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Published: Sun Jul 1 2007
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Mexico in Ruins

Rebecca West’s Dismay

In Macedonia, epic traveler Rebecca West met a Pasha exiled in a crumbling palace. One of the few luxuries he could still afford, with the end of the Ottoman Empire, was coffee mixed with chocolate.

“As they drink it in Mexico,” he told West.

But in Mexico no one drinks coffee this way. West says as much in her reconstructed travel notes, Survivors in Mexico.* She was a little dismayed. She discovered they drink it just like us.

Mexico City: The Zócalo

From the museum I take a collective van to the Alameda park. Volkswagen taxis jet through the pollution. In the bus, passengers entering from the central door pass money up to the driver; the change is passed back in a chain of honesty from person to person to the rider suspended in the gangway above the passing street.

From the Alameda, with bombastic buildings like the Bellas Artes, I walk on to the central square, or Zócalo. Here is the heart of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlán which, according to the accounts of Hernando Cortéz’s soldier Bernal Díaz, who saw the city with his own eyes, was more sophisticated than the European cities of its day. His account of entering the metropolis is humbling. On seeing the market, he wrote:

We were astounded at the great number of people and the quantities of merchandise, and at the orderliness and good arrangements that prevailed, for we had never seen such a thing before.**

Descriptions of the brutality of cannibalism, of “the sacrifice of human beings and the eating of their flesh,” sit insecurely like an appeal in the face of the writer’s evident bedazzlement by public buildings, the wealth of the clothing and the graciousness of his host Moctezuma (who would later be held captive and killed). Tempted by the wealth of the leader’s treasury and the beauty of the women, the conquistadores eventually subdued the city. And now, as a result of this victory, hardly a trace remains of a great civilization ground into dust—except for the stones in the façade of the cathedral and the nearby Palacio Nacional.

The conquistadores justified their actions in the only way they could: they claimed they were guided by God. He urged the Europeans to subdue the people and condemn them to poverty. When there is no reason in this world to justify our actions, we turn to that beyond it. And from the zeal of the explorers, one can only think of the American predicament abroad—wanting to build a church to democracy on the top of cultures whose foundations are many layers of separate sophisticated development. Like the recently unearthed remains of the Templo Mayor in Mexico’s central square, new enemies are like temples built inside one another.

Díaz recounts how Cortéz visited this sacred site and castigated Moctezuma for human sacrifice, for shedding blood, for cannibalism. Cortéz asked if he might build a church in that very place dedicated to the Aztec Gods, to replace the old ways. Moctezuma shuddered, took offense, prayed to his gods who did not help him, and asked for forgiveness for bringing these foreigners to the sacred temple. He refused Cortéz’s request and the Spanish reacted by stealing the gold, leveling the place and condemning the cannibalism of the old world by building their own church. A new ceremony is still celebrated there: “Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of My Blood, the Blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all men, so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.”

Diego Rivera and the Palacio Nacional

It is incomprehensible to think of Aztec cities razed to nothingness. One can only explain the total destruction as an effect of the conquistadores’ profound insecurity. But the Zócalo is not simply about loss. It has new impressive monuments and they belong to Diego Rivera.

Rebecca West said that if “Hitler had had such a painter on his side I and millions of others would not be alive today.” Before I saw these murals, I did not believe her. The images of indigenous life are Gauguin rendered flat and incised—as if such conviction in lines is a trait more appropriate to ideologues than to French alcoholics. Rivera’s ideals are persuasive, at least most of them. Cortéz is misshapen, but Bartolomé de las Casas is protecting the poor—not far from another friar grown fat off the weak. On a panel to the left, America’s stock exchanges suck money from the vulnerable. Only in his idealized images of pre-Colombian Mesoamericans living in harmony off the fruits of the land does the painter seem to dream a dream too beautiful—a retrospective Communist idyll nuanced by blood on the stairs of the temples.

And isn’t this a similar idyll to that romanced in demonstrations by the disenfranchised indigenous just outside in the Zócalo? They propagandize the agenda of the Chiapas Zapatistas led by the former “subcommandante” turned “delegate” Marcos in his black ski-mask and rifle. The mass of demonstrators cannot easily enter the building, built by Cortéz and now a seat of government, that houses the murals of Marx positioned as God the Father in a great last judgment of capitalism.

On the square, I pass an upscale hotel bar where, untouchable through the glass, middle-aged gentlemen in three-piece suits watch American football and smoke. I saw flâneurs in the same anachronistic dress window-shopping at stationers that sell leather desk pads and fancy fountain pens—the tools of the gentleman to place conspicuously in a study to gain the esteem of the rank and file of the establishment. Around the doors of the Hotel Gran Ciudad de México, with its wondrous Art-Nouveau dome, are younger men in the casual uniform of Lacoste gold shirts tucked into khaki pants. They sport expensive watches in a city where wearing a plastic one is the only sure method to prevent being mugged. They pile into a taxi, and a tickle of fear rises up my neck. Disparities of wealth exist everywhere, but they are rarely so visible as in a city without a real middle class. I am afraid not because Mexico is unique in its share of misery. It’s not. I am afraid because Mexico is the future.

From the Zócalo with its enormous flag (never trust big flags) and its great square (which dubiously claims to be the second biggest in the world), and the nearby Latin American tower (again, called the tallest in the Latin world, when there are higher ones right in Mexico City, and certainly dozens in São Paolo), I walk from mighty claims through streets of vendors—shabby shops of taffeta dresses and yet more ubiquitous pen shops—to the metro which carries the people of the city. A boy in bare feet stands next to a gendarme with white gloves. I see an entire family squatting on a platform, together and destitute, all showing great hunger. I pass by their unified squalor and in my unease I neither stop nor give them a cent. They are like a fading constellation, the two adults behind, at different heights, then children before them—still—as if posed for a daguerreotype.

I get off at Insurgentes where on one corner are men windswept in stained clothes waiting for the bus, and on another is an elegant restaurant with a fortified entrance. I walk through the Zona Rosa, with its gay shops and cafes like a throwback from an era still wrapped in rainbow flags and bumper-stickers—another form of resistance or of conformity? A merry bubble of conversation, music and good living emerges from the open thresholds, and for a moment, the question does not really matter.

Living Gay Club, Paseo de la Reforma

In the evening I go to Polanco, a striking contrast to the murals of Riviera. It is the most conspicuously wealthy part of Mexico City with designer shops that one can find the world over. Walking from one restaurant to the next, for the first time in Mexico City I feel truly endangered by the much hyped random violence. Figures stand alone by trees in the boulevards, waiting or simply being. You never know if you are in the accusative. A man in a hood slips behind a van and loiters there until I pass and pick up my pace.

Izote is a fine restaurant where there are too many staff and empty tables. Either few locals can afford it or else, typical gringo, at 9 p.m. I am eating too early. At Izote they serve quesadillas with squash flowers; they have a complicated peppery taste. They linger in the mouth all evening, as if the taste buds have encountered something entirely new, like that first experience with a drug that is never repeated.

On Latin-MTV the men are likewise incredibly memorable. But why is it that they look completely different from Mexicans on the street? Even in the expensive neighbourhoods and restaurants, Mexicans do not look like their models on TV. A magazine in the hotel room called Mexican Style features not a single individual who looks the slightest bit mestizo or indigenous. You would imagine that the conquest had effectively massacred most of the natives, as colonists did elsewhere in North America, birthing a Hispanic progeny of dark-haired Andalucians and Galician beauties, simply grown in wider spaces and sunnier climes.

This theme continues in an old mansion on Paseo de la Reforma housing a club called Living, one of those beautiful and unfriendly gay spaces where lighting, decor, good music and beautiful people effectively condemn actual human interaction as inelegantly clumsy. The result is that people dance with their friends, constantly aware of how they appear to others they will never speak to; or maybe the audience is the idealised images on the television screens. The videos are of white-skinned men and women, perhaps from another part of Latin America except I am told that many of the bands are Mexican, photoshopped to an ideal that exposes an insecurity of self-image. What strikes me and saddens me—in the silent throbbing crowd, in the reflection of the video screens that speaks of shame and deferred hope, perhaps for a life not here or one imagined in plasma—is the very beauty of the crowd. The men who dance have wide regal faces, high foreheads, and over their dark eyes pass so many dead images.

The National Museum of Anthropology

In the morning, I walk through Chapultepec Park and cross the road to one of the world’s great collections. Designed in 1964 by the architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, the buildings are like a wheel fallen flat on its side; pavilions circle a central courtyard whose canopy is supported by a sculptured column. Its trunk is a pastiche of scientific and Mesoamerican symbols representing the merging of two races, Spanish and Indigenous. In a fountain on the patio is a bronze snail. The indigenous tribes rattled snail shells together to call an audience to attention. And likewise, the museum is always telling you what to think.

It is difficult not to notice the Mayan jade burial mask in many pieces, a cracked stone disk to the Aztec god of the sun, a delicate sculpture of an acrobat from Teotihuacán. These pieces need no commentary. The building also speaks for itself: one has the suspicion that the Aztec pavilion, crouching in the distance as one enters the complex, is the museum’s spiritual heart. Inside, however, begins a heavily edited script: the Aztecs are renamed Mexicas in an effort to consolidate Mexican identity around a great people. Mexica is from metztli, or moon, and like a reflection in the water tells only part of the truth: for the Aztecs were in fact three peoples, and the Mexicas were eventually subdued by the Tepanecs.*** But in this museum the Mexica suffer no defeat. They are the direct ancestors of the Mexican state.

And so the exhibits of Mayan, Tolmec, Toltec and Zapotec cultures reach beyond themselves. They all evince a desire to complete—to tell us that this is the way it was—with scale model reconstructions of idealized cities, of murals, completed and altered, the replicas hidden among the originals, and curatorial panels that give categorical explanations of what each culture believed, how it maintained strong links with other cultures and what its objects mean.

Teotihuacán, the great civilization that dominated Mesoamerica at roughly the time and span of the Roman Empire, is in truth a place lost in mystery. We do not know who built it, where its people came from, how they were brought to ruin and we only know a very little of what they believed. But the museum’s displays tell us with overweening certainty that Teotihuacán was destroyed from within, that they worshipped in the same way as the Mexica and that life in the city matched the idealized recreations of cityscapes and indigenous people in colorful costumes. There is anxiety here: because if we do not know the past, complete it, and therefore draw a straight line from Maya to Teotihuacán to Toltec to Aztec-Mexica, then the process of claiming the history of _Mexico—_a history known and understood and therefore one’s own— is undermined.

Above the ancient galleries is a second floor dedicated to indigenous life in contemporary Mexico. You look from the crafts down through a window to the floor below and link the two worlds, indigenous present and indigenous past, with barely a mention of the interregnum of conquest. But what is Mexico today? It’s the product of the conquest, just as the USA is a product of British colonialism. The effort to differentiate Mexico from the rest of North America ignores the European culture that gave the country its language, religion, government, bureaucracy, buildings and city life. Contemporary Mexico is largely absent from the museum—for apart from the masses of poor indigenous selling fruit and nuts on street corners, the cities of San Cristóbal, Oaxaca, Puebla or Mexico City resemble places in Southwest Spain much more than the ancient cities of Mesoamerica. And yet the Mexicans consciously obliterate their European heritage in favor of the Aztec: their flag is adorned with the eagle grasping a snake in its beak perched on a cactus—the symbol of the Aztecs, the sign that they should build their capital where Mexico City swarms today. The irony of this idealized claiming of the past is that the powerful of Mexico usurp indigenous culture as capital, while those who keep this culture (or what’s left of it) in their daily lives are the very people who are powerless in a system of brutal inequality inherited from that period left abridged by the museum—conquest.


The metro stops at a place called Indios Verdes, and then a bus lurches through endless suburbs—shacks, secondary roads, factories abutting corrugated iron-roofed communities—endless misery extending from the tiny wealthy heart of Mexico City to the great pyramids a good hour or two distant. Teotihuacán’s pyramids were tremendous but yet again in evidence was the desire to complete: archaeologists at the beginning of the 20th Century raised a new tier on the Pyramid of the Sun—and in “completing,” ruined.

I walk the narrow steep stairs to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, and also to the top of the Pyramid of the Moon, which is more elegant and not damaged by zealous restorers. The site is vast. In the grout of the stonework, as one sees in other ancient sites such as Monte Albán, are carefully arranged small pebbles: stonework decoration creating a spectrum of achievement from its minutiae to the massive shapes of the monuments.

It is hot and the sun is strong. I get sunburnt at the top of the Pyramid of the Sun where a moonscape of rocks set at strange angles, and fixed like tiny grave markers, stud the pyramid’s slopes. And then, at the far end of the massive site, is the old center of Teotihuacán. There is yet another pyramid to Quetzalcóatl, plumed serpent of DH Lawrence fame, inscribed with impressive relief sculptures where many people had been sacrificed. Here is more proof, along with the remains of murals and lodgings, and sculpture and items of daily life in the site’s museum—masks, knives, intricate braziers—of the incredibly sophisticated culture which existed and which is now almost completely erased. Except for the objects, which are voiceless, there are few clues; a code exists, a written language, but without decipherable letters. We know their buildings align with the planets. We see the beauty of their murals of quetzals and jaguars. But this is a civilization whose name might not even be its own. We do not even know for certain that they called it Teotihuacán.

And I do not think I ever felt the brutality of time more strongly from another place in the world. An entire civilization lost even to the people who immediately followed them—Aztecs misinterpreting the use of the buildings, perhaps only slightly closer in their understanding of why it all disappeared than we are, perhaps equally disturbed by how so much sophistication in astronomy and art could simply be swallowed into a void. And Teotihuacán does not assume the comforting victimhood of the Aztecs, enshrined in our documented knowledge of their demise, our connection to it through the accounts of Díaz or Cortéz, witnesses to the moment when the building was smashed. Teotihuacán disappeared before the invaders could touch it, and our inability to complete opens us simply to horror.


*Rebecca West, Mexico in Ruins. Yale: 2003.
**Bernal Díaz,The Conquest of New Spain (trans. J.M. Cohen). Penguin: 1963.
***Nigel Davis, The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico. Penguin: 1982.

Joseph Pearson is a fiction and nonfiction writer based in Berlin, Germany. He completed his doctorate in modern history at Cambridge University, UK, in 2001, taught at Columbia University in the Core Curriculum, and currently teaches history for New York University’s program in Berlin. He has also corresponded for the Canadian national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, from the German capital. He is the editor of The Needle. (updated 9/2012)

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