Postcard from Mexico City: Long-buried Aztec deities continue to surface downtown

A life-size figure with skin flayed and liver hanging out sounds alarming, but there is a disarming charm to Mictlantecuhtli. So cute, let’s call him Mickey.

The sculpture represents the Aztec god of death who periodically was bathed in the blood of human sacrifices. But his well manicured hands appear to be politely gesturing “pardon me,” and his smile possesses almost a Mona Lisa-like serenity. And, what a survivor. He was buried in downtown Mexico City for more than 400 years.

Maybe it was the recent exposure to all of the Day of the Dead skulls and skeletons accompanied by traditions designed to encourage the departed to return to earth to their loved ones that made the god of death less terrifying. Plus, I imagine he would be more menacing if I were a perspective blood donor of his bath water.

The destruction of Aztec temples under the order of Hernan Cortes in 1524 was no secret, and, in fact, the reuse of some of their stones for the construction of the Cathedral dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary was a major public relations maneuver demonstrating the might of the Spanish conquistadors. But for centuries, the remains of the city of Tenochtitlan and its Templo Mayor were kept buried below the development of the cosmopolitan city above. Archaeologists poking about and stumbling across remnants of the Aztec civilization were discouraged from their pursuits.

In 1978, electrical company workers digging a little deeper stumbled upon a circular monolith more than 10 feet across. The intact relief of Coyolxauhqui, the daughter of a maternal earth goddess and Mixcoatl, a god of the hunt, war and the Milky Way. Coyolxauhqui plotted against her mother, so a younger sibling, Huitzilopochtli, chopped off her head and limbs. Her depiction in stone shows her severed limbs all akimbo around her torso.

Her brother’s revenge extended to his brothers, all 400 of them. Eliminating much of the competition, Huitzilopochtli emerged to assume a role as a deity of war and the sun. He was the patron of the city of Tenochtitlan, and appeasing him required frequent refueling from human sacrifices, accounting for many of the human skulls found on site.

The twin sanctuaries of the Templo Mayor were dedicated to his worship and that of Tlaloc, the rain god, “he who makes things sprout.” While rain god sounds peaceful, a provoked Tlaloc could cause drought, floods, hurricanes and illnesses. Although he kindly bestowed life in paradise to those who drown or were struck by lightning, Tlaloc, too, needed sacrifices to encourage him to provide the right amount of rain needed for crops.

Back to 1978, weighing in at about eight tons the monolithic Coyolxauhqui proved hard to ignore. Excavation around her revealed a rich minefield of artifacts in amazingly good condition. Numerous buildings near the Cathedral were demolished to provide accessibility, and archaeologists soon discovered the Templo Mayor consisted of pyramids built upon pyramids by successive Aztec rulers over a period of about 150 years.

Designed by architect Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, the Museum of the Templo Mayor opened adjacent to the site in 1987 to display some of the more than 7,000 objects unearthed during the archaeological explorations.

The main ruins of Tenochtitlan cover close to seven city blocks, much of which has not been excavated. Often emerging from adversity, opportunities for additional digs still arise. In the 1990s, work to halt the sinking of the Cathedral as the city’s water table dropped led to numerous finds beneath its floor. More than 20 years after the deadly 1985 earthquake, a damaged building was demolished to reveal the ruins of the Calmecac, the elite school of the Aztec nobility.

Near the museum foyer lies a 12-ton monolith representing Tlaltecuhtli, the earth goddess. This massive 12 x 13-foot relief was not discovered until 2006 on the grounds of an estate on the corner of Guatemala and Argentina Streets. As with many of the Aztec deities, she possessed a split personality. Her name means “the one who gives and devours life.” She demanded many human hearts and much blood to keep her in a positive life-giving mood.

The excavation of Tenochtitlan and the adjacent museum provide an incredible opportunity to view relics from the Aztec civilization from one site all grouped together. Its location downtown by the Zocalo offers an understanding of the development of Mexico City from the 1300s, to the conquest and the construction of the Cathedral, to the growth of the surrounding aristocratic neighborhood during the Diaz years and finally into a bustling contemporary city, home to more than 20 million inhabitants.

Pardon us, Mickey and crew. Please look kindly upon us mortals pausing to stare. Surely you appreciate your liberation after centuries underground. And the contemporary temple of a museum reverently sheltering you now is quite palatial.

Postcard from Mexico City: A few leftover “dulces huesudos”

Still had a few “bony treats” left haunting my computer from wanderings around Hallowmas and Day of the Dead. A village of skeletons was the theme of a festival in La Alameda Central. Altars were set up everywhere, including Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul in Coyoacan. “Una Ofrenda de Pelicula” exhibit in El Museo Dolores Olmedo in Xochimilco saluted filmmaking. Even shamans vending their cleansing spells in the zocolo enhanced themselves with bonemen make-up.

And then thrust in the middle were invasive Halloween traditions sneaking in more and more from el norte (see prior post). Once children discover the sweet rewards of trick-or-treating, it’s pretty impossible to close that door.

There does seem to be uncertainty about when to do what. In the Roma Norte area where we have been staying, the costumed children entered the restaurants and went to the bar areas at the back to ask the staff for treats. Sometimes they were given candy; sometimes spare change; often nothing. The businesses declining are fortunate the trick part as payback does not seem part of the formula.

Receiving mixed results, the period of requests seems extended. Families paraded their costumed kids out nightly – Halloween night, All Saints Day and All Souls Day in the confusion of adding this new tradition to ancient ones, or perhaps simply to maximize the possibilities of success.

This seasonal free trade between Mexico and el norte flows both ways. Certainly San Antonio is far richer from its artistic adaptations of colorful Dia de los Muertos traditions.

Once again, happy Hallowmas.

 

Postcard from Mexico City: Visiting the dead in Panteon de Dolores

In 1945, at the height of her career, the government commissioned (Maria) Izquierdo to do a mural for a building in Mexico City. (Diego) Rivera and (David Alfaro) Siqueiros, two of Mexico’s great muralist painters, blocked her from getting the job. When she dared to denounce them in public, she received little help and a lot of strong criticism….

Izquierdo began to experience nightmares that left her sleepless. One day, she arose and drew what she remembered… a clear vision of herself, in a window of metaphysical dimension, holding her own decapitated head as her body, still walking, becomes lost in the distance of steps leading to a void. That year, 1947, she painted “Sueños y Pensamento,” a premonitory painting that heralded great pain for her future. It was the last of her great works.

“Maria Izquierdo – Monumento Artistico de la Nacion,” Rita Pomade, Mexconnect, 2007

We journeyed to Panteon de Dolores, home to a population of a million old souls qualifying it as Mexico’s largest cemetery, on All Saints Day. We encountered less than a handful of families celebrating Day of the Dead traditions graveside with their ancestors. Perhaps more ventured out on the following day, All Souls Day?

While many graves were colored with an abundance of marigolds, the majority appeared untended by those left behind on earth. Perhaps the more antiquated term of Hallowmas is a more fitting name to apply to the day in this neighborhood occupying close to 600 acres between two main sections of the sprawling Chapultepec Park. Numerous graves were adorned with a jumbled combination of ancient Day of the Dead traditions with more recently imported Halloween decor – spiders, plastic pumpkins, orange and black plastic festoons and fake spider webs.

There was an ongoing mixture of entertainment, ranging from an annoying clownish play to a talented female vocalist while we were there, staged in the plaza of the Rotunda de las Personas Illustres. At dusk, children appeared in Halloween or Catrina costumes carrying plastic pumpkin baskets for trick-or-treating.

While the dearth of ancient practices was disappointing, change happens. And I need no flowers or incense to encourage me to wander through a cemetery. So many stories shout at you from all directions.

Despite the rejection of her mural, Maria Izquierdo gained admittance to the portion of the cemetery dedicated to the illustrious of Mexico. Perhaps her fellow muralists, Rivera and Siqueiros, forgave her for her earlier criticisms of muralists including political messages in their works before they joined her there. The excerpt above is a link worth tapping to begin to learn about her life. I found myself wandering on the internet to discover more about the fascinating artist who was the first Mexican woman to mount a major solo exhibition in the United States.

But there are others. Composer Agustin Lara, who left the women swooning with his “Senora Tentacion” in 1956.

Rosario Castellanos, who wrote because: “Writing has been a way of explaining to myself the things I do not understand.” And redefined laughter: “We have to laugh. Because laughter, we already know, is the first evidence of freedom.”

Actress Virginia Fabregas.

 

In addition to those celebrated within the inner circle of the cemetery, there are close to a million others with stories worth telling. Hopefully, the trials, tribulations and joys they experienced are preserved within their families’ oral histories, repeated over and over at holiday celebrations lest the tales be lost.

And then, there are the eerily spooky graves. The angel guarding the rusty doors of a crypt, unhinged as though indicating the residents fled the confined space long ago. The coffin rusting above ground. Occupied, empty or home to a vampire planning to emerge with the rise of the next full moon?

A belated happy Hallowmas from Mexico City.