I was going to begin with the traditional history and background of Mexico City but instead the approach with my students will be to plan an actual trip.
Actually as I am writing this unit I have never been to Mexico City or Mexico and I am planning this unit as a trip for myself as well!
Activity No. 1—Planning our Trip
As a class let’s begin our visit to Mexico City.
How will we get there? Plane? Car? Bus?
Maybe we need to look at a map and decide how long a trip it will be.
How long will we visit?
Do we need special money? Pesos? How many pesos equal one dollar? What can we see there?
1. Have the students use the encyclopedia sources on the computer or in the library to research the historic sites and history of Mexico City. They can make notes of what they find to be the most interesting for their visit. Bring in travel books and use the school system’s video center to inquire about related materials. The Bibliography at the end of this unit is * to indicate student references.
2. Make a large map of the city to mark the places they would especially like to see. Ask other faculty members if they may have visited Mexico City to share their experiences.
Some brief facts:
Where is Mexico City?
Mexico City, the capital of Mexico, is situated in a valley 7800 ft. above sea level(the highest city in the world) surrounded by volcanoes and high peaks. Mexico City’s metropolitan area is the largest in the world at approximately 15 million people. In 1985 a huge earthquake, registering 8 on the Richter scale, killed thousands of people and flattened whole districts of the city. However, it is still the political and economic center of the country and many people from the countryside continue to migrate to the city in search of a productive life. How was Mexico City established? The historic center of the city covers the site of the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, on whose ruins the colonial city was built, in part with the very stones razed from the pyramids. Although no longer the administrative or residential base of the city, as it was during the 300 years of Spanish rule, it remains the historical heart.
Activity No. 2—Trip to Mexico City
Having accomplished the above planning the following will be our simulated excursion to Mexico City!
The slides in the text provide the foundation of Activity No. 2 exposing the students to art and architecture of the city before we actually begin any hands-on art projects. The slides will be further annotated in the Slide Reference at the end of this unit. These visuals could be shown in a Social Studies class or Spanish language class working together with the Art class to develop an integrated approach to the study of Mexico. We have been advised to ask for a window seat on the left side when flying into Mexico City. This proved true as we got a marvelous view across the city as the aircraft took a flightpath down the the west side, before turning and banking across the south of the city to land in the east. Our flight on American Airlines from New York arrived finally at our first destination, the international airport, Benito Juarez, 6.5 km east of the city. Our guide book told us the easiest way to the city was by taxi so we took one straight to our hotel, anxious to unload our suitcases and begin our adventure.
We decided to go to the heart of the city, the historic square of Zocalo, where the Aztecs had founded their ceremonial centre in the 14th century. Taking the Metro, subway, we were amazed at the quiet movement as compared to the idea of subway we experience in New York! The wheels were made of rubber and there were both pictures and words labelling each stop. The pictures reflected parts of the ancient history of the city in the form of jaguars and other symbols. We learned that because of the installation of the subway many excavations (see Slide # 1) were possible with archaeologists and anthropologists working together with the construction crews. They often met with problems of redesign as they uncovered ruins and artifacts of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. Facing the east side of the square we found the National Palace. It was here that we were able to view Diego Rivera’s monumental murals. On the first floor we were particularly interested to see “The Great City of Tenochtitlan” (Slide # 2 ) which Rivera painted in 1945. We were not disappointed as we viewed this incredible history from pre-Hispanic times up through the modern. Having researched the history of mural making and painted a few murals ourselves we were impressed to be in the presence of one of Rivera’s most famous works. The mural showed us that we were standing on what was once an island, in a sacred precinct of what was once the hub of Aztec life, and later Colonial life. In modern times the ancient water works have vanished under one of the world’s largest urban centers (Slide #3 ).
Our guide shared some comments on the ancient city of Tenochtitlan:
The ruins of Tenochtitlan lie today like some deeply buried mysterious heart under modern Mexico City. There in the depths of the lagoon sleeps the sacred city with its canals and bridges, palaces and markets, places of worship and terraces. The great city of Tenochtitlan was the capital established by the Aztecs.
A portion of an Aztec poem I have adapted gives further insight into the splendor of ancient Tenochtitlan:
The city spirals out.
Radiating in circles of green jade,
and splendid light,
such plumes of paradise quetzal
At the edge of the city
the boats leave and return:
. . . Palace of white willows,
palace of white reeds
We proceeded to the northeast corner to the site of the Aztec Templo Mayor or Teocalli. Inside the museum we examined a huge model of Tenochtitlan as it was 500 years ago ( Slide # 4). Representing the traditional division of the original temple, the museum is divided into two sections. Half was dedicated to the Sun God, Huitzilopochtli, and half to Tlaloc, ( Slide # 5 ) the Rain God. The Templo Mayor precinct was the heart of the city.
We decided for the next day of our journey to investigate the northern part of the city, Tlatelolco.and visit the Plaza of the Three Cultures. Originally a separate city-state, Tlatelolco merged with and became the commercial center of Tenochtitlan ( Slide # 6). It was here that the last battle of the Spanish conquest was fought. On August 13, 1521, Montezuma’s nephew and successor surrendered to Cortes. Although the Spaniards had been awed by their first look at Tenochtitlan, on November 7, 1519, upon its conquest the Spanish razed the entire assemblage of “pagan” buildings and built their city upon its ruins. Many of the buildings we visited earlier had been constructed with stones, many sculptured, from the demolished Tenochtitlan.
As we walked through the pathways within the Plaza of the Three Cultures (Slides # 7-8) we were struck by the contrast of the ancient ruins of the Aztecs with the looming Colonial Church of Santiago rising surrounded by the skyscrapers of modern Mexico City. We learned that as the Metro was being built more and more pre-Hispanic artifacts were discovered here. New temples were built over old to expand ritual practices or simply to aggrandize new rulers. Currently excavations are down to the fourth of seven layers. Today, the main archaeological excavations concentrate on the this site. A marble tablet at the site reads, “Tlatelolco . . . fell to the power of Hernan Cortes. This was neither a triumph nor a defeat, but the painful birth of a mixed race that is the Mexico of today.”
Next we decided to go to visit the main park of Mexico City, Chapultepec (Slide # 9 ), have lunch there and go on to explore the Museum of Anthropology. Here we hoped to examine individual artifacts and their relationship to what we had been learning of the history of Mexico City.
As we approached the museum entrance we were greeted by a gigantic stone monolithic statue carved by Teotihuacanos (Slide # 10 ) dating between 400 and 600 AD. Our guide described the figure as a giant figure of Tlaloc, the rain god. The guide told us the amazing story of how this several ton sculpture was brought to the museum. For several thousand years Tlaloc had been lying horizontally in his original quarry near Texcoco, possible because he was so big that his creators could not uproot him. When the National Museum was being completed in 1964, Mexican designers thought it would be appropriate to move the rain god from his stone bed to his present post at the portal. Tlaloc was excavated from the quarry and hoisted onto a special truck with hundreds of rubber wheels (Slide # 11 ) over the alarmed protests of local villagers. Many believed that were Tlaloc moved, the rains would cease. He arrived in Mexico City and thousands turned out to greet his arrival—in a torrential downpour, though it was not the wet season. Each time Tlaloc was moved during the installation, the rains poured!
This first day we learned that the museum covered 3,500 years of Mexico’s history. We were quite unprepared for the incredibly extensive collection and decided that since the museum was fairly close to our hotel that it would be a place we had to visit several times during our stay. We decided to visit Rooms IV and V covering the Teotihuacan 700 year period in preparation for our trip the following day. Here we gained a glimpse of the treasures once housed at the site we were to reach tomorrow.
Activity No. 3
To tour the collection of Teotihuacan art at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, giving the students an experience of examining the artifacts firsthand and simulating an experience of visiting the Museum of Anthropology. Procedure:
Call ahead to the Education Department at the Gallery and make an appointment to bring your students. The Gallery will provide a docent experienced in talking to students about the collection.
Listing of Objects:
1. Teotihuacan Figurines—Early Classic, A.D.150-500. (Slide # 12 )
3 terracotta figurines and 2 green stone figurines.
These lively figurines will give the students an idea of how the people of this area looked. Because Teotihuacan figurines are found primarily in residential areas and not in the contexts of great temples or burials suggests that they played an important role in daily household rituals at the apartment compounds. (Berrin and Pasztory 1993: 222) Similar figurines are to be found at the Peabody Museum as well.
2. Teotihuacan Tripod Vessels—Early Classic, A.D. 400-500.
1 terracotta with cinnabar
Cinnabar: a red mineral pigment frequently used at Teotihuacan. It must have been a precious commodity for it had to be extracted from mines (Queretaro) some 120 miles away. (Berrin and Pasztory 1993: 250)
On this pot a Teotihuacan warrior appears 3 times, grasping a bundle of spears. He has adopted the goggle eyes of Tlaloc, the rain god, and he wears the owl headress of the spiderwoman deity; this costume endows him with mystical power. Before him, triangular cactus spines pierce a grass mat. He prepares to use the spines to sacrifice some of his blood to the gods. The pot’s shiny black surface was created when oxygen was cut off during firing. The textured background has been rubbed with cinnabar, and traces of this precious red element remain.
1 stuccoed terracotta
The bright colors and outlining have been likened to mural painting which for the Teotihuacan complex has been one of the most interesting sources of study.
Three distinct iconographic elements—a rain deity, a round mirror, and 3 mountains rising from waves—form a scene that repeats. The head of a deity or attendant appears in profile with an elaborate headdress, and a scroll, symbolizing speech or song, pours from his lips. The round mirror with its ring of plumage is an instrument for augury. The Teotihuacanos saw divine messages in polished obsidian or the reflective surfaces of water-filled vessels. The mountain and wave motifs encapsulate the Teotihuacan understanding of life. Water, the gift of rain deities, brings life, symbolized by flourishing morning-glory vines that sprout from mountaintops. The Teotihuacanos attributed the miracle and prosperity of their own lives to the sacred and majestic mountains which framed their city.
3. Teotihuacan Masks—Early Classic, A.D. 200-500.
2 calcite onyx marble
More masks survive from Teotihuacan than from any other Mesoamerican culture. While stone masks are usually associated with death or the afterlife, they seemed to come from major temples of the state near the Street of the Dead instead of burial areas. Much of Teotihuacan culture remains a mystery and is the subject of much speculation.