“Wow, your house looks so… Mexican!”
This is the phrase my friends — Mexican and immigrant alike — often say when they come to my home for the first time. Always self-conscious about not wanting to copy someone else’s style, it makes me feel a bit sheepish.
Few people here recreate “Mexican décor” (well, a specific type of brightly colored folkloric Mexican décor) as enthusiastically as immigrants, after all! And in this particular case, I’ll always insist that imitation truly is the highest form of flattery. After all, there’s pretty much nothing not to love about this kind of “typical” décor.
Also present here is a marked taste for clean, smooth neutrals and concrete. It has its merits, but if you ask me, they’re missing out on some major opportunities for getting everyone really happy with a coat of carefully-chosen paint.
I know this is only my opinion, but nothing personally depresses me visually more than cinder block color everywhere you turn (I’ll concede, though, that it can look quite striking in what’s otherwise a sea of color).
The use of vibrant color has a long history in Mexico, and I think is one of the main features that makes Mexico so recognizable and distinct. Anyone who’s taken a tour of some of Mexico’s large archeological sites and museums has surely glimpsed traces of the original hues. If you’re lucky, there will be a display somewhere explaining what those colors were, how they actually looked and how they were made.
The Aztecs, for example, used a basic palette of five colors for their murals and sculptures — red, ocher, blue, black and white — and an expanded palette of mostly organic paints for their codices. The Maya are famous for their “Maya blue,” made with indigo, a color they considered sacred.
For their time — before the advent of modern chemistry, I mean — both cultures had quite a wide range of colors at their disposal. One of my favorite daydreams is to imagine what it might have been like to have walked the streets of those ancient cities, taking all those colors in.
Things have changed a lot since then, but the love for and acceptance of vibrant color in public spaces has not. During Mexico’s more recent mestizo history, plenty of new colors have come on the scene and gotten strong, beloved footholds in the Mexican aesthetic, giving way to what I call the “folkloric color palette”: exuberant, saturated hues that simply demand to be looked at.
As far as I’m concerned, color might as well be witchcraft.
That intense blue, for example: saturated, deep, and somehow also bright, commonly called azul rey, is one of my favorites. It’s about the color of a male peacock’s breast, and it just blows me away when I see it painted pretty much anywhere (which is a lot of places in Mexico; I believe I first really fell in love with it, though, on Frida Kahlo’s patio). I have a shirt that color, but I almost never wear it — the color is just too big for me.
I also use it quite sparingly for decorating my own home because it has a way of just 100% stealing my attention, holding me in rapture. I don’t paint it everywhere for the same reason humans don’t walk around naked, even when the weather permits: we’d be too distracted to get anything done.
Another gorgeous color that Mexico is well known for is rosa mexicana. Inspired by the vibrant bougainvillea plant, it was created and made famous by an artist and fashion designer from Veracruz by the name of Ramón Valdiosera. At a New York fashion show, a critic asked him about his unique shades of pink. He responded that they were already well-embedded in Mexican culture, and in its subsequent write-up, the critic described it as “Mexican pink.”
While I’m a big fan of this color, it’s another one that I use sparingly but admire when I see it in other places. I do love pink, though, and currently have a nice pink-orange salmon color in my bedroom. Mostly, I’ve surprised myself to discover, I tend to stick to three of the Aztec’s five basics for most spaces, with some dark teal thrown in generously to give it some extra heart and depth.
Nowadays, of course, I’ve got many more choices than Mexicans 600 years ago could have imagined being able to recreate. While the Mexican paint store Comex, I’ll admit, is not the supplier of my favorite brand here, I have one across the street, so I usually buy from them anyway.
I go there enough that the people who work there recognize me and ask about how previous colors have turned out. And they never, of course, raise their eyebrows when I ask for a gallon of something so eye-catching and saturated that it might cause jaw drops in someone who grew up in a sea of greige. This is Mexico, after all: the land of color.
So that’s what I’ve been doing in my free time for about the past eight months: spending all my money at Comex, and all my free time slapping that paint up on the walls. I have the Balanza color in my TV room, and Cobá in the long, wide hallway downstairs with some murals of dubious quality (it had been painted all white, and it gets no sunlight, giving it the creepy look of a 19th-century hospital passageway; but don’t worry, you guys: it’s fixed now!).
I also go to Comex — I promise they haven’t paid me to write this, though now I think maybe I should have looked into it! — because I love the way they actively help to keep Mexican communities colorful through their initiative Mexico Bien Hecho (“Mexico Done Right” would be my personal translation, though “Mexico Done Well” is the literal one) in which they donate paint for colorfully renovating places that need it.
My daughter sometimes likes to ask me “would you rather” questions in the style of this YouTube Kids video she watches sometimes. Her favorite one currently is this: “Would you rather be blind or deaf?” (I’ve been sternly corrected several times that “neither” is not actually one of the options).
I tell her that I’d rather be deaf — besides, I already kind of am with only one ear working — and that I would be heartbroken to miss out on all the color and beauty around me. At this point, she proceeds to tell me that my answer is wrong; how could I even consider living without music?
“I can sing songs to myself in my head,” is also not an acceptable answer. But that’s okay. She’s 9: opinionated and inflexible in the way that all 9-year-olds are. But on this front, I know myself well.
One of the greatest gifts that the world and especially Mexico has given me, is the chance to be 100% dazzled by the beautiful colors surrounding me on every side.
Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sarahedevries.substack.com