The sacred and the profound: surrealism in Mexico

Mexico will always hold a special place in my heart. It was the first country I travelled to on my own, impetuously, at a time when I was an emotional basket case on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I showed up late at night carrying only a vague address of a woman who didn’t seem aware I was coming, carrying nothing but a little kid’s backpack and a knowledge of Spanish far more rustic than I have now. I had a hand full of fresh new stitches and nerve damage. Everyone who knew me was pretty convinced I’d either come back dead or land myself in jail.

Buildings in Ensenada
Colourful buildings, replete with seemingly arbitrary paintings along the walls, are so common a part of the visual culture even in Ensenada, where I lived (mostly) for my time in Mexico. Just walking the streets makes me want to start painting in vibrant colours.

Instead, Mexico fixed me. My experience there is a big part of why I’m so driven to travel now. I have long wanted to return to Mexico, but I’ll admit I think a large part of my original infatuation with the country was an emotional one—I wanted a chance to see the country itself, rather than just seeing how it changed me.

What I discovered, living in Mexico for three months, was a place that never stopped surprising me.

There’s this story about French Surrealist André Breton coming to Mexico, and asking a carpenter to build him a table. The carpenter requested a drawing to follow. Breton draw a quick sketch of a table, rendering it in three dimensions, that way you would once you’re older than, say, six, and understand a bit better that very little—beyond paper and anorexic models—in the world is flat.

The carpenter, of course, came back with a triangular table with two legs shorter than the other two.

Somewhere along the highway between Mexico City and Oaxaca, I found this giant advertising structure built into the hill. This is, in case you’re wondering, in the absolute middle of nowhere, and it must be about twenty feet tall. Like their flags, apparently Mexico likes its ads giant. I also saw a man on an open truck, seated at a rifle mounted on the cab roof, and thought this the far more bizarre element on that ride.

This story came up a few times in different conversations with people. So did stories of a remote spot in the jungle near Xlitla. There, an eccentric British millionaire—who kept boa constrictors as pets—built a surrealist garden, complete with a stairway leading to nothing and something titled “The House on Three Floors Which Will in Fact Have Five or Four or Six”. In Tijuana, there’s a giant naked woman built by a sculptor who lived in her with his wife and children. Try as I might, I couldn’t find her anywhere; everyone I met in Tijuana had never even heard of her. And of course there’s Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, living around the corner from Trotsky in Mexico City, and a whole slew of surrealist writers and artists. Salvador Dali, apparently, at one point said that he hated Mexico.

He couldn’t, he said, return to a country that was more surreal than his own paintings.

I became fascinated with the surreal in Mexico. The more interested I became, the more I noticed it. Almost everyone I spoke to about it had something to contribute, and a lot of people started to point out strange things to me. Much of the surreal in Mexico, I think, lies in the juxtapositions. The country still retains elements of its ancient cultures in a way many others don’t, but adds in the overwhelmingly oppressive influence of the Spanish conquistadoras, who quite literally built their Catholic churches atop the Aztec pyramids.

Aztec (I think) imagery
I think this was Aztec, but I don’t quite remember. The clean lines and bold colours are used throughout all sorts of Mexican art, both pre and post Colombian. Somehow it manages to be ornate without sacrificing a sense of simplicity. The colours used are so super-saturated that they verge on fluorescent and clashing, but again, somehow it works. I saw these sorts of colour schemes everywhere, especially in the folk art in Oaxaca, which used intensely bright colours on little surrealist animal sculptures.

I read somewhere that Mexico is actually one of the most Catholic countries in the world, and it doesn’t surprise me. Catholicism is evident everywhere, from the altars set up in the most unexpected of places to to the processions marching down the streets singing during various Christmastime holidays. I’ve taken to drinking a lot of tequila straight—sipping it like scotch, which you can do in Mexico because tequila isn’t firewater here unless you buy the lighter-fluid kind for six dollars—when these things happen, and just wandering out into the crowds to see what on earth is going on. My favourite was the first day of the Virgin of Guadalupe festival: there was a huge feria, with food and amusement park rides and gaudy images of religious figures to be purchased, all set up around the church (which was lighting off fireworks, of course). On the steps on the church, a priest was throwing holy water on the heads of the amassed throngs.

But Catholicism in Mexico is different from Catholicism in other places. Here, there are holidays that don’t exist anywhere else. There are saints and revered figures that don’t exist anywhere, in any liturgy, or in fact in any country other than Mexico at all. Santa Muerte is a prime example of this. She’s quite likely one of the most revered “religious” figures in Mexico, especially by the criminal and lower-class elements, but she’s actually shunned by the Catholic church. They just made her up.

In spite of this, people build massive shrines to her, and many pray to her more religiously than the any properly-sanctioned non-secular hero. Again, this goes all the way back into the country’s Aztec roots. The continued infatuation in Mexico with death has roots all the way back into the ancient pre-Columbian societies, who cannibalized their friends, sacrificed their young, and built elaborate graves for their deceased.

An elaborately prepared crypt, found in a hole in the floor somewhere in the amazing Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

The skull or skeleton motif recurs constantly in Mexico. It’s one of the unshakable realities of Mexican imagery, and I think a part of what draws me to Mexico as well, at least on a visual level. I was so excited for Día de los Muertos, and rather disappointed when I discovered there weren’t huge parades of people in costume those days in Ensenada (in Mexico City or Oaxaca, both of which I visited later, the story would be quite different, but Ensenada, while it has its charms, is not Real Mexico.)

This infatuation with death often manifests as a celebration of life instead. Far from grisly, the imagery is most often cartoonish, playful, or replete with bright colours. Skeleton figures are often presented as a bride and groom, perhaps mocking the institution that is so highly revered in Mexico. There’s a synthesis here between the ancient and the relatively new Catholic traditions, and they meet in strange and unexpected ways.

I have no idea what this vehicle is used for, if anything, but I like it. The hand-painted typography everywhere was really lovely.

Having lived in Mexico for nearly three months, I started to notice how incredibly rich the visual narrative of the country is, and that there are certain elements that recur consistently, no matter what you’re looking at. For me, the bright colour palettes, the continual images of death, blood, and violence, are as much a part of Mexico as the tacos.

I came to Mexico hoping to answer the riddle—to figure out where all the surreal rooted from. I learned a lot, and I saw a lot. But ultimately, I think I ended up leaving with more questions than I had when I first arrived.

I suppose that means someday I’ll be back again.