5 Things about Mexican Culture to Learn Before Traveling to Mexico

Speaking about the Mexican culture is never an easy task, but, an interesting one nonetheless.

In this post, I will try to share a brief but comprehensive overview of the most characterizing traits that define us, the people of Mexico, our beliefs, traditions, behaviors, and facts that make us who we are.

I hope it will help you get closer to our culture when you come and visit my beautiful country!

For me, as a Mexican, stopping and looking back at every little detail of what makes us, US, is great fun as well as an interesting challenge.

I must say that I have done quite a bit of traveling to different parts of the world, in many different ways, and, in 24 years, besides India, I haven’t really encountered another culture so vast, so complex, so diverse and so surreal like ours.

This article aims to take you on a journey in which you will be able to experience through my words, a bit of what Mexicans think, feel, say or do in terms of space, time and tradition.

Of course, like every culture in the world, we must keep in mind that the culture in Mexico, the Mexican people, and the cultural traditions, all of it has been changing, evolving, or disappearing throughout time.

Bellas Artes museum front view - things to do in Mexico city
Bellas Artes – Mexico city

Regardless of that, whether the facts are still alive or not, before I go on speaking about the Mexican culture, I must say this.

For me, my country is one with amazing potential. Mexico holds riches in its culture and territory that is definitely worth knowing and experiencing in person.

Let’s travel together through some of the most interesting, confusing, and funny Mexican cultural facts.

The People of Mexico

To speak about the Mexican people, we require a full essay, and so, I will just state a few facts.

Mexico as a country holds a population of approximately 128 million people, of which, 51% are women and 49% are men (approximately).

The average age in Mexico is 29 years old, so, we are a very young country. And, cool and interesting fact: in a country where bigger families are a norm, the country has started to see a good decrease in births just within the last 3 years.

A sad fact is that just a bit more than 6% of the population speaks an indigenous language. This piece of information is sad because this percentage has decreased in just 10 years, which indicates that the beautiful indigenous language, our heritage, is doomed to disappear.

And, did you know that 2% of the population in Mexico is of African descent?

As you can maybe assume, many Mexican people is of either descent from an indigenous community or at least a mix of several cultures. In Mexico, we have at least 60 different cultures, of which 20 of them are the ones with the most population.

The top 3 most populated and famous cultures of Mexico are the Nahuas, the Mayans, and the Zapotecs. But, every single one of the original cultures of Mexico, possesses its own language and dialects, traditions, cultures, values, dress, gastronomy, and beliefs.

It does happen that at times, we are faced with another person with whom we can’t communicate because they speak only the indigenous language, or, we find ourselves in a place that is completely different from all that we have experienced about our country before.

mayan ceremony in the jungle
Mayan Ceremony in the jungle

Lastly (for now), if you think our people are diverse already, hold on. I must mention our subcultures as well. But, what do we mean by a subculture?

We mean communities of people that are connected to a state or a city or to the whole indigenous culture, but, in themselves, they have developed their own lifestyle or even beliefs. They have adapted and adopted the dress or even the language.

These subcultures are found everywhere. However, I will mention the most popular, the pachucos, the cholos, the punks, the darks, and, the most interesting one, the muxes of Oaxaca.

I shall tell you more about them in the next article.

“Mexican is very expressive, very emotional, at times lazy, at times super cute or intense.”

The Mexican Language

Many linguists may say that in Mexico we speak Spanish. But, to be honest, I say that we speak “Mexican”. Yes, we do.

I have been teaching Spanish for the last 8 months and I have discovered many things about my language that I had no idea about, and no, I do not mean grammar.

Learning Spanish from Spain is a very formal and proper way of speaking. Learning Mexican is a titanic endeavor!

Of course we have the same grammar rules. Mostly. But, we definitely do not speak the same.

Mexican is very expressive, very emotional, at times lazy, at times super cute or intense.

Mexicans always “go to see or do” things. In the Mexican language and to the Mexican people, when speaking, things “don’t just happen” but instead, “happen to them”.

A few examples of the phrases that represent what I mean are:

  • “Se me descompuso el auto”, “se me rompió el plato”, “se me enfermó la niña”. (The car broke to me / the plate broke to me / the kid got sick on me)
  • “¡¿Qué te pasa?!”. (what is happening to you? / What’s up with you?) Given the right intonation it can be an endearing way of showing that you care, or, it can be a warning of a punch blog coming next. Lol)

Can you think of anything else like this that you have read or heard during your visits to Mexico or your experience learning the Mexican language?

colorful paper flags
Papel Picado – Check out some of the Most popular Mexican tattoos

Greetings and nick-names

To/for strangers, any time, everywhere: have you ever been in Mexican streets and wondered why we smile at you or say Buenos días even if we do not know you? Have you noticed how, in a restaurant, people will tell you: “Buen provecho” (enjoy your meal) even if it’s the first time that they have seen you, like, ever?

Well, we greet strangers all the time. Today, in bigger cities this Mexican custom might not be very present everywhere, but, it lingers, in the markets, in the popular neighborhoods.

Words and phrases like: “güerita” (blondie), “amiguito” (little friend), “buen día” (good day), “buenos días” (good days), “provecho” (enjoy), “con permiso” (pardon me), “cuando gustes” (when you wish), “propio”, “tu casa es mi casa” (my home is your home), are found not only in the language but, they are a very important part of the Mexican people’s values.

When in México, stop and observe the interaction!

Get on public transportation and see how most of the people won’t get on or off without saying good morning. In a market, the clerk will not be too formal with you, he or she will call you “güerita” (“blondie”), no matter what color of your hair.

At a taco place, people walking in will say: “buen provecho”, without even noticing that you can’t answer “gracias” even if you are choking on the attempt of responding. Speak to a local about their house, and, notice how you will be the owner too when he says, “mi casa, tu casa”, or go for a run and feel weird about the constant smiles and “buen diá’s” that you get at every step.

We Mexicans are polite from when we are very little. We are told always to smile, greet and be respectful.

This is a value that is still alive but it’s fading. So, if you want to be part of keeping this Mexican value alive, go ahead, greet the strangers.

A kiss on the cheek–I do know that several cultures kiss to greet each other, but, do they do it with strangers too? I am not sure.

We kiss our family on the cheek since we are very little, but, I remember that the kiss in the cheek started as a “trend” in secondary school and I really felt very special.

Really, the greeting kiss is not such but more a “high five” between cheeks. The interesting thing is that when meeting someone new, yes, you do the kiss.

The most annoying, funny, and daunting thing for anyone not used to greet like that, (like me), is to arrive at a meeting, party, or gathering full of people and having to greet LIKE THAT to every single person in the room.

If you ask me, that is why I always arrive early.

Mexican Habits

The very infamous “ahorita”

There are memes about the use by Mexicans of the word “Ahorita”. I believe people finds it fascinating.

The word “ahorita” is used by us all. It is actually officially considered a “language vice” by the professionals, but, no one can deny it, if anyone wants to play a representation of a Mexican they will always find in their Spanish repertoire this phrase, and, they will very comically add what they deem the very Mexican accent when saying it. Makes me laugh.

But, what does “ahorita” really mean?

When we say “ahorita“, it means that you will hear or receive something in the “near” future. It is a way to inform you that something will happen or will be done, yes, you guessed, in an indefinite future. However, in my case, when my mother used to say: “¡Ahorita es ahorita!”, well, it was literally the only time that she meant: “Now!”

So, the word “ahorita” for you as a foreigner in México, should help you understand something that will make your life easier: you need to practice your patience.

We do not know how to say “NO”

This is a super broad subject that would require a separate post.

For me, it has become easier to say no when I am invited to a party or some kind of event, but, if I am truly really honest with myself, no, I do have a hard time saying no.

The one way I am different to a generality, is that if I can’t say no, I do not commit to anything. I say things like “I will let you know” or, “maybe”, but, no, I don’t really say no.

The big problem lies when people in Mexico tend to say “YES” to something when they should have actually said “NO”. And, for example, if you invited someone to a party or to have a meal and they said yes, but they really couldn’t attend, they will NOT call you to let you know nor will they apologize. I know, it’s rude and mean, but, somehow we do feel a jab in our hearts every time we have to say no. I do rather change or dodge the subject, for sure.

If you ask me, I think we all need therapy about this one.

colorful home external walls

The infamous “Mexican time”

I am not proud about this one, actually, to be honest, but it’s a fact.

I am a weird Mexican, except for parties or very informal social events, I am NEVER late. (And, fun fact, when I am late, I am always the first one!)

Every time I am told that things are on “Mexican time” I want to punch them in the face. Seriously, I have had to defend myself a lot by saying: “I am Mexican and I am always on time”.

The interesting thing is that I grew up in a family that showed us punctuality to the extreme. My mom and dad are both super punctual and my sisters in turn are too. So, to us not being on time has always been hard to understand.

Nevertheless, because I now understand our culture much more than before, I don’t get upset about it anymore. It doesn’t help to get mad.

An interesting fact about unpunctuality though is that, according to Octavio Paz, the Literature Nobel award winner, it is a trait of the Mexican personality that belongs to a deeper aspect of our psychology that unfortunately has to do with an inferiority complex that goes back all the way to colonial times.

This is super interesting and one of the reasons I now have much more compassion about everything that is not so wonderful about us.

Suggested readings about Mexican Culture

The Labyrinth of Solitude Octavio Paz
Distant Neighbors Alan Riding
Under the Volcano Malcom Lowry

Mexican Traditions

If we are honest with ourselves as a culture, we need a whole encyclopedia to speak about our cultures, so, here, I will mention the ones that my family and I celebrate, or the ones that I have experienced while traveling, and, also, the ones that I want to experience that I haven’t yet.

Please do keep in mind, once we speak about ONE tradition, one MUST think about the 60+ cultures there are that celebrate that same tradition in many different ways.

Los Reyes Magos y la Rosca de Reyes (The 3 magician Kings and the Kings bread)

This one is one of my favorites because it involves 3 things: socializing, eating bread and drinking hot chocolate.

I am going to throw out a number as a guess here, but, I can almost bet that an average person celebrates this tradition by eating Rosca the Reyes, at least 3 times.

This celebration happens on January 5th and 6th. Yes, it is a catholic tradition that is directly related to the history of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. It is said that it was during these days that 3 kings arrived at the manger (crib) where Jesus was and the kings presented him with gifts from the East.

It is this gospel the source of the tradition in which these days’ Mexican parents present their kids with toys and gifts.

People celebrate this tradition at home with the extended family, at the office, at any of the schools, at the gym (yes, at the gym), or even at book clubs.

For me, I think my record eating of rosca (bread) has been 5 pieces in one day.

The Rosca de Reyes
Rosca de Reyes with chocolate cup

Lent and holy week

I haven’t been a real catholic since I was 16, but, I do remember celebrating this tradition in Mexico City with my grandmother and doing what is called “La visita de las 7 casas” (the visit of the 7 houses) during these religious dates and holidays. 

Many Mexican people that are fervent Catholics, celebrate this tradition diligently.

It starts with “Ash Wednesday” around mid-February and ends with Sunday of resurrection.

This catholic tradition takes place during 40 days and involves many different elements such as colors being worn or displayed in the churches and altars, the food intake or sacrifices done during the time as offering to God, silence or vigil times, amongst others.

In Mexico, there are many communities that are still celebrating this tradition diligently. Still, I dare to say that much of it is getting lost.

Do I have an opinion about that? No, not really.

Still, the experience that you can have as a traveler during those days can be very interesting. Whether you share the tradition at a family home or you go to the mecca of Catholicism in the country, I am sure you will be amazed. I know I always am.

Religiosity in Mexico is something that remains surprising and worthy of admiration and respect.

day of the dead celebration make up
Day of the Dead celebrations make up

The Day of the Dead

This tradition has always been part of us and a very important one, but, it has gained a lot of strength and international recognition since Hollywood and Disney put it on a wider map a few years ago with the successful animated movie Coco.

The Day of the Dead in Spanish is thought to be the 1st and 2nd of November, but, in my experience, the communities that celebrate as it was originally done, will tell you that Day of the Dead is an event of most of the year that starts with the first seed put on the ground.

This celebration and tradition have been inscribed in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO since 2008. The reason for this recognition has to do with the fact that this is the Mexican tradition that conserves most elements of the ancestral celebration.

These days many people come all over the world to celebrate this tradition with the Mexicans to cities and towns like Oaxaca, Patzcuaro, Mexico City, and more.

This Mexican tradition involves everything starting from a colorful dress to very solemn and breathtaking rituals happening in home altars and graveyards.

I personally have experienced Day of the dead in Morelia, San Luis Potosí, Queretaro, Oaxaca and with Mayan communities in Yucatan. They have all been amazing and interesting at the same time. I have helped to dress an altar or cook tamales (traditional Mexican food). I have heard stories from the elderly and shared the table with families that invite me to their space.

If you ask me, yes, this is my country’s favorite tradition.

Day of the dead in a cemetery
Day of the Dead decoration in a Cemetery

Independence day and revolution day

Because these events are part of the history taught in school, these traditions are lived in many different ways by the Mexican people.

At school, from kinder garden to high school, we take part on many different representations of these celebrations. We attend festivals with elements of the past like “Kermesses” (fairs), we are part of very official parades (in uniform and as soldiers), we “dance” to commemorate the dates in what is called a “tabla gimnastica” (gymnastic choreography), and more.

One of the GREAT things about these dates though, is that they are part of the official country holidays, and, that means that many people get to take time off from school and work.

Usually, these dates end up being what is called “long weekends”, and so, they turn into a great excuse for a short getaway or big parties.

independence day decoration
Independence day decorations

I have never been big on celebrating this tradition, but, when my mom’s mother was around, I was. Why? Because of the food.

It is very normal that families or friends to organize a “taquiza” on the night of the 15th of September. A taquiza consists of dressing up as a character of the independence times, yelling “Viva Mexico” and eating as many different taco versions as possible (plus the tequila of course)

My grandmother used to make a really great taquiza for the whole family.

Like many Mexican grandmothers, mine was a great chef, so, definitely one of the things I miss the most about her.

Las Quinceaneras

Turning 15 and having a Quinceanera party is definitely one of the traditions that most Mexican girls dream about. I sure did, back in the days.

girl dressed in a ceremony dress
A quinceañera in a typical dress for her ceremony

This tradition is from the 1900s and it was brought from Europe by the higher social classes back in those times.

This celebration combines catholic elements as well as “high end” society parties’ elements like waltzes, pompous dresses and decadent displays of food.

Through the party, the family, mainly the father, is presenting his daughter, now a lady, to the society. The main objective of course was to show that the girl was ready to be taken as a wife, and, the more grandiose the celebration, the better of course. That fact could get the girl a better suitor. Just as it was in Europe then.

Nowadays the Quinceanera party is still happening all over Mexico. Of course it has evolved into a more modern style of party and, it usually takes the girl’s interests much more in consideration. I can even bet that the main objective from before is not even present in the minds of many of the girls and even the families. I am sure there are very few families that would like their child to get married soon after 15.

My own quinceanera party was not very traditional, still, I do remember my father being a proud man saying: “Here, I present you all my daughter”, and then, the waltz.

My dress was not grandiose but was white. I wore delicate make-up and short heels. I did share time and space with the adults, but, after all the protocol, I went to the rooftop of my place then and danced the night away with my school friends. It was fun.

By the time my sister who is 3 years younger than me turned 15, pompous dresses had started to become unnecessary and she just wore really cool black pants, a new very colorful blouse, and really high heels.

Today the tradition continues evolving, and, many girls trade a party for a trip, and, many families are now throwing huge parties even for boys. But you can still see photo shootings of young girls in sumptuous dresses. So now you know what it’s about.

But I am sure the waltzes have been traded for reggaeton and hip hop too.

Have you ever attended a Quinceanera party? You should.

Mexican Food

The Mexican cuisine made it in 2010 to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. One of the reasons for this recognition is that every corner of Mexico has its own gastronomy, and all of it is full of color and flavors. And, definitely, making amazing food is one of the traditions passes from generation to generation in the Mexican culture.

Food in Mexico is a way in which mothers, and people, in general, show love to others. Food and snacks are a very important part of a trip, depending on where you go. Food is part of every social outing with whoever you go: at a park, at a party. The type of event will determine the type of food that is served.

different types of Chile
Different types of Chile

There are 4 staples in our food: beans, corn, tomatoes, and of course chili peppers. All of these 4 elements are included in almost every meal that we eat.

Salsas and chili are hot, but for us is the holy grail. If you do not give salsa or chili to Mexican people, they will probably not enjoy the food as much. Without chile, “la comida no nos sabe” (the food doesn’t taste at all for us (note the “to us”).

If you ever find Mexicans in your own country, ask them: “what do you miss the most?”. Guess what he will say!

Wrapping up

This was so much fun. Speaking about the Mexican culture is one of my passions. I do hope I managed to take your imagination not only through the facts, but also to live them through having shared my past experiences of our customs and traditions with you.

I hope too that I have triggered your interest in learning more about us and when visiting Mexico, connecting much more with our country and the Mexican people.

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About the Author: Bianca Muñoz

bianca munoz author portrait

Bianca is a woman, Mexican, a traveler, an ally, a dreamer, a creative, 100% human and so much more. Bianca has +20 years of experience in personal travel throughout 3 continents, and many countries, cities, towns, and communities. She also comes with +20 years of experience with customer service in the hospitality and tourism industries. A passionate advocate of her country (despite it all), an amateur writer & blogger, an art lover, a certified yoga teacher, an entrepreneur, a neophyte researcher, a philosophy fan, and knowledge obsessed, she has one dream and mission in life:
“To achieve, through her venture, for travel to be considered and used as a tool for a better education and human development in Mexico”
And, even if in baby steps, she is making the dream, come true through her brand:
Mexico4Real Journeys.