Thursday, January 26, 2017

San Luis Tlatilco and the Ubiquitous 16th Century Missionaries

In Mexico City, history is ubiquitous. We who live here can easily become oblivious and insensitive to the culture that seems to lurk around every corner.
Front entrance and belfry
of San Luis Tlatlico
Naucalpan has been an important industrial zone from the late 19th Century, especially textile mills, such as the Rio Hondo Fabrics Factory. inaugurated by President Benito Juarez in 1869. Later on in the 19th Century, the township center, San Bartolo Naucalpan, became a train station stop on the railroad line from Tacuba out to Toluca.

Atrium cross in the
churchyard of San Luis
I started working here 35 years ago, as the Marketing Director of an American rubber company, when Naucalpan was in its industrial heyday. However, many companies moved out at the outset of the 21st Century, and Naucalpan has become more of a residential and commercial hub than an industrial zone.

View from the front of the
Atrium Cross and San Luis
Naucalpan sits right across the city line from Mexico City, on the northwest side. As this area has grown,  the traffic has become more hectic day by day, and the township has tried to deal with this problem, by building overpasses.

San Luis Obispo Tolosa Tlatlico incorporates
several typical architectural elements common
to other Franciscan Churches of the 16th
Century, such as the predominant use of stone
and small windows. On the other hand, the 
masonry of the main door with its columns
may well  have been a remodeling project of
the late 18th century.
On one such overpass, of a main avenue, Gustavo Baz, at an intersection with another artery, 1 de Mayo, you can see out of your side window, thanks to the slow traffic during rush hours, the roofs of warehouses, abandoned factories, stores, houses, apartments, and a church building that anyone can see is not of recent construction: San Luis Obispo de Tolosa Tlatilco, dedicated to a saint venerated by the Franciscans, Saint Louis Bishop of Toulouse.
The bell tower of the church
of San Luis Tlatilco was
built in the 17th or 18th
Centuries, as you can see
it has several bricks, a
building material unknown
to the early Tlatilcos.
For decades, like everybody else here in Mexico, I would stop, mentally (not the car), and think: "Interesting looking Church. I should go see it someday." And as all good amendments, I would flush it down my mental drainage pipe into the spiritual sewage system, until a few days ago, when curiosity got the best of me, and after I drove over the overpass, I doubled back, through what now is an obviously very rough-looking neighborhood, with several winding and narrow streets, until I came out to a beautiful 16th Century structure.
The inside of the church is
simple yet beautiful.
The first thing I asked a young man coming out of the parish hall at the back of the Church: "The name of this Church is San Luis Obispo Tolosa Tlatilco, right? Why Tlatilco?"
The Tlatilco Cultural Museum, Naucalpan
"They were the first inhabitants of this area: the Tlatilcos," the kind young man explained to me. "When the Franciscans started their Missionary work in this area, the Tlatilcos had already disappeared. But their tombs were here and the local Indians came here to render honor to our ancestors. It was a cemetery of sorts. And when the Franciscans arrived, they decided to set up a chapel here to continue the custom of the local people to honor our ancestors." 
A typical figure of the Tlatilca
Culture dug up at the grave site
of the Old Franciscan Church
of San Luis Tlatilco
The Tlatilca was a pre-classical civilization that came to this area around the year 1200 B.C. Around the year 400 B.C., the Olmeca tribes came here and became the rulers of the area, and marrying into the local tribes, and in this case, the Tlatilcos. So after that point, we can see a new trend in the culture, as we can see in their pottery and other ceramics. One of the classical examples of the Tlatilca Culture are the female figures, with a small waist line, and large hips. One of the typical figures is a woman figure with two faces, as you can see in the above sculpture.  
The original figure of the
Tlatilca double-faced woman,
small waist, large hips and
short arms.
What were these figurines for? What did they mean? How much do we really know about the Tlatilca Civilization?
The figures' navel is a hole that
pierces the body from front to
back, and when we see that
with sunlight in the
background, the umbilicus
glows magically.
The beautiful Tlatilco figurines usually feature a hole in the navel. This is the door to the womb and represents the tabernacle of fertility.
Da Vinci´s drawing "L'Uomo di
Vitruvio" is a graphic rendering of
this famous principle of the Roman
Architect that Leonardo drew
probably as part of his own personal
study notes, than of something
intended as an artwork for posterity
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, Roman Civil Engineer, author and architect, comparing the symmetry of well built temple to the human body,  wrote in the 1st Century BC: "Item corporis centrum medium naturaliter est umbilicus.", (De Architectura, Liber III, Caput Primum).
Cesare Cesariano's "Homo ad Centrum"
in the first edition in Italian (1521) of
Vitruvius' De Architectura, is an even
clearer graphic illustration of the
Roman architect's concept of the
Umbilicus as the center of the body.
The Aztecs, completely isolated and independent from Roman Culture, considered their sacred and beloved capital, Tenochtitlan, as the umbilicus of the universe.
These figurines are from the
later Tlatilco-Olmeca culture:
certain details change, others
To begin with, we do not know what these people called themselves. Tlatilcos? No. Tlatilco is a nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) word, meaning "hidden people". But we do not know what these people called themselves.
This small figurine is one of the oldest and most
interesting fossil we have of the Tlatilco
civilization: "Boy with a ball in his arms."
You will not find a great deal about the Tlatilca Culture on the Internet, and not much has been written on the subject. The first excavations started in 1942, under the guidance of Professor Salvador Sanchez Zavala, who passed away only a few years ago. In 1947, the "Viking Foundation" became involved. And as of 1955, Román Piña Chan has been the principle on-site investigator for the Tlatilca Culture.
Tlatilco female figure with headdress, from a
later period, when the Olmeca culture had made
its impression
I went to visit the Museo Tlatilca and talked with Lourdes Andres, one of the persons who for almost 20 years has received visitors at this small one room museum. If you are fortunate, Lourdes might be on duty, when you visit. Although Lourdes does not flaunt the visitors with any specific degree in anthropology or archaeology, she is well documented, and her warm and friendly personality come aglow when she introduces the visitor to the different female figurines, as if were family members. After I finished my tour of the Museo, Lourdes suggested I visit the Naucalpan Municipal Chronicler, Jaime Orozco, at the city hall historical archives.
Tlatilco burial mask from Pre-Classical Period
Listening to Jaime Orozco is a real treat: not only is he a well prepared historian, but a wonderful communicator. "What the Franciscans discovered at the Tlatilco site they chose to build their church was more than a simple burial ground o sanctuorum as the Friars called them. It was the sacred place where the embalming of the corpses took place."
Obsidian scraper used for cleaning hides.

"We might not know the name the Tlatilco people used to call themselves," Jaime Orozco explained to me, "but this does not limit us in knowing a great deal about them. We know they had a religion, a belief in life after death. The female figure is an important symbol in their beliefs, as they would bury these figurines, symbols of fertility to invoke their gods to grant them fertile crops. Some experts believe that the female figurine with two faces symbolizes human fertility and the fertility of the earth. We know that Tlatilco was an important center for trade, as many objects we find in their tombs are not endemic  to the area, but come from far away areas, such as the obsidian they used for making scrapers for cleaning hides."
This terracotta vase is from the
beginning of the Tlatilco Culture
Pottery was quite utilitarian in style at the beginning of the Tlatilco Culture: very little decorative elements or forms, yet functional.
Pottery from the later Tlatilco
Culture, once influenced by
the Olmeca civilization.
As the Olmeca influence took hold, pottery has a more sophisticated detailing and finishing, more pleasing to the eye. As we can see in the picture below, women, especially in the period after the Olmeca intrusion into the Tlatilco culture, wore elaborate jewelry, earrings, necklaces, piercings, makeup and hair styles: obviously a rich and sophisticated people.
Female makeup and jewelry
make it clear that the Tlatilco
people were a rich civilization
What we do know about the Tlatilcos was that they had elaborate burial rituals, and they used stone rollers to dye the skin of their deceased with red paint. Afterward, they would put the corpse in a textile wrapping and buried the person in a fetal position.
On the bottom left, there is a roller seal for
marking the skin of the corpse to be buried.
Now we can leave the Tlaticos, the "hidden people" according to their nahuatl neighbors, rest peacefully in their graves, and come back to the 16th Century. The Franciscans  established a Monastery in Tacuba: San Gabriel. But the needs of the neophytes grew in Naucalpan. So the Franciscans established a Church in San Bartolo Naucalpan, dedicated in honor of the Apostle Saint Bartholomew. But for the needs of the new Christians in Tlatilco, San Bartolo was too far away. So more parishes were established, among them, San Luis Tlatilco. The first roads of the Missionaries were established, on what had been the commercial routes of the native tribes of New Spain. These are roads that we invite you to discover with us in Road of Faith and Art.
The Virgin of Guadalupe
sparkles under the sunlight.
The challenge that the Franciscans faces in their quest to Christianize the native peoples of New Spain is simply overwhelming. They rose to the challenge with zeal, vigor and a great deal of common sense. They made every attempt to learn the languages, to understand the cultures and to adapt the message of Christ to a totally New World.

A stunning stone sculpture
of Juan Diego receiving
the miraculous roses from
Our Lady of Guadalupe.
History is often narrated in 3rd person singular. For this article, I chose 1st person singular. I believe that the Philosophy of History, especially as viewed by Hegel, has to take a few steps forward, and deeper. "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat" are the famous words of George Santayana.  History is not only "what happened", but "the person analyzing what happened together with what happened". Ortega y Gasset broke through the barriers of Idealism with "Yo soy yo y mis circumstancia" ("I am I and my circumstance", Meditations on El Quijote, 1914). History, not only beauty, exists in the eye of the beholder.  History is not a practical subject. I am  not only asserting the subjective nature of history, as the axiom dictates, "History is written by the victors". History, by definition, always deals with a specific object, but ceases to exist without the subject. 

San Luis Obispo Tlatilco
withstands the tempests of
passing times with stoic
elegance and simplicity
 History is everyone's business!

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