Mexican National Character and Circum-Mediterranean Personality Structure

Martin Needler’s article on “Politics and National Character: the Case of Mexico” (1971) is perfectly correct as far as it goes, but it must be pointed out that the personality traits which he identifies as Mexican are products of a considerably wider and much older cultural entity. Mexico is a peripheral and very distinctive example of the Latin American cultural area which is itself a peripheral and somewhat distinctive example of the Mediterranean cultural area. Some time ago I identified the whole cultural area and the personality structure it tended to produce as aspects of “the Pakistani-Peruvian Axis” (1966:1112-1122, reprinted as 1968:452-463). If I am correct in this, Needler is parochial in attributing “Mexican national character” to a combination of “the Indian’s fatalism and the proud self-assertion of the Spaniard” (Needler 1971:757).

A broader view of this subject would show that Mexico is a peripheral example of the “Pakistani-Peruvian cultural area” and that Mexican national character is merely a local variant of the personality structure of this larger area. That is why Silverman’s picture of south Italian personality is so similar to Needler’s idea of Mexican character (Silverman 1968).

This Mediterranean personality type is marked by various traits mentioned by Needler: low self-esteem, fatalism, defeatism, distrust of all persons outside a narrow kin group, pessimism, preoccupation with death, self-assertion, and machismo. These traits, however, should be associated in clusters and correlated with other cultural manifestations such as: (1) low respect for manual work, especially for agricultural work; (2) higher esteem for urban residence than for rural living, associated with neglect of the countryside, damage to natural vegetation, and much cruelty to animals, especially to domestic animals; (3) emphasis on honor, both personal and family, as a chief aim of life; (4) dietary customs which mix protein and vegetables within a nest or container of starch, on the same plate and in the same mouthful, unlike the core of Western civilization, which tends to segregate these three kinds of food, on the same plate or even into separate dishes. The personality traits of this larger area tend to cluster about two points: (1) The restriction of personal trust and loyalty within the kinship group (usually the extended or nuclear family) with a consequent inability to offer loyalty, trust, or personal identification to residential groups (villages, neighborhoods, parishes), voluntary associations, religious beliefs, or the secular state, resulting in large-scale lack of “public spirit,” combined with “corruption,” and paralysis of these other kinds of associations. (2) The combination of powerful patriarchal social tendencies with female inferiority (except as a mechanism for producing sons) leads to many psychological ambiguities: strong emphasis on female premarital virginity (both as a symbol of family honor and as an economic good), segregation of the sexes in social life, fear of women as a threat men’s virility (witches and belief in “the evil eye”), the need to demonstrate male virility by social “touchiness” and other behavior, including fantasies of demonstrations of male dominance over bulls, other men, and unattached women.

In the last generation or two, we have had numerous local studies of the culture-and-personality type dealing with portions of this wide area (Pitt-Rivers and Kenny on Spain; Banfield, Moss, Cancian, Silverman, and others on Italy; Campbell, Kavadias, Kanelli. and others on Greece; and numerous studies of the Near East or North Africa). Many of these consider the personality types they observe as consequences of local conditions of economic, national, religious, or historic origin. A few have seen the wider range of what they observe. Thus Balikci (1966:164) wrote, “Behind obvious cultural differences, many Mediterranean societies share certain basic cultural patterns… [with] basic cross-cultural similarities in regard to sex behavior, certain family roles, the position of the family in society, and the dichotomy of kinsmen and strangers.” Opler (1970:866) recognizes both the areal spread and the deep historical roots of these traits when he writes, “The Southern Italian family is in great measure understood if one considers it as a peasant society, as a circum-Mediterranean type, as one influenced by Roman history or even by the earlier pagan Classic Greek, or later Hellenistic traditions.”

What I wish to emphasize is that this personality structure is geographically wider than the Mediterranean, since it extends to Latin America, and is the consequence of historical experience going back even earlier than the ancient Greeks. There are works (Peristiany 1966) which see some of the geographic range, but from both points of view, the most suggestive work is Raphael Patai’s Golden River to Golden Road (1962), whose original title (now abandoned in a 1971 edition) shows that his attention extends from Rio de Oro to Samarkand.

The Pakistani-Peruvian axis does not now demark the area of a functioning society or civilization. This is one of the chief keys to its personality types. It is now largely an area of debris of traits and peoples surviving from the wreckage of deceased civilizations. The existing traits have historical origins covering thousands of years. For example, the diet, sexual symbolism of bull and “eye,” architecture, and other traits come from the archaic cultures before 600 B.C., including Minoan Crete; the urbanism and low esteem for manual labor derive from Classical Mediterranean society; while the emphasis on honor, female inferiority, and kinship groups flow from pastoral invaders, both from the northern grasslands (Indo-European) and the southern grasslands (Semites).

Other traits, such as fatalism, distrust of strangers, cynicism toward the state or the local community, come from the difficulties of farming in the Mediterranean environment or from Mediterranean history. Historically the Mediterranean has passed through three distinct experiences: (1) as a frontier area of cultural diffusion from Western Asia during the Archaic period (4500-600 B.C.); (2) as the central backbone of Mediterranean civilization in the Classical period (600 B.C.-A.D. 600), and (3) as a boundary conflict area between the three post-Classical civilizations (Byzantine, Western, and Islamic) since A.D. 600. The shift from the second to the third of these was so disruptive of community life in the area from the Golden River to the Golden Road that its problems have not been solved since, especially in view of the social and ethical failures of the two post-Classical religions, Christianity and Islam, on either side of the line from Tangier to Batum. These failures of religion, whose consequences were clearly seen by Christ and Mohomet, made it impossible to create any religious, territorial, or social community, and forced living patterns back toward the “amoral familism” of the extended family. In extreme cases this broke down further to amoral nuclear familism or even to amoral individualism. This basic outlook and personality type was given a distinctive twist in the Iberian peninsula, from Saracen and anti-lslamic influences. The export of this distinctive type to America and the changes made in it by the shattering of American Indian cultures gives us the distinctive Latin American personality patterns which Needler (1971) sees as “Mexican national character.” These patterns have been modified in various circumstances by the “culture of poverty ,” by modem industrialism and nationalism, by various nineteenth century ideologies such as Marxism, and by other influences, but the basic Pakistani-Peruvian outlook is still identifiable. What is distinctly Mexican, and potentially revolutionary, is the new political ideology which Needler reports thus: “the cynicism and alienation of Mexican respondents. . . did not extend to two elements of the political system: the president himself and the idea of the Mexican Revolution” (1971:760). Any discussion of Mexican national character should recognize the revolutionary implications of these exceptions and the remote sources of the other aspects of Mexican personality.

Silverman, who has a good appreciation of this Pakistani-Peruvian cultural area, has also glimpsed the nature of its northern boundary. This boundary, which roughly follows the lines of the Highland Zone of the Old World, is marked by the southern limits of the archaic peasant cultures, in which rural life was valued higher than urbanism, the land was loved (as a female entity), pride in skillful tillage was evident, fertility was prized over virility, and the cow was more valuable than the bull (whose usefulness was increased by castration). In this peasant culture the southern concept of honor was non-existent, female virginity or chastity were considered unnatural, pre-marital sexual relations were practiced (often condoned by a betrothal ceremony), and marriage often followed pregnancy, rather than preceding coition as in the south. This peasant culture accepted a female centered house-hold and tended to revere local, semi-pagan, female saints (or Mary seen as a Mother rather than as a Virgin) instead of the rather war-like male saints popular farther south. Above all, in the north the basic social units were territorial (villages or parishes), not kinship groups, and functioned as communities.

Studies of these distinctions are frustrated today by academic specialization, both areal and chronological, so that students attribute cause to whatever social feature strikes them as significant. This includes ethos (Banfield 1958), agricultural organization (Silverman 1968), transhumance pastoralism (Campbell 1964), Bedouin Arabism (Carmichael 1967), urbanism (Pitkin 1963:123.129), social hopelessness (Cancian 1961), and many others. A comparison of the similarities of values and personality between a rural pastoral people like the Saracatsan (Campbell 1964) and a modern, professional, urban Greek family (Kanelli 1963) will show the need to seek explanation on a wider and deeper areal and historical foundation.

This foundation must be a historical-cultural framework similar to that used in historical geology, so that local outcroppings of earlier cultural strata can be identified and coordinated. I gave a brief outline of such a framework for the Old World in 1961, but other historians have rather scorned any efforts at establishing a matrix of macro-history. Feeble efforts are now being made to remedy this lack in other disciplines, including anthropology and sociology, but these attempts will find almost insurmountable difficulties so long as historians do not do their part of the task.

An article by Carroll Quigley in the American Anthropologist, Volume 75, Number 1, February 1973.


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