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Mexicolore Panel of Experts member David Carrasco as a child

What first inspired you to study ancient Mexico/Mesoamerica? (2)

A school recently asked us this question, so we directed it at the members of our Panel of Experts... We’re continuing to add ‘entries’ in the order that we received them. This is the second ‘wave’! We open it with another singularly prominent and eminent scholar (well, we know, all the Members of our Panel are...), Professor Davíd Carrasco, pictured as a child in Charro costume (right): he says ‘It shows that Mexico was already in my life and I’m “wearing” it here.’ (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: The Aztec Calendar Stone on display in Mexico’s old National Museum (from El Universal)
Pic 1: The Aztec Calendar Stone on display in Mexico’s old National Museum (from El Universal) (Click on image to enlarge)

Davíd Carrasco
’When I was 13 years old I went to live in Mexico City as my father was invited by the Confederación Deportiva Mexicana to help train Mexican coaches in preparation for upcoming international competitions. My tía Milena Soforo took me to the National Museum of Anthropology on Moneda Street on the edge of the Zócalo and the visit changed the direction of my life. In that museum I had what I call my first “Aztec Moment”. Not a “senior moment” where you forget something. But an Aztec Moment where I became aware of an personal connection to Mexican people and the layers of history in that part of Mexico City.
’I saw the giant statue of Coatlicue, the Aztec Calendar Stone, monumental serpents, the penacho of Montezuma, Aztec jewelry, beguiling masks, Maya jades, and images of painted books. Strong and conflicting emotions welled up in me. I felt both a cutting shame competing with an intense pride at my Mexican ancestry. I remembered how I had been taught in U.S. schools, TV, and films to feel shame about Mexico and to think of Mexicans as not on par with the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, the real makers of civilization in world history. I recalled the pervasive U.S. images of Mexico with its thirst for blood, its weakness before Cortés and the Spaniards, its “Montezuma’s revenge,” and its “halls of Montezuna” where U.S. Marines always fought victorious battles against Mexicans. I had been taught that Mexico was a country valued only for its defeats, food and folklore but not for its civilization.

Pic 2: Aerial view of the Zócalo, early 20th century (from Wikipedia)
Pic 2: Aerial view of the Zócalo, early 20th century (from Wikipedia) (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Afterward, walking in the Zócalo I scanned the buildings - the magnificent National Cathedral on one side, the Presidential Palace and the Supreme Court on another, the commercial arcades across the Zócalo and wondered if below this city surface was another world waiting for me. I felt a connection to the Mexican people then walking, selling, calling out, living lives in the heart of the city. In that grand open space had arisen a city where architects, mothers, fathers, athletes, sculptors, painters, warriors, priests and kings had lived and thrived.
’Years later at the University of Chicago when I chose Mexico and Mesoamerican religions as my focus, I realized that on that distant afternoon, the compass of my life had turned south into Mexican history. I would forever dwell intellectually in the layers of sacred space of the Great Aztec Temple and in solidarity with the Mexican people who lived there and uncovered its secrets and with whom I identified. My teenage Aztec moment led me years later back to the Zócalo where I first met the great Mexican archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma. That was my second Aztec Moment.’

Pic 3: Barbara Mundy at Chichén Itzá as a student, looking out from El Castillo to the Temple of the Warriors
Pic 3: Barbara Mundy at Chichén Itzá as a student, looking out from El Castillo to the Temple of the Warriors (Click on image to enlarge)

Barbara Mundy
’In college, I went to the University of Veracruz in Xalapa to improve my Spanish. When the course was finished, I got in a friend’s truck and we started to travel - along the Veracruz coast, eventually to Mérida and the Peninsula. When darkness fell in the Yucatán, the whole place came alive - the stars pressed on your face and the rainforest hummed. I felt like I had arrived home.’

Pic 4: Manuel Aguilar-Moreno aged 12
Pic 4: Manuel Aguilar-Moreno aged 12 (Click on image to enlarge)

Manuel Aguilar-Moreno
’I was born in Guadalajara, Mexico and when I was 12 years old, my parents took me on a trip to Mexico City and its surroundings. We visited Teotihuacan and I remember that in the middle of the visit, I felt a strange pain sensation, like a vibration in my chest. When we left, the sensation had disappeared and then we went to the nearby 16th Century monastery of Acolman. When I was walking in the cloister, I felt again that pain-vibration in my chest and I was very intrigued. After we left the monastery and we were returning to Mexico City, the pain disappeared. I wondered why I felt the same sensation in two places that were so different in space and time? After that trip, I committed myself to try to find the answer to that strange sensorial experience in Teotihuacan and Acolman. During the next 47 years of my life I have visited a significant part of the archaeological sites of Mesoamerica and about 300 monasteries of the 16th century, I studied my PhD in Art History and Latin American Studies under the guidance of the great Mayanist Linda Schele, and I am now a professor of Mesoamerican and Colonial Art History in California State University in Los Angeles.

Pic 5: Manuel Aguilar-Moreno with students at the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City
Pic 5: Manuel Aguilar-Moreno with students at the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

‘That long journey brought me finally to the answer to that question from my early life. That pain-vibration was like a silent voice that was telling me that there was a connection between those two places, one Pre-Columbian (Teotihuacan) and the other Colonial (Acolman). It was because the two sites were constructed by indigenous people although with many years apart. After realizing that fact, I could never see again the separation between the Mesoamerican Pre-Columbian sites and the 16th Century monasteries because the native soul was imprinted on both of them. I was witnessing the beginning of a transculturation process that eventually produced the Mexican people and their identity!
’Besides Teotihuacan, another place of great inspiration for me was descending to the tomb of King Pakal in the Maya site of Palenque to the point that I fell on my knees, overwhelmed by the impact of the supernatural vision of the site. What a mystical and mysterious place that kept so many secrets and at the same time formed an impressive and harmonic hymn of stone.
’My passion continues and I plan to do teaching and researching until the end of my life. I have been working in education since the age of 17; that equals 42 years to the present and I have taught about 6,000 students.’

Pic 6: The Museum of Mankind, London, in the 1980s (Wikipedia)
Pic 6: The Museum of Mankind, London, in the 1980s (Wikipedia) (Click on image to enlarge)

Penny Bateman
’Decades ago before working permanently at the British Museum, I had been volunteering for a few months at the Museum of Mankind (the then Department of Ehnography of the museum), thrilled at being in this place with wonderful African collections – my focus at university. But the team lead by Elizabeth Carmichael needed some help with a new major exhibition on the Maya and their predecessors. I was pretty well completely ignorant of Mesoamerican cultures but I could keep track of artefacts and make lists. And this was what I was doing one evening alone in the gallery full of crates when I opened a small wood cask lying on the floor. And staring up at me was the most extraordinary object – a huge block of beautiful jadeite wonderfully carved into a large and clearly ceremonial axe with the haft in the form of the head of some creature. It had flaring lips, wing-like eyebrows and a strange dent in its forehead. Carved on its body were paw-like hands. The object glowed in the soft light of the gallery, nestled in its protective padding and one could instantly see the extraordinary quality of the carving, which I later knew was done without metal tools.

Pic 7: Olmec jade axe; © Trustees of the British Museum
Pic 7: Olmec jade axe; © Trustees of the British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

‘This jade axe is one of the major pieces of Olmec works that have survived, dating from 1200 to 400 B.C.E. Its meaning, like other Olmec objects, has puzzled scholars since their rediscovery. The snarling mouth, paws and cleft head are also on Olmec images of jaguars, often regarded in Mesoamerica as connecting humans with the underworld while the flaring eyebrows on figures suggest caimans, often associated with the earth. And on other Olmec images, the cleft is shown sprouting plants. These symbols suggest this axe may represent the splitting open of the earth to the underworld from which life grows. It is part of a very ancient civilization that had enormous influence on later Mesoamerican cultures.
’This Olmec jade axe was the real beginning for me of a love and deep interest in Mesoamerican cultures and people both in the ancient past and of today. I now live in Canada, but when I go back to London, and visit the Mexican Gallery I go first to see this piece and it feels like visiting a dear if inanimate friend.’

Pic 8: Stephanie Wood at Teotihuacan in 1979
Pic 8: Stephanie Wood at Teotihuacan in 1979 (Click on image to enlarge)

Stephanie Wood
’I grew up in what we might call Alta California. I had a great aunt and a mother both named Ramona. My grandparents built an adobe house on their farm. My family enthusiastically celebrated the Mexican heritage of California. We lived in an agricultural region, and I picked fruit in the summers - apples, prunes, and blueberries -alongside Mexican migrant families. I was totally intrigued by both the Spanish language and the indigenous languages I was hearing in the fields. When I was about 11, I was being assigned to help migrant children make their way around my school’s playground at recess, employing the little Spanish I was already picking up. My mother took me to Mexico the first time when I was 13; by the age of 19, I was traveling to Mexico with girlfriends at every opportunity.

Pic 9: Stephanie Wood climbing the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan in 2005
Pic 9: Stephanie Wood climbing the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan in 2005 (Click on image to enlarge)

‘I visited Teotihuacan for the first time at the age of 19 and was totally mesmerized. Standing atop the Pyramid of the Sun, gazing around the amazing city in ruins, I wanted to know more about the people responsible for building that metropolis. On that trip I also started dating a Mexican agronomist, an engineer, who taught me about Mexico’s history of land reform, de jure and de facto, and the many struggles that remained to address the serious inequities in Mexican society. Emiliano Zapata, one of my friend’s heroes, had issued a manifesto in Nahuatl. That totally resonated!
’About that time, someone suggested I could study Mexican history in college, which turned out to be a brilliant recommendation. In one of my classes at UC Santa Cruz, Dr. Miguel León-Portilla was invited to lead a week-long seminar. I was thrilled to learn more about the Nahuas and the Nahuatl language. My professor also put me in touch with a prominent historian of Mexico, William B. Taylor, who kindly lent me citations for the Mexican archives, so that I could study the landholding struggles of Mexican indigenous communities in the Spanish colonial period. I ended up writing a senior thesis about the efforts to defend the altepetl of colonial Metepec, valley of Toluca. That led to a suggestion that I might go study with James Lockhart for a doctorate at UCLA, given that he was studying Nahuatl and the history of central Mexican indigenous communities; he had worked quite a bit on the valley of Toluca. That put me on the trajectory I continue to follow to this day.’

Pic 10: Jane Walsh on her first archaeology dig, Chiapas, 1968
Pic 10: Jane Walsh on her first archaeology dig, Chiapas, 1968 (Click on image to enlarge)

Jane Walsh
’Although I arrived with my family in Mexico City when I was 13, I didn’t become fascinated by pre-Columbian Mexico until I was in college and I had already gone through several “majors,” including philosophy, art, art history and Latin American studies, etc. Eventually I began to take courses in the anthropology department and discovered archaeology.
’I also took many courses in pre-Columbian art history, and language courses in Nahuatl and Maya. I couldn’t get enough of it and by the end of my undergraduate studies I had already taken most of the graduate courses offered. I had many wonderful teachers including John Paddock and Roman Piña Chan.

Pic 11: Jane Walsh on her first archaeology field trip to Mirador, Chiapas, 1968
Pic 11: Jane Walsh on her first archaeology field trip to Mirador, Chiapas, 1968 (Click on image to enlarge)

‘The photos: I was a graduate student at the University of the Americas, and I had begged one of my professors, Gareth Lowe, to let me work for him in Chiapas. I kept asking archaeologists to give me the opportunity to get some experience, but everyone insisted that I needed to get some experience first. (I think it might have had something to do with my being a woman, but we won’t go there).
’Anyway, Gareth agreed to give me a chance, and I joined a couple of other students working with Pierre Agrinier at Mirador, near Cintalapa, Chiapas. It was a wonderful experience, hard work, hot and dusty, fording a river every morning with Pierre driving was a bit scary, but I could finally say that I’d been on a dig.’

Pic 12: Catherine DiCesare as a student in Oaxaca
Pic 12: Catherine DiCesare as a student in Oaxaca (Click on image to enlarge)

Catherine DiCesare
’My first love was the Italian Renaissance, after time spent as an undergrad and then a grad student studying Italian and art history in Florence. I began studying the ancient Americas as a non-degree seeking student while living in Albuquerque (ostensibly taking a break from grad school). I took courses in Andean and Mesoamerican art history at UNM during this time. I was absolutely astounded by what I learned in those courses, to which I had had almost no prior exposure. I fell in love with all of it and immediately decided to change my research focus to Mexico. I have never looked back. I am endlessly fascinated by ancient Mesoamerican culture, particularly the Aztecs - artwork, materials, concepts of the sacred, books. In my research and my teaching I have been able to bring all my interests together, exploring the ancient Americas and early modern Europe, as well what happened in the aftermath of colonization.’

Pic 13: Kitty Emery with fellow archaeology students at the field school in Belize, 1984
Pic 13: Kitty Emery with fellow archaeology students at the field school in Belize, 1984 (Click on image to enlarge)

Kitty Emery
’Well the honest truth is that it was entirely accidental. In my first year of university, I signed up for an ethnographic field school in Ecuador ... I thought ... but it seems I had accidentally signed up for an archaeology field school in Belize instead! I wasn’t at all upset, Belize sounded lovely ... and the first week of the field season had me well and truly hooked. I had always hoped for a career studying animals (with a zoologist as a father) and was thrilled when some of our first artifacts were adorned with images of tropical fauna ... only topped in excitement by our first recoveries of animal bones! I was fascinated by the idea that I could match the bones of the animals, markings on the bones indicating their use, the context or the location in which they had been deposited, and images that depicted the roles those animals had played and how the ancients had thought about them. This combined the worlds of zoology, ecology, and anthropology into one complicated and intriguing puzzle - a puzzle that I continue to work on to this day in the countries of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and Mexico.’

Pic 15: Claudia Brittenham sitting on top of Structure II at Calakmul in 2003 (photo by Elizabeth Terese Newman)
Pic 15: Claudia Brittenham sitting on top of Structure II at Calakmul in 2003 (photo by Elizabeth Terese Newman) (Click on image to enlarge)

Claudia Brittenham
’What first inspired me to study ancient Mesoamerica was a class on Mesoamerican art with Mary Miller at Yale University. I’d come home after every class and tell my roommates about all the new things I was learning and how they challenged my existing ideas about what art could be and do. But at the time, I didn’t think the class was so significant: I was quite sure I wanted to study African art, and had only drifted into the Mesoamerican art history class because there were no courses on African art offered that semester. I kept on thinking that I really wanted to study African art through a summer traveling in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras; a senior thesis on Tikal’s Central Acropolis; and several years working in the Eastern Hemisphere collections department at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. But when it came time to think about going back to grad school, I found myself thinking about how much the kinds of evidence and questions that one could study in Mesoamerica interested me, and I haven’t regretted my choice for a moment.’

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on May 26th 2020

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