The governor of Mexico state, the most populated and powerful in the Mexican union, and the early frontrunner for the once-ruling PRI party’s presidential nomination in 2012, is striking a god-like pose these days. In fact Enrique Pena Nieto seeks to annex the City of the Gods – Teotihuacan – whose famed pyramids of the sun and the moon are designated by the United Nations as the patrimony of humankind, to stage a spectacular tourist-oriented light and sound show dubbed “The Splendor of Teotihuacan.”
The governor’s designs on the City of the Gods are universally rejected by Mexican archeologists, anthropologists, indigenous peoples, the Mexican congress, and the citizens of his own state.
A recent visit by representatives of UNESCO’s Monuments & Sites Committee (ICOMOS) to inspect damages wrought upon the pyramids by Pena Nieto’s contractors, has led to speculation that Teotihuacan is in danger of being removed from the roster of world heritage sites.
Teotihuacan, 45 kilometers north of Mexico City, was first settled in the second century before Christ when newly discovered underground springs attracted corn growers to the area. As the vanguard corn culture in the Americas, Teotihuacan soon became the New World’s first real city with a population of 200,000. To assuage the gods and maintain the agricultural cycle in balance, the lords of Teotihuacan undertook the construction of two enormous pyramids to venerate the sun and the moon – unlike later Aztec culture, human sacrifice was practiced in moderation and a benign and prosperous civilization emerged.
But after several centuries, the water source began to play out and the carrying capacity of the land collapsed. By 600 AD, the City of the Gods, plagued by marauding Chichimecas from Mexico’s wild north, was virtually abandoned and the pyramids fell into ruin. Excavation in the early 20th century and a revived interest in the nation’s indigenous past rescued Teotihuacan from oblivion.
Since 1939, with the establishment of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the City of the Gods has been transformed into Mexico’s most visited ruins and one of this neighbor nation’s top tourist lures. Now, to supplement the staging of his “espectaculo” at Teotihuacan, Governor Pena Nieto projects a tourist corridor to envelope the site with five-star hotels and world-class golf courses.
Opponents of the governor’s plans for the City of the Gods decry extensive damage inflicted upon the pyramids by the installation of light and sound fixtures. 8000 perforations in the volcanic rock of which the pyramids are constructed to nail down the light fixtures have irreparably degraded Teotihuacan, charges INAH anthropologist Sergio Gomez, who compares the desecration to recent acid attacks on 23 two millennium-old giant Olmec heads at La Venta Tabasco by evangelical activists, at least one of whom is a U.S. citizen. The Christians claimed to have “a mandate from God” to destroy “these works of the devil.” Damaging archeological sites in Mexico is a criminal offense.
Writing in the left daily La Jornada, anthropologist Javiar Arranda Luna accused Pena Nieto of entertaining the same mindset as the Talibans whose destruction of Afghanistan’s ancient giant Buddahs earned worldwide reproof.
Despite the outcry, Pena Nieto’s contractors continue to occupy Teotihuacan. Bowing to public pressure, construction workers removed 8000 expansive screws holding down the light fixtures, further wounding the pyramids in the process. The installation of aluminum light casings on the heights of the pyramids is seen as an eyesore and the sound reverberations from the show are expected to cause further hurt to this World Heritage site.
The script for “Splendor of Teotihuacan”, written by a private contractor for the Secretary of Education that oversees the INAH, compares the building of the City of the Gods with Leggo construction. The lighting component for the spectacle has been contracted out to the Philips Corporation, which won the concession to supply the bulbs to illuminate the pyramids – Philips has even patented a “Teotihuacan”-brand light bulb. Recent test lightings of the two pyramids transformed them into what one indignant INAH worker described as “giant jukeboxes” that could be seen from as far off as 14 kilometers.
Anthropologists and archeologists who oppose the project accuse INAH director Alfonso Maria y Campo of colluding with Pena Nieto and his state tourism director Alfredo del Mazo Maza, the cousin of a powerful PRI “cacique” or political boss, to promote the governor’s presidential ambitions.
Enrique Pena Nieto’s availability for the presidential nomination is also being flogged by Mexico’s two-headed television monopoly, Televisa and TV Azteca. The governor is currently under scrutiny by the nation’s Supreme Court for having prompted extensive human rights abuses during protests at another Mexico state hot spot San Salvador Atenco May 3rd-4th 2006, during which hundreds of activists were arrested, two young protestors were killed, and a score of woman sexually abused by Mexico state and federal police.
In a message of solidarity from exile, America del Valle, the daughter of Atenco farmers’ leader Ignacio del Valle who is currently serving a 112-year prison sentence as the result of the police crackdown, insisted “Enrique Pena Nieto will not pass over the City of the Gods – he has too many murders and other barbarities on his hands. The organization of the people will halt the profaning of Teotihuacan.”
The unfortunately named “Splendor of Teotihuacan” is not the first time the City of the Gods has come under assault from the political and commercial interests of a Mexico state governor. In 2004, Arturo Montiel, who was eventually forced to resign amidst allegations of corruption, granted the Wal-Mart Corporation permits for a mega-store to be located in Teotihuacan’s third archeological perimeter. Priceless artifacts uncovered during store construction were reportedly trucked off to a local dump and workers fired when they revealed the carnage to the press. Demonstrations by Indians and anthropologists grew heated and a police car was torched.
Similarly, Teotihuacan security forces have been deployed to suppress protests over Pena Nieto’s putsch to turn the City of the Gods into what INAH workers term “Disneylandia.” When the local Aztec dance troupe, Quetzalcoatl Naucampa sought to perform at the foot of the Pyramid of the Sun – Quetzalcoatl, “the Plumed Serpent” was a Teotihuacan deity – the dancers were attacked by the police who claimed that the sounding of their “caracoles” or conch-shell trumpets would “damage the monuments and annoy the tourists.” The Teotihuacan police chief ordered the dancers, who were in full Aztec regalia, to go home and “change into normal clothes.”
Protests against the exploitation of the City of the Gods for commercial purposes date back to the 1960s when Mexico City scholar and writer Salvador Novo led the outcry against the use of Teotihuacan for the filming of the post-Johnny Weissmuller “Tarzan In The Golden Valley” – Novo’s newspaper columns led to revocation of the film crew’s permits by the Interior Secretariat.
Nonetheless, during the past decade, the mercantilization of Mexico’s sacred sites has been routinely blessed by the directors of the INAH and Secretary of Tourism honchos as a ploy to pump up tourist revenues. Such fabled Mayan ruins as Chichen Itza and Uzmal on the Yucatan peninsula now have light and sound “espectaculos” and are rented out for private concerts. In Chiapas, Mayan ruins at Palenque and Tonina are reportedly slated for the same treatment. An annual pop music festival at El Tajin in northern Veracruz has damaged pyramids and earned the enmity of local Totonaco Indians for whom Tajin is a sacred site. X’caret, the sacred Mayan “cenote” or fresh-water well on Quintana Roo’s tourist-saturated Tulum corridor, features a hot-ticket sound and light show that has reportedly deeply degraded the site. But Pena Nieto and his cohorts remain undeterred, citing similar “espectaculos” at such world-class treasures as Angkor Wat and the Roman Coliseum as being big money spinners.
As the showdown in the City of the Gods approaches, a thousand anthropologists, cultural workers, local residents, and representatives of indigenous communities gathered February 3rd, the 70th anniversary of the INAH, at the foot of the Pyramid of the Sun and arm-in-arm surrounded the great structure in a “human embrace.” If Pena Nieto and his backers fail to call off the “Splendor of Teotihuacan”, INAH workers have threatened to shut down all of Mexico’s 111 archeological sites and over 300 museums. The failure of the Mexico state governor and future PRI presidential candidate to heed their warning and cancel this profanation of Teotihuacan, risks the wrath of the Gods.
JOHN ROSS remains north of the border dealing with medical troubles. These dispatches will continue at ten-day periods until he returns to Mexico. Ross’s “El Monstruo – True Tales of Dread & Redemption in Mexico City” will be published in late 2009 by Nation Books.