Reflections on Mexico City, Day 1: Teotihuacan

Mexico City was just as amazing as I have always found it. Since 2000 it has been my favorite city, as well as the backdrop for many of my best memories and years of self-discovery.
This tour was in cooperation with Tepeyac Cultural Studies, an organization of academics, artists, musicians and writers who examine parallels between ancestral indigenous beliefs and Christianity, particularly with regard to Guadalupe. There were 14 participants in the tour. They ranged in age from 8 and 9 (my sons) to over 50. Everyone on the tour came face-to-face with many sides of Mexico that they had never seen, and everyone walked away transformed.
We were there from June 24-29. Here was our line up: Day One: Teotihuacan; Day Two: El Templo Mayor, El Palacio Nacional; Day Three: La Plaza de las tres culturas, El Colegio de la Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, the Basilica de Guadalupe, and Xochimilco. These places provide the organization for the reflections in this series of blog posts, in which I share my impressions of these places and our moments there.

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25 June, Teotihuacan:
When I first came here, eighteen years ago, I went with UC-Mexus, a study abroad program through the University of California. What I noticed then and now was how the tour guides all seemed to repeat much of the same introductory information. Over the years, as I have continued to study, I have learned that indeed we are still stuck with superficial information about this ancient Mesoamerican metropolis. However, over the past 10 years, the ground, the walls, and the sky have begun to yield more information than ever about the ancient civilization that flourished there.
In 2016, Mexican archeologist Sergio Gómez Chávez, working in cooperation with the INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia) and Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, discovered and mapped a tunnel several hundred feet long, which runs from near the foot of the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent to directly under the Pyramid of the Sun. Using a specially-designed robot, equipped with miniature tractor treads and a high-resolution sonar camera, they have been able to map the passage, which in many sections is full of dust and debris. The robot cruises along on top of the debris, which archeologists are in the process of removing slowly. They carefully catalogue the thousands of artifacts that speak volumes about the workers who built the tunnel and the ritual specialists who used its ceremonial areas.
While archeologists expected to find tombs of interred nobles there, similarly to the Egyptian pyramids of Giza, what they discovered was that the tunnel connects two ceremonial centers. Each of the centers is directly under one of the pyramids, of the Feathered Serpent and of the Sun, respectively. From above, each of the ceremonial areas resembles a blooming flower of four petals. The number five is sacred to Mesoamericans: the four outer elements correspond with the four cardinal directions. The fifth element of the figure is the sacred center. Each of the ceremonial centers was filled with water. Keeping in mind the sacred character of caves and water to Mesoamericans, especially with regards to their creation myths, the excavated caves show cultural continuity between the sacred architecture of the Mayan zone, Tollan, and later sites, such as Tenochtitlan, the home of the Mexica (Aztecs). These master builders raised up a city with a cosmic design: on the days of the Fall and Spring Equinoxes, the tunnel between the two pyramids lines up with the constellation of the Pleiades.
Under this tent is the entrance to the tunnel, which connects the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent with the Pyramid of the Sun. Excavation is under the supervision of Sergio Gómez Chávez and the INAH.
The architectural feats of the builders of Teotihuacan long laid buried, forgotten even to later indigenous groups who came through the area after the 11th-century demise of the Teotihuacan civilization.
In the early part of the thirteenth century, the Mexica came through Teotihuacan as they wandered toward their eventual home on an island in Lake Texcoco. When the Mexica first saw Teotihuacan, it was a complex of large earthen mounds. They saw pyramids, but those structures were covered with dirt and plants. Since they were only a small band, they could not excavate. In fact, a point that really came home for me during this trip was that the excavation of Teotihuacan did not really begin until the nineteenth century, more than seven hundred years after the Mexica first laid eyes on it. The lateness of that excavation means that we moderns know more and can see more about the ancient city than did even the Mexica, and the Mexicans of the early nineteenth century. Again, the recent nature of the excavation means that two powerful governments came and gained inspiration for their peoples´ identities, based not an an excavated site, but on a collection of buried structures.
Teotihuacan stands, therefore, as a testimony to the engineering and architectural genius of the civilization that called it home. It also  reminds us of the ability of the unknown to inspire our imaginations. In an age before mass communications, both the Mexica and the Mexican government of the nineteenth century found a source of identity and inspiration in Teotihuacan, with cultural effects that extended thousands of miles from the site.
Teotihuacan inspired people who had never even seen it. The first natives who looked upon it and imitated it when they built Tenochtitlan, based their designs on, great mounds of earth that disrupted the local geography. The city continues to inspire. As one trip participant on commented, “Teotihuacan is every bit as impressive as the ruins of Greece and Rome.” The good news for us in the Americas is that the awe, beauty, and mystery of Teotihuacan are not oceans away, but less than a day’s journey. From my home in Southern California, I could eat breakfast in L.A. and lunch in Teotihucan, even with the traffic of L.A. and Mexico City in between!
Next blog entry… El Templo Mayor
(To learn more about the Tepeyac Cultural Studies 2018 Summer Institute, visit ).
In the Museum of Teotihuacan, the following excerpt from the Florentine Codex recalls what the Mexica traditionally believed about Teotihuacan: “And all of the people made shrines to the Sun and to the Moon, / and afterwards they made many smaller shrines. There they held their worship / and there they established the high priests of all the people. / Thus it was called Teotihuacan, / because when the lords died, there they interred them. / Then on top of them, they built pyramids that are still there now” (My translation).


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