Natris, Sara, Carlos, and Sara’s sister Diana came by to pick me up a little after eight this morning, hoping to avoid the street congestion and get an early start. There wasn’t much happening outside yet, so we decided we could at least afford to have a cup of coffee at the hotel restaurant to tide us over until we stopped someplace for breakfast along the way; but, in just the twenty minutes or so that it took to drink our coffee and go get the car, the street outside the hotel underwent a remarkable transformation.
Vendors selling umbrellas, magazines, CDs, candy, flowers, clothes, toys, and all sorts of trinkets had begun to set up their portable booths not only on both sidewalks all the way down the street, but also right on the street itself, next to the sidewalks. There was now barely enough room for an average-sized car to squeeze through without hitting something or somebody, although, had such a mishap ensued, it could not possibly have caused very much damage, given that traffic was literally inching along due to the many shopping carts and basket-laden bicycles and scooters overflowing with merchandise and being maneuvered right down the middle of the road by yet more vendors – some of them children – looking for a vacant spot in which to set-up. Hundreds of people were starting to jam the place, some milling about the booths and tables, checking out the goods, while others, probably on their way to work, vainly strove to hurry through the constantly-shifting labyrinth of things and beings. I guess we should have skipped the coffee…
It took us quite a while to get out of
After breakfast, my hosts took me just down the block, for a brief visit to the Museo Nacional del Virreinato (The National Museum of the Viceroyship), the main tourist attraction in Tepotzotlán. It’s a small museum established in the mid-1960s, and housed within a 17th century church and school. The collection proved to be a blatant obeisance to the ‘splendor’ of the Spanish conquest of México, as evidenced by many of the pieces on display (note the mounted conquistador on the right, with his horse stomping upon an indigenous ‘prince’), the various dioramas, and the disingenuous iterations of the Spaniards’ eventual ‘party-line’ to retroactively rationalize their occupation of these lands and their savaging of the Aztecs – they had to do it in order to ‘liberate’ the other, smaller tribes from the yoke of the oppressive Aztec empire (ironically, this was the very same rationale used by the U.S. some 350 years later to justify the so-called ‘Spanish-American’ War). The most famous exhibits in the museum are the two retablos – huge, floor-to-ceiling altarpieces (each maybe 15’ wide by 20’ high), elaborately carved out of cedarwood and completely covered in 23.5-karat gold leaf. These structures, proudly identified as symbols of the ‘Spiritual Conquest’ of Nueva España (the Spanish colonial name for the lands under its control in North and Central America), are, without a doubt, masterful works of art. To me, though, that kind of ostentatious display of ecclesiastical wealth, especially in the midst of an indigenous population mired in poverty, disease and hunger, just seems unconscionable and immoral. Needless to say, I didn’t stay very long.
From there we went to Tula de Allende, a small town about 50 miles to the northwest of Mexico City in the state of Hidalgo, an area with abundant deposits of alabaster and obsidian, which some believe to be the site of the ancient Toltec city of Tollan, given mythical standing by the Aztecs. There’s a good deal of confusion and controversy surrounding this site (as there is in general with a lot of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican history, both because there were such complex interrelationships among the various peoples, and because the Spaniards destroyed most of the documentation that could have shed considerably more light on the subject). The prevailing current thought seems to be that the site at Tula was built by the Toltecs several hundred years before the Aztecs arrived and made it their own; then again, there are some very interesting similarities between this site and the Mayan remains at Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán which have raised a lot of questions and debate concerning their origins.
We started at the small museum in the Archaeological Zone, and procured the assistance of Macuilli Tecpactlzin, a very knowledgeable local guide, who gave us a running commentary on the various artifacts – including a ceremonial urn depicting the face of the rain-god Tlaloc (note the flowing rivers of 'tears' issuing from his eyes), as well as one of the earliest examples of a chacmool (a sideways-glancing, reclining guardian figure, usually bearing a bowl upon its chest wherein were placed the hearts of sacrificial victims) – and then led us out to the ruins. On the way there, he pointed out several examples of nopal, an edible cactus that has been of great importance in the history of México – it’s depicted on the national seal, and the Aztecs apparently considered it a symbol of everlasting life, since even when the plant dries out, a new one grows from it. The fruit of the nopal, called tuna (nothing to do with fish…) is sweet and widely used in Mexican cuisine.
Macuilli asked me to take special note of some white spots that could be found randomly on the surface of the nopal; those, he informed me, were examples of a parasitic insect that the Aztecs called nocheztli, but is commonly known in México as cochinil (‘cochineal,’ in English) which feeds and breeds on the cactus and exudes a white secretion to protect itself from predators and the sun. The cochinil produces a very durable, intensely bright red dye that was precious to the Aztecs as a symbol of life, given its resemblance to blood, and was used by them to paint their temples and other important buildings. Apparently they valued it so much that they often demanded tribute from some of the subservient tribes in cochinil, rather than gold or silver.
As we entered the archaeological site, we came upon a recessed, L-shaped field surrounded by a stone wall – a fairly typical arena for the playing of ullamalitzli, a pre-Columbian ballgame that seems to have been popular, in one version or another, among many indigenous peoples throughout
From there, we walked past a carved stone rampart, the Coatepantli, or Wall of Serpents, which shows depictions of gigantic rattlesnakes devouring human skeletal remains, as well as images of eagles and jaguars, symbols of warriorship among the Aztecs. It is topped by stylized spiral carvings of conchs, which are a symbol of Quetzalcóatl, the Feathered Serpent deity found throughout Mesoamerican mythology, and all along the wall one can still see faded splotches of cochinil paint from the Aztec era.
Just beyond the Coatepantli is the main attraction of the
Just as we reached the top of the pyramid, I noticed a small feather drifting toward the ground right in front of me; I caught it and instinctively looked up, but there were no birds flying overhead or even standing any place within sight, and there was no wind at the time, which made me wonder where the feather could have come from. Macuilli took notice, and asked me what I had; when I showed him, he said it must be some sort of sign, since, according to him, birds never came near the top of the pyramid, and he pointed out that there were no other feathers to be seen anywhere around us.
Upon this pyramid are the famous Atlantes de Tula – four large, carved basalt statues of Toltec warriors, about 15 feet tall, which, along with several other carved pillars, presumably supported a roof or some other structure (a lot of people don’t seem to realize that most of what remains of the Mesoamerican pyramids are really foundations upon which rested wooden buildings of one sort or another, long since destroyed). Apparently, there are some New Age types who hold that the statues at
On our way back to the parking lot, as we dawdled along a row of merchants displaying their wares, so I could buy a few souvenirs, I overheard Macuilli asking a couple of my companions if I was an anthropologist, because of some of the questions I had asked. As I finished shopping and rejoined them, they were in the process of explaining to him who I was and the purpose of my visit to México. Macuilli was very interested in hearing about my background and practices, and said that now that he knew what I did, it made sense to him why he’d had the impression that my catching that feather on top of the pyramid was some kind of sign.
He also wanted to know about the Encuentro in
Speaking of Castaneda, on our way back to el DF, we stopped for a bit in Tula to get something to eat, and we walked right by the cathedral, which I remembered was mentioned in one of his books (I forget which) as the place where he supposedly met the Death Defier, a shape-shifting sorceress who had lived for hundreds of years. I poked my head in, but, alas, apparently she was out of town today.
Earlier in the day, while we were still in