What happened to the Aztecs and their descendants?
Dr Barry Carr, 17 July 2014
Adrienne: Tonight's lecture, "What Happened to the Aztecs and Their Descendants," will be presented by guest lecturer, Dr. Barry Carr. Barry Carr is an historian who specializes in the social, economic and political history of modern Mexico and the greater Caribbean.
He founded and directed the Institute of Latin American Studies at La Trobe University, where he also taught between 1972 and 2008. Since leaving La Trobe University, he has developed close links with the newly established Australian National Centre for Latin American Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, where he is an adjunct professor.
Dr. Carr's research interests have included 20th century labour and agrarian history of Mexico and Cuba, the development of radicalism and revolutionary movements in Latin America, and the history of tourism and leisure in Mexico.
Barry is also the author of seven books and numerous journal articles and book chapters. So without further ado, please join me in welcoming Dr. Barry Carr to the stage.
Dr. Barry Carr: Well, first of all, I want to thank you very much for coming this evening. It's the very last of the series of lectures that are being held here at the Melbourne Museum, so for those of you who've been regular visitors, thank you very much for holding out to the very end. I hope you've found the experience interesting. I'm pretty sure that most people here will have actually seen the Aztec exhibition.
Also want to thank Adrienne Leith, who introduced me and this evening for all the work that she's done. She's one of a number of people at the museum who put in enormous amounts of energy and time into the organization and dissemination and public affairs reception of this wonderful display of Aztec artifacts and items.
What I'm going to do today is quite ambitious. I was having a debate about whether maybe I've become a little bit too ambitious today. But I'm going to be taking you on a journey through 500 years of Mexican history, by looking at specific episodes or moments in the history of Mexico.
It's all about Mexico, but if we have time and if you all behave very nicely, I'm going to end with Bourke Street and Lonsdale Street. You may be wondering, what is that crazy man doing by foreshadowing a discussion, or at least a brief reference, to Melbourne? But you'll see there's a very good reason.
In fact, perhaps, the image there on the right of this opening splash image, which is an image of a laundry, an old laundry building in New Orleans. But you can see that, in terms of design, that there are design features and elements which clearly are taken from either the classic, by the Mayan revival or from Aztec Mexico, maybe with a bit of Egyptian thrown in. It's typical of the kind of architecture that was produced in the 1920s and 1930s.
Now, supposedly, the Aztec empire and cultures were defeated in 1521. That's when Cortés and his conquistadores finally succeeded, with the help of smallpox and a very large army of Indian allies who fought against the Aztecs, managed to overthrow the Aztec empire.
Supposedly, then, Aztec culture and empire were defeated in 1521, enduring an orgy of destruction of indigenous culture over the following 25 years, 1521 to 1550, 1560. But in fact, Mexicans have been remembering and reinterpreting the history of the Aztecs, right through the following 500 years of their country's history.
The Aztecs, in a way, have become a kind of a resource, a sort of warehouse, a huge warehouse of stories and references that are very flexible, and which have been used for a variety of purposes. They've been adapted and re‑adapted in many ways by different groups and people, intellectuals and politicians and statesmen and so on, artists in Mexico for many different ways and for different purposes in the last 500 years.
Sometimes the Aztecs have been used to justify the existing social and political and religious order. In other words, the Aztecs have been used to facilitate people's accommodation or adjustment to this existing order.
But on other occasions, the Aztecs and their heritage have been appropriated to facilitate liberation and rebellion against the existing order. These two themes of using the Aztecs to justify the existing social order, and also using the Aztec memory to facilitate liberation and rebellion are themes that I want to address throughout the course of today's talk.
But it would be foolish of me to deny, also, that this repository, this warehouse of Aztec stories and narratives and foods and memories isn't also used to entertain and to dream and to have fun and occasionally to get drunk.
Just in case, in the intellectual excitement of the lecture, I forget to deal with the fun stuff at the end, let me just begin by showing you some slides of a pulqueria in Mexico City. This is in the downtown area of Mexico City. This one is called Las Duelistas, the Duelists, as in people who fight the duel.
Now, pulque, P‑U‑L‑Q‑U‑E, is a fermented drink made from the maguey plant, the cactus plant. It was a sacred drink for the Aztecs. Only people who were allowed to drink pulque were the members of the ruling class or the aristocracy, the emperor. But also, pregnant women, small children and men and women who were about to be sacrificed, those were the only categories. Here's your one chance of getting into the pulque.
Obviously, with the collapse and end of the Aztec rule, pulque became democratized, if it wants to use the term during the colonial period and during through the 19th and early 20th century. It became a drink, relatively cheap, mildly alcoholic drink that was consumed, particularly in areas of Mexico, rural areas where there wasn't good drinking water.
But unfortunately, in the '20s and the 1930s, with the rise of beer, pulque was pushed to the sidelines. Pulque almost disappeared until about 20 or 30 years ago, when in Mexico, all over Mexico, but particularly in Mexico City, there's been a revival of the consumption of pulque.
Now, it's quite possible that the patrons of this pulqueria are probably hipsters and middle class folk who can afford the prices. But interviews I've seen with the patrons of this and other pulqueries suggest that, in fact, many of the people who consume pulque today feel that imbibing pulque is, in some sense, connecting them in some way with their roots. That's the explanation they give to their family members, anyway, when they roll up late at night.
Here's the inside of this, and you can see here extraordinary decoration on the ceiling, on the walls. If I had time, which I don't have time, one could start unpacking the decoration. It's full of bits and pieces drawn from a variety of pre‑Hispanic cultures, not just the Aztecs, but also there are a few Mayan touches there.
Here's, at Tzompantli, a skull rack and those of you who've been around the exhibition will have seen, just behind the Templo Mayor model, you'll see behind them in the photographic form on the wall. There's actually a photograph of the skull rack, which you see. If you go to Mexico City, you'll see that at the Templo Mayor site.
Now, I'm not going to say back to the serious stuff, because this is really serious. This is part of the legacy of the Aztecs and it clearly resonates with what in Mexico is sometimes called deep Mexico, México profundo. The kind of deep roots of identity, which many Mexicans increasingly turn to, or some turn to, out of despair or rejection of some of the more negative aspects of modernity.
Now, this lecture, I'm going to explore five windows to show how the Aztecs have kept on re‑appearing. The first window deals with the origins and use of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint.
The second episode or series of episodes deals with how the Aztecs were used by the dictatorial regime of Porfirio Díaz at the end of the 19th century. He ruled between 1876 and 1910. His government was the government immediately preceding the 20th century's great event for Mexico, which was the Mexican Revolution that broke out in 1910.
The third episode or group of episodes introduces you to some of the ways in which revolutionary painters, mural painters, Mexico has a glorious 20th century history of mural painting, like Diego Riviera, portrayed the Aztecs in the 20th century. In the last part of the talk, I'm going to look at the survival of speakers of Nahuatl.
Nahuatl was the language spoken by the Aztecs. There still are people in Mexico today who speak Nahuatl, even though it's a greatly modified and changed form of Nahuatl today. I'm going to finish by introducing the emergence in the last few decades as what has been called the Neo‑Aztec Movement or sometimes the Aztec Dance Movement.
Then, just a few slides about Swanston Street and Bourke Street and Collins Street.
First, the Virgin of Guadalupe on a cape. The cape reference will become clear in a minute. This is, allegedly, the very first appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe on a poor man's cape.
On December the 5th, 1531, 10 years after the defeat of the Aztec empire, a humble Nahuatl speaking peasant, a newly christianized, Juan Diego, that was his baptismal name, was crossing the hill of Tepeyac, which is just north of Mexico City. Now, it's actually part of Mexico City, when he witnessed the appearance of a beautiful, shining woman.
The woman proclaimed herself, in Nahuatl, because Juan Diego didn't speak Spanish, "The Virgin Mary." Juan Diego then went to see his bishop, Juan de Zumárraga, who rejected Juan Diego's claim and demanded more evidence that this humble peasant had actually witnessed this apparition.
Three days later on December the 12th, December 12th is a very important date in Mexico when the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is celebrated in a church, which today has more visitors per year than any other Catholic shrine in the world. He asked Juan Diego for more evidence.
On December the 12th, Juan Diego returned to the spot where he'd thought he'd seen the Virgin Mary. The Virgin asked him to collect roses, which is not a flower which is native the Americas, where none have grown before. Juan Diego wrapped them up in his cloak, or tilma, to show to the Bishop as proof of the apparition. The cloak, or tilma, was then imprinted with an image of the Virgin.
This is the origin of the Virgin of Guadalupe narrative in which the dark‑skinned Virgin would become the patron saint of Mexico. What's this got to do with the legacy of the Aztecs? Well, the hill of Tepeyac, where Juan Diego saw the Virgin appear, actually had been an Aztec religious site where there had been a temple to an Aztec goddess, Tonantzin, the revered mother.
Here you've actually got the Virgin of Guadalupe on the left hand side, and you've got one of many images of Tonantzin on the other side with her hands together, very conveniently, in a sort of gesture, which I suppose would be familiar to people used to Catholic imagery.
Actually, Tonantzin was a generic name for several Aztec deities, so I'm told. The Spaniards had destroyed this Aztec temple as they had done with all others associated with the Aztecs. They then built a Catholic church, a Catholic chapel, devoted to the Virgin Mary on top of it. It was used to baptize Indians in those very first decades after the Spanish conquest.
One might ask, as hundreds and hundreds of scholars have done, whether the early Catholic church in Mexico in the 16th century and beyond was trying to build popular Indian support for the Catholic Church by developing a blended conquest or colonial version of the Virgin Mary to win legitimacy.
Note that the Virgin's blue green mantle are also the colors of Aztec Divine Couple or Ometeotl and Omecihuatl. When the Vatican decided to canonize Juan Diego, he was canonized eventually in July, 2002. The Vatican normally carries out investigations before canonisation happens. The official investigations of the case revealed, so it's reported, that Juan Diego, the Indian peasant, actually wasn't so humble after all.
He had, in reality, been a prince. The son of a King from Texcoco, which is a city state very close to Tenochtitlan, who had assisted Hernan Cortes, the Spanish Conquistador, in his defeat of the Aztecs. Presumably, this could have been another way in which the Catholic Church was emphasizing continuity between the Aztec era and the colonial society that would follow.
This is another example of the blending of pre‑Hispanic religion with the symbols and beliefs of Christianity in which, so it's claimed, the Aztec Indians simply transferred their beliefs and practices from Tonantzin, the Earth goddess, to Mary. This has come under a lot of challenges by historians and anthropologists. I'm not going to go into that.
There's a lively debate about the Virgin of Guadalupe's story with lots of challengers and revisionists, including a scandal that happened about 15 years ago over the modern day Abbott of the Basilica, a man called Guillermo Schulenburg, who was foolish enough to tell the press in Mexico City that Juan Diego was just a symbol only.
Of course, there were calls by the faithful immediately to have the man removed immediately from the Abbotry of the Basilica. Also, it's true we know that even before the Spanish arrived in Mexico, there was already a Virgin of Guadalupe that was much venerated in the Extremedura area of Spain, which was precisely the area of Spain where Cortes came from. The roots really are much more complicated than they might appear.
One thing is very clear. By the late 18th century and early 19th century, the Virgin of Guadalupe had become Mexico's national saint. Her cult was part of a narrative about the emergence of new nation, a Mestizo nation. A nation made up of people of mixed ethnic ancestry.
That's M‑E‑S‑T‑I‑Z‑O. Doesn't matter how it's spelled. Made up of a blend between Spanish and indigenous people. The Virgin of Guadalupe had also become more than just an Indian symbol. The Virgin of Guadalupe was never just an indigenous symbol. It had also become, by the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, a potent symbol of Creole nationalism.
In other words, people who have begun to identify with the Virgin Mary who were of European origin but had been born in Mexico, in New Spain as it was called, and who increasingly saw their interests politically and economically as being different from Spain's. It was these Creoles who actually pioneered the struggle for independence shortly afterwards.
The association with Mexican nationalism and the Virgin of Guadalupe is very strong. Father Hidalgo in 1810 began Mexico's war for independence with the "Grito de Dolores." The Cry of Dolores, which included the cry, "Death to the Spaniards," and "Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe."
The war of independence began in 1810. It wasn't concluded, it went through various stages, until 1821. There were two other symbols of the insurgency. Although the insurgency was full of activity by ordinary folk, by peasants, many of them are mixed‑race, but also many indigenous peasants played a very important role in this independent struggle.
There are two other symbols of the insurgency though. Both of those also look back to the Aztecs. One reference was to a man, Cuauhtemoc. Cuauhtemoc was the very last of the Aztec emperors. A name that has enormous residence in Mexico today, and probably the Aztec name that is most used by Mexicans if they want to name their kids, men that is, boys, give them an Aztec name more than any other. You'll find lots and lots of Cuauhtemocs around the place.
The other symbol that was very present in the insurgent wars, these wars of independence 1810 to 1821, was the Mexican eagle which, of course, will become the centerpiece of the Mexican flag and which was part of the foundational story, the foundational narrative of the Aztecs themselves, that they encountered a lake in the middle of which there was an island with an eagle which had landed rather uncomfortably, I imagine, on a prickly pear which had a serpent or a snake in its mouth.
In other words, all three of the symbols used by Hidalgo and other independence leaders echoed the Aztecs as part of an attempt to reinforce publicly the indigenous and popular roots of the rebellion.
Then, if we jump to the 20th century, to the early period 1910, 1914, 1915, the years of the Mexican Revolution, the social, political, cultural event which was the most important event in the history of 20th century in Mexico, the peasant leader Emiliano Zapata, otherwise known as Marlon Brando or maybe it's the other way around, and his peasant troops, when they entered Mexico City in 1914, what did the followers of Zapata carry on their hats? They carried badges and symbols of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
It's proof, I think, that nationalism both mestizo and indigenous versions, as well as the nationalism of Creoles, embraced the Aztecs and their legacy in this case, too. All of this shows that the Virgin of Guadalupe could be used for accommodation and adjustment to the existing order, presuming that was really the background of the Catholic churches embrace of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
It was a way of evangelising the indigenous population by making it easier for culturally in terms of world view for indigenous people to embrace Catholicism. But also, it could be linked to liberation. The Virgin of Guadalupe myth could be linked to liberation as it was with Zapata, because Emiliano Zapata with Pancho Villa represented what we might call the left wing, the more radical wing of the Mexican Revolution, the wing that very early on called for a radical land reform.
Now to the second episode of elite uses of the Aztec in pre‑Columbian heritage during the period of the dictator General Porfirio Diaz. The value of the Aztecs to the Mexican elites can be seen very clearly in the ways in which they presented Mexico to Europe and the United States at international expositions and world fairs in the late 19th century.
Beginning in the 1850s, there was this move to build international fairs and expositions all over the world to display science and technology to show off the achievements of different countries. One great example was the commissioning by Mexico.
Mexico liked to feature in these world fairs to show off because that's one of the things that countries do in world fairs. They still do that today. They commissioned an Aztec palace at the Paris exposition in 1889. Showcasing Mexico's ancient past was obviously very important to General Porfirio Diaz's spin doctors and advisers. He was surrounded by intellectuals and experts in media and other events, early advisers in media, they were known as The Cientificos or scientists.
Basically, Mexico, by the late 19th century, has now been independent for good 70 years. They wanted to use the Paris exposition to show off its modernization of the country's economy. Porfirio Diaz and his government had been busily building roads and railways, and developing mines and new kinds of export agriculture.
But Mexican national identity also needed something a bit more deep, a bit deeper than displays of scientific and economic progress. It also needed to exploit history as an ingredient as governments do always want to exploit history as we know from our own experience here in Australia.
What did the government of Porfirio Diaz do? It turned to the Aztecs when it wanted to have some design features in the Aztec palace. The Aztec temple was deliberately built in a blend of styles. The result was an Aztec temple, sort of, but in Beaux-Arts style, emphasizing Roman and Greek styles, Italian Renaissance and Baroque periods, too. It was covered in geometric relief patterns and the pediment over the entrance. But here, you've got actually the Aztec calendar or a version thereof.
One could presumably spend a lot of time both pointing out what are sort of Aztec features as well as making a certain amount of fun at the glorious pastiche that was being indulged in here. This is another view of the Aztec past. It no longer exists unfortunately. It was brought back to Mexico. A lot of money was spent on this for a third‑world country in 1889. This was a spectacular investment, a kind of world cup you could say, that raised all kinds of questions in Mexico about this kind of expenditure.
Now, the government also commissioned a lavish, five‑volume history of Mexico called, "Mexico through the Centuries," which was produced in very small quantities essentially to give to wealthy individuals and government officials, and kings and queens. The front cover was very lavishly embossed as you can see here, highlighted in gold was the Aztec calendar again.
What's going on here and why of all the pre‑Hispanic cultures did General Porfirio Diaz and his advisers picked on the Aztecs to illustrate Mexico's greatness? I think it has to do with Mexico's desire to be not just a modern country economically, but also to stand out as the society built on grand imperial foundations.
Why not? After all, just as European nation states at this period could boast about the classical heritage of Greece and Rome, so too Mexico, as a newly independent country, wanted to showcase a Latin American version of the great Mediterranean empires, and the Aztecs fitted the picture perfectly.
After all, the Aztecs had been a great empire. Admittedly there were other empires too. There were Mayan empires and so on, but the Mayans had disadvantage in that they were located a long way away from the central valley area of Mexico which is where the political past traditionally had been exercised.
The Aztecs also had the paraphernalia, all the paraphernalia of empire. The Aztecs had elaborate buildings. They had pyramids with temples. Not only that, the scientific advisers of Porfirio Diaz were very, very relaxed in how they appropriated evidence of Aztec genius and they actually treated a major nearby site called Teotihuacan, northeast of Mexico City as evidence of Aztec greatness, because it was somewhat near to Mexico City.
They always take visiting foreigners and distinguished figures, VIPs there, even though we all know that the Teotihuacan was not actually an Aztec site at all, but predated it by many hundreds of years.
Mexico City has a wonderfully wide boulevard, a kind of a Champs Elysees called the Paseo de la Reforma. It goes from east to west on a slant. During the Porfirian government in 1876 to 1911, the government sponsored the building, the erection of all kinds of statues. Here's one to Cuauhtemoc, who was the last of the Aztec emperors. Here's another example where the Aztecs once again could be manipulated, if you want to use that term, for political purposes, which is what they were.
Now, I want to jump forward to the 1920s and 1930s, so we're in to the Mexican Revolution. The old regime of Porfirio Diaz has been overthrown. Mexico has become the great social revolution in the world after China and the Bolshevik Revolution.
One of the most interesting famous dimensions of the Mexican Revolution's cultural profile was the appearance of a muralist movement of mural painters. Diego Rivera, in particular, was the most famous of all those. His murals are at the National Palace in Mexico City's Main Square and at a nearby headquarters of the Ministry of Education that I want to turn to now.
When Mexico got its independence in 1821, officially the governments of independent Mexico abolished distinctions based upon ethnicity. There were no Indians anymore. Everybody was a citizen of Mexico, but that really concealed a much subtle reality which was that even after independence in 1821, Mexico was ruled by elites, more or less the same kinds of elites that ruled Mexico during the colonial period.
It was only in the time of the Mexican Revolution which began in 1911 which unfolded over the next 30 years. It was only this period when you begin to see a much more close and adequate attention given by governments in Mexico to the heritage of indigenous people in Mexico.
The material conditions of indigenous people, even with the Mexican Revolution, received only a very modest improvement. But at least in one area, the new revolutionary elites of Mexico devoted a good deal of attention to Indian people. The Mexican Revolution produced a powerful, political, and cultural nationalism which celebrated indigenous people and presented them as the bedrock of Mexico's identity.
The sentiment sometimes referred to as Indigenismo, Indianism. It follows a number of pathways but one was driven by art, and its members included a group of Mexican artists including Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco, also very important members.
Also Frida Kahlo. I have to mention Frida Kahlo because she's become an iconic figure for many people outside of Mexico. She wasn't a muralist at all. She painted small scale paintings, but she was married for some of this time to Diego Rivera. Frida Kahlo herself also had a very strong orientation towards recovery of identification with indigenous people. Although in her case, the indigenous people she identified with were not the Aztecs or the descendants of central Mexico, but another ethnic group further to the south.
By the way, many of these muralists of the Mexican Revolution were people on the left. In the case of Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros, they were members of the communist party, when they weren't being expelled from the communist party.
The mural painters used public buildings, ministries, schools, universities, orphanages, to paint large murals. Governments gave these guys lots of walls. Not easy to find walls to paint on. I think muralists around the world have often had problems in getting them. But in the case of Mexico in the '20s and '30s, there was no shortage of walls and interior courtyards.
The best‑known of these murals was a series painted by Diego Rivera in the National Palace right bang in the center of Mexico City and only a hundred or so meters away from the Templo Mayor, which is featured in our exhibition here, the ceremonial center of the Aztecs. These murals were painted over a long period from 1929 to 1945.
Now, those of you who've seen the exhibition will remember that in the Aztec exhibition at this museum, there's a large photographic blow up of one scene for one of these murals. It's a representation by Rivera of Tenochtitlan, of the Aztec capital as he imagined it was just before the conquest.
Here's a few more. This is a very large scale shot here of the main staircase at the National Palace, and this is called History of Mexico. One could spend literally hours, and many people, many Mexicans do spend hours standing of this deciphering and unpacking this. Basically, you go from the bottom, the oldest, to the very top where you have 19th and 20th century Mexico.
Here again, examples of images, murals that are painted on the sides of staircases. In these representations of Aztec life, the emphasis upon celebrating the brilliance of artisan, of crafts, of manufacturing, of metals, of weaving, of tapestries, making paper or making things that you could use to write on, or a decoration.
Now, the representation of the conquest and of Aztec Mexico is very unambiguous. You don't have to have a PhD in Art History, apologies to anybody who does have a PhD in Art History, to get skills by developing a PhD. I think one can probably unpack some of this without one of those to see that there's a strong ideologically driven way of viewing Mexico. Here you see Hernan Cortes represented as an ugly, deformed, syphilitic man.
It's, in a way, very overly simplified, some people would say infantile, other people would say grotesque, but also extremely beautiful and technically very achieved representations. Here's another example where the Aztecs, or a particular representation of them, played a major role. Here they're used to celebrate the nationalist Indianist vision, which is a challenge to the status quo.
The murals also were used by governments of the Mexican Revolution to strengthen the power of the state, a state which in the '40s and '50s and more recently, didn't always address many of the needs of indigenous people, and that pushed the line about blending of the races and a new national synthesis that actually covered up what was really more accurately a process of continued de‑Indianisation.
This is an example, really, of a way in which indigenous people were celebrated. Yes, Indians, we love them. We celebrate them in the past, the historic Indian. As far as the present day indigenous people go, the history of Mexico's 20th century relationship with indigenous people and indigenous policy is much, much, much more ambiguous.
Now, my little speakers, today we're getting closer to the present day. The Spanish conquest of Mexico led to an immense demographic population disaster. The dimensions of this disastrous collapse of the indigenous population have been much debated. In Central Mexico, historical demographers have claimed that the population of Mexico before the Spanish arrived was about 25 million.
Actually, the figures vary enormously, from 5 to 25, so you can get a sense of how difficult it is, in terms of methodology, trying to calculate this. It was many, many millions. A hundred years after the conquest led to a depopulation on a vast scale. Depending on the region we're talking about, generally on the coast and tropical areas, the depopulation, the loss of population, was higher.
Once you get into the central highlands of Mexico, the Plateau, then the population decline, while still horrific, was something less substantial. But it's, nevertheless, a decline that varies between 50 and 90 percent over the course from 1521 to about 1598. That's an enormous collapse, destruction of indigenous people. Causes were disease, overwork, ill treatment, deaths in conquest, and many, many others.
One can see why the term genocide has been used by many scholars and activists to describe this first 50 to 100 years after the conquest. Nahuatl was a lingua franca used even during the Aztec period. The Aztecs travelled widely or certainly their merchants travelled widely. It was a widely used language throughout central areas of Mexico.
The Spanish took advantage of this in the whole of the Colonial period, from 1519 to 1821. In fact, after the collapse of the Aztec, after the destruction of Aztec empire, Nahuatls or Meshikas, as they called themselves, accompanied the conquistadores in their journeys north and south to conquer other indigenous peoples. This actually led to the spread of Nahuatl throughout the country.
Eventually, though, the decimated Indian population stabilized. Right about 1630, 1640, we know that population decline of the indigenous people of Mexico, of Mesoamerica, the collapse came to an end and the population begins to stabilize and to grow again. By the end of the 18th century, the last full century of Spanish Colonial rule, indigenous people were still easily the majority of Mexico's population.
At the time of independence, about 80 percent of the total population was non‑white, made up of Indian people, but also people of mixed ethnicities, increasingly people who are the result of unions, marriages, relationships between people of European origin and indigenous origin.
Today, in a new millennium, last century and the first years of this millennium, the indigenous population of Mexico is estimated to be around about 10 percent. Those are the official figures published by the Mexican government, 10 percent of the country's population. 10 percent, that is, who speak an indigenous language.
The total indigenous population of Mexico allegedly is 8.7 million people, the second country in Latin America with the largest indigenous population, although there are countries in Latin America which have larger percentages of indigenous people like Bolivia, for example, and Peru, Guatemala.
There are problems with definitions here. The Mexican government's definition of indigenous is an indigenous person who prefers to speak an indigenous language. It's a linguistic definition with fluency in one language. Occasionally, governments do recognize it in addition to language, there is a commitment if you're Indian to a different way of being, of dressing, of seeing themselves as distinctive, having distinctive beliefs.
These are all very slippery definitions. Language is the key indicator as far as the Mexican census is concerned, and the census asks whether a person speaks one of the 56 recognized languages. Some other estimates of indigenous population of Mexico go as high as 15 percent of the total population, about 15.7 million.
Interesting to compare these Indian population sizes with the indigenous population of the United States to the north where there are only two million native Americans, if you believe the census, in a population in the United States of 250 million people.
The largest, by far, indigenous language today is still Nahuatl at about 22 percent of the indigenous population, next followed by various Mayan languages, about 13.5 percent, and then Zapotec and Mixtec and a whole variety of other languages centered a bit further south.
You can see where most indigenous people live in Mexico. The darker the color green here, the denser the population. You can see, it's a population that's particularly strongly experienced in East Central Mexico and also this area here, which is the state of Guerrero where Acapulco is, but Acapulco is not a Nahuatl speaking city.
The areas which are the old central valley of Mexico, you still have significant Nahuatl speakers, but there are other areas a little bit further north. You don't see Nahuatl speakers with the same kind of density in Northern Mexico, because what cannot be estimated is the number of Nahuatl speakers who have abandoned language and who speak only Spanish and therefore do not appear in the censuses.
There is a process, some people would refer to the Meshisation of Mexico, the creation of this new blended nation. But some other scholars and activists prefer to refer to the de‑Indianisation of Mexico, which is a rather more brutal process. In spite of Nahuatl status as the largest indigenous language, most Nahuatl regions have no contact between them. Linguists talk of there being up to 12 different Nahuatl languages.
It's not a compact or uniform language. Do Nahuatl speakers have a common identity? Doesn't seem to have, not really, mainly because of what linguists call language shifting. In other words, there's a continuous drift of people that speak Spanish for all kinds of reasons, especially as you get closer to cities. By the way, Nahuatl population of Mexico is predominantly rural in most areas except in the central valley.
Do Nahuatl speakers have some common identity as descendants of the Aztecs? This is a question that a lot of people ask, I think, when they go to Mexico. Some people have been asking this when they've gone around the exhibition. What about today's Nahualt speakers? Are people aware? Do the people know that they are the descendants of the Aztecs? If so, how do they view this?
It's a very difficult question. I've never seen any adequate discussion of this. The consensus seems to be, not really. The reason for that is pretty clear. There's enormous discrimination against indigenous people in Mexico. Discrimination based upon phenotype, upon appearance, upon the way people dress, upon their jobs, a mixture of class and race.
It's very widespread. Many Nahuatl speakers try and avoid discrimination by simply not identifying with the history of the Nahuatls any part of the history of the Nahualts whether it be 19th century or the Aztec period. Finally, we turn to the present day. I think I'm still doing well time wise, and the emergence of the Neo‑Aztecs or the Aztec dancers or concheros. There's another map here which actually compares the Nahuatl populations in 1521 with the current.
The darker red is the current Nahuatl population. You can see those that correspond with that previous one. You can see that the Nahuatl population in 1521 did, actually, extend a bit further up north. Also, there were significant Nahuatl populations for the south along the border with Guatemala and even in some parts of Central American, in El Salvador. There is a significant portion of the population who come from Nahuatl background.
If you travel to Mexico today, how many people here, by the way, have visited Mexico even as a tourist? Quite a few people. I hope those of you who haven't will go, partly inspired by the Aztecs Exhibition, perhaps by some of the lectures or just out of natural curiosity.
If you go to Mexico, you traveled there for the last 30 or so years, you'll have encountered a lot of what appears to be, and, is sometimes called, Aztec dance and Aztec dancers. Here are just some of them. You meet them in public squares including this huge public square known as the Plaza of the Constitution, the Zocalo, in downtown Mexico City. On the edge of that is the Templo Mayor and the Cathedral and the National Palace.
You'll see them also at some other archaeological sites all over the country. Most especially, you'll see them at a great pyramid site I referred to already called Teotihuacan. It's known as Los Pyramides, the pyramids. Everyday people say, "You've got to go to the pyramids." They're not talking about going to look at the Templo Mayor.
What they mean is, "You should go to the site at Teotihuacan," which is about half an hour to 40 minutes by fast road from Mexico City. If you're in Mexico City on December 12th, so if you want to plan your trip to Mexico in the future around some interesting days, go on December 12th, and you'll see the concheros or dancers. I'll say something about the origin of this word in a minute, performing outside the Great Basilica to the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The dancers are decked out in full attire. There's lots of bling, I think is the way it would be put in Australia, although you certainly wouldn't get away with that if you referred to it to these dancers, lots of plastic, silver and gold with spectacular headdresses of pheasant and peacock feathers.
The dancers turn and they dip and they step to rhythms of drums being beaten and conchas, hence concheros. Conchas, the most common musical instrument used is the instrument made of the carapace of the shell of the armadillo which has strings built into it. Sometimes you do find people using seashells too.
How are we to understand these performances? They're not, as some people think, put on just for tourists. They're not. They really aren't put on for tourists, even though a lot of tourists watch them. They are examples of cultural and religious revitalization movements or as one scholar termed them, a restoration movement, a revitalization designed to revive an idealized form of the Meshika, in other words, Aztec culture.
The dancers are also engaged, or many of them are, in a sociopolitical performance, also recovering an original identity. It's clear from the number of people involved that the Aztec dance of conchero movement is somehow connecting very, very strongly with deeply felt needs, needs to connect with this Mexico profundo, with this deep Mexico. The estimates of the number of concheros vary enormously, between 50 and 75 thousand are the most commonly quoted figures.
This isn't just a small number of people on weekends. This is a very significant grouping. There are concheros who dance Aztec dances also in the Mexican diaspora in the United States. An earlier lecture by my colleague and friend, Ralph Newmark, talked about the importance of looking at the Mexican origin population in the United States, this Latinisation of the US is a dramatic cultural phenomenon.
A number of Mexicans or people of Mexican origin in the United States do participate in the conchero movement. Is it a movement of spiritual renewal, political protest? Is it the re‑mastering of Aztec beliefs and culture? Is it a kind of greenie movement? There's a great deal of emphasis in what people write and say about creating harmony between people and nature.
Who are the people involved? This is the most interesting question. Are they Nahuatl speakers? Are they indigenous people? Are they Spanish speakers? Are they both, and from what social classes? Is the conchero phenomenon a sign of continuity between some ancient pre‑conquest Aztec beliefs and practices that have somehow been kept secretly underhand, under the bed, and it's been maintained right from the 16th century onwards?
Or is it a relatively recent phenomenon? There's been quite a bit of research about the Neo‑Aztec movement. We know that the very first practitioners of Aztec dance in the mid and early 20th century were actually people of humble indigenous peasant background who'd emigrated to Mexico City. However, nowadays, most concheros are actually urban or mestizo, mixed race people.
They're not indigenous. They're reasonably well educated, and some of them are tertiary educated. There are also people in the informal sector. Mexico City does actually have a population of about a million people who might be described as indigenous. It's really quite the extraordinary figure even though it's one of the world's great urban centers.
A common denominator is a strong desire to assume and to live an Indian identity. Concheros are drawn from school teachers, students, former members of left‑wing parties, greenies, urban artisans, hippies, people from the profession, state employees and people with mystical orientations.
Many of the concheros follow the guidance of charismatic leaders who enjoy spiritual authority, who write about these pre‑Hispanic cultures. The Neo‑Aztecs follow a particular calendar of events. Some of them are events that are drawn from the history of the Aztecs, the birth and death of Cuauhtemoc, the fall of Teotihuacan. Some of these concheros observe events in the Catholic calendar.
Feast and saints' days are celebrated, for example. The Virgin of Guadalupe Fiesta, their pre‑Hispanic Meshika religious and cultural days also that are key moments, especially those registered in the Aztec calendar, such as the birth of Huitzilopochtli or the New Fire ceremony, which marked the beginning and end of the 52‑year long Aztec calendar cycle. Plus equinoxes, solstices and eclipses are much beloved in the Neo‑Aztec movement.
This connects with other similar movements which are not described as Neo‑Aztec, but which you do see, for example, in the modern Mayan areas of Mexico in the Yucatan Peninsula. I'm going to stop there. Since I haven't had rebellion in the theatre, I want to end this with David Jones.
I knew this, but I'd never seen them. I have to thank Robin Grow, who is president of the Art Deco Society of Victoria. Some of you may know the guy. Melbourne is a major center for art deco architecture. In the 1920s and early 1930s Coles, they had a famous architect whose name I cannot remember. Harry somebody. Anybody here remember the name of this guy?
He was sent to the United States by Coles to California, in particular, to pick up ideas which could be used in the development of Coles department stores. Of course, David Jones was originally a Coles store. Here you've got part of its facade. Some of it is kind of pink stone and with designs which echo, I think it would be fair to say, a blend of Mayan revival and Aztec images and symbols.
This is part of the wall in Capitol House in Swanston Street. An important art deco feature was the use of angular features and mathematically precise squiggles and ziggurats. It's not surprising that you see this happening. This is actually the interior of, and, I cannot remember now, it's the floor, I think, of a building on Swanston Street.
It would be worthwhile going on a tour if there was one organized by the Art Deco Society to see how the legacy, not only of the Aztecs, but of the so called Mayan revival movement as well as Egyptian art, because this was the 1920s when everybody was thinking about Tutankhamun and Howard Carter and his discoveries. These were repositories which were incorporated and used by artists all over the world.
My disappointment is that there are no cinemas, apparently, in Melbourne. I thought the Rivoli might be the obvious example. Most famously, in the United States, where the art deco use of Aztec and Maya revival imagery is strongest, some of the most spectacular examples are actually found in cinemas, palaces of pleasure. So there's a link here, in a way, at the end, with what I started off with which was those palaces to drink and take pulque. Thank you very much.
Adrienne: Thank you for coming along tonight, and we will finish tonight by thanking Dr. Barry Carr once again. Good evening, everyone. This evening's lecture is co‑hosted by the University of Melbourne and Museum Victoria, obviously, as part of the Aztecs exhibition, which is currently on display here. It features over 200 cultural treasures from Mexico's major museums.