Cultural Literacy

Last week I asked several Mexican friends a few basic questions about this country, just to test their cultural literacy.

I started out with asking them to name a few Mexican writers. The first insisted that Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a Mexican writer. Doesn’t Colombia ring a bell? The second came up with Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes, claiming that he couldn’t think of any more off the bat. The third admitted that she could not name a single one. Haven’t these folks heard of Juana Inés de la Cruz, Carlos Pellicer, Denise Dresser, Juan Ruiz de Alarcon, Ramon Lopez Velarde, Manuel Othon, Manuel Gutierrez Najera, Elena Poniatowska, Anita Brenner, Carlos Monsivàis, Homero Aridjis, Juan Rulfo, Guadalupe Loaeza, Laura Esquivel, Margo Glantz, Sara Sefchovich and and Guadalupe Marín, just for starters? Do they ever read the newspaper

One out of the three could not name the jefe de gobierno of the Distrito Federal. Maybe she hadn’t heard about abortion, the ice rink and the urban beach. I guess I shouldn’t have been disappointed: Contestant Number Three not only was unable to name a single one of the Niños Hèroes, she didn’t even know their place in Mexico’s history.

I saved the final volley for last. Could you recite the Himno Nacional? Dead silence.

Now, the really sad thing is that each of those I’d asked were educated people. And naturalized Mexican citizens. No, I’m not naming any names. But I know whom I can beat at Trivial Pursuit.

5 comments on “Cultural Literacy

  1. C.M. Mayo says:

    Well, why not tell ’em to get a copy of Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion.


  2. Yes, she’s showing off. But that’s because she just became a Mexican citizen, so let’s offer her our congratulations.


  3. Ignacio Pinto-Leon says:

    Cultural Literacy is something all countries lack, to one extent or the other. Mexico of course is no exception. As I understood, your examinees were naturalized Mexican citizens. Two comments:
    1. Your post cites four topics included in the informal test you
    applied to your friends:
    a. Mexican writers
    b. Jefe de Gobierno of Mexico City
    c. Niños Heroes
    d. National Anthem
    Of those, the last two may be harder for those who did not go to school in Mexico.
    2. I do not know how well the natural-born Mexicans would perform on the Mexican writers’ question.
    Regarding the test you applied to our fellow Mexicans – you are one, too, most of the answers were taught – or at least were during my days – in elementary school. I will comment on each specific question:
    1. Mexican writers. This is, in my opinion, the most important of the questions. Anybody should be able to cite, and specially to read, at least five or six of the authors on the list –which, by the way, vary from the profound Octavio Paz to the Baroque Sor Juana –the Tenth Muse-, to the urban and activists Poniatowska and Monsivais.
    2. Regarding the Jefe de Gobierno question, it is more region-specific. I know the DF is the capital and the most important city of Mexico, but knowing who is in charge of it is not necessarily as relevant for a Sonoran or a Yucatanian. Not to worry: Jefe de Gobierno Marcelo Ebrad, more likely than not, will run for president –AMLO permitting- in 2012; by then, his campaign will make sure to inundate the country with his name and image.
    3. The Niños Heroes are taught ad nauseam during elementary school. It is one of those “mitos geniales” or great myths exaggerated by the government during the 19th century to strengthen the national unity and national identity. Nevertheless, any Mexican should be able to cite the name of at least the most famous “Niño Héroes: Juan Escutia.
    4. The Mexican National Anthem. Well, every Mexican should know the five-paragraph version of the Anthem
    But how many can recite the full, 21-paragraph version? I did once for my literature class in middle school, when I was asked to memorize a long verse. I chose the Himno over some of the writers you cite in your post.
    You should make your inquiry broader and share the results. Thanks for the information.


  4. Marlene says:

    Right on, and congratulations Jennifer!


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