Tuesday, August 30, 2011

a friend of Pancho

Being a time traveler, I look for old things and a few blocks off Plaza Abasolo in Oaxaca I found a shop full of old things.  A second-hand store, where among the dust and debris, the old magazines and household detritus and occasional item that I did not believe was quite what it appeared to be, I found a bundle of Revolutionary-era Mexican banknotes, from that period after 1911 when old don Porfirio had been forced to retire to Paris to end his days drinking champagne from chorusgirls’ slippers, and Mexico was torn apart by contending armies and bandit gangs vying for the honor of dragging whoever was still alive into the glories of the modern age of freedom, democracy and agrarian reform, all of which apparently required a lot of banknotes (I counted twenty different issuers in the bundle I bought) whose acceptance  --  if perhaps not their value  --  had probably been guaranteed by fiercely-mustachioed men draped in bandoleers and bristling with rifles.

This was the age of Pancho Villa, whose base was in the North, in Chihuahua, and three of my Chihuahuan notes recite that they were issued under the authority of GRAL. FRANCISCO VILLA, Gobernador Provisional del Estado.

Villa’s photos show him smiling robustly or galloping about or otherwise being the Man of Action and it is my impression that he is considered by such Northamericans as have ever thought about him as a romantic character.  He even appears this way in the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, where he graciously decides not to have young Indy shot.  But in fact, deciding otherwise would have been more in his character, as Villa seemed disposed to kill people on general principles, as illustrated in an appalling incident when, to humor his bloodthirsty henchman Rodolfo Fierro, Villa let him with two pistols kill 500 Federal soldiers they had captured.  Fierro complained that the pistols got too hot to handle.  Only one of the 500 escaped.
    What is peculiarly appalling to me in that story is not that men who had surrendered were shot, as there seemed to be a lot of that happening in those days, but that one man was making his way through this mass of human beings killing them one by one with a pistol.  Not a faceless mass of men sprayed from a distance with machine gun fire, but 500 separate pulls of the trigger, 500 separate murders.  And this must have taken some time to accomplish and we are left to imagine what must have gone through the mind of the men awaiting their turn as Fierro moved down the line, a single shot at close range, stopping every twelve shots to reload his pistol, the process slowing as the steel chambers and barrel grew too hot to touch, even through a gloved hand.  Did he stop to rest?  His hand might have ached from a stiff trigger pull or his thumb from drawing back the hammer.  Did he call for water to pour down the barrel to cool it off?  Did he stop for a smoke?  Did he joke with the men watching him or with some of those he was killing?  How long would that take?  How long would the last victims have to wait?  And what were they thinking as they faced death not as soldiers in battle, but slaughtered like sheep?
    Oddly enough, I have read a number of historical accounts of this sort of butchery and the victims never seem to struggle.  Is it a cultural mindset?  Or is there a psychological explanation: a peace that comes over a person in the face of certain death?  Or is it just that these stories are almost always reported by the victors, usually for the purpose of terrifying future enemies, so there would be no reason to include mention of gallant resistance by the victims.

Is the story true?  It’s the version Simpson gives in Many Mexicos.  Another version says it was only 300 prisoners and they were given a chance to run past a wall while Fierro shot at them, though even then only one got away.  A variation of that story said that Fierro first asked each man if they wanted to return home to their family or join Villa.  Those who said they wanted to return to their family were not believed and were shot; those who said they wanted to join Villa were given a horse and a gun, but only three cartridges.  Fierro was no fool.  It probably wasn’t a very fast horse, either.
    There are a number of stories about Fierro, none of them uplifting.  Once in Chihuahua he got into an argument with a fellow over whether a man shot sitting in a chair would fall forward or back.  As they were sitting across the table from each other, Fierro drew his pistol and resolved the question in the most straightforward manner. 
    In the movie “Villa Rides”, Fierro was played by Charles Bronson.

Post Script: I was later told that the fellow I bought the banknotes from was known locally as the Butcher of Zaachila.  I was disappointed to learn that this was not on account of his murderous past, but because, before he took up his present business, he had had a butcher shop in the town of Zaachila.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Mexico, at age thirteen

I was thirteen years old when I first saw Mexico; it was March of 1953.  I am quite sure of the date because we attended a bullfight and I still have the stub of my ticket.  Thirteen is probably the ideal age for a little boy to see a bullfight.  I had read a good deal about them beforehand and I appreciated it for what it was, and felt no need to see another.  Had I thought there any possibility that the bull might win, I might have felt differently.

Already at that early age I had a picture in my mind of Mexico, confected from movies and magazine pictures and photographs my parents had brought back from their trips, including the one they had said they were going to take me on, but forgot to.

The Mexico of my thirteen-year-old’s imagination was an extravagant place of mountains and deserts, of bare-footed peons leading burros loaded with firewood, of cactus and maguey and rattlesnakes.  Of bandoleered bandits and poor peasants in white pajamas and huge straw hats and garish serapes.  Aztecs and pyramids and feathered serpents.  Volcanoes and tamales and goods spread on the ground on market day.  Old churches and mariachis and venal policemen and happy, tinny coronet-band music.  Women in flowing shawls and high combs in their hair and the evening paseo.  Rifle-festooned revolutionaries coming out of the desert riding the front end of a locomotive.  “Treasure of Sierra Madre” country.  “A musical comedy country,” said Covarrubias.  A dusty country of cracked plaster and peeling whitewash on colonial buildings with red-tiled roofs.  A country where everything looked old and deliciously romantic.

That was my Mexico when I was thirteen years old.  And for 1953, it may not have been that far off.  Thirty years later, when I returned, that was the country I went looking for.  We both had changed, and Mexico had changed more than I had, and to find my Mexico I had to poke around a bit, though not as much as you might think, as Old Mexico is still there, just a little harder to find than it used to be.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

in the presence of a haughty lord

On the porch of the church at Ocotlán I saw a teenage Indian girl sitting cross-legged with some friends, all of them in Western dress.  She leaned over to speak to the boy beside her and I saw that her profile and posture were exactly those of one of those haughty Mayan lords that we see on the old vases and in the fading plaster of an ancient wall.    

She was not Maya, of course, but almost certainly Zapotec or Mixtec, but their portayals were not as naturalistic as the Mayans.  Their portraits were more the idea of the person, while the Maya gave us more their physical presence.  For a long time scholars thought of the Maya as peaceful astronomers and philosopher-kings, though now that we can read their texts we know they were a rather more bloody lot.  I, innocent of their texts, thought they often looked like bullies.

Monday, August 22, 2011

the village of Witchcraft

I mentioned to my companion that I had seen on the map, on the road to San Antonio Huitepec, a little village called Brujeria, which means “witchcraft”.  Oh, yes, she said; she knew the town.  Many years ago she had gone there to see a famous bruja for a limpia, a cleaning, which she explained to me.  After smoke and annointing, the bruja passes a turkey egg over your body to draw out all the bad things.  The egg is then broken in water and if you had illness the white of the egg will be gray, and if you have any sins it will be distinctively colored. 

I cannot remember why, but I did not ask her what color her egg white was.

Mitla, 7.

In the Tomb of the Zapotec Kings

If we ever found the tomb, what might be there?  I doubt that there is any gold.  The Spanish were diligent looters.  They felt that they had taken great risks against long odds and won, and that it was only fair that they reap their winnings, and did so with small notice, lest the King and the Church get their hands in.  Almost all tombs were looted in the early colonial period and scant record kept.
    What remains, though, would be a treasure chamber for archæologists, a royal mortuary sealed soon after the fact, when it was still revered and respected by those who lived around it.  If the chambers were cool and moist as Burgoa’s account says they were, this would not be good for preservation, but who knows what accidental survivals might remain in an untouched tomb.  The written record of the Indian era depends so much on what a few friars wrote of what the Indians told them, and the archæological record is limited to those things hard enough to survive, but here there could be fabric or feathered capes and intact bones and, since the Zapotec had a writing system, perhaps documents written on paper or linen, perhaps wooden objects, and certainly a profusion of pottery still in place.  There would have been the action of mold and bacteria and probably insects, but likely no animals to disturb these funerary arrays.  Everything that survives will be in perfect context.  A time capsule of a world five hundred years removed.  I am sometimes skeptical of the archæologists’ claim that they own the past, but I would give them this one.

Unlike their earlier, more robust predecessors, today’s archæologists are loath to hint that there might be any gold, lest the site be destroyed by looters in their absence.  I don’t think that will be a problem here, both because there still seems a respect for the site among the Indians, as well as having a thick, heavy 18th-Century church sitting on top of its likely entrance.  Some years back, excavations at the Zapotec site at Zaachila ended abruptly when angry Indians chased off the archæologists: for some reason, stories like that appeal to me.

And the speculation that the entry to the royal tomb was covered over by the church is not a new idea in Mitla.  Like the underground passageway and the great opening that was filled when the church was built, it is a story that people there have grown up with and give as much credence as they do any old story about things that don’t affect them or treasures that are hidden out of reach.

In researching something like this, you can’t help but notice things that haven’t been tried, and think how you would do it.  But as for myself, I am just as happy that it hasn’t been found, not just yet.  It’s not going anywhere and our ability to extract information from sites gets better all the time, so there’s no hurry.  And I enjoy imagining the Zapotec kings and priests and the great lords who died in battle all sitting together holding court in their dark domain, unconcerned if we ever find them.

[The seven posts of this series are collected in a more convenient form as a single document, which can be accessed by clicking on "the Tomb of the Zapotec Kings at Mitla" in the upper righthand corner of this page.]   

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Mitla, 6.

Are there other entrances?

If there is an 18th-Century church sitting on top of the entrance to the Tomb of the Zapotec Kings, effective closing it to us, is there another entrance?

What of that first story I heard, that there was an underground passageway from Monte Alban to Mitla?  No one knows where it is, of course, but ought that discourage us?  Unfortunately, there seems to be a pervasive tradition of underground passageways connecting sacred Indian sites.  In the Yucatán I was told the same thing about their sacred sites and also that, unfortunately, no such passageway had ever been found.  Of course that was a few years ago, and since then extensive natural underground passageways have been found in the limestone bedrock of the Yucatán.  It is true that they do not actually connect any sacred sites, but they are down there and are far from fully explored.

In the libraries at the Welte and the Grafica, trudging through the long march of later primary and secondary sources  --  which were interesting without being that helpful  --  I discovered Mexico South, a book about the Isthmus of Tehuantepec by the artist Miguel Covarrubias, which delighted me because I remembered him from my childhood as the illustrator whose distinctive work  --  unlike anything I had ever seen before  --  appeared in some of the high-tone magazines my father had around the house.  His book was a momento of that more gracious time when anthropology was not the exclusive reserve of the professoriat, but something that any well-educated and motivated person could respectably try his hand at.  One of many stories that Corvarrubias told was that of the Mixtec hero Condoy, cornered not far from here by his enemies, who fled into a cave and escaped through its vast tunnels to a distant place.  The Indians thought these tunnels went somewhere, though we have no clear evidence that they ever actually followed them very far.  And besides, for the Indians such things were not about geology but about something much more important: about their relationship to the domain of the gods from which their ancient ancestors had emerged and to which they return them in death.

There is not far away a site whose Indian name, Zetobaa means “the other sepulcre”, an entrance to the Underworld where were buried important persons not imminent enough to be interred at Mitla with the kings, priests and heroes who died in battle.  While this entrance is alledgedly connected to the Underworld, it was not suggested that it also went to Mitla.  There was another ancient site, visiteded by a friar in 1630, who described a large entrance into a mountain with painted walls, wide enough for two horsemen to enter abreast, which the Indians told him communicated by underground passageway to Mitla.  I find no reference to any archæological work having been done there, and it is in an area where I was told that marijuana is grown and visitors are unwelcome.

In the limestone mountains of the Zapotec Sierra there are caves everywhere.  Most are undoubtedly shallow and go nowhere; but most are also unexplored.  That we know of, at least.  But the main north-south highway goes right up the Valley and I have no doubt that narcotraficantes, who cultivate cannabis in the rugged hills, have investigated some of these caves, and may well feel proprietary about them.

But if the Tomb of the Zapotec Kings is there, underneath the thick stone foundations of the Church of San Pablo, just tantalizingly beyond our reach, what would we find if we ever reached it?

(the story will conclude . . .)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Mitla, 5.

I hate to play the autodidact, but it seems clear to me where the tomb is.  It is where the Indians had traditionally focused their piety and where, as a consequence thereof and in keeping with the almost universal practice of the Church it had appropriated a pagan holy place to the use of the new faith.  It is the only significant area of the ancient site that may not be examined as it was in pre-Hispanic times.  Its entrance, first sealed by the agitated friars “con cal y canto” was later sealed up definitively and is now utterly beyond our reach because it has a very heavy 18th Century church sitting on top of it.  The entrance to the Tomb of the Zapotec Kings, the great entrance to the Underworld at Mitla, is underneath the church of San Pablo on the patio of the northern-most ruins, the Group of the Catholic Establishment.

We know as surely as we know anything of the pre-Hispanic period that there was such an entrance to the Underworld at Mitla and this would appear to be the only place it could have been.  Burgoa, a native of nearby Oaxaca, thought it a natural feature, and all of the details of the friars’ adventure are of the entrance into a deep, natural feature.  No man-made structure is going to be deep enough to give rise to a wind that would blow out their torches, a chill wind that had been a long time underground.

As you stand in the nave of the church of San Pablo you may be only ten or twenty yards from the entrance to the Lost Tomb of the Zapotec Kings, but it might as well be on the moon.  You cannot go from there to there.

The Church, so much abused in Mexico, is not disposed to idle burrowing.  Ground-penetrating radar will almost certainly reveal underground chambers, but the geology of the area is such that natural concavities will show up most anywhere, and the tomb is almost certainly a natural concavity.

So how do we get to the tomb, this Lost Tomb of the Zapotec Kings?

If we give any credence to Burgoa’s account it would appear that the tomb lies at an entrance to a vast underground system.  It is situate in an area whose geology  --  lava flows overlaying limestone  --  ought be rife with underground chambers formed by flowing lava and underground waterways cutting through natural limestone.

Lava flows cool on the top and insulate the heated flow within, which continues one, eventually leaving an empty tube.  There is one in Hawaii fifty miles long.  There are many lava tubes in Mexico.  And one tube can break through into another.   And rainwater seeping into limestone can dissolve out passageways hundreds of miles long.

Can it be reasonable to think that an underground passageway that broke surface at Mitla has no other entrance?  Particularly if it is a lava tube, as these tend to be close to the surface.  And that these entrances have not been noticed?

(the story will continue . . .)