Reflections on Mexico City, Day 2: El Templo Mayor & el Palacio Nacional

The second day of the Tepeyac Cultural Studies Summer Institute took us to el Templo Mayor, el Palacio Nacional, and la Catedral metropolitana. At these sites, we saw the archeological and architectural evidence of the conquest and the various cultural negotiations that took place afterward. The murals of Diego Rivera show more contemporary visions of the ancient past. This day was packed, and I plan to unpack it more in future posts. What follows is an overview with a few reflections.

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I have been to el Museo del Templo Mayor at least five times. There is always something new that stands out, some new angle or dimension that makes me appreciate just how foundational the city of of Tenochtitlan was for all of the Americas. Some of the impressions that I gained this time at the Templo Mayor have to do with the orgins of the museum itself.
The Spanish did destroy the city, in the sense of dismantling its ceremonial centers. However, it is significant that they did not choose to rebuild the rest of the city elsewhere. The Spanish merely remade the city to the image of their own Medieval/Renaissance civilization. It is worth noting that the Spanish would admire the city of Cusco in the Andes, yet, they actually built a separate colonial port and capital city (Lima) on the Pacific coast. Similar cases abound throughout Spanish America (Santo Domingo, Santiago de Chile, St. Augustine, Porto Bello) in which colonizers chose not to use the existing indigenous infrastructure. However, Mexico-Tenochtitlan was a different kind of city, one that the Spanish wanted to control and use as an urban center in their own empire. As I gazed upon the various exposed layers of the demolished temples of Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, I could see how the Spanish used indigenous labor to re-purpose those same stones for the Cathedral, only a few hundred feet away.
This time, I had another realization. The Codex Osuna (1565) shows indigenous laborers building the earliest cathedral with stones from the pyramid of Huitzilopochtli. An image from the same codex is posted on a sign behind the cathedral…
These workers were most likely not Mexica. Their dress in Renaissance fashion suggest that they represented various groups from central Mexico who allied with the Spanish during the conquest of Mexico City. After the conquest, those same groups wore Spanish fashions and gained certain privileges from the Crown for a time, such as reduced tribute.  Prior to the Spanish conquest, they had been subjects of the Mexica and Triple Alliance (Mexico-Tacuba-Texcoco). Thus, the parents and grandparents of these workers had paid tribute to the Mexica in the form of victims for human sacrifice. Many different peoples came to Mexico-Tenochtitlan after the conquest to look for work, as we know from the Codex Osuna, the Anales de Juan Bautista (1574), and other indigenous texts from the period. Thus, it is a reasonable conjecture that even though they were building with materials from the temple of Huitzilopochtli, they were also tearing down a symbol of Mexica imperialism. David Carrasco in his pivotal study City of Sacrifice explains how this temple functioned both as a ritual and political center of power. As the peoples from other areas built the cathedral with the stones of the temples, they may have thought of their construction as an act of defiance of the old Mexica authority.

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The permanent exhibits of the Templo Mayor include the stone depicting the quartering of Coalxuahqui, the mythical mother of the war detiy Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, the god of rain and fertility. The Florentine Codex (1583) tells us that when her children sacrificed her, they tore her body into pieces, and those pieces became the moon and the stars. In the museum, this impressive representation of ancestral beliefs has many other incredible examples of the ancient past to accompany her: a statue of Mictlantecuhtili, and a Chac Mool heart sacrifice recipient stand out as prominent examples.
What Mexico has given to the world, with the construction of the Museum of the Templo Mayor, is a living record of the county’s own self-discovery. This scale model of the city shows the excavation sites of some of the most famous artifacts the world associated with Mexico. One of the first major archeological finds that encouraged the framers of Mexican nationalism to build an identity based on the indigenous past was the find of the Mexica Calendar Stone in 1790. While workers were leveling the street near the southeast corner of the Zócalo (the main plaza of Mexico City) they discovered the remarkable monolith. Other objects that emerged in the nineteenth century include the Coalxauhqui stone and the statue of the goddess Coatlicue. The accumulation of these artifacts soon exceeded the capacity of the universities in Mexico City to curate. As a consequence, the state sought new ways to care for and showcase the patrimony of the country, which just gained its independence from Spain in 1821. Academics and agencies of the young republic dug down into their own soil. They began to realize that its own culture was older and more complex than residents of the city had imagined during the  centuries of Spanish colonial administration.

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The first two museums that housed the rich collections of ancestral objects that archeologists unearthed during the nineteenth century were the Museum of el Templo Mayor, and later on the Museo de Antropoogía e Historia, to the west of el Zócalo in Capultepec Park. In 1913  Manuel Gamio began to supervise the excavation of el Templo Mayor, which led to the later construction of the museum.
The movement to house, curate, study, and display objects of historical value in Mexico came at the right time. The previous century was a notorious time for the theft of artifacts from archeological sites in Latin America and all over the world. Wealthy European travelers toured the recently independent countries of Latin America and pocketed objects from sites like Teotihuacan, the Mayan cities of Palenque and Chichen Itza, and the civilizations of the Andes. Museums helped to stem the flow of ancestral patrimony from Mexico and other countries in Latin America. The forgotten contributions of Manuel Gamio, and others like him played just as important a role in our knowledge of the ancestral past as do the objects on exhibit themselves.
Today excavations continue in downtown Mexico City, most notably of the Mexica’s famous tzompantli, the skull rack they used for impaling the crania of sacrificial victims. The Spanish chronicler, Bernal Díaz de Castillo, a soldier of Hernán Cortés, claimed that the tzompantli held thousands of skulls. For years, scholars have claimed that Díaz de Castillo exaggerated the numbers. However, recent excavations suggest that he was right (See video of excavations).
We went to el Palacio Nacional to take a closer look at the murals Diego Rivera painted there, especially those related to the conquest and to ancestral ages in the Valley of Mexico. His murals show a synthesis of all of the available research at the time he painted in the 1930s. They are impressive in their size and in their thematic breadth. I can picture Diego and Frida sitting in cafés in their artsy neighborhood of Coyoacán talking with professors, anthropologists and art collectors about the indigenous past. These conversations and their own readings inform the paintings. The paintings display great artistic skill, and communicate a certain vision of the past. in a separate blog post I will examine one in particular, the Disembarkment in Veracruz, which depicts the Spanish conquest.
There was so little time to adequately appreciate the Palacio Nacional. Within its walls are a series of quiet patios and gardens that made me forget I was in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world. It is also worth mentioning that the south end of the Palacio Nacional contains the apartments where the famous nun and savant Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a lady-in-waiting for the viceroy’s wife, before she joined the Geronomite order.
Seeing these sights brought the colonial era and the ancestral, indigenous past to life. When you walk on these well-worn stones, you step where native lords and warriors trod, you hear the urban hustle and bustle that even existed 500 years ago. You feel the rhythm of a place that has for over five centuries been one of the main cities of the Americas. The truth is that long before New York, Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo could claim their place in the Americas, Mexico City was the urban and cosmopolitan hub.
Next blog post will take us closer to the heart of cultural exchanges that have had enduring effects in Mexico and beyond: la Plaza de las tres culturas and the Basilica de Guadalupe…
(This trip to Mexico City was in cooperation with Tepeyac Cultural Studies, a group of scholars, artists, and writers who examine parallels between ancestral beliefs and Christianity, particularly with regard to Guadalupe. To learn more about the Tepeyac Cultural Studies 2018 Summer Institute, visit
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