliness and its cruelty.
First, their creation story begins with twin gods Tezcatlipoca (the Smoking Mirror) and the Cortez look-alike Quetzalcoatl (the Smoking Gun). Quetzalcoatl represented conscious intelligence, healing, wisdom, art and beneficence. But the more significant concept, Tezcatlipoca, represented the subconscious influence – the dark, unreachable side of humanity – a concept far ahead of its time. Tezcatlipoca exiled Quetzalcoatl when the Aztecs saw that war and violence among the indigenous peoples seemed to dominate all human life. This is what Freud would call the Id. And what the Vikings would call “tourism.”
Next, there is the image of the woman in death, who goes back to the ancient Aztecs, to Mictecacihuatl, goddess of death and keeper of the bones in the underworld. We know her today as the macabre La Catrina, a beloved persona now deeply rooted in the Mexican psyche. The gowned, skeletal Lady keeps the spirits alive and happy and snubs her non-existent nose at death. (Spirits might be even livelier if she’d get rid of the Victorian clothes.)
Finally, we can’t discuss Aztec cosmology without reference to the infamous Aztec sacrifices. These were an attempt to understand the principles of life and the workings of the cosmos and the divine. According to many anthropologists, these sacrifices connected the living with the supernatural forces, which created pain and frustrations for humanity so we would never forget that we were incomplete and flawed. These were a serious, austere people. If there had been passports in those days, Aztecs would all have looked just like their passport photos.
So, the other side of that remarkable optimism and happiness consists of an almost universal strain of Mexican defiance of all the anguish and pain humanity must endure. And I believe this defiance manifests itself today as Mexican ease with the difficulties of life and its unpredictability, as well as its sense that nothing is more important than unrushed, unstressed convenience.
If one can contain Aztec philosophy of the world in capsule form, it might be: Forget sadness and misfortune. We come into this world to make mistakes. And above all, for almost all lives, few things will end up the way we want. When we struggle with this idea, we suffer.
Recently, when Guillermo del Toro, director of the movie “Shape of Water,” was asked how he balances the darkness and terror in his often monster-filled films with “the joyful and loving person” that he is, Del Toro’s response was simple: “I’m Mexican.”