Mexico, The Most Surreal Country in the World

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Alvaro Amador Muniz
Alvaro Amador Muniz
Alvaro Amador Muniz describes himself as a Rednexican who hails from Ciudad Juárez, an adopted Tennessean, an amateur historian, and an average basketball player currently living in Costa Rica. He can be contacted at or via Twitter @AlvaroAmadorM.

After a short trip to Mexico, Salvador Dalí decided that he would never come back, he said that he could not stand to be in a country more surreal than his paintings. Dali’s comments aggrieved many in Mexico and triggered a debate about the meaning of his words. How could the artist who painted melting clocks and skinny-legged elephants dare to compare Mexico to his paintings? Now, while Dalí was a strange man and the intention of his remarks about Mexico are a mystery, there was wisdom in his words: Mexico is, in many ways, a surreal place.

A young girl selling candy gazes at treats she is unlikely to ever have the chance to taste. Photo: Citlali Torres

In surrealism, the artist lets his/her subconsciousness freely guide the creative process and, in consequence, surrealist art ends up being a photograph of the artist’s mind without the restrictions of rationalism. Mexico itself is that photograph, an unbridled portrait of the passions and fears of centuries of chaotic, yet fascinating history; a piece of art that touches your heart from many angles. Mexico is that beautiful and confusing piece art that is hard to stop looking at.

When I first moved out of Mexico, I experienced periods of a sudden sense of emptiness, I felt as if life was not intense enough for me anymore. Sure, I was not concerned about being caught in the middle of a cartel shooting anymore, but I did not have that full-force emotion that only Mexico made me feel. It was not until I left Mexico and I was able to see it from the outside, as a spectator, that I realized that I had been living in a surreal place. I started noticing the two aspects, the grey and the colorful tones that make up this masterpiece called Mexico.

The Love Embrace of the Universe. Frida Kahlo.

The Gray: Grief in Disguise

One of the classics of Mexican folk music is a song by Jose Alfredo Jimenez called La Vida No Vale Nada (life is worth nothing). This song is one of those sad songs we sing along with when we have had a few drinks, maybe the lyrics about the worthlessness of life hits really close to home. In Mexico, life can be worth nothing.  Hitmen seem to demonstrate this idea every day.  It is the country where criminals have their own saints, La Santa Muerte and Martin Malverde who provide divine protection for smugglers and murderers. Violence is and has always been relentless and almost inescapable. 

José Alfredo Jiménez is known as “the king” of ranchera music and authored many of Mexico’s most iconic songs including “El Rey” and “Ella.” Photo: Courtesy

Last month, a spider monkey was killed during a cartel-related shooting in the state of Mexico. The monkey was dressed in a tactical, bullet-proof vest. Even in death, he was a monkey with a strong personality that seemed to have been taken out of Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait. That day I received many memes and jokes about this narco-monkey news, first I enjoyed the dark humor but then it hit me; the narco-monkey demonstrates the degree of normalization of violence in Mexico. The surreal horror the monkey showed us in death is that we have learned to accept violence and, as with many other tragedies, we just find a way to make it colorful to numb reality. 

Another gray element is chronic poverty. After centuries of poverty, we have learned to take the hardships with philosophy. Phrases like donde come uno comen dos (two can eat, as cheaply as one) and echale mas agua a los frijoles (pour more water into the bean soup) are testimony of resilience and overwhelming humbleness but are also the legacy of centuries of scarcity. In Mexico hunger and poverty kills. 

The Colorful: Endless Sources of Art, Culture, and Overwhelming Beauty

This is the part of the portrait that is more easily perceptible, the one that hugs your soul and makes you feel pleasantly intoxicated. The calming colors of the Caribbean Sea coexisting with ancient Mayan ruins in Tulum, the spirituality of San Juan Chamula and its hybrid catholic-Tzotzil religious ceremonies, Aztec ruins resting next to colonial buildings in Mexico City, the mysticism of the snowy and vast Tarahumara mountains in Creel, and many other spectacular places. From Tijuana to Tapachula, Mexico is an endless source of beauty.

On this brighter side, one can also see family reunions were everyone dances and sings together, thousands of volunteers removing rubble after the earthquake in Mexico City… here one can see Mexico’s unity. Mexico’s pre-Hispanic cultures left an indelible footprint, we inherited the humbleness and resilience from ancient civilizations and the intensity of the dreams and passions from the ambitious conquistadors and immigrants from around the globe. 

Remedios Varo is one of Mexico’s most celebrated surrealist artists. Pictured: Papilla Estelar. Photo: Courtesy

Salvador Dalí was not the only artist who thought about Mexico as a surreal country. André Breton, considered the father of the surrealist movement, also visited Mexico and described it as a country that lives in a magical atmosphere, a past that was meant to clash with modern ideologies but instead it coexisted in perfect harmony. Breton, summarized his visit to Mexico by saying “Don’t try to understand Mexico with reason; you’ll have more luck looking to the absurd—Mexico is the most surrealist country in the world.” 

This is Mexico, the country that the more I love it, the less you understand it.

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