WE WENT DOWN to Mexico to see the eclipse, but we went a week earlier to see the sites. First we went to Mexico City, where we stayed in a hotel on the west side of the Zócalo. We dropped off our bags and headed out for a walk.
The Zócalo is a large square surrounded by great buildings: The Cathedral, one of the largest in the world, built over the ruins of an Aztec temple; the National Palace, home of the viceroys from the late 17th century until independence, and the formal center of government to this day: more government buildings to the south, newer but rich with arches, towers and ornaments of stone; commercial buildings, one includes our hotel, on the west, in a simpler elegance that befits the private sector. At the northeast corner of the square are the ruins of the Great Temple of the Aztecs, “discovered” in 1918 and now under excavation. To celebrate its completion in the late 15th century, 20-80,000 men were sacrificed in a non-stop ritual that lasted four days. Their hearts were ripped out and offerred to the gods, their bodies rolled down the steep pyramid and carted off to be cut up for stew.
To the east are cobblestone streets surrounded by stone buildings, some with massive wooden doors and beautiful interior courtyards. Benito Juárez lived in one of them when he was president. In the middle of one ancient street, instead of a place for cars, is a sunken area filled with plants, the remnants (I think) of an Aztec canal. Crude stalls fill the street, where people are selling all sorts of food and merchandise. This market is another remnant of Tenochtitlan (the Aztec name for their capital city); it has functioned pretty much continuously on pretty much this spot for well over 600 years.
I THINK IT WAS on this first walk that Camille made a statement that was to come to mind many times as I saw more of the city and later as I read some of its history: “The true judgment of a society is the quality of life of its poorest members.” For a very long lime, this city and the valley in which it. sits have been the home of the very rich and the very poor. The first people known to have come through here were nomadic mammoth hunters 10,000 years ago. They were probably a pretty egalitarian group who built neither pyramids nor cathedrals but hunted and foraged, camped a while by the lakes under the great volcanoes, then moved on, following the game. Millennia passed, game grew scarce, people relied more on vegetables arid grain, which they began to cultivate. Maybe about three thousand years ago they began to settle down into permanent communities. They organized the workforce; the great divisions began. Divisions of labor…divisions of status…divisions of power. There were already masters and slaves in the Valley of Mexico when a small warrior band settled on a small island in a big shallow lake, intent on conquest and dominion.
WE WENT TO TEOTIHUACAN with Camilo Garcia (you’ve probably seen Camilo…he played the bus driver in Romancing the Stone). The revolutionary practice of irrigation arose here about 2500 years ago. This greatly increased agricultural production, but it required a more elaborate social structure and the division of labor. A powerful theocracy flourished, along with the corn, squash and beans. The Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, among the largest in Mesoamerica, were completed around the time of Christ. At one time, 150,000 people lived here, in the first major city in the Americas. On the way we stopped to drink some pulque, the fermented juice of the maguay (agave), which is collected in a hole in the middle of the plant created by breaking off the flower spear of the plant. The liquid is collected daily for about three weeks, and it makes a sweet green drink a bit less alcoholic than beer. This was the only booze in Mexico before Cortes, and it continued to be the Indians’ main drink at least until the 1950’s. I suspect it is still found in the villages, but rare in the cities. At the Pyramids, before turning us loose to wander for a couple of hours while he took his siesta, Camilo told us about the site, its history and its restoration. From what I learned later, I think he was pretty accurate, but when 1 asked him if there had been human sacrifice in Teotihuacan, he said no; in reality, I think the archaeological evidence indicates that there was. I wonder if sacrifice is a sensitive subject to modern Mexicans, and if they feel a combination of revulsion and pride when they contemplate their fierce ancestors.
In The Aztecs Then and Now, Fernando Horcasitas tells of the annual sacrifice of the Tezcatlipoca stand-in. A fine young man with no abnormalities or blemishes is selected for the part, and for a year he is pampered and adored (but not allowed to grow fat). Even the high priest bows down to him if they meet in the street. After a year he is rowed out to the island temple of the Smoking Mirror, creator god and trickster, where his heart is ripped out by the priest. “And this betokens our life on earth,” a 16th century Aztec told the priest Sahagin. “He who rejoices, who possesses riches, who seeks and covets Our Lord’s sweetness and gentleness, riches and prosperity, thus ends in great misery.”
WE TOOK THE BUS to Morelia, capital of Michoacan. We rode through high green valleys surrounded by old volcanic mountains. Sometimes a town sat among the foothills, its colonial cathedral standing watch at the center. More often, we’d pass a small village, with laundry draped over the maguay to dry, flowers growing in pots on roofs and ledges, and goats tethered among the weeds. We passed rolling fields of corn, often enclosed by lava fences. Farmers plowed behind teams of oxen or horses or weeded the young corn with hoes…horse-drawn carts and wagons…a man riding a donkey, with cane crates hanging on each side. Morelia is a small old city; its authenticity seems little compromised by tourism or the other homogenizing forces of the modern world. This impression is not in the least disturbed by Down and Out in Beverly Hills, which is on TV where I sit with my tequila and look out at the plaza and cathedral. Michoacan is poised between the past and the present, at peace with each. It was always a place apart. The Tarascans who lived here before the conquest were never conquered by the Aztecs, spoke a language unrelated to any in Mesoamerica and, unlike any of the other people in the region, made metal tools. Today, an old style of life survives, and I am not sure it will be better for the underclass when it is overtaken by the present. It will be a sad day when the last field in Michoacan is plowed behind a team, when the cattle are all in feedlots and the farmers are all driving tractors for the corporation.
I HAD A VAGUE MEMORY of Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest natural lake, from when I visited in 1965. I think I remember sitting in a lake-front cafe, eating fish and watching the fishermen at work. But when we arrive in Chapala, nothing looks familiar. Old photos in the hotel show a stormy lake overflowing its banks and inundating the town, but now the lakeside cafes are closed, and the piers stretch out across a grassy field where horses and cattle graze and men play soccer. The shore is a mile away; you can hire a boat to take you to an island, but they take you to the boat in a pickup. At first we can’t figure it out, but we gradually get the picture: The river that feeds the lake has been diverted for irrigation. Guadalara pumps its drinking water from the lake, and the lake begins to die. Plans are underway to restore the lake, and it is supposed to regain its normal level in ten years. In the meantime the town of Chapala retains much of its former charm. Along the main street, menus are in English as well as Spanish, and American retirees sit in the cafes morning and night, retired cheaply and well in Mexico. A few blocks away are neighborhood stores and cantinas where English is probably not spoken or heard. Up the hill is a village with a cornfield and rugged pasture, and walking there one morning I saw a man milking in his large front yard, and neighbors coming with their cans for the day’s milk.
WE GOT INTO Guadalajara around noon on the tenth, and it was the sunniest it had been the whole trip. We walked around the beautiful plazas, cathedrals, grand old government buildings. In the Plaza de la Liberación we saw a great statue of Hidalgo rattling broken chains. In the Palacio del Gobierno there was a stunning mural by Orozco showing a fierce and shouting Hidalgo surrounded by old and new symbols of oppression, from demons to Nazis. The next morning was cloudy and unpromising. About 10:30 we left the hotel, intending to wander about town and watch the eclipse from one of the plazas, but a cab driver talked us in to letting him take us out of town, where it would be higher and clearer. We headed out to La Barranca de Oblatos and, we hoped, a patch of clear sky. We stopped at a little roadside park on the canyon rim. A concrete platform was built out over the rim, and on each side of it a waterfall plunged more than a thousand feet. Far below, a river wound between the foothills. The driver was Daniel Rodriguez Martinez. He told me that during Holy Week. many families camp in the canyon, and that one year he was invited. It was very beautiful but he didn’t like it because of snakes, scorpions, spiders and “chasters” – something like a big wild dog, but not a coyote or a wolf. Something with big fangs.
THROUGH OUR FILTERS we saw the moon begin to move in front of the sun. One hour to totality. It clouded up and we decided to head on down the road, toward a patch of blue. We stopped at a clearing over the river, where some people were selling fruit at a roadside stand. A bit of clear sky; the sun was about 80% covered. I invited a boy standing nearby to look through my filter. and he seemed happy to take a quick look. We walked a little off the road, down to a clearing where a small shed stood. There were chickens, ducks, two little pups and a boy and a girl. We glanced at the sun: I offered to let the boy look, hut he wouldn’t. Below there were fields of corn, and a couple of horses. “This is really a good life,” said Sr. Martinez. “The best in Mexico. It is poor but happy. the air is clear. Mexico’s greatest artists have come from this life. Perhaps that boy will be one. “My father came from this life…he was an Indian…” Here he pointed with one hand to the dark skin of the other arm. “In my country, many people are mixed, Indian and European. Many do not like their Indian part, but I am proud to have come from this life.” With about 10 minutes to go, the sky clouded over.
SUDDENLY IT DARKENED, like nightfall on fast-forward. In a minute or two, it was dark as a full moon night, but softer. An eerie, soft night. I don’t think the animals acted any different during the eclipse. Down the canyon it was still daylight. Then, for about two minutes, the clouds around the sun parted and we could see the fully eclipsed sun, its corona circling the black disc of the moon. The clouds covered the sun/moon once again, and then the shadow passed from us, and daylight returned as quickly as it had parted.