Northern Mexico vs. Southern Mexico: A Tale of Two Mexicos
Northern Mexico vs. Southern Mexico – Introduction:
If you’ve been traveling throughout Mexico for a while, then you’ve likely come to get a feel for the differences between the north of Mexico and the south of Mexico.
Mexico is a vast country, and if you had to divide it into grand chunks, you could likely separate it into Northern Mexico, Southern Mexico, and the Yucatan Peninsula, which for several reasons remains anomalous in the scheme of Mexican culture—the subject of which would make an entire article in itself. (In a nutshell, the Yucatan Peninsula is predominantly Mayan while the rest of Mexico is not.)
Articles such as these, like my article on San Cris vs. San Mike, can only offer metaphors. It will be helpful to remember that the mark of a metaphor is: when taken literally, it’s reduced to the absurd. That means, I can offer up some generalities in thinking about the North of Mexico vs. the South of Mexico, but they shouldn’t be taken too literally, because there are always exceptions and complex dynamics throughout all 32 states in the union that we call “Mexico”.
Northern Mexico vs. Southern Mexico – Corn vs. Wheat:
One of the foremost differences between the North of Mexico and the South of Mexico is the difference between corn and wheat. It would be a travesty to reduce this comparison to tortillas (the north having flour tortillas, the south having corn tortillas), because so much more is going on here.
In the south, you can find all manner of friend maseca—which is a mixture of corn and some sort of fat, be it animal fat or vegetable oil. It’s often friend in a multitude of ways, creating regional delicacies that extend south far beyond the Mexican border. You will find corn flour being fried in countless different ways throughout Central America and South America (from arepas to pupusas) and beyond.
If one were to look at this staple geographically, it would inevitably follow that corn begins as the staple of the Mexican diet in Southern Mexico, and it continues for thousands of miles throughout Central and South America. Indeed, the common ancestors of all indigenous people from Mexico to the southernmost part of Chile referred to themselves as el Pueblo del Maíz or the People of the Corn.
On the contrary, Northern Mexico has what we might consider being a meat-based diet—predominantly beef and goat. These are often served wrapped in a flour tortilla, either in a taco, a burrito, or a volcán (which is essentially a type of grilled taco loaded with cheese). Northern Mexico tends to take its inspiration from the United States, which in turn takes inspiration from the North of Mexico in a delicious cycle.
Baja-style fish tacos, for example, are a quintessentially Northern Mexican dish, while also having permeated much of the United States. Though Baja-style tacos can be found in the South (once again, these are generalizations), you’re much more likely to find pescadillas, like a quesadilla, but instead of cheese it has fish, and tostadas; or pulpo enamorado—Spanish for "octopus in love," which is cooked octopus in a mayonnaise dressing.
Northern Mexico vs. Southern Mexico – Hot vs Cold:
This is a fair metaphor, because parts of the North of Mexico rank among the hottest places on the planet. During the summer, while Central Mexico / Southern Mexico is blessed with tropical rains that serve to cool down the environment to a perfect 75 ℉ (25 ℃); the north of Mexico can reach 100 ℉ (38 ℃)—if not far hotter.
However, in the winter, Northern Mexico can have colder temperatures than most of the south, because its land is arid and lacking the tropical foliage that characterizes much of the southern biosphere.
Northern Mexico vs. Southern Mexico – Vaquero vs. Indígeno:
If we are to play on Mexican tropes, it must be expressed that the North of Mexico is permeated with a cowboy culture, whereas the South of Mexico is more indigenous culture. The vaquero culture of the north permeates their culture and historicity. They mirror the American “Wild West” in many facets—with a focus on horseback riding, cattle herding, and *rancho *life.
In the south, the indigenous past saturates the present. Between ayahuasca tours and daily discussions about Tlaloc’s mood, you might find yourself immersed in a culture that doesn’t have Western foundations like those in Northern Mexico.
Northern Mexico vs. Southern Mexico – The Chiles:
No discussion about the South of Mexico versus the North would be complete without discussing the differences between their chili peppers. An expat might think this a moot point until it was revealed to them how much the difference in chili peppers shows itself in the culture of the North of Mexico or the South of Mexico.
This is perhaps one of the most arguable metaphors—in which I would beg the experienced Mexican expat to bear with me, while I offer this rule of thumb to the foreigner who is perhaps interested in Mexico for their first time.
Southern Mexico lives off the serrano pepper.
Northern Mexico holds a varied assortment of Mexican chili peppers, generally dried and often quite mild. Many Northern salsas involve soaking dried chili peppers (usually red in color), adding garlic and onion, and creating smoky salsas that serve as the base of their cuisine—either as a marinade or as a condiment.
Southern Mexican cuisine has these features to some extent. It’s not that these types of salsas don't exist, but like the Yucatan Peninsula which has adopted the habanero pepper as the staple chile of its cuisine, the South of Mexico holds the serrano pepper at its foundation.
Northern Mexico vs. Southern Mexico – The Music:
I’ve been writing articles about Mexico for several years now, and of all the topics, this one may have me reeling from the stress. But it shouldn’t be ignored that the music of the North of Mexico is recognizable when compared to the South of Mexico.
Throughout all of Mexico—literally scattered throughout all 32 Mexican states—one can find a regional style of music that is quintessentially theirs. It is in this spirit (as a former music major) that I would attempt to differentiate the Northern style of music from the Southern style of Music.
In the north, the instrumentation is different. You’ll hear more fiddles than is common in the south (barring huapango in the state of Veracruz). Furthermore, you’ll hear the accordion. Along with the introduction of cream and cheese, German and Scandinavian immigrants left their mark on Northern Mexican culture in the form of the waltz.
As you might know, the waltz is a style of music that is in 3/4 time, where each bar gets three quarter beats per measure. That means that in a waltz, the beats sound like: boom pop pop, boom pop pop, boom pop pop. . . etc.
I’m not going to get into a music theory lesson, but the main point to take home is that in the North of Mexico, the instrumentation takes a heavy influence from polka. This is often called banda throughout all of Mexico, and though it can be heard in every state in the union, it’s universally recognized as a Northern style of music.
I would love to go further into the distinction in music between the two regions, but that would be fodder for another article. Suffice it to say that the Germanic and especially Bavarian influence weighs heavily on Northern Mexican music.
Northern Mexico vs. Southern Mexico – The Accent:
The Accent. Perhaps the largest difference between the North of Mexico and the South of Mexico.
The northern accent is easily recognizable. It’s cantadito, (or like a tone of singing musicality) as we would say in Spanish. The northern accent has such a pronounced inflection that it stands out anywhere in Mexico when apart from the North. To type it out would be ridiculous, but the Northern Mexican has a drawl: an accent starts low and ends high. (This is such a travesty to their accent that I have trouble typing it, but there it stands).
Click here for a YouTube video illustrating more in-depth the differences between the Northern Mexican accent and the Southern Mexican accent (as well as the Yucatecan accent).
Northern Mexico vs. Southern Mexico – Conclusion:
Alas, this is just a series of metaphors to help you differentiate between the South of Mexico with the North of Mexico. There are far more differences. There are parts of Central Mexico where the differences break down into shades of northern and southern Mexican culture that make it indistinguishable as to whether they are north or south. They are a mix of both.
I only hope that this article can begin to reveal to expats that there’s a stark difference and variety between the North of Mexico and the South of Mexico.
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For several years, Rafael has been crafting articles to help expats and nomads in their journey abroad. He takes great pride in meticulously researching the ins-and-outs of bureaucratic processes in different countries around the world. A digital nomad for almost a decade, Rafael also enjoys exploring cultural phenomena in his articles to better help expats and nomads assimilate. If you have any questions or issues with the content of an article, he’s the one to contact for further information.