I’ve been to Mexico three times now, and my most recent trip got me thinking about how we treat our history and preserve culture. I visited the ruins of Teotenango, Calixtlahuaca, Mitla, and Monte Albán - all truly breathtaking places. Like visiting most ancient archaeological sites in Mexico, they’re very surreal experiences.
In Teotenango, the ruins sit high above a few small cities, watching over the modern lowlands that once held a giant lake to irrigate ancient crops in the area. Driving up to the site, you wouldn’t guess anything with such ancient human history is anywhere close. You see your typical small Mexican towns in the surrounding areas: narrow streets dotted with misceleneas, taquerias, or tienditas. You can easily get lost here, but asking the locals will point you in the direction.
It’s a measly 10 pesos to pass through the gate and walk up to the main archaeological site. The hike to the main plateau of the city is pretty steep, but once you reach the top, it’s definitely worth it. It looked as if these temples, because of the growth over time, were directly integrated into the hillside - a perfect harmony with nature. The site is covered in fields of wheat, tall grass and the occasional nopal cactus - all of which create a beautiful visual texture in every direction. Apart from the reconstructed temples, you can see remains on the horizon. Layers of sculpted rock climb up the hillside, begging to be uncovered and explored.
The beauty of Mexico’s archaeological sites and structures doesn’t just rest in the cultures that built them. It’s also in the physical layering that has accumulated over centuries in its structures. You can literally see the layers in Teotenango’s pyramids, which employed a common building method of covering the previous temple. Once a new age began or emperor was instated, the previous temple would be covered with a new, often larger and sometimes more ornate style.
Its easy to think that that the Church was effectively stamping out the native culture with many acts, but namely of building churches on top of important native temples. In Mitla, you see this as physical proof, right in front of your eyes. The main church there seems to ‘emerge’ from the main temples that crumble beneath it. For parts of the church, the stones from the temples around it were used in its construction. I couldn’t help but think that it was a perfect analogy to Mexico itself.
Its hard to shove the past away, especially if its ingrained into your way of life. After reading into the Spanish conquest, the situation with the native population was more about assimilation than disintegration. I think it’s an important distinction that’s pretty original compared to other settlements in the ‘new world’.
In Mexico, the past is all around you. And like any culture, one of the best places to look is in pieces of art. I found this piece of street art that captured Mexico’s cultural picture pretty well - a representation of the Virgin of Guadalupe (one of Mexico’s most famous Catholic icons) filled with symbols of animals and elements from native cultures.
The idea of immersing yourself in a culture that’s already there is something I’ve tried to internalize on every trip I’ve had to Mexico. To me, being immersed means to be constantly curious and interested in everything around me. After a few days there, my mind is pretty exhausted trying to learn and take in everything from the language to the surroundings and customs. It doesn’t set in quite yet that I’m in a different place. But after those few days of immersion, I feel at ease. I realize that the foreign things around me are supposed to feel that way, at least at first. Different languages, humor, and culture thrive here for a reason - people have grown up with it and perpetuated it for generations.
I’m amazed each and every single time I travel to Mexico. And a huge part of that comes from the presence of and dedication to the deep historical culture that’s all around in Mexico. I think it’s something we should all be thinking about in our lives: What are we doing to preserve our history? And if we don’t have much history, what can we do to make it easier for people to preserve later?