I poked around Mitla for several days, examining walls and taking photographs and making drawings, prodding foundations with my walking stick, looking for trapdoors and tugging on suspicious wall sconces and finally decided that there was nothing I was doing at the site to find the tomb that generations of Zapotec school boys couldn’t do better and undoubtedly already had. So I decided to do something I was more competent at, and went looking for more books.
Burgoa’s 1674 Geografica I had already found in the library at the Grafica. I next went to the library at Instituto Welte, in those days in a warren of small rooms around a central patio in the interior of a colonial building near the church of Santo Domingo. While the Welte is now in new quarters and even has a website, its library was at that time still dark and cramped and maps and field notes and unpublished papers were being unpacked from wooden crates and I thought the whole thing delightfully romantic.
The Institute is the creation of a retired American admiral who came to Mexico, took a degree in anthropology and concentrated on the cultural history of the Valley of Oaxaca. At the time of his death, his personal library totaled some 6,000 volumes, which went to make up the core of the Institute.
In those days I had not discovered the joys of online research and so everything was done with pencil and yellow pad and looking for books and rummaging through boxes and folders of loose papers and getting not quite as dirty as you might if you were out in the field digging, and of course you were sitting down in the shade and there probably weren’t any scorpions under the library table, though being Mexico you probably ought not count on that.
I knew that there had been a report on Mitla prepared toward the end of the 16th Century in response to a general inquiry as to conditions in the Spanish realms and with the help of the efficient German librarian I found La Relación de Tlacolula y Mitla, which apparently told everything the local authorities thought worth knowing about Mitla in 1580.
The first thing I noticed was that Mitla got second billing, and as I read the document I noticed that the Relación does not mention the burial of kings, the presence of a high priest or anything else recognizable as Mitla in preHispanic times. It seems entirely concerned with conditions in 1580, when the cult appears no longer to be practiced.
Which brought me back to a problem with Burgoa’s lively account. I am a duffer at Spanish and while I have no problem with a newspaper I realize that there might be nuances in a 17th Century text that were above my paygrade and, furthermore, that Burgoa may have had theological reservations about periods, as he so seldom used any, and his description of the events at Mitla were a few hundred words embedded in a 4,000-word sentence. That said, it was clear to me that the good friar was not claiming to describe anything he saw or took part in, but was telling a story of something that had happened at some unspecified point in the past.
This suggests that the lively conditions described by Burgoa had ceased by his time, supporting the possibility that the incident Burgoa described occurred prior to that date, perhaps as early as Toribio’s visit in 1533.
Another reason to consider this possibility is that the friars he described did not cover themselves with glory and Burgoa, a Dominican, may have been enjoying a story at the expense of Toribio’s Franciscans.
This suggests to me the strong possibility that the Zapotec’s entrance to the Underworld was closed by Toribio’s party in 1533, and Mitla, known already to be in decline, lost its remaining purpose and was sinking into obscurity a half-century later when the Relación was prepared.
Which may give us an idea when the entrance to the Underworld might have been closed, but of course we still don’t know where it was.
(The story will continue . . .)