Tenochtitlán: Mexico’s Buried Heart

By Isabel Del Toro Mijares


[dropcap]M[/dropcap]exico City seems to never catch its breath.

Its metro-lines swarm; trains coming in one after another like bullets, cars exploding with rushed commuters, the air-conditioning system broken, again. Its traffic is aggressive. Blaring horns and sharp turns, vehicles seem to almost elbow each other as they rush across avenues.

At the core of the pulsing metropolis sits the Zócalo, palpitating like a heart. The massive stone esplanade vibrates with all the life it holds. Its swarmed by food vendors and street performers and tourists and commuters rushing their way through the crowds.

Perched at the edge of the esplanade is the Metropolitan Cathedral. It is an imposing structure with bell-towers like guards, soaring domes topped with crosses, and a regalia of stone carvings of saints and kings. Its bricks speak of god and glory and monarchy.

And it sags. The entire structure sits lopsided, its foundations sinking into the earth.

Mexico City is built upon a lake. It’s a fact one doesn’t think about much until one notices the crooked buildings and streets, the way the old architecture tips, as if the stones that have held so much of the country’s history were about to collapse into one another.

One also doesn’t think about the fact that Mexico City is built on a mass grave. Below the restless life of the city lie the bones of an empire.

The Aztecs were once the most powerful force in Mesoamerica. Tenochtitlán, their capital, was testament to that. The sprawling metropolis of canals, temples, and palaces was once described as incomprehensible to the human mind. Or so said Hernán Cortés, the Spaniard who lay siege to the city in 1521. By the mid-16th century, he had buried it.

The Spaniards took apart the Aztec’s capital and used the decimated stones as the foundations of New Spain. They didn’t just want to conquer, they wanted to erase. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a Spaniard who chronicled the fall of Tenochtitlán, described that by the end of the siege “all [was] overthrown and lost, nothing left standing”.

In an interview with the National Institute of Anthropology, Dr. Eduardo Matos Moctezuma describes the founding myth of Tenochtitlán. The Aztecs believed their ancestral people had been exiled from an ancient homeland called Aztlan. Huitilopochtli, the god of Sun and War, had lead them on a journey to find a new homeland. He had instructed his people to build their new capital upon the place where his warrior heart had been buried. The place would be demarcated by the image of an eagle perched on a cactus. Huitzilopochtli’s heart lay in the middle of Lake Texcoco. But the Aztecs, caring little for the limits imposed by nature, engineered the great city of Tenochtitlán. At the very heart of their new metropolis, they built the Templo Mayor, their monument to Huitzilopochtli and his buried heart.

Today, the ruins of the Templo Mayor lie beneath the Metropolitan Cathedral, not due to chance. “I think the ideological war was more difficult for the Spanish than the physical war,” says Matos to the New York Times.

But there are places where this skeleton protrudes from its grave. Places where construction projects and earthquakes have ripped open the Earth, leaving exposed the old stones.

In Mexico City, history is not a tidy affair. Rather, it bursts from the ground, tears open the streets. One will be walking around the tight cobble-stone avenues that line the Zócalo, and suddenly the ground will give way to a dark pit of ancient bricks. Or, in the old mansions-turned-museums, the garden will host a conglomeration of ruins poking out amongst the plants. There is little warning to these areas. The colonial architecture stops abruptly before them, almost as if it is being interrupted by the vestiges of the city upon which it was built.

And in a way, it is. Tenochtitlán was built on a lake bed, and while the Aztec’s engineering accounted for that, the colonial architects did not, and neither does much of the design of the modern capital. Mexico City, which houses 8.8 million people, pumps its water from deep wells underground, causing shifts in the soft earth that makes up the foundations of the metropolis. The more the city grows, the more it shakes with itself.

“It’s like the vengeance of the gods,” says Matos. “The cathedral is falling and the monuments to the ancient gods are what’s causing it to fall”.

Behind the cathedral, a significant portion of the Templo Mayor has been excavated. It is the largest archeological project in the city. Here, the ground opens up like a mouth, and from it, rise the ancient structures, almost as if they ripped apart the earth themselves.

The reality is that in 1913, three years into Mexico’s revolutionary war, a group of construction workers stumbled upon the foundations of the temple while they were remodeling an old mansion. Archeologists descended upon the old stones, reconstructing the image of the Mexico’s past at a time when the country was hurtling into uncertainty.

And maybe that’s when Mexican history mattered the most. For, the Mexican revolution, among its many political goals, aimed to end the oppression of the agrarian workers and indigenous populations — an oppression that had been born during the days of the Spanish empire.

The 20th century had rolled into Mexico in the form of railroad tracks and European engineering, all orchestrated by Porfirio Díaz. Díaz ruled Mexico for around 30 years. He used white powder on his face to appear more like the European men who dandled into his parties looking for trade deals, which he was always happy to give. For Mexico was a growing country, and there simply was no time for the mine workers asphyxiating under exhaustion. Or the dark-skinned agrarian laborers who had not owned a piece of land of their own for centuries.

That didn’t mean Díaz rejected the entirety of Mexico’s indigenous past. On the contrary, Díaz flaunted Mexico as a country with a rich history and culture, unique, but never too different from the believed civility of Europe. At the 1889 Paris World Exhibition, Díaz’s government presented a design laced with Aztec architectural motifs that was known all over Paris as the Aztec Palace. While this constructed version of Aztec architecture was on display in the French capital, the real ruins of the Aztec palaces remained untouched beneath the Mexican one.

This play of cosmic irony was representative of the character of the Mexican state’s relationship with the pre-colonial past: It was constructed. In an analysis of pre-colonial symbolism in Mexican art, Fausto Ramiréz notes the “use of the prehispanic as a tool for national identity, officially promoted by the state both nationally and internationally”. The Mexican state often evoked the images of the glory of the pre-colonial civilizations, talking about their heroic feats, but never mentioning the violence of the conquest or the colony, and disregarding the struggles of its marginalized populations. Mexico embraced the might of the narratives of its pre-colonial past, but rejected the role and hardships of the indigenous communities in its present day.

The Mexican Revolution deposed Díaz in 1911. In ideology, the Mexican Revolution proclaimed a national identity based on the country’s work force and indigenous tradition. It proclaimed a rejection of the choking grasp of Western dominance, economically and culturally. Finding the Aztecs remains in 1913 had seemed almost prophetic.

The archeologists running the excavations knew the complex extended beyond the property of the mansion where they had begun their dig. But their requests to expand their project were denied. Eventually, so were the demands for land redistribution of the Mexican workers. The excavation project rescinded into the background of a busy country trying to modernize its economy while instituting educational reforms and consolidating its government.

When Mexico country was hosting the Olympics  in 1968, the capital had been bustling for more than a year with architects and designers constructing a powerful image of Mexico. This was a country poised for growth, a country with a strong sense of its history and culture ready to bloom into the world.

On the dawn of October 2nd, 10 days before the Olympics, the Mexican military fired at a mass of protesting students in Tlatelolco plaza. The number of disappeared and dead individuals is still unknown, the government tucked it away quietly, hiding it behind the uproar of the Olympics. But there are eyewitness accounts of the incident. In her book, The Night of Tlatelolco: Real Life Testimonies, Elena Poniatowska compiles panic-ridden snippets of students and journalists detained in the plaza. They describe the plaza as hell exploding with the sound of rifles. In the backdrop of it all, Poniatowska describes a set of Aztec ruins.

In 1965, three years before the massacre, an archeological team lead by Eduardo Contreras Sánchez, had worked to uncover the temple of Ehecatl, the Aztec god of wind. Surrounding the temple were 50 thousand Aztec graves, which Contreras and his team unearthed. At the end of their efforts, the archeologists recorded two tons worth of artifacts among the bones of the dead.

The memory of the victims of the Tlatelolco massacre was laid to rest alongside the ruins. As the world turned to celebrate the Olympics, the mothers of the victims would walk the city streets, trying to piece together what had happened to their children.

A decade later, in 1978, Mexico City looked to expand its power lines. The country was a year into its oil boom. Workers from the National Electricity Commission were digging up the soft earth to install a power-generator when they stumbled upon an Aztec monolith. In a couple of hours, every major archeologist in the city was around the site. The then Mexican President, José López Portillo, ordered a full excavation of the ruins from his office in the National Palace, just meters away from the site.

Dr. Matos was placed in charge of the excavations. Him and his team were granted 90,000 sq.ft. of space for their project, to uncover most of the ruins, but the space left them frustrated. “If we were allowed to keep on looking, we’d probably finish up knocking down all the center of Mexico City,” Matos described in 1978.

Part of what makes Mexico City such an interesting archeological site is how many layers lie beneath its surface. The Aztecs rebuilt their temples and palaces multiple times. When the Spaniards came, the conquistadores used the bricks from the destroyed temples to build their own buildings. And as the colony turned into an empire and then a republic, the capital continued revising and burying past versions of itself.

The Urban Archeology Project (PAU, by its Spanish acronym) aims to bring all these different cities to life, to place them side by side so that history can be appreciated in the rush of modern life. In addition to unearthing the ruins of the Aztec structures, PAU must think about the preservation of the colonial and early-republic buildings, and how best to balance the different layers of time in the surface. “It is like a book that we are trying to read from the surface to the deepest point,” Raúl Barrera, who currently heads the excavations, describes.

And it’s a difficult book to read. For roughly 500 years, Mexico City has been trying to forget its past. New Spain tried to bury the Aztecs, and Díaz’s Mexico tried to bury the vestiges of New Spain’s stratifications. And revolutionary Mexico tried to bury the abuses of Díaz, and Olympic Mexico tried to bury the abuses of Tlatelolco, and in many ways current Mexico continues to try to bury itself. To simply build upon a leveled landscape, instead of trying to recognize the wounds that have troubled the country for centuries.

Matos Moctezuma describes that the mythic story is just as important as the real one, for, “The historic reality is transformed by the people, for they give the facts their importance”. The archeologist was referring to the blurriness of reality and legend in the Aztec records, but his words hold relevance in the streets of modern Mexico. The country has tried to bury its skeletons over and over again, but its history refuses to tuck itself to sleep or recede gently into time. Instead, it’s stark, and challenging and very much alive. It’s Aztec artifacts amidst metro lines and the bodies of students curled up beside the ruins of fallen empires. It’s the indigenous men who dance through clouds of incense in the shadow of the Metropolitan Cathedral, offering tourists spiritual cleansing ceremonies for 20 pesos, a photo with them for 10. It’s the gaping Templo Mayor ruins that soak up the sun that was denied to them for centuries. In this context, unearthing Tenochtitlán takes on more than just an archeological meaning. The buried stones bring forth a reckoning and reconciliation with the violence that has marked Mexico’s past, a growing change in the country’s historical reality.

The excavation site was turned into a museum in the 1980s, and one can wander among the ruins. If one stands in the very center of them and looks up, the colonial buildings seem to sag into the excavation site, as if they were tired and something was dragging them down. The temple stones are a deep red and hot to the touch, almost as if beneath them lay the beating heart of a warrior god.


Isabel Del Toro Mijares ’20 is a History major in Pauli Murray College. Contact her at isabel.deltoromijares@yale.edu.