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By: Elvis Jocol Lara
Our Director of Digital Media is in Mexico City for the NBA Global Games featuring the Boston Celtics. While there he’ll be providing behind the scenes coverage of the game and the best Mexico City has to offer. Follow his travel blog on ElMundoBoston.com and on the El Mundo Boston Facebook, Instagram (@elmundoboston), Snapchat (elmundoboston), and Twitter (@ElChapin)
Our first full day in Mexico City was a busy one. We hopped on a tour from our hotel in the city’s historic center and headed for Plaza Garibaldi, La Plaza de las Tres Culturas, La Basilica de la Virgen de Guadalupe and Teotihuacán.
Coming to Mexico City I expected to see a fusion of Spanish and Indigenous in the modern day city and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Having visited Guatemala City several times before, this is somethings I’m used to and enjoy. There is undeniable beauty in seeing our indigenous heritage reflected in our contemporary cities despite colonial Spanish attempts to destroy it and the far reach and influence of western culture. What really sets Mexico City apart, however, is that it is actually built on top of the former capital city of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlan. The Spanish were intent on destroying Aztec culture and civilization and imposing their own. Those wounds from centuries ago are evident even today and can be seen across Mexico City at some of the city’s most beloved sites.
One can’t help but notice and marvel at the contentious relationship between the many influences that have created today’s modern day city.
Take the Basilica de la Virgen de Guadalupe for instance, one of the holiest sites in all of Latin America that draws over 20 million tourists each year. The majority of Latinos claim Catholicism as their religion and the events that transpired here in 1531 are a major reason for it.
If you are unfamiliar with the story, the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared nearby to Juan Diego, an indigenous man and recent convert, on four occasions. The purpose of her apparition was to instruct Diego to request that the bishop erect a chapel in her honor so that she might relieve the distress of all those who call on her in need. On the final occasion, she left an imprint of her image on the mantle Juan Diego was wearing.
That mantle is today on display at the new Basilica (erected in the 1970’s after structural issues in the original). For believers, the site is an important part of their faith. In Mexico, and increasingly beyond, there are segments of Catholics that are primarily devoted to the Virgen de Guadalupe. For the indigenous and new generation of mestizos, her apparition marked a turning point in a violent and combative relationship with Catholicism which was imposed on them by the Spanish. The Virgen was not an imposing, European force; she was one of them.
Over the Centuries, Latinos have either forgotten or never learned the history of how our indigenous ancestors became devoutly Catholic. Today, Indigenous, mestizo and European peacefully coexist at the Basilica which holds six different churches, a major plaza, and even a statue of Pope John Paul II who made Juan Diego the first Indigenous Roman Catholic Saint on his fifth and final visit to Mexico.
The site is truly amazing to behold but dig beneath the surface, and you’ll learn that the six churches were erected over Aztec pyramids in an attempt to destroy their religion and impose Catholicism. In the old Basilica, a statue of Juan Diego honors the indigenous man who answered the call of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Yet, his physical features are undeniably European and resemble those of Julius Caesar much more than that of an indigenous man.
Across town, La Plaza de las Tres Culturas captures the relationship between colonial Spanish, Aztec and the modern city better than anywhere else. The plaza rests on a former Aztec ceremonial site which was unearthed in the 1950’s as Mexico City was building its extensive subway system.
The site was destroyed by Hernan Cortez during the Spanish conquest and the very stones used by the Aztecs were used by Cortez to build a Roman Catholic Church that overlooks the ruins, symbolically proclaiming its superiority over the natives.
Today, the two sites coexist as a site for tourists to contemplate the great Aztec empire and the Spanish conquest while the bustling metropolis goes on about daily life around it. Together, these three components make up the three cultures of Mexico City: the Aztec, the Spanish and the modern.
It’s important for Latinos to recognize and remember that our indigenous ancestors were far more evolved and advanced than Eurocentric history books have given them credit for. It is true that these cultures held traditions that we today would find inhumane, such as human sacrifice and employing slave labor, but it is also true that they accomplished great feats in the space of engineering, math and astronomy. Our final destination of the day, Teotihuacán, left no doubt about this.
About an hour north of Mexico City, Teotihuacán is without a doubt one of the most impressive sites I’ve ever visited. It is proof that Mayans and Aztecs could coexist even before my fiancé, who is Mexican, and me (I’m Guatemalan, with Mayan heritage) came together.
Founded 200 years before Christ, the city became a major center in its own right growing to 200,000 inhabitants and 22 sq. km by about 400 A.D. By some estimations, it was the sixth largest city in the world at its peak.
The city brought together pre-Aztec civilizations and even welcomed Mayans from what is current day Guatemala. Leveraging Mayan advances in engineering, the city built towering pyramids that can be climbed even today. The sun and moon pyramids offer breathtaking views and the entire site offers a view into what pre-Aztec society looked like.
By the time Cortez arrived, the city had been reclaimed by nature, having begun to decline around 700AD. It maintained great importance to the indigenous people of Mexico who, although knew the sites were there, never informed Cortez for fear that he would’ve have destroyed the site. Probably a good bet.
Our first day in Mexico City left no doubt that despite the demise of the Aztec empire at the hands of the Spanish centuries ago, their influence lives on. It is not uncommon to hear someone in Mexico City refer to the Aztecs as, “my people.” Contrary to the United States, Mexico confronts its tumultuous history between European and indigenous head on.
The Aztec and Spanish heritage is part of who they are and it serves as a reminder that as Latinos, regardless of your country of origin, we must also embrace our roots and the unique culture that is a result of the blending of various peoples. It’s refreshing and heartening to see it reflected in the daily life of one of the largest cities in the world.
Elvis Jocol Lara is Director of Digital Media at El Mundo, Founder and President of Casa Guatemala and an experienced Marketing professional who has worked with some of the world’s leading brands. A child of Guatemalan immigrants, he was born in Boston and raised in Waltham, MA. Follow him on Twitter @ElChapin.