Mexico: Land of the old and new

A trip south of the border offers a host of music and dance experiences

Posted: Thursday, July 17, 2008

All of this cool weather and rain lately got me thinking about my trips to Mexico. It was a fun destination before moving to Alaska eight years ago, but since then has been promoted to a favorite Get-the-Heck-Outta-Southeast-in-Winter vacation target. I have visited the country several times now, and with the exception of repeated teenage forays into Tijuana when I lived in Southern California, each trip has been to a different location.

Mexico is close to home, yet has a much longer and deeper sense of history than its North American neighbors. Where else can your plane ticket dollars take you to witness such a blending of tradition and modernism for the price of a weekend trip to Bethel? Its accessibility and friendly people make travel relatively simple, and the blending of old and new make it as interesting and entertaining as some of my previous overseas destinations.

When trapped in the usual tourist circles, the music can be overdone or downright annoyingly out of place. There's nothing like scrounging around for earplugs in the wee hours of the night as your hotel room is blasted with "Sweet Home Carolina" played by an aging ex-patriot band at a nearby bar. Or watching four dread-headed white kids play djembe backup to an Asian poi dancer. Even so, there are the everyday gems that put things unmistakably in their place - like being passed on the street by a beat up truck festooned with dashboard fringe and blasting mariachi-style music. Or waiting for tacos while the cook sings along to pop music played through speakers that are woefully under qualified to convey the current volume level.

One of my favorite memory snippets is walking with my husband in Mexico City's Plaza de la Constitucion in the middle of a warm night and watching a batch of 20-somethings breakdance to a huge boom box. In 2006, mind you. And the music was recent Mexican hip-hop. So there we were, in the zocalo that has been the center of town since pre-Hispanic times, populated by buildings built throughout the ages, watching a dance form that originated in 1970s New York be reinvented to New Millennium Mexican music. We did what any sensible northern travelers should do: had a seat.

Since Mexico is also a blending of the Old and New Worlds, it's also a great place to take in the spectrum of cultural influences reflected in the arts. The folkloric music and dance have obvious Spanish influences, from nylon-string guitars to swinging full skirts. On one occasion I found myself sipping a margarita while watching a flamenco show, complete with the standard authentic ingredients: singing, dance and guitar. As soon as the show was over, a mariachi-style group began roaming the crowd - a transition that might have been awkward in Spain but went seamlessly unquestioned in Mexico.

Those are just a few examples of Mexico's excellent juxtaposition of time and tradition, and demonstrate the breadth of culture. Far from being silenced by conquerors and colonizers throughout history, Mexico has flourished by assimilating the good stuff while maintaining its own identity.

• Samia Savell can be reached at

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