How come the Greeks and Romans have sucked up all the historic oxygen for centuries? How about a spotlight on equally interesting and advanced civilizations, like the Aztec (Mexica) and the Maya in Mexico, for example.
Look in any direction in Mexico, and you’ll find the remains of civilizations almost as advanced as those in Egypt or Greece and far moreso than those in North America. From Paquime in the north of Mexico, which is the closest–and more impressive–relative to our Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon peoples, to the Maya in the south with their hundreds of ruins dotting the Yucutan, to the Aztecs in the middle, plus lots of others we rarely hear about, Mexico is no slouch when it comes to culture.
I didn’t fully appreciate the depth and breadth of Mexico’s past until I went to the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. I thought it would be a ho-hum day, but the place blew me away.
The museum is fabulous. Not only has it collected the finest pieces from the many peoples that inhabited the country for thousands of years–the first skillful ceramic pieces were made as early as 2300 B.C.–but it attempts to interpret those civilizations and put them in some chronology and historic perspective.
The effect is overwhelming. I went through hall after hall, knocked out by the quality of the ceramics, the stonework, the jewelry, some of it delicate and whimsical, some huge and intricate and all of it made without metal tools, pack animals, or the wheel, as one guide told me. The museum is so large and so full of amazing pieces that in a full day, I barely made it through the main halls. I was left with a deep respect and appreciation for the heritage of the people I saw on the street every day, who still work hard and who still make by hand a dazzling variety of artesanal stuff.
A lot of indigenous people came and went on the Mexican stage, some of whom left an exquisite and unique heritage. Many of those groups disappeared before the Spanish ever arrived–the Olmec people on the Gulf Coast who left those huge, Oriental-looking stone heads, for example, or the people who built the pyramids at Teotihuacan near Mexico City or Monte Alban near Oaxaca. But millions of descendants of those indigenous people still survive; they still speak their languages; still have unique customs, dress, and cuisine; and they are still making beautiful things.
I began to realize that what I saw on the streets–everywhere–the constant making of things by hand, was embedded in these people’s DNA. They have been making things a mano for thousands of years.
Granted, a lot is of it is haphazardly made, but the sheer quantity is staggering. Stalls and markets heaped to overflowing with hand-embroidered blouses and hand-woven ponchos, hats, leather, textiles, rugs become numbing. Later, however, you realize that each of those bark paintings that are piled up everywhere and hawked in every street corner in Oaxaca, for example, were hand-painted by fathers, sons, and grandparents every night after work or school for a tiny bit of economic gain, and maybe because this is what this people has always done.
Make no mistake: There are still museum-quality treasures for sale in markets and shops. I saw them.
The Spanish conquistadores didn’t stop to appreciate the civilizations they encountered, which were perhaps more advanced than their own. Cortes wasn’t interested in fabulous ceramics or stonework. He wanted gold and was anxious to destroy, convert, and exploit the civilizations he encountered to furthur that quest. Cortes and Montezuma met for the first time on the causeway to the sacred city of Tenochtitlan, which is now Mexico City, on November 8, 1519. On August 13, 1521, the city fell and the history of the Aztecs ended. Many Mayan cities were conquered several years later. Writer and politican, Jaime Torres Bodet wrote that the Spanish conquest, “was neither triumph nor defeat; it was the painful birth of the Mestizo nation that is Mexico today.”
Painful indeed, and the indigenous struggle continues to be painful.
What I don’t get is why Mexico today is often stereotyped as an uncultured backwater, playing a distant second-fiddle to its northern Big Brother. What I saw in the museum was not one, but many distinct and highly developed civilizations, all of which contributed richly to the story of humankind. This contribution deserves a lot more study and respect.