On Mexican Baroque


Arts & Culture

Carlos Adampol Galindo, Arena México por Carlos Adampol, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Each time I return to Mexico I find myself marveling at how many elements of daily life there could, in some way, be described as Baroque: our sunsets, our cuisine, our pollution, our corruption. Century after century, the country has exhibited a great tendency towards exuberance, and a natural bent for the strange and the marvelous. There’s a constant play between veiling and unveiling (even in our newscasts, one senses indirect meaning in everything), as well as a fluidity of form, in which excess triumphs, every time, over restraint.

Three hundred years of colonial rule produced an intense syncretism of indigenous and European cultures, a bold new aesthetic accompanied by many new paradoxes, and these can be glimpsed today in both lighter and darker manifestations, some playful and others barbaric.

Mexican Baroque emerged from the conquest of the New World, from the long, fraught process of negotiation and subjugation that began to unfold once the Spaniards established their rule in 1521. The European monarchs wanted as much gold as their conquistadores could plunder, while their missionaries sought to convert the pagan savages to Catholicism. The Aztecs of course had their own gods, a monumental pantheon that included the fierce and formidable Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilopochtli, yet these ancient powers proved no match for colonial rapacity.

There was one pivotal overlap between the two religions, however, a fortuitous convergence which helped ease the transition from the Aztec cosmology to the Catholic faith. And this was the “theater of death” present in both religions. Accustomed to their own culture of human sacrifice, the Indians identified with the Crucifixion and with other violent chapters in the new theology, and were thus gradually lured by its passions and taste for the macabre. In artistic portrayals of certain scenes from the New Testament, the blood and the drama were laid on thick.

The Churrigueresque style brought over from Spain, a highly florid and heavily laden version of Rococo, found its most triumphant expression, one could argue, in Mexico. The church architects were Spanish, yet the artisans and laborers were Indigenous and mestizo, and they asserted their autonomy from the metropolis by adding local materials such as tezontle, a porous red volcanic stone, and local motifs, with quetzals and hummingbirds and faces with native features finding their way into the chiseled landscapes. In all their magnificence, the gilt altars and church facades also betrayed a horror of silence and empty space, every inch of wood, stucco, and stone teeming with detail, as if replicating the delirious splendor of the natural world beyond.

Despite the number of masterly creations that resulted, Mexican Baroque mostly emerged from a clash of cultures, from antagonism rather than harmony, and this is largely what grants it its dynamic force. Its art rejected straight lines and predictable paths, reveling in a liberated geometry that mirrored the new unstable and multicaste society that had risen from the embers. The monolithic sculptures of the Aztecs and earlier pre-Hispanic civilizations—signs of a certain stability—were replaced by a more fluid and volatile art, one which favored movement over form, agility over monumentality.

Like most art of the Baroque, it too thrived off a play of contrasts and opposites, and this was most poignantly articulated in the historical counterpoint between the Aztec emperor Moctezuma and the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, the dialectic between victor and vanquished spilling over into one between old gods and new, the awe of the conquistadores upon discovering this marvel of a land versus the increasing disenchantment of its natives, their gods toppled, their beliefs exploited. To a large extent, the soul of modern Mexico was born from this collision.


One arena in present-day Mexico in which a conflict of archetypes can be witnessed literally is in the spectacle of lucha libre, or freestyle wrestling, another European import to which was added local color and verve. Different theories exist regarding its origins: some say an early variant was brought over in 1863 during the French intervention, or in 1910 by a Spanish boxing promoter; a more accepted notion is that the sport came to Mexico in the early twenties courtesy of two dueling Italian theatre troupes.

Everything about the performance favors emotion over form. The movements are exaggerated, as are the wrestlers themselves, massive hulks of men in tights who wear capes like those of superheroes and shiny carnivalesque masks that hide their faces. There’s a certain splendor to them, but once the match begins, that splendor is undercut by an atmosphere of buffoonery. At rest, the wrestlers appear regal and imposing. In motion, the elegance is quickly undermined by their comical leaps and bounds. It is as if they start off by embodying the first period of Baroque in Mexico, in the late seventeenth century, characterized by solemn church facades, rich and refined, and then they go on to embody its second period, from the mid-eighteenth century, which was more opulent and chaotic, an architecture of Solomonic columns that twist, spiral, and writhe.

The wrestlers’ masks often evoke their powers and persona: El Santo, Blue Demon, Fray Tormenta, Huracán Ramírez, Rey Mysterio. They are costumed heroes and villains engaged in a jocular battle between good and evil. The Baroque fondness for extremes is felt in every match, which is fought between a técnico—one who follows the rules and plays cleanly and gracefully—and a rudo: one who transgresses, breaking codes with relish. In this play of adversaries, there is no guarantee that good will win. In fact, the rudos are often expected to triumph, hinting at a cultural acceptance that righteousness, in Mexico at least, isn’t necessarily rewarded.

In a sense, the showdown between Moctezuma and Cortés could similarly be envisioned as a battle between a técnico and a rudo; the Aztec emperor, honest and honorable and deferential to his guests, played by the rules, while the conquistador lied and cheated and, thanks in part to his deviousness, succeeded in bringing down an entire civilization.


The wild gestures that fuel the lucha libre spectacle elicit a frantic emotional intensity. Audiences work themselves into a lather, subjecting the wrestlers to a loud repertoire of insults, mostly bawdy and vulgar, as if they were taking sides in some kind of moral contest rather than a sporting tournament.

In Baroque art movement tends to be centrifugal, a restlessness away from the center, as opposed to the classical impulse of restraint. Although the wrestlers lunge at one another, they are constantly being cast outward, either by their opponent’s thrust or by the elastic ring, their main instrument for propulsion. Performers often take flying leaps outside the ring and land in the audience. Similar to what Caravaggio did in his paintings, these “suicides,” as the moves are called, break down the boundary, and remove the safety barrier, between viewer and spectacle; one can smell the sweat, feel the flesh, hear the grunts, almost grasp the energy, of the wrestler as he comes crashing into us.

Even the geometry of the ring is defied, its quadrangle stretched and deformed again and again. The rapid shifting of planes—between floor and air, the ring and beyond—is forged by grand aerial maneuvers and gestures of torsion and contortion. Every effort is answered with a countereffort, every movement turned into its opposite, a great elasticity between up and down as each man tries to bring his opponent to the ground. In this endless curling and coiling, transcendence is, at least corporeally, denied. Something deeply Dionysian haunts the spectacle, chaotic and unpolished. And yet it is often marked by pathos—sometimes in the mere sight of a massive lump of a man unable to haul himself up or even more so when a wrestler is defeated and his mask removed. The moment his identity is revealed, his strength and his aura dissolve.


A more recent and dismaying phenomenon of Baroque excess and hyperbole, wherein the human body again becomes the site of transformation and yet the spectacle of bloodshed is real, not staged, is within the violence wrought by the warring drug cartels.

Since 2006, Mexico has been in the grip of a disastrous war on drugs, initiated by our then president Felipe Calderón. Over sixty thousand individuals have lost their lives as the cartels battle among themselves for territory while a weakened military and often corrupt police force try desperately to control them. Nearly every day the news offers reports of beheadings and dismemberment, of a violence and brutality so extreme that even the depiction of severed body parts in Goya’s Disasters of War seems restrained. It goes without saying that narco-violence is not an art, yet the graphic mise-en-scènes could similarly be read as allegories of great sociopolitical disintegration, and the headless bodies as metaphors for a country without any real leadership.

Mexicans are accustomed to severed body parts; they have been an element in our landscape since pre-Hispanic times. Skulls, in particular, feature prominently in every one of our civilizations, the hollow eye sockets and bared teeth a presence from ancient eras through to the modern. Yet they have become so detached from their cadavers that they seem to exist entirely on their own, devoid of humanity. And it is one thing to see images in stone at the Museum of Anthropology and quite another to witness heads with their hair and flesh still on them, faces one could have glimpsed on the metro yesterday. The ancient skulls formed part of a metaphysics, whereas the decapitated heads of today signal chaos and collapse.

In Uruapán, a city in my father’s northwestern state of Michoacán, masked men once stormed into a discotheque called Sol y Sombra (Sun and Shadow) and tossed five severed heads onto the dance floor. This incident, which took place over ten years ago, was one of the first outings of La Familia, a drug cartel composed of right-wing vigilantes who quickly established their bloody reign over the region. The photographic image of these decapitated heads, each with its trail of blood where it has rolled out from the black plastic bag, is hard to erase from memory. Their eyes are closed, their faces a shiny olive color; the gangrene of death has yet to set in. In their midst is a large scroll emblazoned with a warning for rival cartels, a handwritten message that ends with the words “Divine Justice.”

Other cartels, like Los Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, and the Sinaloa Cartel, are similarly fond of leaving behind gruesome memento mori. Bodies, often headless, are dangled from bridges or left in segments by the side of the road. Here Baroque is taken to an extreme, deformed into excess and true monstrosity. The tremendous striving for effect, a desire to make the most startling impact on the senses, has mutated into an unabashed theatricality of the utmost violence.

There are, these days, few signs of redemption. In a regrettable twist of the Baroque, its original vitality has been contorted, redirected towards death rather than life. One finds similar aesthetic criteria, a similar dynamism and instinct for theatricality, yet the early religious impulses have morphed into their opposite. And for some the only religion left, it seems, is death itself.

Perhaps the most literal manifestation of contemporary Baroque—a true syncretism of Spanish Catholicism and pre-Hispanic beliefs—is to be found in the cult of Santa Muerte, or Holy Death, the patron saint of the Mexican underworld, who is a sanctified personification of death herself. Though her cult incorporates dozens of Catholic rituals, she remains vehemently unrecognized by the church.

The millions who worship La Santa Muerte tend to belong to the more marginal or endangered strata of society: criminals, transvestites, drug dealers, prostitutes, taxi drivers, police officers. They are individuals who live by violence or are threatened by it, those who exist in a perpetual twilight and, professionally, mostly by night. And they come to her for protection.

I first encountered La Santa Muerte at her main altar in Tepito, Mexico City’s shadowy sanctum of drugs and contraband. There she stood behind a glass pane, a tall skeleton in a long black wig, a jeweled crown, a sparkling gold dress, and a diaphanous cape. She was heavily adorned, an embodiment of Baroque’s dual pull towards death and sensuality, and I couldn’t help feeling like I was seeing a pre-Hispanic skull in Spanish robes. In one hand she held a globe of the world, in the other the scales of justice. Spread out at her feet was a semicircle of figurines, smaller versions of herself, and a flickering landscape of ephemeral offerings: candles, apples, flowers, incense, beer, bottles of tequila, lit cigarettes. I watched as the devotees queued up to press their hands against the pane and murmur their prayers, then quietly deposit a gift.


When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, Moctezuma, believing they were gods, had his emissaries bring Cortés tortillas smeared with human blood as an offering. The emperor himself was a sybaritic gourmet, presented with around three hundred dishes a day made from ingredients brought in from all over the country. Human sacrifice also formed part of the cuisine, and his priests would cook up the remains of sacrificial victims in squash flower soup. The most Baroque dish to emerge from the Conquest is mole poblano, a thick sauce like dark blood concocted from chocolate, almonds, spices, and three types of chili, originally put together by nuns in a convent in Puebla. In Mexico there’s a saying that the spicier a food—and the more it makes you cry—the tastier it is. True culinary enjoyment should be accompanied by a bit of agony, and so it is that to this day mole remains our most beloved dish, a reminder of the turbulent forces from which modern Mexico was born.


This piece is adapted from Dialogue with a Somnambulist, out from Catapult this August. 

Chloe Aridjis  is a Mexican American writer based in London. She is the author of three novels, Book of Clouds, which won the Prix du Premier Roman Etranger in France; Asunder, set in London’s National Gallery; and Sea Monsters, awarded the 2020 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014 and the Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writer’s Award in 2020.