Wednesday, February 04, 2015

three cultures at the little hill of land

Sunday the huz decided he wanted to go to Tlatelolco.  I hadn't been there in some 15 years, and I really wasn't that crazy about touring the area - it's not the prettiest part of town, and it's famous for a very sad chapter in Mexico's history which I'll mention later. But I trust the huz, and if he says he wants to go visit something, that something must surely be of interest, right? Well, how unsurprising, he was totally right!

So, first of all, names. Tlatelolco is a Nahuatl word that means land (tlalli) + little hill (telolli) + place (co), that is, the place of the little hill of land. But this place is also called the Plaza de las Tres Culturas (Square of the Three Cultures), as pre-Hispanic Aztec, Colonial Spanish, and Mexican Mestizo cultures are all saliently visible - through their architecture - right here, as you can see in my first photo above.

From the side we came - a rather derelict part of the city, walking from the Tlatelolco subway station - we had the opportunity of going all around the square before entering the archaeological area.  And our first stop was the Templo de Santiago (Santiago Temple). Though this building is from the 17th century, this is one of the oldest Catholic sites in Mexico, with the original building dating from the 16th century, soon after the conquest of the Aztec capital by the Spaniards.

Unfortunately, there is little to see inside the church, as it was ransacked in the 19th century during the Reform War, one of the numerous episodes of the conflict between liberals and conservatives in Mexico's history. 

We kept walking past the church (which, obviously, symbolizes one of the three cultures, the Colonial one) and got fantastic views of the place.  Plus, the skies were blue and it was a quiet, relaxed Sunday. And from this angle the mix of modern Mexico - with its concrete towers - and Aztec Mexico - with cities made from stone and tezontle, a kind of porous, reddish, volcanic stone - was also very striking...

But from this corner of the square you also get to the former Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which now functions as a museum - alas, it was closed. But on one of the sides of the building you get a reminder of that sad chapter I had talked about: the Massacre of Tlatelolco. There are books and films about this, so I'll try to be brief (as wise people do when facing very complex subjects they themselves are no masters of).  1968 was the year the Olympics were held in Mexico City. While insane amounts of money were spent - as is usually the case in these opulent OIC events - Mexico was not only going through social tensions but, due to the government's interest in presenting a peaceful and protest free city, through severe government repression, which included the storming of public schools and detention of students. 

October 2nd, 1968, some ten thousand people, many of them students but also people from all walks of life, gathered in Tlatelolco to protest peacefully and listen to speeches. Government forces were present. In the evening, unofficial government snipers shot into the crowd, thus giving the official government forces an excuse to repress the demonstration. It was brutal, it was heavy-handed, and 10 days before the Olympics between 30 and 300 peaceful demonstrators were massacred and over 1000 detained. 

It took 30 years for a congressional authorization to be allowed on this most shameful and tragic event.

After such a sobering reminder of the square's history, we finally reached the entrance to the archaeological site.

Now, the ruins. This is the site of the ancient Aztec city of Tlatelolco, which was founded in 1338, just 13 years after Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. Actually, Mexico City has at least a couple of places like this, with Aztec ruins emerging right in the middle of the modern city. But this one here is fantastic, as the remains are pretty well preserved and are of just the right size to be fully appreciated by us small humans . 

Among the many things to see here there is, for example, a calendar temple, with symbols for days and months carved on the sides:

There was also a small but really nice botanical garden with a number of beautiful desertic climate plants:

And of course, there was the main temple of the city, or Templo Mayor.  Aztecs (and other Mesoamerican cultures) had a very deep respect for the place where the energy of their gods resided. So, when it was time to make a bigger temple, you wouldn't destroy the old one - you'd build on top of it. Think matryoshka dolls. And at this site the different layers that were piled on top of the original temple are super clear. Plus, one of the layers used dots and spirals and circles as decoration, something you don't see that often at other ruins either.

Of course, modern Tlatelolco was also a site for good things, like the Treaty of Tlatelolco from 1967, which made all of Latin America and the Caribbean nuclear-weapon free. And the Aztecs and Spaniards were no strangers to violence, either. Plenty of ritual human sacrifices (including babies) were found here, and I don't need mention the cruelty and brutality the native population of Mexico was subjected to in the hands of the Spaniards.

Wow, I had no idea I'd end up writing so much. But this is one deeply historic place with - sadly- a number of reminders about tragedy. And yet, ironically, greatly enjoyable. Can'twait to show it to visiting friends!

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