Mexico City – What do 2,753 telescopes, 457 folk dancers and an extremely high bridge have in common?
They’ve all landed in the Guinness World Records for Mexico during the past few months. That’s not a sudden surge in record-breaking here – it’s been a national obsession for years.
From the most people kissing simultaneously (39,897 people on Valentine’s Day 2009), to the largest pork taco (about 240 feet long and weighing 330,000 pounds in November 2011), the country under siege by a bloody drug war is on a mission to be known as something else: the country that has the largest, the biggest and the most of everything.
As a people, Mexicans shun genuine competition. Claiming Guinness records is a way of winning something without actually having to compete one-on-one.
And so hundreds, sometimes thousands, at a time descend on Mexico to try and break the record for the world’s largest zombie walk (about 9,800 people in November 2011) or the most mariachi musicians ever gathered in one place (about 549 in August 2009) or whatever record the country is trying to break at that moment.
Alejandro Arnal, a manager for Victorinox México, which helped coordinate December’s record for most telescopes pointed at the moon, said Mexicans use Guinness records to show national pride.
“The record that we put is not for Juan Pérez or for Margarita Lopez,” he said. “It’s for Mexico.”
But Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign affairs secretary, has argued that Mexico’s habit of trying to be the largest of everything is troublesome.
“As a people, Mexicans shun genuine competition,” he wrote in the Los Angeles Times last year. “Claiming Guinness records is a way of winning something without actually having to compete one-on-one.”
But others say that Guinness offers escapist fun. Consuming the world’s largest cheesecake distracts from Mexico’s real problems: the drug war’s 47,515 death toll – which keeps climbing – and the country’s rampant corruption.
Likewise, some believe Mexico’s record-seeking is a push for attention in a world that doesn’t take it seriously.
Guinness’s own analysis is, predictably, less harsh.
“Teamwork and cultural pride are two cornerstones to [Mexico’s] record attempting,” wrote Mike Janela, head of the Guinness U.S. records management team, to Fox News Latino.
That means colossal Mexican foods: a seafood ceviche, chiles en nogada, flour taco, shrimp cocktail and a tortilla measuring 1.49 miles.
Group activities also reign.
“Rather than records focusing on how many times one person can juggle a soccer ball…,” wrote Janela, “they would rather attempt a record for the largest soccer tournament.”
Mexico holds records for most people kissing and most couples hugging at the same time. A year before dancers in Guadalajara grabbed the 2011 folk dancing record, another local group claimed “most people twirling lassos simultaneously.”
Despite Guinness’s popularity here, Mexico currently ranks 16th among top record-making countries. The United States is first, said Janela.
Perhaps it’s best to avoid sweeping judgments of the Mexico-Guinness connection.
Businesses and government offices often coordinate record efforts, rather than grassroots groups.
Even Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón uses the brand for good press. In early January, a project in northern Mexico claimed the record for “Highest Cable-Stayed Bridge.”
“It’s a symbol of what we Mexicans can do when we propose to do great things,” remarked Calderón at the ceremony.
For a fee, Guinness World Records also helps groups plan their record attempts or adjudicate records on site, rather than having people send evidence.
“The record gets announced on the spot, you don’t have to wait for any review process…,” said Jamie Panas a Guinness public relations executive, “and then it’s a better kind of press opportunity.”
It recently adjudicated record attempts and/or worked with Columbia Tristar Films of Mexico, the Guadalajara Chamber of Commerce, Services and Tourism and the Telmex Cup soccer tournament.
For the last four years, Mexico has averaged roughly 20 Guinness World Records annually, though occasionally un-certified groups grab attention.
In November, after supposedly 12,000 people attended a yoga class in Mexico City’s Zócalo, the event was dubbed “the largest yoga class in the world.” But organizers never intended that reaction, said Rebeca Torres, founder and president of Naam México. Sometimes, record hype just arises.
“We don’t aim to get together to break records,” she said.
Ruth Samuelson is a freelance writer based in Mexico City.