Monday, March 2, 2015

Templo Mayor: The Buried Heart of Mexico

El Centro of Mexico City was also the center of México-Tenochtitlán, the Mexíca-Azteca city. In 1521, when Cortés defeated the Aztecs in the name of the Christian god and the Spanish king, he had the surviving natives expelled, their city razed and the beginnings of a new Mexico City built above the old urban center. So the Spanish city, and its contemporary embodiment, rest upon the buried indigenous capital. Because their images were so violent, the various remnants and statuary uncovered over the centuies were hidden away, or even reburied.

Then, in 1978, workmen digging electrical lines came across a huge circular disk, a sculpture of the dismembered body of the goddess Coyolxauhqui, daughter of the mother goddess Coatlicue. Coyolxauhqui was slaughtered by her brother, Huitzilopochtli, at the moment of his birth as a full-grown warrior. This was in response to his half-sister's jealous attempt to murder her pregnant mother. He then became the Aztecs' chief god.

Goddess Coyolxauhqui was slaughtered by her brother, Huitzilopochtli,

The disk of the slain sister lay at the base of the stairs of the now-excavated ruins of the Templo Mayor, the Great Temple. Actually, it was a pyramid topped by two temples, one to the god Huitzilopochtli, the other to Tláloc, God of All Waters. It lies just northeast of the Cathedral. which sits atop another Temple, Pyramid of the Sun.

Twin temples, to Huitzilopochtli and Tláloc, atop the Great Pyramid
Excavated ruins of the Templo Mayor 
with Metropolitan Cathedral in background.

The pyramid temples were expanded multiple times over 200 years
by creating a new layer of stairs atop the previous one.
Photo: Rebecca Brundage Clarkin

Quetzalcoatl, Plumed Serpent,
god of creation and destruction
Photo: Rebecca Brundage Clarkin

Locations of several buildings of Tenochtitlan
and what stands above them today.

Image from MXCity

Thus, like Huitzilopochtli, the second Mexico City was born out of the violent destruction of one great sanctified power by another. José Cueli, a Mexican psychologist and psychoanalyst who frequently writes about the dynamics of contemporary Mexican culture, recently addressed the continuing impact of that violent death and birth on the nation's psyche and daily life nearly five hundred years later:
Supported by Carlos V, the Conquest was marked by the brutality of the conquerors under the leadership of Hernán Cortés, whose history seems fable and his life a novel. Considered a hero in his homeland, outside of it, a cruel warrior among the cruel. Upon disembarking, he began by setting fire to his ships and put the expedition in a position of winning or dying.
Despite the so-called Noche Triste, Sad Night, (June 30, 1520) in which 400 Spaniards died (escaping from Tenochtitlán after a massacre of Aztec priests and nobles), a few days later, in a wild rematch, he won the Battle of Otumba. In the end, the [Spanish] king rewarded him with all kinds of titles and land (after he laid seige to Tenochtitlán in the summer of 1521 and defeated the Aztecs). 
Cueli then quotes a poem written by a defeated Mexica/Azteca about that experience:
On the roads lie broken spears
We have torn our hair in grief.
The houses are roofless,
Their walls are red with blood.
Maggots swarm in the streets and squares.
The walls are stained with brains.
The waters are red as if they were dyed,
And if we drink the waters, they taste of brine.
In our distress, we beat the adobe walls,
And our inheritance is a network of holes.
The shields were our shelter,
But shields do not stop desolation.
We ate salty grass,
Pieces of adobe, lizards, mice
And earth turned to dust, even the worms."
Anonymous Tlatelolco poet, translated from nahuatl by Angel Garibay, (quoted by S. Ramirez in his Collected Works). Tlatelolco, just a mile to the north, was Tenochtitlán's sister city. See, in English, Broken Spears, the Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico
 Cueli concludes:
The trauma that the conquest of Mexico printed on the indigenous was so intense that it endures to this day. ...The indigenous lost their language, religion, customs, and property, and ended up being slaves. If this is not traumatic, who knows what it is.  
Wounds That Do Not Heal, José Cueli, La Jornada, Feb. 20, 2015. 
The indigenous peoples of Mexico, like their cousins to the north confronted by the English colonies and U.S. westward expansion, were nearly exterminated by disease, even more than by war. But different from their northern cousins, these southern peoples were deliberately incorporated into the culture of their Spanish conquerors, adopting their religion and, in large part, their language, their arts and their customs. They adapted their own indigenous agrarian lifestyle and their food, based on corn and bean cultivation, to add to it Spanish horses, livestock, wheat and other "western" ingredients.

With these accommodations, their blood mixed with a little bit of Spanish, the original peoples recovered their numbers and came to be the majority of today's Mexicans. Life, and death, and life again. Like their temples, buried and resurrected. Like the new God, and His Mother, whom they reworked into their own. Modified, yet ongoing. Their ancient heart keeps beating, their ánimo (spirit, energy, life force) pulsing. That is the central Mexican story and the story of their City of Mexico. 


  1. Such an unbearable contrast - the violence in both myth and action and the poet's voice for the suffering of human beings caught in the midst of human destruction. Cycles of violence. Spanish slaughter of Aztec priests (and long before that probably Aztec slaughter of Mayans)… Aztec revenge followed by Spaniards revenge. What has changed? Each slaughterer today still justifies the killing of enemies and survivors of collateral damage still grieve with the words of the poet. Africans fleeing Boko Haram, Yemenis fleeing Saudi and Houthi bombs, Iraqis and Afghans fleeing our bombs and drones, everyone fleeing ISIS, and Syrians fleeing everyone. The poem reminds me that along with our potential to slaughter, we have the potential for deep compassion - if we could only find a way to connect with that compassion when we feel justified to act on our fears, greed, rage or need for revenge.

  2. Sadly, very much to the point, and beautifully said.