Nation Building in Mexico

During the summer of 2018, I participated in a month-long study-abroad experience in Mexico. My group from Sam Houston State University traveled more than 1,500 miles from Cancún and Merida, to Palenque and Oaxaca, and on to Puebla and Mexico City. Our class stopped at 30 locations, swam in a natural limestone cenote, and dined on local cuisines, including street tacos and chapulines (grasshoppers). As we explored Mexico, I learned about the historic peoples and cultures of the region, such as the Maya, Zapotec, and Mexica (Aztec). Each group had its own rich and unique history, which proved fascinating and sometimes disturbing. Nineteenth-century nation builders, such as Mexican political leaders, turned the archaeological remains that we visited into a vibrant national patrimony, which formed the essence of a new and “genuine” Mexican culture that was distinct from the history of Spanish colonialism and Western values.

Nation states have generally been built by those in power: politicians, financiers, and the elite members of society. To create a national identity, those in power shape a narrative to bond people, states, and tribes with a common goal or purpose. As historian Christina Bueno argues in her book, The Pursuit of Ruins, “nations are not some sort of ‘natural production of history. Instead, they have been actively created, a process referred to…as nation building.”[1] Nation building was crucial, especially in former colonial states like Mexico, to “replace more traditional forms of government, such as empires and dynastic states.”[2] With the heterogenous mixture of divergent factions in Mexico, each deeply devoted to its community and way of life, it took leadership, money, and sometimes force to forge a post-colonial national identity. In turn, this new culture can help diminish divisions. Such an identity “forges a sense of belonging…[and] unity,” which is generated through “things like maps, museums, and censuses, that allow a government to imagine its domain.”[3] People who share the same views and values will be more likely to comply with orders, submit to authority, and conform to national laws. A sense of pride in their national identity will ensure that people will remain fiercely loyal to their respective nation.

Under the leadership of president Porfirio Díaz (1877-1911), government officials in Mexico began to modernize the state and forge a national identity. Instead of building the nation around a great ruler, Díaz created a nation out of a variety of regional histories. “The Díaz regime worked hard…to bring the ancient objects [Goddess of Water, Chacmool, Aztec Calendar, etc.] under state control; it placed guards at ruins [Teotihuacan, Chichén Itzá, Palenque, etc.], strengthened federal legislation,…and in 1885 established the first agency exclusively to protect them, the General Inspectorate of Archaeological Monuments of the Republic.”[4] It was not an easy process. According to Bueno, they even had to “drag” artifacts away from local residents to place in the National Museum.[5] But now, there “was a place where Mexico’s official past was made visible, where visitors could witness the country’s ancient splendor, and where Mexicans could gain a sense of themselves as a people who shared a common history rooted in antiquity.”[6]

While traveling across Mexico, I saw first-hand how the state forged a single nation out of the disparate groups and peoples that had once warred against each other. Our journey began at the archaeological site of Tulum, one of the country’s most-visited tourist destinations. Situated on the Caribbean coastline of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, Tulum functioned as a Mayan seaport from roughly 1200 to 1450 CE. The city was surrounded by three large stone walls and a small beach with a large coral reef to provide a natural barrier of protection against foreign invaders. “In antiquity, the Mayas were divided into ethnic groups with similar physical characteristics, though with some local features. Similarly, they spoke languages belonging to the same stock and shared one and the same historical and cultural tradition, also with local variants.”[7] As with most Maya metropolises, the people of Tulum were separated by class: the noble class, middle class, and lower class. The noble class lived within the walled temple complex, “an area that no doubt was the civic, administrative and ceremonial sector, where the palaces and temples stood.”[8] The lower classes lived in the surrounding areas, just beyond the wall. The trade system was controlled by the elite; the trade goods included: “salt, honey, wax, skins, precious feathers, tobacco, vanilla, rubber, shells, flints, obsidian, jadeite, quartz, turquoise, amber, pottery, fish and dried meats.”[9] The people of Tulum were known to trade with distant places such as Costa Rica, Panama, and the centralized Mexico region. As a result, the Mayans developed a coastal marking system to “aid navigation by providing facilities for embarking and disembarking places. The system included different markers placed along the coast to indicate sources of fresh water, the natural passes through reefs or the presence of populations. Many of the temples and shrines built on the coast…[were] references for sailors. In addition, there was a system of signals made with smoke and flags to help navigation.”[10] Archeological evidence suggests that the inhabitance of Tulum died from Spanish diseases, not by the actual hands of the Spaniards.[11] Work began in the early 1900’s to excavate the site and open the beach for public usage.

Cobá, an older Mayan metropolis, was one of the more remarkable sites that we visited; it seemed less staged and closer to nature. The Mayan occupancy at Cobá spanned from the first to the fifteenth century, although the city was at its height between 300 and 900 CE.[12] As we entered the city complex, a chorus of avian songs echoed throughout the forest. Cobá in its heyday was a mighty city, filled with striking imagery, enchanting sounds, and resilient people. Cobá “with more than 6,500 structures, a complex network of roads and more than 45 stelae, was the largest and most important city in the northeast of the Yucatán Peninsula….Its system of sacbeoob [roads] is one of the most impressive in the Maya world, since it is made up of 43 roads: two regional, eight zonal and 36 local. The most important is Sacbé 1, 62 miles long, which joins Cobá and Yaxuná, very close to Chichén Itzá.”[13] The first pyramid that I climbed was Nonoch Mul at Cobá. It was everything that I hoped it would be; Mother Nature in all of her unblemished perfection, and the awe-inspiring view of the expansive Mayan kingdom. Being fully immersed in the natural surroundings of this Mayan metropolis helped me gain a better understand of the Mayan way of life.

After spending the night in a Spanish colonial town, Valladolid, we visited the Mayan settlement of Chichén Itzá, which was developed and cultivated from around 435 to 1200 CE. Present day Chichén Itzá had a very lively Maya market, with vendors on both sides of the walkway, leading up to the Pyramid of Kukulcan. There were tables full of brightly colored artwork, crafts, and clothing, all made by the local Maya population. This sprawling site was made up of many different complexes, such as the Platform of Venus, the Temple of the Warriors, the Ball Court, the Sacred Cenote, the Temazcal (steam bath), the Plaza of the Thousand Columns, and most notably, the Observatory.
One of the most distinctive structures in the prehispanic Mayan world [is]…the Observatory…The form of this observatory is very similar to modern observatories and is composed of three levels…The third level has a series of openings or small windows which were used for astronomical observations. From here, the Maya studied the cosmos and predicted the movements of the stars, planets, moon and sun. At the equinoxes, it is still possible to observe the alignment of the stars in the windows of this masterfully conceived scientific building.[14] The Mexican national story really came alive in vivid detail at Chichén Itzá. This showcase city was a very well-designed example of the Mayan lifestyle.

From the Yucatan peninsula, we traveled inland to Palenque, a political power center, which seemed more formal and stately than the other Mayan settlements we visited. The immense wealth and innovation at Palenque was exactly what the nation builders needed to build their historical narrative. As Bueno states, “Central to this sense of [national] unity is the invention of a national past, a history that gives the population a shared heritage and origin…They are elite interpretations of the past, histories constructed by statesmen and intellectuals who have been remembered as ‘nation builders.’ Often, these leaders base such histories in antiquity or a remote past in an attempt to give the nation a sense of timelessness along with prestigious, ancient roots.”[15] While the elite national builders may have had an agenda, that did not take away from Mayan ingenuity. During the Classic Maya period (200-600 CE), Palenque implemented the use of an aqueduct system.[16] The Maya, skilled at adapting to their environment, “met the challenge of simultaneously controlling flooding, reducing erosion, and bridging divided civic space, the Maya of Palenque covered portions of the existing streams by constructing elaborate subterranean aqueducts that guided the water beneath plaza floors.”[17] The king of Palenque, Pakal, commissioned the building project on the Temple of Inscriptions which would house his sarcophagus, yet he did not live to see it into completion. Pakal was buried in a fashion similar to Egyptian Pharaohs, “a veritable Tutankhamun of the New World, his is the most elaborate Maya tomb yet discovered.” Within his sarcophagus lay the body itself, “bathed in bright red cinnabar (a toxic compound of mercury) and bedecked in copious amounts of jade jewelry. Apart from the multi-beaded collar and wristlets, there were jade rings on every finger, a jade cube clenched in one hand, a sphere in the other. His face was covered by a jade mosaic mask, his mouth framed by an ornament of red-painted pyrites.” Accompanying the remains were, “900 pieces of jadeite, shell, pearl and obsidian…Jadeite had a profound significance for the ancient Mayas, since it represented the vital fluids (such as water and blood) and the regeneration of the plant world.”[18]

Pakal and his son brought power, innovation, and excellence to the region. According to Bueno, “For the wealthy and educated elites, the very act of studying and controlling the past gave Mexico the coveted aura of a scientific, cosmopolitan, and modern nation.”[19] Palenque was prestigious, masterfully designed, and aesthetically pleasing; the crown jewel for any nation builder.

From Palenque, we traveled to the neighboring state of Oaxaca. There, we visited Monte Alban, once home to the mighty Zapotec empire. Built on a high mountain, Monte Alban has often been referred to as the “Olympus of Oaxaca.” At the top of the site, there was an all-encompassing view of the valley and the city below. This ceremonial center was created to honor their gods and noble class. The building of such an elaborate city center, atop a mountain plateau, was also a way to display their power, status, and wealth. In 1931, Alfonso Caso discovered Tomb 7 at Monte Alban, “one of the richest and most famous archaeological discoveries ever made in the New World….An extraordinary assortment of over 500 exotic grave goods includes objects of gold, silver, copper, jade, turquoise, rock crystal, obsidian, and pearls. The quality of the artistry is exceptional, featuring such techniques as metallurgy, stone carving, mosaic, and fine incising of bone and stone.”[20] The Oaxaca valley was a diverse agricultural community. This region “included some of Mesoamerica's earliest evidence for domesticated plants. Squash which goes back to 9000 BCE making it one of the planets oldest cultivars.”[21] The increase in agriculture production, due to the use of irrigation and terracing, gave rise to the Zapotec city-states which began around 400 A.D. Monte Alban was the Zapotec ceremonial capitol “with the earliest hieroglyphic inscriptions in Mesoamerica.”[22] It is believed that Monte Alban fell into disrepair due to lack of care and internal power struggles between the upper and lower class. Although the Zapotec hieroglyphics have yet to be deciphered, there is still enough archeological evidence to reveal the innerworkings of their civilization and religious practices.

After driving through the Paso de Cortés between the Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl volcanoes in central México, we traveled northward to Teotihuacán (100 BCE-550 CE). This remarkable archaeological site is located roughly 30 miles northeast of Mexico City. At its height, around 300 EC, “Teotihuacan hosted a patchwork of cultures including the Maya, Mixtec, and Zapotec.”[23] In the Aztec language, Nahuatl, the word Teotihuacán means “place of the gods.”[24] Upon entering the complex, I was completely captivated by the sheer magnitude of the Pyramid of the Sun, “place of the gods,” indeed. This was the most important site to Porfirio Díaz’s nation-building régime. When the government first decided to excavate the site, it was “estimated they [the local population] had carpeted the ruins with over 250 plots, full of crops, pirú trees, and maguey. If Teotihuacán were to evoke a mythical past, it had to become an empty ceremonial center, unhindered by competing interpretations of the ruins; it had to be free of residents.”[25] Originally, the government wanted to seize the land from the locals without compensation.[26] However, the government finally paid 100 pesos for the Pyramid of the Sun.[27] As the workers began restoration and reconstruction on the pyramid, there was an additional terrace added, “leaving it with five levels, when archaeologist believe there were originally just four. The much thinner terrace still found near the top of the pyramid is most likely a fabrication.”[28] Teotihuacán would ultimately become the exemplary standard of Mexican history, power, and advancement; while also serving as a national treasure and a world heritage site.

Our final region to explore was the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan (1325-1521 A.D.), which is under present-day Mexico City. The island city of Tenochtitlan, situated in the middle of Lake Texcoco, was full of canals and causeways developed by the Aztec. It was described by the Spaniards as the “Venice of the New World.”[29] The Aztecs used the canals to transport supplies and building materials. They also came up with a unique way to cultivate their crops by building chinampas. These ancient gardens were “created by digging ditches and piling mud on both sides…After the Aztecs dredged soil and dead plants from the lake bed, they used sticks, rocks and branches to hold the piled-up earth in place. This created island garden beds in the middle of those lakes.”[30] This was an ingenious way to sustain their ever-growing populations which ultimately peaked at around 200,000 residents.[31] As we explored the city, it was hard to imagine that the remnants of the mighty Aztec empire were actually underneath the bustling city of present day Mexico City. The Templo Mayor was the first stop on our excursion. Once the heart of Aztec society, all that was visible while walking towards the once colossal temple, was the expansive Spanish cathedral complex. Situated behind the church, almost as if it was tucked away in a corner, were the remnants of the Templo Mayor, beaten down and withered away. It looked as if someone had peeled the concrete back to view the varying layers of this once impressive temple. We were viewing the past and present colliding. Many of the Spanish buildings were made from the remains of the decimated Aztec temples. During its peak of power, the Aztec empire grew to almost 40 to 50 smaller city-states.[32] This power was brought about through the use of “marriage alliances and other strategies involving war, the Aztecs gradually gained political power…they achieved their objectives: first growth, independence and exemption from tribute, then expansion and conquest.”[33]

The Aztec empire had a centralized base of power, Tenochtitlán, surrounded by smaller subjugated city-states. According to scholars Simon Martin and Martin Grube, “The major consequences of Aztec conquest were economic, in the form of tribute payments, and political, in the transformation of local leaders into vassals of the emperor.”[34] The subjugated states were displeased with the Aztec stronghold. So, when the conquistadors arrived, the indigenous population eagerly formed an alliance. According to Atwood, "The Spaniards were joined by thousands of indigenous people who were enemies of the Aztecs…because they were sick of paying tribute. They saw Cortés as their salvation.”[35] Tenochtitlán held much of the pre-Columbian history in archives and libraries.[36] “The civilizations of Mesoamerica, going back to the Olmecs, wrote documents in picture glyphs, or a hieroglyphic system. Writers kept these documents on scrolls or screen-fold books on a form of paper that they made from deerskin or the bark of fig trees…which could be folded like screens or hung on walls like a mural.”[37] Once firmly implanted in the “New World” the “Spanish invaders and Catholic clergy who accompanied them destroyed many of the documents and archives of the civilizations which preceded them. They carried out this destruction often for military reasons (to demoralize the indigenous fighters opposing them), or, in other cases, on religious grounds (to battle what they regarded as false faith of the native peoples).”[38] Portions of the indigenous population, alongside of the conquistadors, participated in the destruction of the Aztec civilization.[39] “The Spanish also massacred most of the Aztec priests, many of whom were scholars who had preserved invaluable oral and written histories.”[40] Many temples/pyramids in Mesoamerica were decimated by the Spanish, and Christian churches erected atop of the ruined remains. In Merida, under the direction of Montejo, “a grid was superimposed [for the layout of new Spanish capital] on the vast ceremonial complex, with the new plaza at its center surrounded by five great Maya pyramids. The temples atop the pyramids were ordered razed—using the labor of the descendants of the ancient Maya who had built them centuries before—leaving only raised platforms and an abundant supply of cut stone to construct new buildings around the plaza.”[41] The desecration and destruction of Mesoamerica and its population is immeasurable. Díaz, however flawed, was able to salvage and restore portions of the nation’s history.

Studying abroad in Mexico was an incredible experience. We were fully immersed in a culture for almost a month with the best resources and locations to study. The Mexican national story is one of resilience, with the loss of their heritage, land, and many lives, yet the people continue to rebuild and carry on. No matter what presiding forces inhabit their nation, the heart and spirit of the Mexican people will always be the driving force creating their story. Nation building is a deeply complex, at times, volatile process, and yet by the end of our journey, I felt the nation builder’s narrative fully solidified Mexico’s place in history.