Monday, June 16, 2008

Mesoamerica Cultures and Mexico – the Most Populated Spanish Speaking Nation

Last time, we talked about Inca civilization and our recent visit to Peru. Given the common root of the Indigenous Americans (from Eurasia), I just can’t help but recalling and comparing what we experienced in Peru with those in and around Mexico City last August as well as in earlier visits of other parts of Mexico like Cancun, Cozumel and famous archaeological sites Tulum and Chichen Itza.

For many Americans today, the stereotypical Mexicans are associated with, on one hand, the extremely hardworking immigrants including those who crossed the border to enter U.S. illegally, as well as, on the other hand, reported illegal drug gangs, crimes, and corruptions in parts of that country. My own impression of Mexicans when I grew up in Taiwan were formed mostly from watching movies like the 1966 classic Buono, il brutto, il cattivo, Il (aka The Good, the Bad and the Ugly that made Clint Eastwood a superstar) and John Wayne’s The Alamo.

Mexico has also been quite popular for its convenient tourist-filled border towns like Tijuana next to San Diego, and beach resorts in places like Cancun, Cozumel and Acapulco especially among young American students during school Spring breaks. It seems odd however that given its proximity, size, long relation and partially shared history and economy with U.S., majority of us don’t seem to know too much about its rich cultures and long history of Olmec, Teotihuacan, Maya, and Aztec. We don’t seem to pay enough attention to many of the cultural treasures and historical sites like Chichen Izza and Tulum that were built by Mayans long before Spanish conquerors landed. Note unlike Aztec and Inca Empires (centered at Tenochtitlan and Cusco, respectively), it did take Spanish almost 200 years to control substantial parts of Maya lands largely due to its distributed city-state structures.

A decade ago, we visited Chichen Itza that is now one of the newly elected 7 wonders of the world, located in Yucatan peninsula about 150 miles west of Cancun. Chichen Itza was a major Mayan regional center for hundreds of years (est. 600-1,000 AD) and its Mayan name means "At the mouth of the well of the Itza." Some theory suggest that it was established by a group of people who left Teotihuacan (near Mexico City that we will discuss later in this blog). This magical site is one of few places where you can get a glimpse of the mystic, sophisticated and advanced Mayan civilization dated several thousands of years back.

Chichen Itza was one of the most important Maya cities of northern lowlands in Yucatan in Postclassic period (10th – early 16th century). The most famous structure of Chichen Itza is no doubt El Castillo, aka the Temple of Kulkukan (for the Feathered Serpent or creator god). The choice of Kulkukan is by no means an accident: it is identified with planet Venus whose appearances are used by Mayan to predict the future including warfare!

On the Spring and Fall equinox, we were told that, thousands of visitors come to witness the spectacular shadow of crawling feathered serpent down the sides of the pyramid at the rising and setting of the sun. From that and other records (in written language of Mayan – the only known fully developed language of pre-Columbian Americas), one can infer how advanced Mayans were in astronomy and mathematics. Indeed, it is known that Mayan had a more accurate calendar than Western world's!

To experience a fuller spectrum of the Mexican cultures and history, it is certainly most convenient by paying a visit to Mexico City, the capitol of Mexico and one of the most populated metropolitan areas on earth – a whopping 20 millions! One of the must-see archaeological sites is Teotihuacan that is located about 25 miles northeast of the city. While it is known that Teotihuacan reached its peak more than 1,500 years ago, there is still no consensus of who actually first established Teotihuacan although Totonac people have long claimed to be the founder of that city. One thing we do know however is that it had declined and was abandoned mysteriously in 6th century, considering it was larger than any European city of the same era! The most credible theory and evidences point to the severe drought and famine resulting from the extreme weather events of 535-536. Centuries later, Nahuatl speaking Aztec people found its capital in Tenochtitlan (today’s Mexico City), "reused" the abandoned temples for their own Sun God and Moon God instead, and gave the site the Aztec name Teotihuacan.

By now, you can probably guess how critical and important water was to pre-Columbia civilizations in Mexico. Unlike the Andes highlands of Peru, you will find temples of Rain God in many places here. Tenochtitlan, the capital of Aztec at approximately 2,200 meters above sea level, was a magnificent artificial island built around an islet of Lake Texcoco (that you can no longer see) with interconnecting canals of Chinampa farming technique. One can still imagine just how grand it was by visiting and taking a boat ride (photo at right) of these beautiful working “floating gardens” at the Xochimilco district in the southern part of the city.

Aztec Empire crumbled in 1521 when Herman Cortes led the Spanish conquerors and some indigenous allies to defeat it and killed its king. Cortes founded the Mexico City on top of the ruined Aztec capital Tenochtitlan whose name was lost in memory by most.

Fast forwarded 400 years to the early 20th century Mexico, we were met by arguably the most famous citizens and biggest attraction in its modern history - the extraordinary Mexican artists couple Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Posters all over the city reminded us the centennial celebration of Frida’s birth. Although we missed the centennial exhibit of her work in Mexico City, we were lucky enough to catch it 6 months later at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

There have been numerous books, films, and articles on both of Diego and Frida, including a wonderful 2002 biographic movies Frida where the talented look-alike Mexican actress Salma Hayek played Frida (and almost won a Oscar for it). I don’t need to repeat the tidbits and trivia such as her deformity of her right leg and foot due to polio at age 5; her severe lifelong lasting pains and over 30 surgeires after multiple injuries she suffered, including a broken spinal column, from a bus ride at age 17; and that she married the womanizing 21-years older Diego over her parents’ initial objection. Their fiery love and the turbulent marriage with each other (and affairs) is legendary. They married each other twice; the first time in 1929 when Frida was 22 and Diego was 41. They remarried again in 1940 after their long separation and final divorce only one year earlier. According to unconfirmed stories, Diego ate some of her ashes after Frida was cremated; that is "madly in love"!

To really appreciate their life, you must see at least the following three places when in Mexico City: 1)La Casa Azul (The Blue House) in Coyoacán district: Frida’s birth and death place and home for most of her life. Walking in this house that her father built, you can feel the unconditional love and support of her parents for her throughout her life. The mirror above her bed reminds the visitors her unyielding will to paint. You will also find her ashes (with few ounces missing?) in a pre-Columbian urn in next room, 2) Museo casa estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo in San Angel district: built by Mexican architect Juan O’Gorman in 1931. The red house-studio of Diego’s and the blue house-studio of Frida’s are connected with a foot bridge on top floor that leads to Frida’s kitchen by stairs. You can picture Frida climb stairs with spinal pain, dragging her crippled legs along from her kitchen to deliver meals she cooked to Diego. 3) Museo Dolores Olmedo Patino, a lovely property in Xochimilco district that has a beautiful garden and collection of their work. Some lesser known early work and paintings other than murals of Diego Rivera can be seen here where his talent is evident as he traveled and spent nearly 15 years as a young artist in European cities such as Madrid, Paris, and experimented in various styles of the time from cubism to post-impressionism. The dedicated room of Frida Kahlo’s work is overwhelming as Frida silently screamed out to the visitors through her expressions of pain and suffering in many self-portraits with vibrant indigenous Mexico colors.

While Frida and Diego are most celebrated painters of Mexico, equally or more importantly they are an integral part of the modern Mexico social political history. In the backdrops of Mexican revolution of 1910 and the Oct 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, they both shared radical social-political ideals and were active in union movements and Communist Party as one could expect. When Diego Rivera returned to Mexico from Europe in 1921, he began to participate in the government sponsored mural programs. He created his own style of murals that tell history of Mexico society and revolutions in bold native Mexican colors and spirit – that set him apart from all the rest. You can see his most important murals at a number of places including the National Palace in Mexico City and some museums in U.S. You should try to pick out Marx, Lenin and Rockefeller from the photo of one of his murals at the right that clearly reflects his social-political views.

Frida Kahlo died on July 13, 1954 at age 47 and Diego Rivera died few years later on Nov 24, 1957 at age 71.

Below let me share with you our itinerary and highlights of our 6 days Mexico City trip taken last summer:

Tues, Aug 21, 2007: flew to Mexico City and checked into Hotel Maria Cristina, a neat Mexican hotel in a quite neighborhood right next to the bustling Zona Rosa district. Walked to a highly recommended restaurant in Zona Rosa to have a taste of the authentic and diverse Mexican regional cuisines (no, no tex-mex!). After dinner, strolled along streets of touristy Zona Rosa.
Weds, Aug 22, 2007: In the morning, visited Zocalo in the Centrao Historico area where the major historical sites of Mexico such as Cathedral Metropolitana, Palacio Nacional, and Templo Mayor can be seen at this huge square. Toured the Palacio Nacional to see Diego Rivera’s famous murals of Mexico history. In the afternoon, visited Museo Nacional de Antropologia, the largest of its kind in the world. It has an impressive collection of pre-columbia artifacts and is a nice way to see records of Mexican cultures. The most famous collection here is probably the “Aztec Sun Stone” or “Aztec Calendar” from 1479 CE, see photo at the right. Another fascinating item is a Mayan jade mask and dress for the deceased royal that reminds me of the jade suits 金縷衣discovered from a tomb in Chinese Han dynasty 2000 years ago.
Thurs, Aug 23, 2007: visited Coyoacan – Museo de Frida Kahlo, Museo de Leon Trotsky, then “floating gardens” and Museo Dolores Olmedo Patino of Xochimilco
Fri., Aug 24, 2007: visited the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Pyramids of Teotihuacan and Antigua Basilica of Guadalupe
Sat,. Aug 25, 2007: visited the Saturday Bazar Sabado at Plaza San Jacinto and Museo casa estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo
Mon., Aug 26, 2007: flew back to US

In closing, not to be overdone by its Peruvians/Inca neighbors, here is the most popular and beautiful Mexican song Besame Mucho, written in 1940 by Consuelo Velázquez before her 16th birthday and performed by Carlos Julio Ramirez. Also included is the lyric and one of its English translations. Enjoy and talk to you soon!

Besame Mucho (in Spanish by Consuelo Velazquez)

Bésame, bésame mucho
Como si fuera esta noche la última vez

Bésame mucho
Que tengo miedo perderte, perderte otra vez

Quiero tenerte muy
Cerca, mirarme en tus
Ojos, verte junto a mí
Piensa que tal vez
Mañana yo ya estaré
Lejos, muy lejos de ti

Bésame, bésame mucho
Como si fuera esta noche la última vez

Bésame mucho
Que tengo miedo perderte, perderte después

Kiss Me A Lot (English Translation by Valentin Anders)

Kiss me, kiss me a lot
As if tonight was the last time.

Kiss me, kiss me a lot,
Because I fear to lose you,
To lose you again.

I want to have you very close
To see myself in your eyes,
To see you next to me,
Think that perhaps tomorrow
I already will be far,
very far from you.

Kiss me, kiss me a lot,
As if tonight was the last time.

Kiss me, kiss me a lot,
Because I fear to lose you,
To lose you later.

1 comment:

anna wang said...

This is enlightening! I may visit Mexico city myself after reading your article. I didn't realize that the city is so full of such colorful culture heritage. Thanks a lot.