I’m Not Saying It’s Aliens

June 3, 2019

There are many guidebooks and tourist websites promoting Mexico’s ancient ruins. Cities such as Chichen Itza, Xochicalco or Teotihuacan, while hard to pronounce for newcomers, impress immediately with their stately proportions, the relief carvings, and, very often, the gorgeous locations their builders chose for them.

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The ruined city of Xochicalco, dating from 700–900 C.E., is set high on a hill.

They’re also baffling in a lot of ways, and pose many questions regarding their functions, their population, and their histories. The Maya had a system of writing, but other cultures in MesoAmerica usually lacked one, leaving us a few glyphs, or murals and some statuary. Archeologists therefore have to puzzle out chronologies and the places’ cultural significance.

Now, one thing that’s always irritated me in the study of ancient civilisations is “ancient aliens” theories. These cities didn’t suddenly spring up on their own; they were preceded by generations, often centuries, of more basic structures and experimentation. In Egypt, we see a clear pattern of simple tombs leading to the Step Pyramid at Saqqara and, from that, the huge structures erected in the 6th Dynasty. Along the way, there were major errors, like the pyramid of Meidum, where there was a major collapse of the outer casing because the builders went beyond their existing level of competence. In Mexico, even as late as the Aztecs in the 14th and 15th centuries of our era, their city of Tenochtitlan was built on ground subject to earth tremors, so that what’s left of their primary temple today leans at a crazy angle. So, asking how a large ruin “suddenly” came into being is like asking how any person “suddenly” came to be. A lot happened beforehand.

Where in Mexico do we find the precursors of the big cities? The answer is: pretty much everywhere. People began piling rocks to delineate sacred places for worship a long time ago, then gradually became more ambitious, creating more elaborate structures. Actual buildings at such locales were often simple wood buildings with thatched roofs, with stone temples – the stuff that lazy thinkers assume their aliens constructed – being the final step.

Along with hiking buddy Ixchel Tucker, a few months ago I visited the recently opened Tlatoani Pyramid at Tlayacapan, and was impressed at how many rings of piled stones circled its hilltop site. The precise function of each level was obscure to us, but it’s not an unlikely guess, given how later sites were set up, that each consecutive circle represented a more sacred part of the site. The word “pyramid” here is a conventional term, and doesn’t mean a quadrangular edifice. Rather, it’s a generic expression for stones piled in a purposeful manner.

At Tlatoani, there’s an actual temple structure at the top centre, partly restored by archeologists, which confirms my assumption.

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Ixchel in front of the rows of walls at Piramide Tlatoani, outside Tlayacapan.

At other places, there are simply a few petroglyphs, perhaps partly restored so we can see them, but baffling to the interpretive modern mind. Whatever god or hero is commemorated by them is for today’s visitor to decide in silence.

This past weekend, Ixchel and I put on our Indiana Jones boots (running shoes, actually), and hiked up to a small site behind this village of Amatlan. The pyramid there is rudimentary – a couple of rows of stones that are easy to overlook. But it was, local people say, sacred to the grandmother of Quetzalcoatl, the god-king whose was legendarily born just outside the village.

What did we discover?

The structure itself is maybe the least important feature of the site. More impressive was the location and the view down over the village and beyond. The ledge it sits on is near the mouth of a valley down which a stream flows in the rainy season, and the setting itself is surely the reason for the temple. People still go up there for vision quests, sitting through the night (or longer) to obtain insight that’s been lost in the world below them.

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The view from the Amatlan pyramid.

Behind it, rain-sculpted rocks tease the imagination towards legends of heroes and serpents, beneficent deities and rulers of societies. Assigning a specific story to them, as scholarship (and alien-mongers) would do, defeats grasping the sacredness. It all just feels strange, with the path leading up occupying spaces and trackways that don’t look like they could exist when seen from below. But for people dependent on rain and the caprices of natural forces for their crops and animals, creating a link to the heavens makes perfect sense in such a place.

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Easy to overlook, these stones were laid to demarcate the site. A second row can be glimpsed above it.

From the stones set there centuries ago, almost certainly by ancestors of the people still living here, you can look down on the village, and see relationships between the mountains and the farmlands. The “point” of the place lies in its connection between the everyday and the heights, the intersection of the mundane and the awe-inspiring.

I love the spectacular sites in Mexico. But these smaller places, which have only their modern names, are what whisper the secrets of what has been, and hint at what the ancient people who built them hoped and dreamed.

Shaken Churches

May 29, 2019

The earthquake that hit central Mexico on September 19, 2017, caused the most loss of life of any to hit the country in this century. The official death-toll was 370, but 6,000 more were injured as buildings collapsed in many towns and villages outside Mexico City. Some people, obviously, didn’t survive their injuries; there are also persistent rumours about poorer, undocumented people who didn’t survive the day.

The magnitude 7.1 temblor brought down many old structures as well as new ones that weren’t constructed according to quakeproof codes. Particularly hit were the monastic churches or conventos around the volcano Popocatepetl, which together constitute a UNESCO World Heritage site dating back to the 1500s. There is one in my town of Tepoztlan, the Convent of the Virgin of the Nativity, dating to the period 1555-1580, and another in the nearby town of Tlayacapan, dedicated to St. John the Baptist.


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The Tlayacapan convent of St. John the Baptist under repair.

The monastery in Tepoztlan was built on a massive scale, yet only four or five monks lived in the place at first. The expected uprisings didn’t happen in central Mexico, and the forced conversion of the native people went ahead with few glitches. The old religion with its multiple gods and goddesses persisted underground for many years, as a folk-faith, but the Cross essentially supplanted it.

Mexico has a complex relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. The religion arrived in the wake of Hernan Cortes’ conquest in the 1520s as a triumphalist follow-up to the military campaign. Some of the monks, notably the Franciscans, adopted a gentle approach, and others, notably the Dominicans, didn’t. For centrally run societies like those of the Aztecs and other MesoAmerican kingdoms, the defeat and the death of their leaders, followed by the epidemics that came with the conquistadors, resulted in a collapse of morale.

Later, the Virgin of Guadalupe largely supplanted the worship of Jesus Christ, though hardly any Catholics will admit this. While she has her own miracle story, she arose largely as a transformed version of the Toltec goddess Tonantzin, and some people see her in this guise this today. Christ is respected, but Guadalupe is loved. She is the glue holding much of Mexican society together, and no church in Mexico lacks a copy of her image.

The monasteries were seized by the state decades ago, and remain state property, even though they perform their traditional religious functions. The Tepoztlan one has served at times as a prison and a stable, and was falling into ruin after the Mexican Revolution ended a century ago. However, then-President Lazaro Cardenas saw it in the 1930s, and opted to restore it. Parts of the surrounding structures were lost, but the cloisters and monastic quarters today house a museum, and the church was usable … at least until September 2017.

No-one was sure, after the roofs began to cave in and outside stonework fell to the ground, if the monasteries could be restored. Such a project is very expensive, and a calls for special expertise to work using the old construction methods. Naturally, there are people who object to so much money going to restore old religious buildings, when the state is technically secular to the point of official atheism. But tourism is money, and Mexico without tourism would be …well, Panama North. Not too many people visit Panama. Thus, the money was found.

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Restoring the Convent in Tepoztlan.

So, stone by stone, and roof-beam by roof-beam, the damaged monasteries are being restored. Interior wall paintings are lost, but the appearance of the actual structures was well documented before the ‘quake hit, and is being faithfully replicated.

Like all old buildings, they need constant, ongoing maintenance. I wonder, each time I look at a rack of scaffolding with a man perched on it, what will be done if there’s another massive temblor. I thought this five years ago, when the towers in Tepoztlan were being repaired by men on precarious wood gantries. Mexico always rebuilds, but there’s a suspicion a new fault-line might have opened up or widened 20 months ago. If so, there’s a question mark over the future. Years of renovation efforts can end in seconds if a fierce enough shaking happens.

But Mexico is, depending on your standpoint, fatalistic or philosophical. Mexicans might hate their governments, their presidents and their smug richer class, but they love their ‘Mexicanidad,’ their Mexican-ness. And even if the church disgusts them as an institution, they will still want to see its monuments rebuilt, even if they secretly detest the past oppression those walls represent. In a way many western societies seem to have forgotten, they grasp the living power of symbols, and how essential they are in a world that’s losing its footing more every year.

Or, they know that to lose the oppressor’s monuments is also to forget the oppression.


When Tim opened Juanito’s five years or so back, it was a kiosk at the edge of the market, two metres square, that sold meatball subs, Chinese and Thai food, and the best hamburgers for miles around. After a month or two, it wasn’t worth queuing there on weekends, because the wait was too long.

In a couple of years, he moved across the street to a proper restaurant, catering to expats, but more to Mexicans who liked an occasional American-style meal. Since then, he and Claudia have made Juanito’s a destination for visitors who want something other than tacos, quesadillas or iffy pizza.

So, when he told me he was closing for Carnival to do renovations, I was surprised. Carnival draws in thousands of outsiders to Tepoztlan, and they come to eat and drink. That should be a restaurateur’s delight, yes?

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Streets are closed to accommodate the Carnival crowds.

But the drinking put Tim off.

“During Carnival, this town’s full of drunks,” he shrugged at me. “It’s not worth being open.”

He was right, and for the past four or five days I’ve tried to avoid being in town. The whole place was a mass of slow-moving, slightly unsteady people. But today was the last flourish, which meant the Chinelos came out in force. Their dance marks the annual conclusion of Carnival.

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Team leaders with banners encourage the dancers. Note the young Chinelo (centre right).

The Chinelos, it’s generally conceded, started in Tlayacapan, a sister town a few miles over the hills from Tepoztlan. Anthropologists say the name Chinelo comes from an old Nahuatl word, zienloquie, which means ‘disguised,’ though everyone has their own explanation for its significance, and for what a Chinelo is. Folk traditions seldom yield to one simple explanation.

There’s definitely a satirical aspect, directed at the elaborate dress of the rich in the late 1800s, an attitude that flowered more violently some years after the tradition’s start, in the Revolution of 1910. During the late 19th Century, both women and men of means wore elaborate clothing, especially for their entertainments, while the poorer people, who were often mere serfs on the plantations (haciendas) of the rich, wore very simple attire. But also, the ‘Chin’ part of the name possibly referred to China, whence came high quality ceramics and other fashionably stylish goods. The headgear of a Chinelo could also owe something to Qin Dynasty Chinese hats:

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Chinese Qin Dynasty court official’s hat.

Each town in our area has one or more groups of Chinelos. They wear a full-length, unbelted robe, frequently embroidered or decorated with religious or political imagery. The hat, like an inverted cone, has strings of beads, and feathers on top. The wearer has a mask with a bland expression and a pointed, up-curving chin-beard.

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Going for the  Santa Muerte look.

Chinelos, therefore, in the spirit of many Carnivals round the world, are protected from identification, even if the satirical side of the tradition has now passed. They enter in a group, to a fast march, played in a major key by a brass band, dancing a kind of lively samba, and inviting others to join in. Today in the marketplace, which is cleared out for Carnival, they gradually made their way round the space, up to a hundred people joining in at times.

The dance goes on for an hour, maybe more, some Chinelos dropping out as the heat (it was 28 degrees C today) becomes too much in those robes. Occasionally, a smaller figure goes to the sidelines to drink water, and you realise it’s the young son or daughter of a Chinelo parent: the tradition is strong in this way. The figures are all outwardly male, but there’s more going on than is stated, or revealed by the costumes.

Having seen Chinelos at a half-dozen late-winter Carnivals, as well as at other celebrations, I’m always struck by how upbeat their music is. There’s a sweet, sad tone to a lot of Mexican folk music, but there’s a triumphant tone to the main Chinelo song.

That means, when the Chinelos come in on Ash Wednesday morning, there’s always a lift. They embody … what? Something ancient, like conquering or redeeming spirits from the past. I won’t say they represent a happy ending, but rather they embody resilience; that ‘Mexicanidad’ that sees this country through bloodshed, endless scorn and incomprehension from its northern neighbour, and the ever-present possibility of disaster and poverty despite years of hard work. “We are more than our woes” is something only to be expressed by a people that, a half-millennium on from conquest and the destruction of whole cultures, still feel the lost struggle. The Christianising of old gods and goddesses into Catholic saints was never entirely complete; I’ve listened to fierce arguments over glasses of mezcal about whether the Virgin of Guadalupe, the nation’s great unifying icon, is or is not ‘really’ the goddess Tonantzin. A score of old legends form the historical basis for shrines to today’s local iterations of Jesus.

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Three Chinelos pose for a photo.

The Chinelos are an answer to all this. The old ways are still vital, they say, and have ways of reviving themselves. We old guardians changed, but we never truly went away.

And we dance. Just as preHispanic Mexico danced.

Carnival brings a lot of money to Tepoztlan, which has tourism for its main income today. In a country such as Mexico, which still has great inequality, that’s not to be spurned or denied. Still, I was happy to see the Chinelos today. Their tune, the vibe they bring, this morning re-established the norms of the town that has been … maybe not my home, in the usual sense, but a centre of gravity to my life, for a decade and more.

And of course, their dancing meant that Juanito’s opens again tomorrow. Tim’s burgers are too huge for me (the place gets through a lot of doggie bags), but I’m a sucker for his chicken parmesan baguettes. No, there’s nothing outwardly traditional about the place, but Tim’s wife is local, and the food features some chilis and other ingredients that link it to a much older cuisine.

So, maybe the Chinelos preserve the town and its traditions in ways you’d never imagine just from their dancing.