If you've been following my blog for anytime now, you know I'm attracted to the strangest of places. Radioactive wastelands, concentration camps, nuclear bomb sites, haunted doll islands, abandoned houses; the list of depressing places goes on. There are many reasons why I visit these places, but it's primarily because I find the history behind them fascinating.
Normally I know these places are "unique" before I visit them.
This wasn't the case with Mexico City.
But, before I begin talking about Mexico City, I want to explain why this article is coming out so late after I visited it. After all, I visited Mexico City in January of 2017. "What the heck,Kenton?", you're probably asking. I had originally planned to write this piece in September, but the very day I had put aside for it, Mexico was rocked by a powerful 7.1 earthquake. I have friends living there and my social media was filled with images of destruction and desperation – and stories of hope and kindness – for days afterwards. Out of respect for the people of Mexico City, and for my friends who were affected by this natural disaster, I held off on writing it.
It's been a few months since then, and the city has recovered in leaps and bounds. The citizens of Mexico City are resilient, so they're used to dealing with devastating events. In fact, that's what this article is all about.
In an earlier article I talked about Teotihuacan, an ancient city that lies just to the north of present-day Mexico City. Teotihuacan was to Mesoamerica what Rome was to Europe. It dictated early trade, currency, language, religion, arts, music and culture. It's rise – and fall – are definitive points in Mesoamerican culture. Most people have never heard of the people of Teotihuacan, but most have heard of their successors: The Aztecs.
While the people of Teotihuacan believed their purpose was to bring forth universal harmony, the Aztecs believed the opposite. While claiming to be descents of the people of Teotihuacan, they believed their purpose was to rule with war and destruction. Both cultures believed in human sacrifice but had different opinions of what it meant. For the people of Teotihuacan, it was the ultimate act of appreciation for the gods that held the universe together. For the Aztecs, it was to receive a blessing before bloodshed. In both cases, both cultures feared what would happen if the human scarifies stopped. Would the sun fall out of the sky? Would the world be plunged into darkness? Or would the gods reach down and take the sacrifices themselves? In Mesoamerica, the gods were very much active in everyday life, so the possibility of having them directly interacting with people was not out of the question.
1519 CE, or the year One Reed according to the Aztec culture, was to be a transformative year for the Aztecs. It was this year in which the white god of thunder and wind Quetzalcoatl was said to return to their shores. Instead, this was the year the Spaniards arrived with their massive ships, guns and horses. At first, the Aztecs believed these pale-faced people were descendants of their returning god. Quickly, they realized just how wrong they were.
In the heart of Mexico City is the neighbourhood of Tlatelolco, which is home to an ancient Aztec worshipping ground, Plaza de las Tres Culturas, or the Plaza of Three Cultures. It was here the Aztecs often performed human sacrifice, as Teotihuacan was revered more as a pilgrimage site and not a permanent residence. Two years after arriving on the shores of Mexico, the Spanish would arrive at this holy ground. At this point during their conquest, Hernán Cortés had captured Moctezuma II, the leader of the Aztecs, and the survival of the Aztecs was nearing its bloody conclusion. Upon arriving in Tlatelolco, the Spanish began a massive genocide of any Aztecs they could find, killing thousands upon thousands on the very stones they had performed sacrifices on for centuries. It is estimated 40,000 people were slaughtered here, and records state that it was impossible to walk through the area without stepping on a corpse. Other records also claim that the bodies clogged nearby canals for weeks, polluting the area with blood and sinew. This slaughter is often considered the ending of the Aztec era, the "First Culture", and ushered in the Spanish era, or the "Second Culture".
It was on the edge of this hallowed ground the Spanish would construct a massive church belonging to Colegio de Santa Cruz, or the College of Santa Cruz. The purpose of this college was to teach indigenous Mexicans the ways of the Catholic church, but it never successfully ordained any of them. The church began operation in 1536, but by 1555 it banned all indigenous and black people from entering the building. When the church on the edge of Plaza de las Tres Culturas was built between 1604 and 1610, it was a permanent reminder to the Aztec civilization had ended. In fact, the very stones used to build this church were harvested from the bloody rocks of the ruins below, desecrating one culture for the rise of another.
Following the slaughter of 1521, the gods were silenced. Yet, even though stones have been moved and people have been pushed away, the Aztec gods never left.
Four hundred years later, in 1968, a new era of Mexican life was underway. Gone were the Spanish and the "Second Culture"; and now the Mexicans were in control of their own destiny, their own independence and their own way of life. This was the "Third Culture", and a new era for the Mexican people - one that was drawn by blood, much like before.
1968 was a different world than that of 1521, but to gods, time is non-existent, and some say, a sacrifice was long overdue.
Mexico was going through a turbulent time in the 1960s, and with days to the opening ceremonies of the 1968 Olympic Games, the city was ripe with violence and protest. To quell the protesters, the Mexican government began a "Dirty War" against their own people. This reached its peak on October 2, 1968 when students, civilians and protestors were shot down in the hundreds by the military using tanks and machine guns. Initial media reports said the protestors drew fire and caused the massacre, but since the year 2000, the government has admitted snipers were used to take out targets that were of no immediate threat. The event, known as the "Tlatelolco Massacre", happened in the same location as the original massacre in 1521.
For an area soaked in blood and violence, you would imagine nothing could top the Tlatelolco Massacre of 1968. This event is deeply seared into the minds of the Mexican people and is responsible for much of the unrest the country has towards its government today. But the tragedy does not end there. On September 19, 1985 the area was rocked by an 8.0 earthquake. This earthquake would take the lives of between 5,000 and 40,000 people and devastated the area around Tlatelolco. Horrific accounts have been recorded of people being trapped in stairwells, hallways and apartment buildings. One of these very buildings sits across the street from Plaza de las Tres Culturas, which watched silently as people inside screamed for help as the building collapsed around them. Much like in 1968, the gods got their sacrifice.
My original article last September was written to recount these events of 1985 on the 32nd anniversary of the earthquake, but on the morning of the anniversary, the city was shook by a 7.1 earthquake. Buildings collapsed, others exploded, and fires burned throughout the city. In one community, church steeples fell onto worshippers, and killing dozens. Only 370 people were killed during this earthquake, but another 6,000 were injured.
While the earthquake of 2017 has no direct connection to Plaza de las Tres Culturas, the date of the earthquake itself is very coincidental. Was it just by chance that it would occur on the anniversary of Mexico City's deadliest earthquake, or was a paranormal force at hand? Was this earthquake brought on by a smaller quake two weeks earlier, or by the Aztec gods, who are gone but never forgotten?
We will never know, and for some that's perfectly fine. Mexico sits with one foot in the past, and the other in the present. Nowhere is this more prominent that in Plaza de las Tres Culturas.
Sitting between the church and the ancient ruins is an engraving, summarizing the events that unfolded on this hollowed ground:
The 13th of August 1521
Heroically defended by Cuauhtémoc,
Tlatelolco fell to the power of Hernán Cortés.
It was neither a triumph nor a defeat.
It was the painful birth of the Mestizo nation
What is the Mexico of today.
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