Tlatelolco is about ten minutes from the historic center of Mexico City and centuries apart. Discovered in 1948, it is the largest archeological site within Mexico City and a must stop if you want to know more about the birth of Mexico, her history and traditions. It was our first stop on an all-day small group excursion I took with Amigos Tours (which was excellent). Our ultimate destination was Teotihuacan, with a stop on the way at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I’ll write more about that, but for now, a very brief, big brush stroke of Aztec history and the Spanish conquest as told by our knowledgeable guide Alejandro.
The site has been populated since 2,500 B.C. The Aztecs settled Tlatelolco in 1325, coming down from the north (some anthropologists believe they originated in what is now California, Nevada or New Mexico). According to prophecy, they wandered in search of a sacred site to establish a great empire. They would know it when they saw an eagle in flight with a snake in it’s mouth. The prophecy was realized and the symbol later became Mexico’s identity (along with the Virgin of Guadalupe!)
Here, they built a major city on a floating island surrounded by lakes. The island was connected by wide causeways oriented to the four cardinal points. Today, Xochimilco is the city’s only remains of island agriculture. (The decision was made to start draining the lakes in the 17th century. Modern Mexico City sits atop this landfill, prone to flooding, poor drainage and mosquitos.) Temples were built on this holy ground, one on top of another every 52 years to mark a political transition, forming a pyramid. The city’s major market was here, too.
When the Spanish arrived soon after landing in Veracruz in 1521, they marveled at the engineering, the magnificent structures, and wrote back to Spain that this was a city that rivaled Venice. The Spanish set out to conquer the Aztecs, but lost the first battles, outnumbered 1,000 to 50,000. Victory was only possible by forming alliances with the indigenous enemies of the Aztecs.
The monument at Tlatelolco speaks to the last heroic defense by Cuahtemoc against Hernan Cortes in 1523. To justify the conquest in the name of the new religion, Cortes ordered the destruction of the temples and used the volcanic rocks to build the first church in Mexico City here, Santiago de Tlatelolco. It is a haunting space, reminiscent to me of the interior of Rome’s Pantheon, austere, dark, mysterious, cavernous, raw, unadorned.
It also speaks to the painful birth of the Mestizo people that is Mexico today. Mestizo refers to that blend of Spanish, Native American, Asian and African heritage shared by most Mexicans today. (I recently finished reading Charles Mann’s 1493 and highly recommend it as an insight to global economics post-Cristobal Colon.)
The term Mestizo does not include Mexico’s 15% indigenous peoples who still are struggling to attain the rights of the majority: access to quality education and health care, and economic opportunity. About 64 indigenous languages are still spoken in Mexico today, making it one of the richest and and most varied cultures in the world.
The site is infamous for the Tlatlalco Massacre. In 1968, just before the start of the Olympic Games, peaceful demonstrators gathered here to protest as students were protesting around the world. The government sent in police and snipers in order to preserve an image to the world of an orderly city ready to host the Olympics. At the end of the day on October 2, the official count was 44 dead. However, about 700 people were missing and still have not been accounted for. A monument at the site pays tribute to their memory and the horror that happened here. Permanent graffiti on the church door reminds us that the church failed to provide sanctuary with a lockout.
When I settled on making Oaxaca my home seven years ago, I also realized that to know and love Oaxaca is to also know and love Mexico. That is why I write about this, too.