Archaeology in Tlatelolco is some of the most exciting in the country. Ancient Tlatelolco was a distinct and very different place from the lost city of Mexico-Tenocthtitlán. Likely the largest marketplace in ancient Mesoamérica, it was also a refuge for those displaced by the ruling Mexica across the canal.
When the base of a temple built to honor the god of the wind, Echécatl-Quetzalcóatl, was uncovered in Tlatelolco, it drove home again the fact that Tlatelolco very much holds its own as a treasury of ancient artifacts. Even as much higher profile discoveries continue to be unearthed, especially in the area of the Templo Mayor, it’s worth looking back on the 72 years since the first dig at Tlatelolco.
After the conquest, the Spanish Crown dedicated itself to supplanting pre-Hispanic culture with their own imperial and religious cultures. Essentially the past was entirely buried and forgotten, until well into the 18th century. Four centuries past with little interest and only with the dawning of modern ethnographic and anthropological studies was research directed to discovering what was still down there.
Some 72 years ago, work began excavating some of the significant sites within the broad Tlatelolco complex. These are some of the highlights.
1790: The great goddess, Coatlicue, long buried in the courtyard of the old buildings of the Santo Domingo neighborhood, and the “Stone of the Sun” were found by chance. These were two early breakthroughs in early archaeology in the city. The Stone of the Sun, the famous “Aztec Calendar” was found at the base of the bell tower of the Metropolitan Cathedral.
1839: Philadelphia Scientist and Author, Samuel George Morton publishes Crania Americana, An Inquiry into the Distinctive Characteristics of the Aboriginal Race of America, virtually inventing the “American School” of Ethnography. Tlatelolco skulls formed a major part of the study.
1900: On the Centennial of Mexican independence, President Porfirio Díaz ordered excavations in the Tlatelolco area in order to “gather a collection of pieces and vestiges to send to Madrid” for the Centennial observances being held there.
1939: Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) is created by the federal government.
1944: Pablo Martínez del Río notes excavation records from Tlatelolco, alluding especially to multiple human remains and the hoop from a ball game court. This may also have been a receptacle for pulque. An American, Robert H. Barlow, then proposed an interdisciplinary research project on the grounds in front of the atrium of the church of Santiago. This proposal was accepted by the INAH. That same year, outstanding discoveries included the stairways at the Templo Mayor, but also major structural components of the Tlatelolco compound.
1945: The first museum of Tlatelolco was established with important examples of the artifacts discovered during the excavations.
1950: A Tzompantli “altar of skulls” was discovered with 170 skulls in the northeast of the Tlatelolco archaeological zone.
1987: The “Tlatelolco Project” was proposed and directed by the archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma. The project lasted until 1992.
2012: A set of burials were found near the Tlatelolco cinema. Two pre-Hispanic houses were also discovered on the remains of the pre-Hispanic road which led to Tepeyac.
2016: The base of a pyramid built to honor the god of the wind, Echécatl-Quetzalcoatl was discovered during the early construction phase of a supermarket.
We can hope another 72 years of Archaeology in Tlatelolco will follow.
Though the internet makes lots more information available to lots more people, Mexico City libraries have simply not been supplanted. Charged with continually re-inventing themselves, and their places in the public imagination, one can still encounter eras gone by and great historical minds in a library as in few other places.
Knowledge, after all, belongs to everyone. Opening a book, reading it at a study, or just meeting in the silence of one these Mexico City libraries enhances concentration, and provides a welcome respite from everything going on out there in the world.
Of all Mexico City libraries, the oldest were part of the church and one or another of its offshoot organizations. Among these was the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, founded in the 1530s and surviving today as the Biblioteca José María Lafragua. Most of these ecclesiastical libraries were not truly open to the public, and Mexico had to wait for the National Library of Mexico, inaugurated by Benito Juárez in 1867 to enjoy the benefits of a truly public library system.
The list below is intended to let you enjoy some of that system, too.
Opened just ten years ago, in 2006, the Vasconcelos is visited by thousands for the sheer spectacle of its innovative design. Graced by the iconic whale from artist, Gabriel Orozco, it’s always a good library for art and visual spectacle. The facade retains something of a colonial appearance, but for sheer scale, and jaw-dropping space, the interior must be experienced.
We’ve written a lot about it in these pages, but the UNAM library with the Juan O’Gorman murals remains one of the most outstanding of all Mexico City libraries. As a UNESCO site with some 428,000 volumes in the collection, it’s the biggest in Mexico, but lots of folks visit just to see the facade and the surrounding grounds.
Opened by Benito Juárez in 1867, there’s still a good one million books inside, today administered by the folks from UNAM. Originally located in the San Agustín church in the city center, the current building was opened in 1979. Geometric, and massive, it’s an extraordinary place to visit.
Specializing in economic materials, this collection of some 86,350 books and 114,852 journals is administered by the Secretary of Finance and Public Credit. Founded in 1928, it’s one of the cities true public art spectacles. Inside the main nave of the old Oratory of San Felipe Neri “El Nuevo,” the baroque façade outside is just the beginning. Inside, the murals are futuristic, and not to be missed.
One of Centro’s truly outstanding historical buildings, for centuries it was the convent of the Clarisas from the 16th century. Today it’s something like a “Library of Congress” with a stunning collection of publications and artifacts, but also with a lush, deep, dark intellectual interior, that beckons from centuries past.
Address: Tacuba 29, Centro Histórico
Photographs this page: Flickr – Creative Commons
Mexico City’s Tepito neighborhood has for a millennia history offered resistance, rebellion, and hope. Tenochtitlan relegated dissidents to Tepito’s crooked alleys. The “brave neighborhood,” even hundreds of years later, is still marginalized and bent on survival. Somehow residents seem to bear that history in the very DNA.
With a reputation for violence, deprivation, and overcrowding, some of the great characters of Mexican history have come from Tepito. The cradle of Mexican boxing, in the 1970s an important literary movement emerged in Tepito, and the neighborhood has contributed as much to the culture of the city and country as have many, much wealthier places.
Among all the stories of people whose hard work is performed with an enviable dignity, there are thousands of women who carry out similar work for their families. Resident Mayra Valenzuela Rojas remarked, “In Tepito there’s a matriarchy (…) Every woman has her own story. Each of us is a spark, but together we are lighting a candle for Tepito.”
German photographer, Anja Jensen, is currently exhibiting her work in a show called “Ciudadanas-Caminamos a oscuras” (Citizens-We Walk in the Dark). Having spent months in Tepito, she’s documented the women challenging the stereotypes of the neighborhood.
Jensen was assaulted and threatened, but she was also clothed and cared for by the women who opened their stories and lives to her. The result is a series photographs, “Las Cabronas de Tepito,” (Bad Girls of Tepito) a collective portrait of the matriarchy whose fervor makes the neighborhood better and regularly improves the lives of the people living there.
The photographs will be exhibited through February 12, 2017, as part of the Mexico-Germany Dual Year, at the German Pavilion on the Plaza Rio de Janeiro, in Roma Norte.