Thursday, October 13, 2016

Mexico City's Original Villages-Iztapalapa, Part II: Contemporary Culhuacán, Gods of Darkness and Light

Over the past several months, we have been exploring, the pueblos originariosthe original indigenous villages in Mexico City and the landmarks of their transformation, via the Spiritual Conquest that was the work of the Spanish Catholic friars.

Having explored several of the pueblos of Coyoacán during the summer, we now turn east, to the neighboring Delegación de Iztapalapa and the Pueblos of Culhuacán and Iztapalapa. In our last post, we recounted their history, grounded in their strategic location at the base of Cerro de la Estrella, Hill of the Star, on the peninsula that separated Lake Texcoco from Lakes Xochimilco and Chalco to the south.

Delegación de Iztapalapa

Remarkably, as late as the 1970s, the Delegacion de Iztapalapa continued to be primarily a rural area of farms, canals linked to the remaining waters of Lake Xochimilco and ancient pueblos originarios with significant indigenous population.

Starting in the 1970s, as part of a dramatic increase in the population of Mexico, a large number of people from other states moved into the borough, often creating ad hoc settlements on unoccupied land. Within twenty years, the delegación was transformed, such that now 90% of the land is urbanized. With a population of 1.8 million as of 2010, Iztapalapa is now Mexico City's most populous delegación or borough. It is the fourth largest in area. If it were in the U.S., it would be the fifth largest city.

Delegación Iztapalpa
medium green to right, east of Coyoacán (dark purple in center)

Finding Vestiges of the Indigenous Past Within the Modern batiburrillo

The original pueblo of Culhuacán is now immersed in the urban sprawl that has replaced the milpas, fields, and chinampas, the "floating" man-made island gardens of the now-disappeared lakes. Hence, locating the vestiges of the pueblo in the modern batiburrillo, hodgepodge, is not an obvious task for an outsider entering today's neighborhood.

We have arrived in Culhuacán both via the new "Dorado", Golden, Metro Line 12, which is elevated in this part of its route, and by microbus or taxi via Avenida Taxqueña, which runs straight from Coyoacán, where it intersects with the Calzada de Tlalapan at the southeast corner of our own Colonia Parque San Andrés.

Intersection of Taxqueña Ave, coming from Coyoacán to the west,
with Tláhuac Ave., running north to south. 

Turning north on Tláhuac,
one passes under the brand new elevated Metro Line 12.
The street reminds us of ones in the South Bronx,
dominated by the "El", elevated subway lines, with small shops in their shadows.
Line 12's Culhuacán Station is just south of this intersection.

A few short blocks up Tláhuac, we come to a stone wall covered with the universal urban signatures of grafitti. Beneath the paint, we see it is constructed of tezontle, stone from the local volcanos. 

New, elevated "wall" of the Metro
and old, grafitti-covered wall of tezontle, volcanic rock
Photo: Google Earth

Colonial Culhuacán

Turning up the calleja, narrow side street, we come to a gate in the wall. Leaving our taxi, we enter. 

Estanque de Culhuacán
Reservior of Culhuacán

Inside the walled space, we find ourselves in a true urban oasis, a tree-shaded park surrounding a square pool. A plaque tells us it is the Estanque de Culhuacán, the Culhuacán Reservoir, constructed by the Spanish in the 16th century as a kind of harbor at the edge of Lake Xochimilco to serve as an embarcadero, pier, for shipping goods north to their new Ciudad de México

Later—after Lake Texcoco had been drained and Lake Xochimilco's area reduced—it served the same function on the Royal Canal. After Mexican Independence in the early 19th century, it became known as the National Canal, but more commonly, it was called La Viga, The Beam, after one of its branches leading to Centro Histórico. It remained in use into the 1920s. 

The Viga (former Royal) Canal in 1850
superimposed on a map of Mexico City of 1970.

Culhuacán is just to right of label "Antiguo Canal de la Viga"

(lower left).
Cerro de la Estrella is green area just above Culhuacán.
Iztapalapa is north of el Cerro de la Estrella

Heavy red line up the center is modern outer-ring expressway.
Thin red line up left side is Calzada de Tlalpan,
the former Mexica cuepotli, causeway.

From the blog: Historia: Geografía y Rarezas

On the east side of the Estanque, pretty much hidden behind trees, is the Ex-convento de Culhuacán

Entrance to Ex-convento de Culhuacán
It has been restored by
the National Institute of Archeology and History (INAH),
and is now a museum and community arts center.

In the entrance way, a mural of St. Augustine blessing Augustinian monks. 

The existing convent or monastery was built by Augustinian monks in the mid-1500s and dedicated to St. John the Evangelist. The Augustinians took over a mission that had been established by the Franciscans, the first religious order in Nueva España. The handover took place when the Pope required that the Franciscans distribute some of their missions to later-arriving religious orders. It's a dispute we learned about in our investigation of the Franciscan Church of St. Paul in the San Pablo Teopan-Zoquipan quarter in the Centro Histórico

Then in the mid-18th century, the Augustinians were removed on orders of the Pope—as we've also encountered with other missions—and the complex became a parish church under the bishop's control. During the Reform period of the mid-19th century, the convent was seized by the Mexican government and turned to secular uses.

Central patio,
classic example of Spanish Colonial design

Tranquility embodied

San Lorenzo
The tool he is holding in his hand is grill, used for roasting meat.

He was martyred by being grilled over a fire.

Goal ring from an indigenous ball court.
The convent was built on the site of an indigenous temple
and court for the ritual ball game,
which played out the struggle
between the forces of light (heaven) and darkness (underworld).

Church of St. John the Evangelist

Next door to the convent, but outside its walls, is the parish church of St. John the Evangelist. The building is fairly new in Mexican terms, constructed near the end of the 19th century to replace the original church.

Sunday Mass

The priest is sitting on the steps in front of the altar,
giving a homily in a very animated, story-telling style,
He is evidently popular with his young congregants,
as there isn't a gray hair in the crowd!

So here the vestiges of the Spiritual Conquest are a beautifully restored convent—now serving as a museum and very lively community arts center, as well as a site for weddings and quinceañeras, girls' fifteenth birthday celebrations—and an alive Catholic Church, with a padre que es muy padre, a very cool priest.

Chapel of the Lord of Calvary, the Black Christ

A narrow callejón, alleyway, opposite St. John's leads us to a rather more idiosyncratic and vivid manifestation of the primal confrontation between the indigenous peoples of Mexico and the Spanish, and of the reconciliation that has been constructed via the process known as the Spiritual Conquest.

It is la Capilla del Señor del Calvario, the Chapel of the Lord of Calvary. For starters: He's black!

Chapel of the Lord of Calvary

The chapel, like the Church of St. John the Apostle, was built around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, but its origins go some centuries back. 

It is located next to a cave in the adjoining hillside which is the base of Cerro de la Estrella, the site of the Mexica temple of the Binding of the Years or New Fire that we wrote about in our previous post. The cave was evidently the site of indigenous rituals to gods of the Underworld. 

Legend has it that a couple of hundred years ago, a carving of the figure of Christ, after his Crucifixion, during his time in the Tomb, was found in the cave. The figure is black, like the volcanic rock of the cave.

Cave of the Lord of Calvary

Black Lord of Calvary (a second version, 
the original is a "dead" Jesus, laid out for burial)

A large mural on the side wall of the Chapel depicts the meaning of this anomalous combination of symbols:

The black Lord of Calvary is worshipped in his cave by indigenous people.
There are no Spanish or Catholic priests, 

although the goat is a European introduction.
Cerro de la Estrella rises in the background.

Cristos Negros, Black Christs, have appeared in a number of places in Central America and Mexico. The most famous are those of Esquipulas, Guatamala, and Portobelo, Panama. There are several across southern and central Mexico. There is one in a church in a pueblo in Michoacán and others in the State of Mexico and Pueblo. There is also one in the Cathedral of Mexico City. Most all of them are said to have been miraculously discovered already carved and are the objects of pilgrimages. Virtually all are associated with indigenous pueblos. 

Black Christ in Mexico City Cathedral

Tradition of Black Gods  

Before the arrival of the Spanish, indigenous religions had their black gods. The Mexica and other Nahua peoples worshipped Tezcatlipoca, god of the night, hurricanes, the north (cold), the earth, enmity, discord, temptation, sorcery, war and strife. He was often portrayed with a black and yellow striped face and, sometimes, other black body parts. 

Left: Tezcatlipoca, god of twilight, ruler of the night, hence of the invisible,
associated with the Great Bear constellation;
hence, lord of the cardinal direction North.

Right: Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent (a creature combining forces of earth and sky),
god of light, life and wisdom. Associated with the morning star (Venus), lord of the East.

Mexica myths tell of various conflicts between the two.

Portrayed in mural by Guillermo Ceniceros

Tezcatlipoca was associated with obsidian, the smooth black glass stone produced by volcanic eruptions and used to make "smoking" mirrors for divination and knives for sacrifice. His animal spirit was the jaguar, which, because of its yellow and black coat and its nocturnal life, was the quintessential representative of the Sun when it was immersed in the Underworld of Night, where the battle between the forces of Light and Dark took place. The Maya had Tohil and K'awil, gods of sacrifice associated with obsidian.

On the occasion of his inauguration, a new tlatoani, "speaker", of the Mexica had to pray naked before a statue of Tezcatlipoca, acknowledging his human vulnerability and dependence on the god's support. The god's temple was just south of the Main Temple to Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli. It stood where the Palace of the Archbishop now stands, immediately east of the Metropolitan Cathedral, itself built atop the Temple of the Sun.

So, perhaps, it is not so strange that a black, crucifed Christ was discovered in a cave cut out of black volcanic rock, at the foot of a hill where human sacrifices had been performed in order to feed the Sun and, thereby, strengthen it in its nightly struggle with the forces of the Underworld and Death. Only through such blood sacrifice could the heavenly force rise again the next day and bring continuing life to the world of human beings.
Jesus Christ, God's only Son,....
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried.
He descended into hell;
on the third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
                                                 — Apostles' Creed
(See our later post on the Fiesta of Holy Trinity and Culhuacán's celebration of the Lord of Calvary) 

Memories of a Noble Past

Continuing down the alleyway south of la Capilla del Señor de Calvario, we come upon another distinctive representation of Culhuacán's past—a wall mural created by a group called Nomadas Colectivo, the Nomads Collective.

Quetzalcóatl, the Plumed Serpent

"Culhuacán, you are the cradle
of kings and educators,
of painters and poets,
of hard-working men,
of hard-working housewives,
of studious youths,
and of a beautiful childhood."

Legend of Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl 

Iztaccíhuatl was a princess who fell in love with one of her father's warriors, Popocatépetl. 

The king, opposed to this, sent Popocatépetl to war in Oaxaca, promising him Iztaccíhuatl as his wife when he returned, presuming he would die in battle. 
Iztaccíhuatl was falsely told Popocatépetl had died in battle, and believing the news, she died of grief. 
When Popocatépetl returned to find his love dead, he took her body to a spot outside Tenochtitlan and knelt by her grave. 
The gods covered them with snow and changed them into mountains. 
Iztaccíhuatl means "White Woman" (from the nahuatl iztac "white" and cihuatl "woman"). 
Popocatépetl became an active volcano, raining fire on Earth in blind rage at the loss of his beloved. (Wikipedia)

Pantheon of Gods

Unidentified god,
the style is Maya
Tlaloc, God of the Waters

Tezcatlipoca, God of the Night
Tonatiuh, God of the Fifth Sun

"Culhuacán, the Aztec people admired your progress and valor.
Because of this, they solicited Acamapichtli as a guide"

Acamapichtli was the first tlatoani of Tenochtitlan (1375-1395).
His mother was a princess of Culhuacán and his father a Mexica.
He married another Culhuacán princess.

As Toltecs, the residents of Culhuacán traced their lineage
to the imperial city of Tula (650 to 1150 C.E.).  The marriages of Mexicas of Tenochtitlan
with women of Culhuacán gave them a long royal lineage and legitimacy.


Eagle on a Cactus with a Rattlesnake in its Mouth
was the sign given the Mexica to settle on an island in Lake Texcoco.
It became the symbol of Tenochtitlán
and is the Official Seal of Mexico.

With the election of 
Acamapichtli as tlatloani of Tenochtitlán,
the pueblo attained the status of an atepetl, a city-state,
beginning its rise to power in the Valley of Anahuac.

Culhuacán: Syncretism of Cultures

So in Culhuacán we find a beautifully preserved vestige of the Spiritual Conquest in its Franciscan convent and a vivid and still vital manifestation of the syncretism of indigenous and Spanish Catholic culture and beliefs: the black Lord of Calvary. We also find explicit and proud honoring of its indigenous orgins.

Delegación of Iztapalapa: Colonias and Pueblos

Culhuacán is lower star
Barrios of original Iztapalapa are upper right star
Cerro de la Estrella is between them.
Mexicaltzingo is upper left star.

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