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Mexicolore contributor Catherine Whittaker

The Aztecs are back! Paradoxes of deliberate syncretism in Mexican Catholicism today

We are most grateful to Catherine Whittaker for this intriguing account of a Catholic priest who is reaching out to the indigenous population of Milpa Alta, near Mexico City, respecting their religious past... by building an Aztec-style pyramid on church ground! Currently a PhD researcher in anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, UK, Catherine works on violence, democracy, myth, gender, and morality among the descendants of the Aztecs.

Pic 1: A stone block - part of the base of a column supporting a colonial Mexican church or mansion - with the image of the Aztec earth deity Tlaltecuhtli sculpted on two sides. Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 1: A stone block - part of the base of a column supporting a colonial Mexican church or mansion - with the image of the Aztec earth deity Tlaltecuhtli sculpted on two sides. Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Why would a Catholic priest build a pyramid? When I first came to Santa Ana Tlacotenco, in the rural outskirts of Mexico City, I spotted a pyramid sculpture in the inner courtyard of its church. It was puzzling to see this emblem of the Aztecs’ religion in a Catholic space. After all, many colonial-period Catholic churches were built over Aztec pyramids during the conversion, often even reusing the stones of the older building, as some surviving reliefs show (pic 1). According to many people in the partially Nahuatl-speaking population of the small town, the church of Tlacotenco also sits on the site of what once was a pyramid.

Pic 2: The Aztec pyramid by the church of Santa Ana Tlacotenco, Milpa Alta
Pic 2: The Aztec pyramid by the church of Santa Ana Tlacotenco, Milpa Alta (Click on image to enlarge)

Yet now the opposite has happened: The current priest, Juan Ortiz Magos, had an Aztec-style pyramid built onto church ground on 3 February 2014 (pic 2). He did this soon after he arrived in Tlacotenco, in order to reach out to the indigenous population and show his respect for their religious past. He took inspiration from the archaeological sites of Teotihuacan and Tula when he designed the pyramid together with some local artists, the Comuneros Cuauhatotolli. They paid great attention to detail, as some of the stones of the pyramid feature reliefs of important Aztec symbols: corn, the moon, and a jaguar, among others. The pyramid is surrounded by flowers and even functions as a fountain, as its Teotihuacan-style Quetzalcoatl heads spout water from the top, while it is illuminated by changing coloured lights on special occasions. Atop the pyramid sit two large clay figures, donated by a private individual, Guadalupe Vergara Vilchis: the Virgin of Guadalupe and indigenous St. Juan Diego, kneeling before her.

Pic 3: The church of Tlacotenco
Pic 3: The church of Tlacotenco (Click on image to enlarge)

This seems to be the key to understanding the priest’s pyramid: Aztec symbols are accepted so long as they do not threaten the Catholic faith, and may even function as a pedestal for it. However, although at present roughly 25 other Mexican priests mix elements of autochthonous religiosity into Catholic rites, Ortiz’s deliberate syncretism has been a source of controversy, both in the church and in the congregation. Among Tlacotencas, some think he should be going further: a male member of the Nahuatl Language Academy criticized the symbolic superiority of the clay Guadalupe statue atop the pyramid. Others think he is bringing heathen elements back that had already been “overcome”: an elderly lady proudly observed that Tlacotencas are now “better Catholics” than they used to be in her youth.

Pic 4: The priest of Santa Ana Tlacotenco inaugurates his pyramid in February 2014
Pic 4: The priest of Santa Ana Tlacotenco inaugurates his pyramid in February 2014 (Click on image to enlarge)

On special occasions, such as the pyramid’s inauguration (pic 4), Father Juan wears a feather headdress (copil), a staff, and carries an incense burner. Particularly the copil has caused tensions between him and higher-level clergy, he says. He has been accused of not knowing his place in the church hierarchy and pretending to be a bishop, a dispute that came down to: “Your hat’s bigger than mine.” Father Juan emphasizes that he never wears a copil inside a church, but only for Neo-Aztec blessings in the churchyard, where it identifies him as the religious authority in the group of feathered dancers. And he is indeed recognised as an authority by indigenous groups, as some have reached out for his help in resolving problems with state officials. Father Juan gladly takes responsibility for their safety.

Pic 5: Father Juan sketching his concept “nauhyollotl” in July 2015
Pic 5: Father Juan sketching his concept “nauhyollotl” in July 2015 (Click on image to enlarge)

Father Juan sees no contradiction in being a Catholic priest and celebrating Aztec culture, as both form part of his heritage, and he thinks of himself as a cultural interpreter who helps to communicate Catholic ideas through indigenous concepts. For instance, he explained that the pyramid’s four corners and its summit together form an Aztec quincunx symbol, which can be superimposed over a Christian cross as well as the four cardinal points. Just as Christ stands for life, the quincunx stands for olin, which means “motion, movement” in Nahuatl, the regenerative force of change. God, or Tloque Nahuaque, the “Lord of the near and nigh”, is at the centre of the earth and summons people from everywhere. Father Juan designed a Nahuatl word to capture his unique theological vision: nauhyollotl, from nahui, “four” and yollotl, “heart, life” (pic 5). This, he says, is a more meaningful concept than nahui olin, “four movement”, the Nahuatl term for our era, because the heart is sacrificed to give life, which stands for the crucified Christ.

Pic 6: The volcano Teuhtli (“Lord of fire”), Milpa Alta’s most important landmark
Pic 6: The volcano Teuhtli (“Lord of fire”), Milpa Alta’s most important landmark (Click on image to enlarge)

Father Juan refers to Tlacotencans as “indigenous”, although they generally reject the label themselves, as they consider it to be pejorative, given widespread discrimination against indigenous people. He does not apply this label to himself, though, despite having been born in the neighbouring town of San Antonio Tecómitl. Instead, his engagement with indigenous culture is mainly out of intellectual interest, as he describes it, having taken classes on Nahuatl language and culture at both the National University of Mexico and the Nahuatl Language Academy in Tlacotenco.

Pic 7: Tlacotencan women and Father Juan Ortiz (right) waiting for the Nahuatl language mass in the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in October 2015
Pic 7: Tlacotencan women and Father Juan Ortiz (right) waiting for the Nahuatl language mass in the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in October 2015 (Click on image to enlarge)

On this basis, he was previously put in charge of the “indigenous mass” in the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City and also recently participated in a special mass there for the diverse Nahuatl-speaking populations of Mexico. In Tlacotenco, too, he runs Nahuatl-language masses and often makes reference to the Aztec ancestors in his sermons. Interestingly, he is doing this at a time when the Catholic Church is beginning to apologize for its colonial-period crimes, including forced conversion. This begs the question: Is the priest seeking reconciliation, or is he rather (mis)using indigenous knowledge for missionary purposes? Father Juan himself sees nothing wrong with treading in the footsteps of colonial-period Franciscans, though he remains silent about elements of Aztec religion that are not compatible with Catholic belief, such as polytheism.

Pic 8: The Tlacualchihque/Tlacualera dancers visiting San Pedro Atocpan in December 2015
Pic 8: The Tlacualchihque/Tlacualera dancers visiting San Pedro Atocpan in December 2015 (Click on image to enlarge)

Nonetheless, his selective cultural revitalization strategy has actually had quite an impact: Among other things, he inspired a retired school teacher to re-assemble the Tlacualchihque (Nahuatl, “cooks”) group, more commonly known by the Hispanicised label, tlacualeras (pic 8), who meet three times a week to make handicrafts, such as woven belts, embroidery, and bead earrings, practice folkloric dances, sing popular songs in Nahuatl, and cook local recipes, all of which are in danger of disappearing from memory. It is an encouraging sign that the tlacualeras are now a fixture at public events, including the inauguration of the pyramid.

NOTE: An earlier version of this text was published in April 2016 as “Sahagún reloaded? The priest, his pyramid, and deliberate syncretism in Milpa Alta” in Mexicon: Journal of Mesoamerican Studies 38 (2): 33-34. Follow the link below for more information.

Further reading:-
• Maffie, Jim 2014 Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion, University Press of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, USA.
• Yardley, Jim and William Neuman 2015 In Bolivia, Pope Francis Apologizes for Church’s ‘Grave Sins’. In: The New York Times (online), 15 July, 2015. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/10/world/americas/pope-francis-bolivia-catholic-church-apology.html?_r=0 (Retrieved: 20 January 2016, 19:55).

Picture sources:-
• All photos by and courtesy of Catherine Whittaker, 2015, with the exception of pic 1 - photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore - and pic 4 - photo by Jovany Iglesias López, 2014.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jun 18th 2016

Mexicon Journal of Mesoamerican Studies
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