Today, my friends came for me right at 8:00 and we left the hotel immediately, managing to just beat the crazy sidewalk scene that had delayed us the previous morning, and we grabbed a quick Mexican breakfast at a coffee shop along the way to our eventual destination of Teotihuacan, the huge complex of pyramids and ruins – about 25 miles to the northeast of Mexico City – which once comprised the largest pre-Columbian city in Mesoamerica.
But we had another brief stop to make between breakfast and the pyramids: the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Catholic patroness of México. I had been to the old basilica many years ago, and was curious to see the ‘new’ one (built in the mid 1970s), since it was pretty much on the way. Besides, no matter your religion, it’s rather impolite to visit
La Guadalupita, as she is fondly called here, stands at the very core of Mexican culture. In fact, people who say they venerate the Virgin have outnumbered Christians altogether in some opinion polls, underscoring a famous statement by the novelist Carlos Fuentes to the effect that, to be a Mexican, you don’t have to believe in God, but you do have to believe in her.
The legend goes that the Virgin Mary appeared to an Indian man named Juan Diego on a cool December morning barely ten years after Hernán Cortés had conquered the Mexica (Aztecs) in Tenochtitlan, the heart of what is now the Federal District, and asked him to tell the bishop to build her a church on the hill of Tepeyac where they were standing, overlooking the city. When the bishop asked for some kind of sign, Juan Diego met the Virgin again, and she instructed him to gather flowers from the hilltop, place them in his ayate (a sort of apron), and bring them to the bishop. Despite it being winter, he found flowers – Spanish roses, no less – blooming on the hill (a miracle), and when he unfurled his apron to give them to the bishop, they found that an image of the Virgin had formed on his ayate (another miracle). While the Virgin had Caucasian features, her skin was darker than that normally found on representations of Mary, so she became a powerful symbol for the indigenous people, who converted to Catholicism by the millions over the next few years. The original, miraculous image, cut out from Juan Diego’s ayate, hangs in the basilica and is the focus of constant peregrinations by the devout.
That’s the official Catholic story, taught to children not only in México, but all over the Hispanic world (though I vividly remember that, in the version I was told as a child in school, Juan Diego was an Indian boy, not a sixty-year-old man, when the Virgin appeared to him.) There is another, different story, of course. A lot of non-Catholics (and even some Catholics, including clergy) would point out, first of all, the similarities between the Virgin of Guadalupe and Tonantzin, the Aztec mother/lunar goddess with whom the hill of Tepeyac had long been associated. Many of them believe that the whole story was an elaborate plot by the Church to convert the Indians, that the picture was simply painted by a Spanish artist, and that Juan Diego was recruited (and paid handsomely) by the bishop to stage a charade. The Church certainly made syncretic associations of the Virgin and the saints with various pagan deities throughout Europe long before the colonization of the Americas, and the influence that la Guadalupita exerted on the indigenous populations was not only demonstrated by the huge numbers of conversions following her ‘appearance,’ but also by the fact that her image, painted on battle standards, was used by both Miguel Hidalgo and Emiliano Zapata, respectively, in the Mexican War of Independence and the Mexican Revolution to rally armies of mostly indigenous soldiers. The image of the Virgin has undergone limited photochemical analysis which seems to indicate that it was made with conventional materials and methods used by European artists in the 16th century, but the Church has also commissioned other tests which negate those findings and conclude that the materials and the process responsible for the image are of no known provenance, supporting the belief in its miraculous origin.
We parked in an underground garage about a block from the basilica, and, to get from the car to the stairs leading back up to the street, we had to pass through a conglomerate of religious goods stores, all seemingly selling the exact same things: pictures, statues, books, ashtrays, mugs, coasters, keychains – you name it – bearing the image of la Guadalupita. In truth, it seemed more like one gigantic store subdivided into maybe a dozen smaller ones, except that there didn’t seem to be any difference in the merchandise they were selling, and they were all interconnected. At any rate, there didn’t appear to be a way to get back outside without going through at least one of them – religious marketing at its most sophisticated…
As we entered the plaza, I saw the old colonial basilica directly in front of us, pretty much as I remembered it; to the left was the new building, much bigger and modern. The plaza was mostly deserted, though my friends told me that, toward the beginning of December, as the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe approaches, the place is overflowing with throngs of pilgrims from all parts of the country and beyond (many of them, like the man on the right, make the journey on their knees). They said that, in fact, one of the main reasons they’d had to build a new basilica was that the old one, built in the 17th century on weak foundations, had started sinking over the years from the weight of all the pilgrims that would crowd into it at various times of the year.
The new basilica is quite ample and modern, and apparently can hold more than 40,000 people at once during the major holidays. Just as we entered, a group of chasubled priests were processing in to say Mass for a couple of hundred faithful. The framed image of the Virgin was clearly visible hanging under a crucifix behind the main altar, with a Mexican flag draped beneath it, but there didn’t seem to be a way to get close enough to see her well – let alone take a picture – without getting up on the altar itself, which, of course, we weren’t about to do. But my friends took me to a side door which revealed that there was a gap maybe 15 feet wide between the rear of the main altar and the back wall where the image was hanging, a space that wasn’t at all noticeable if you looked at the altar from a distance. So we were literally about five feet behind and twelve feet below the priests celebrating Mass, and right beneath the image of la Guadalupita. Two short ‘moving sidewalks’ (the kind you’d find in airports) going slowly in different directions, enabled visitors to view the image closely, and at the same time prevented logjams – a very well-designed setup all around.
On our way back to the car, as we walked once again through the religious shops, one of my companions purchased a bag of unconsecrated communion hosts; apparently this is quite commonplace in Mexico City – however many hosts don’t get consecrated during Mass over the course of a week are simply bagged up and sold as snacks, which my friends happily consumed on the way to the pyramids.
As we entered the site, we were directly in front of what the Spaniards called la Ciudadela (‘the citadel’), a walled, recessed courtyard (estimated to have been large enough to hold the entire population of Teotihuacan within it in case of an enemy attack) fronted by four small pyramids and encompassing, toward the back, the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent god (in the photo at left, you can see two of the small frontal pyramids, and the top of Quetzalcoatl’s showing behind them in the distance). The Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent is not nearly as large as those of the Sun and the Moon, but it features more ornamentation, including stone heads of animals going up the central steps (which are much smaller than the steps of the other two pyramids), and carved heads of Quetzalcoatl and of the rain god, Tlaloc, along the sides.
To our left, extending for a couple of miles, was the Miccaotli, or, in Spanish, la Calzada de los muertos (the ‘Avenue of the Dead’, so called by the Aztecs because they thought the various small pyramids along its course were tombs) – a straight and wide boulevard leading almost due north, and ending at the foot of the Pyramid of the Moon. Apparently, the Avenue goes in the opposite direction for another three miles or so, but since that’s not the area of main archaeological interest, it hasn’t been as well-kept or defined as the northern end. For most of its upper stretch, the Avenue of the Dead is lined by stone embankments over a foot high, which has led some researchers to suspect that it might, at one point, have been filled with water – one very long reflecting pool that would have captured and mirrored the light of both Sun and Moon, to whom the two main pyramids were ostensibly dedicated, and which would have also served as part of an irrigation system to provide easy access to water to all parts of the city. One author has even suggested that it might have resembled
We walked in the light rain along the Avenue of the Dead, and finally stood at the base of the Pyramid of the Sun, the third largest in the world. Like most of the other pyramids in México, it was built in the talud-tablero style: the talud is typically an inwardly-sloping platform upon which sits the tablero – a square or rectangular table which is in some cases slightly larger than its supporting talud, so that its edges protrude; each succesive talud-tablero is smaller than the one beneath it, creating the pyramidal shape. In Aztec times, the stones and adobe bricks from which the pyramid was built would have been covered with (presumably) white stucco painted with bright, colorful designs, and would have had a huge, roofed wooden temple at the very top – in other words, it (and the other pyramids) would have looked remarkably different from their current appearance.
The Pyramid of the Sun is about 250 feet high, which means that to get to the very top is the equivalent of climbing more than 20 ordinary flights of stairs; except that, in this case, the steps are not the usual 7 inches or so in height, but more like 12”-14” of bare, worn, uneven stone, and some of the steepest stairs have no handrails. When you add to this the fact that you’re standing at an altitude of almost a mile-and-a-half above sea level, where the air is fairly thin, the climb can be a daunting prospect for all but the most athletic. On top of everything else, on this particular day the persistent drizzle had rendered the steps quite slippery, and as a result two of my companions decided to forgo the climb altogether. The rest of us, using the zig-zagging approach that our guide had taught us the day before, made it to the top in about fifteen minutes – not bad considering that we had to stop a couple of times to catch our breaths, and were also slowed by the surprisingly large number of visitors on such a wet, unseasonably cold day.
The view from the top was stunning, despite the low clouds, rain and fog that limited the range of visibility; I can just imagine what one could see on a bright, sunny day. Today, the
Just fifteen minutes or so after we’d reached the top, a bus tour group joined us, and among them was my friend Joseph Prabhu, with whom I’d flown in from
Eventually, we made our way back down to the Avenue of the Dead to join the rest of our party, and continued on to the Pyramid of the Moon, which is a bit smaller than the one we had just visited, but still considerably larger than the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent. The Pyramid of the Moon sits at the northernmost end of the Avenue of the Dead, and offers a very different perspective from that of the Pyramid of the Sun. We were not able to climb to the very top, since some of the steps were in bad shape and especially dangerous because of the rain, so access was prohibited beyond the first main platform. Still, we had a very good view of the length of the Avenue of the Dead, and of the various smaller pyramids and platforms alongside it.
Our last stop in
By the time we returned to the parking lot, we were pretty famished, so we stopped for an early dinner at a nearby restaurant. The waitress brought us the customary cortesía (‘courtesy’), a complimentary caballito (‘little horse’ – a small, narrow, elongated shot glass) brimming with tequila, and I ordered some mixiote, a sort of spicy Mexican haggis, which was delicious. During dinner, I called Helen Samuels to confirm that we’d be dropping by for a visit a little later, and to get directions.
The drive back to el DF was much quicker than we’d anticipated, and though it took us a little while to find the place where Helen’s gathering was being held, we made it with plenty of time. I was really looking forward to seeing her again, as she had felt very much like a kindred spirit during our brief encounter in
The place turned out to be this amazing, huge house in an otherwise unremarkable middle-class neighborhood in the southwestern part of the city. The house had a high concrete wall all around it, so we couldn’t see it at all until two massive steel gates were opened by remote control and we eventually managed an impossibly tight, 120-degree right turn off the very narrow street we were on, with a long line of cars impatiently waiting behind us.
Then we found ourselves inside a large, forested courtyard that already held perhaps two-dozen other vehicles. A beautiful, friendly dog came out to greet us, with Helen at his heels; she ushered us inside the fairly modern, multileveled building, with lots of picture windows and open spaces, and gorgeous works of art everywhere – many of them, as we soon learned, created by the owner of the house, an artist who had just spent more than twenty years trying to reproduce the brilliant, organic pigments that the Aztecs used in their paintings, and which she had recently begun to produce commercially. The place was full of all kinds of interesting people – musicians, environmentalists, visual artists, filmmakers, social activists, community organizers – most of whom seemed to be very close to one another. They reminded me so much of my own community, that I instantly felt right at home.
I spent a good bit of time talking with Helen about the Encuentro and about her various projects. She, along with some of the other people at the gathering, lives in an ecovillage just south of the city, which she invited me to visit in the next few days while I’m here, if I have the time. She very kindly gave me the gift of a 250-page book – compiled by Laura Valdés Kuri, one of the women present tonight – entitled Ecohábitat: Experiencias rumbo a la sustentabilidad (‘Ecohabitat: Experiences Toward Sustainability’), which features some of the people in her group and includes many beautiful color photographs illustrating their work in environmental education, alternative energy resources, organic farming, community development, earth spirituality, street theater, etc.
One of the people Helen wanted me to meet was Alberto Ruz Buenfil, who, from what I gathered, is one of the founders of her community; in Monterrey she had told me that I reminded her of him, that she had a feeling we did a very similar type of work – she referred to him as a 'shaman' – and that we'd get along famously. Alberto is the son of a very noted Mexican archaeologist who specialized in the Mayan civilization and discovered the tomb of the god-king Pakal the Great; he told me about accompanying his father on his digs throughout Central America, of the connections he made as a result with various indigenous peoples, and of his sense of how important it is to revive the spirit of tribal communities in Western culture.
I also had a chance to talk with Alice Klein, who is the publisher of NOW, Toronto's alternative weekly magazine which, as it turns out, I remembered reading when i was in that city last year in the summer. Alice's first film, Call of the Hummingbird, just came out in the spring and is having its Mexican premiere this weekend. The film is a documentary about an ecospiritual festival in Brazil – one of the events organized by Alberto and his nomadic caravan – and apparently includes some of the people gathered at the house tonight. She invited me to attend the first showing tomorrow, but unfortunately I can't do so because of my talk at CIDEH; there is another showing on Sunday, though, so I'll try to make that.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit with these folks – they felt so much like my crowd, like family; several of them commented that they could have sworn they’d known me from before, and one young woman, in particular, told me something like, “I feel as if you were a distant uncle of mine, whom I’d heard a lot about, but had never met, and here you are, in the flesh.” As we said our good-byes, we exchanged names and e-mail addresses all around; I would definitely like to remain in touch with this group.