El Puente Inconsciente

Lazer - Mexico - Tlatelolco
Plaza de las Tres Culturas, Tlatelolco

My days are beset by the overlapping and intertwining of the tres culturas[1]. El Museo Nacional de Antropología: galleries teeming with the fearsome lithic remnants of the Toltec, Mexica[2], and Maya, arranged around a monumental interior courtyard not unlike the typical patio of a casa colonial, rendered in the clean geometries of the Mexican iteration of 1960’s international architectural modernism. A table of tres culturas: stewed beef (a meat introduced by the Spanish) in salsa de tomate (i.e. tomatillo[3]), with a bottle of tomato ketchup on the table (a probable result of the cultural influence on modern Mexico of the United States, where the sauce first gained popularity).

Mexicans are proud of their triplicate cultural heritage, but two of the three seem to take precedence. Streets, theaters, neighborhoods, metro stations, and businesses in Mexico City boast the names of great Mexica rulers – Cuauhtemoc, Nezahualcoyotl, Moctezuma – and of the heroes of Revolution and Independence – Juárez, Hidalgo, Madero, Carranza. The colonial period, however, seems to show itself more selectively. Pedro de Gante (a monk and one of the first artists in New Spain[4]) and Motolinía (Fray Toribio de Benavente, a16th century Franciscan chronicler) lend their names to thin thoroughfares a few blocks long in the historical center. Indeed, at times the colonial period only seems present in the ubiquity of Catholicism, a characteristic of both of the post-Conquest culturas. When I told Miguel, the owner of the hotel where I am staying, that I study the art of Viceregal Mexico, he very frankly told me that the era represents a hueco. Children in elementary schools, he said, aren’t taught about the 300-year period that forms un puente inconsciente que se cruza diariamente[5]. My research this summer will examine some of the most stubborn and, to all outward appearances, unremarkable struts of that puente.

I imagine that the reasons for the shadows that hang over the Viceregal period in Mexico’s history are complex and at times controversial. It is neither the goal of my project nor within my expertise to proffer explanations. However, I would guess that part of it has to do with the perception of the virreinato as a period of imposition. The Spanish, guns blazing, rode in and destroyed any traces of native culture, inaugurating a period of three centuries of domination in which Mexico’s culture was not its own, but instead was dictated by an umbilical cord connected to Madrid.

This is, of course, a gross exaggeration. New Spanish culture is full of hybrid forms, adaptations, and exchanges that have yet to be fully appreciated. One example among many are the 16th century mosaics depicting Christian themes, made from bits of brightly colored quetzal feathers, using an important Mexica artistic technique.

My research, however, sidesteps objects like the feather mosaics, so ostentatious in their mestizaje, to penetrate an even dustier corner of el hueco del virreinato. I am working on my Ph.D. in Art History, and my dissertation centers on the artist Baltasar de Echave Orio. Echave was born in the Basque country and immigrated to New Spain in the 1580’s. By the first decade of the 17th century he was the preeminent painter and one of the leading intellectuals in Mexico City. So, why have you never heard of him? Among other reasons, when one looks at his paintings, and those of his contemporaries like Andrés de Concha, and Luis Juárez, they appear devoid of non-European elements. Most seem as though they could have plausibly been produced in Seville. In fact, many of their works take their compositions from devotional prints that were being imported from Antwerp by the boatload, further reinforcing the perception of New Spanish art as second-rate and entirely dependent on Europe.

Yet, this too is reductive, and it is the goal of my research to show how this work actually points in a new direction. The 16th century is the first true era of globalization, and the Spanish had the first truly global empire[6]. The dynamics of this period speak to eminently contemporary issues. A seamlessly European oil painting in 17th century New Spain is not so far from the Starbucks across the street from the museum. Over the course of the coming weeks I will explore the multifaceted visual culture of New Spain and try to present its subtlety,  its vitality, and its uniqueness.

Nowhere is the uneasy convivencia de las tres culturas more present than in Tlatelolco at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas[7]. Tlatelolco was the twin city to the Mexica capital of Tenochtitlan and the location of the region’s most important market. Excavations have unearthed altars and pyramids whose petroglyphs fix you with a timeless stare.

Lazer - Mexico - Petroglyph
Petroglyph from the Templo Mayor at Tlatelolco

After the conquest, the Spanish built a major church on the site, la Iglesia de Santiago Tlatelolco. In fact, a retablo with paintings by Baltasar de Echave Orio once decorated the high altar, but it has long since been dismantled, and only two of the panels survive. Today the church’s heavy stone walls sit in a modern plaza, surrounded by decaying housing projects. A plaque erected at the site reads:

El 13 de Agosto 1521, heroicamente defendido por Cuauhtemoc, cayó Tlatelolco en poder de Hernán Cortés. No fue triunfo ni derrota. Fue el doloroso nacimiento del pueblo mestizo que es el México de hoy.”

Even here the puente remains inconsciente. Yet, it is my belief that there is be found not only el México de hoy, but the entire New World, which is in many ways our world, una cultura oscurecida que merece unos rayos de luz.

Posted by Brett Lazer – Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU

[1] In Mexico, las tres culturas refers to the succession of three historical epochs: the pre-Hispanic era lasting until 1521; the Colonial era lasting from 1521 to 1810; and independent Mexico lasting from 1810 to the present.

[2] Mexica denotes the indigenous people of the Valley of Mexico who founded Tenochtitlan. They are commonly referred to as the Aztecs, although this term lacks historical specificity.

[3] The English word “tomato” is referred to in Mexico as jitomate, closer to the Nahuatl xiltomatl. Both the tomatillo and tomato are fruits native to the New World

[4] The Spanish Habsburg empire was divided into reinos or viceroyalties. The Viceroyalty of New Spain encompassed all of what is today Central America, while the Viceroyalty of Peru comprised all of South America except Brazil.

[5] For example, both mestizaje, (the mixing of European, indigenous American, Asian, and African races, that lies near the center of the self-conception of modern Mexico) and la comida mexicana (a UNESCO monument of intangible cultural heritage, and something experienced by many Mexicans thrice daily) come from the colonial period.

[6] The Spanish Habsburgs controlled most of the Iberian peninsula, areas of Italy and Flanders, the vast majority of the American continent, and the Philippines. From 1580 to 1640 Spain controlled the Portuguese empire as well, adding to their list of territories Goa, Macao, the Moluccas, Brazil, and the Gold Coast of Africa

[7] The emotional charge of this space is multiplied by the fact that it was the site of the 1968 student massacre.

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