Thursday, September 06, 2007

Highly Civilised

As I have mentioned, TOH and I could not but help divert ourselves by heading into the centre of Mexico City to pass the eight hours between flights.

It was so very quiet, and we managed to eat a lovely breakfast overlooking the Z������calo, the huge plaza near the cathedral, department of justice and, fortunately for us, the Templo Mayor. This was the centre of the Aztec civilisation, and was the high temple in Tenochtitl������n, its capital. It was the most sacred place in all of the Aztec empire.

What really struck me was that, comparatively, it wasn't that old. The White Tower, in the Tower of London, is nearly 1000 years old, so a good four hundred years older than the original templo. It survived the Blitz, the Great Fire of London, everything that could be thrown at it. It just sits there, white and "crumbly" (as a friend's daughter once memorably said). But what that has that the Templo Mayor doesn't is a sense of continuity. My friend Xopo comments regularly on the inability of Anglos - US and otherwise - to comprehend that the Mexican identity is NOT that of the Spanish conquistadores, not a Spanish-speaking monolith, but is a wonderful, polyglot mixture of indigenous and colonial peoples. I don't therefore want to offend or simplify matters with my lack of understanding. Nonetheless, it felt strange to be walking around the remainder of a civilisation that, it seemed to me, had been crushed; that was disconnected to the modern Mexican culture. It seemed incredibly symbolic that the Cathedral had just lain over the top of this most sacred place in the previous culture. The juxtaposition between the excavated site and being surrounded by a Christian Cathedral, the colonial architecture, was striking.

On the other hand, the White Tower was built by our own "conquistadores," the Normans. So it was really a symbol, like the Cathedral, of victory and destruction of a previous way of life.

What was genuinely fantastic, aside from all this, was seeing the artefacts from the Aztec exhibition that I saw at both the Royal Academy and the Guggenheim in the place whence they came. Unexpected pleasure and extremely wonderful one, at that.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful post. I was never shown the White Tower when I visited London, which makes me angry since I have no idea when on earth I'll ever be able to pay a ticket to your neck of the woods again. Just as long as it doesn't crumble over the next five years.
I don't think you oversimplify at all. I think there is something shocking and quite definite about how Catedral was built over Templo Mayor, and what you perceive as a disconnect is a crucial part of the troubled Mexican identity as some would call it. Catedral and the conquista did manage to crush an until then thriving culture which modern Mexicans strive to recover. And so, that disconnect is part of the continuity in a way. Sometimes for good reasons we try to rescue that supposedly lost identity, but all too often we do this under the illusion that there's a "true" Mexican identity waiting to surface which we have never been able to retrieve. Octavio Paz has two wonderful and interesting essays about these contradictions: 'La tradicion de la ruptura' and 'Los hijos del limo.'
I still think that despite these wanderings through history we are a mix of many things to the extent that almost every culture in the west is, no matter how homogeneous they believe they are. Remnants of Mexica and other cultures survive in different ways in the food, language, and morals and manners (i.e. some historians and anthropologists argue that servitude is something we inherited from a strongly hierarchical Mexica culture not from being colonized as one would think, not that colonialism helped). It's great to see something that I've seen all my life through your eyes. You've made me think about this twice .
Just for the record: I don't think Anglos and USers are unable to understand Mexican culture, I believe we are all able to understand each other, that's why it's frustrating when you see people who don't care to understand.
Great pictures too!

missygp said...

Sorry, having referenced you about the laziness of assumptions of Mexican culture, I then made a lazy reference to your viewpoint. I meant that the media and hatemongering anti-immigrant patrols, as well as well-meaning liberals, make huge assumptions about both a) American culture (and American in the real sense of the word) and b) Mexican culture. And you have been instrumental in my education and widening of viewpoint on this, for which I am eternally grateful!