Several months back, I went to Mexico to visit some old friends. Okay, it was kind of a long time ago, but whatever. It takes me kind of a long time to get my shit together, and that’s just the way life goes. In any case, on one of my last days there we organized a daytrip from D.F. up to the Pirámides, the ruins of Teotihuacan. It was one of the few “must do” sightseeing excursions we agreed upon, along with the Templo Mayor and Basílica de Guadalupe; obviously, most of my vacation planning centers around food. In this case, however, we were after history.
Riffing off of the theme of procrastination, I’d had grand designs of doing some hard-core reading up in preparation for my trip to Mexico, highly anticipated for several years. There were books to be read, history to dig into and a mountain of things to learn beforehand, so as not to appear completely ignorant and overwhelmed upon arrival. What *actually* happened was that I vegetated for about six days straight over the Christmas holiday and then attempted to catch up with the surprisingly ever-increasing list of people that I care about who live in other time zones via extravagantly hand-made holiday cards featuring multiple moving parts. I know, people, this is absolutely Shocking. Shocking, that there are people I care about from the past, and whom I miss.
So I showed up at Teotihuacan slightly groggy from a nap on the bus and miffed at our delayed start to the trip I’d been anticipating for more than a year. Slathering sunscreen all over my güera self, I power-walked with my friends through the gate of the UNESCO World Heritage Site mildly disturbed by the avenue of cheap sombreros and kitschy tourist fare ranging from ceramic whistles to super-authentic Aztec bow-and-arrow sets, not forgetting the ubiquitous vírgen por todas partes, emblazoned on any two-dimensional surface. I’m glad my friends made me walk through the museum to do a little reading beforehand, because, as with most things in life, knowing the backstory makes the experience ten times more special.
Unlike the majestic metropolis of Tenochtitlán, with its fairly meticulous historical record and actual proximity to Western imperialism, Teotihuacán is one of those mysterious lost places that history forgot for a time. There are few places like this in the world–physical traces of a human civilization that flourished long ago and disappeared for reasons other than asshole Europeans pillaging and burning everything in sight. I didn’t realize that it wasn’t part of the famed mexica or Aztec empire, and belonged to a world so far away that even Moctezuma and his contemporaries regarded it as mythic. It blows your mind a little when the place that you’ve entered was a whisper of a legend to the people that you thought were part of an already ancient history with its own set of iconography and legends that you’re just starting to learn.
What the Wikipedia articles gloss over, and the pretty excellent explanations in the museum clarify, is that the names of the “important” places are the names the first group of conquerors gave to a place that they didn’t understand, imposing their own mythology and making sweeping assumptions about what was important. The “pyramid of the sun” was, in all likelihood, not dedicated to the sun god at all, but rather to the all-important bringer of rain and storms.
It kind of turns your world around when the thing that you revere is the opposite of something that a whole other society assigns the most power. What do you do in that case? Clearly, you give up trying to figure out why they may have seen things differently than you do, and you call the biggest and best thing the name that you’ve always called the biggest and best thing.
So what is Teotihuacán, and what does it mean? I haven’t a fucking clue. The best part about climbing up those hundreds of steps, wheezing heavily at each stair-stepped layer and imagining the sounds and colors that might have actually surrounded me when people walked the Avenida de los Muertos and used it for what it likely was: an urban thoroughfare with shops and administrative buildings, was trying to understand how this place built of stone that I could touch with my hands had at some point become unmoored from history and lost its explanation. The names are gone, and so are the answers to a million questions.
It’s a place that resists definition and explanation, but at the same time retains so much information, so many half-answers and familiar stories. There are old gods and conquering kings, mis-read and half-interpreted by a series of seemingly erudite cultures. There’s the tantalizing possibility of Modern Science being able to tell a story that’s been lost, and connect the present to a past even further away than the glory days of the empire archaeologists unearthed a generation ago. Teotihuacán, with nearly a million visitors a year is undeniably a part of Mexico’s present, and it means a great deal to the country as a landmark and historical site. It’s a place of learning and discovery where today’s historians and scientists are actively working to connect the physical place to a larger narrative of national history, but it’s also a place that resists understanding.
The vibrant colors and stucco facades have dissolved, and while microscopic traces of pigment may give us clues to imagine what the veneer of the structures looked like, the few traces of red paint inside carved shells and plumed serpents’ mouths reminded me more of the things at Teotihuacán that are irrevocably lost, that are fundamentally unknowable. We tell ourselves a story about the place, based on the best evidence that we’ve got, but at the end of the day, when you haul your tired legs up the four steps of the bus, it’s just another story. We call it history now, but an age from now the pyramids will likely have a different name, one that reflects what some other civilization thinks is the real story.
It is humbling to realize that in the midst of hearing a story that’s half a millienium old, you encounter another story that can’t even be told. Te quiero, México.
At the end of the day my irreverent heart was ultimately won over by the ridiculous vendors selling hand-held whistles that replicated the calls of America’s iconic animals: the big cat, the high-flying bird of prey, the wily serpent, and I shamelessly purchased a fist-sized clay sculpture awkwardly painted with blue acrylic paint. Hollow clay can now make the sounds of a jaguar’s roar reverberate through my cobalt-blue living room just as it did on the epic staircases of the pyramids. Who knows…maybe that’s what it really sounded like in the city where the gods were born. What I know for sure is that noise scares the crap out of my cat, and it’s hilarious.