Photos by Kurt Hollander.
In Mexico City, Aztec culture is not just scattered ruins, jade masks hung in museums, or concheros dressed in colorful feathers dancing and offering to pose with tourists in the city’s main plaza. The “race of bronze” can still be seen in the faces and bodies of a large portion of the local population, in the particular styles of beauty and street fashion, in the local vernacular that enriches the Spanish language, and in certain foods and drinks still consumed 500 years after the fall of the Aztec empire.
Ten percent of Mexico City’s population is indigenous, the vast majority of them being of Aztec heritage, still fluent in Nahuatl. No school offers (let alone requires) classes in the language, and it is almost completely absent from the official culture within the city. Few, if any, Mexican writers or intellectuals understand the first thing about the language. Luis Tlacuache Mdáhuar is editor and sole author of the self-published zine Gandul. He’s not indigenous but taught himself Nahuatl so he could recite Aztec poetry in public squares, doing his part to try to undermine easy notions of race and culture, often dressed only in a taparrabos (a loin cloth).
Luis was kind enough to spend a day with me, visiting some choice spots in Mexico City where Aztec culture can still be found.
Our first stop was the legendary Tacos del Güero, a hole-in-the-wall in the Condesa neighborhood. El Güero serves up traditional Aztec fare of corn tortillas stuffed with avocados, cactus, quelites (a green leafy veggie), huitlacoche (corn mold) and beans cooked in ceramic bowls. These local delicacies are more difficult to find in the trendy restaurants that have spread throughout Mexico City, where now half the food is imported from the USA.
Our next stop was the Sangre de Fuego, Blood of Fire, tattoo parlor, which promotes a popular neoprimitive Aztec aesthetic (their card depicts a guy slicing a thick slab of skin from his cheek). Aztecs were obsessed with body modification: they would jab thorns of maguey into their ears on religious holidays and pierce tongues and penises. Aztecs kids were initiated into adulthood at the age of eight with ear expansions, usually made from wood, leather, ceramics, or bone. Lip plugs were trendy for both men and women, but only nobles were allowed to wear gold or silver plugs or have rings hanging down from their noses.
A short walk brought us to the pulquería Las Duelistas. Mexico City has yuppie bars like anywhere else, serving martinis, mojitos, and margaritas, but pulquerias are the true working-class pre-Colombian drinking spots. Pulque is a delicious and nutritious alcohol made by hand from agave then sweetened with fruits and veggies (including peanuts, beets, guavas, and even oatmeal) to disguise its somewhat slimy consistency. The Aztecs considered pulque the milk of the gods and used it as a medicine, hallucinogen, energy drink, and lubricant during certain orgiastic religious festivals. Once the drink of choice for the majority of defeños (Mexico City locals), pulquerias have mostly disappeared over the last few decades, with a scant dozen remaining in the city.
Luis gulped down four large glasses of celery pulque rimmed with chile powder, but didn't really get that drunk. Luis bemoaned the fact that pulque is being transformed into a cheap party drink rather than the solace of the elderly, the depressed, and the poet class.
We finished up our tour in Chapultepec, the largest park in all of the Americas and one that provides a comfortable space for the city’s thousands of construction workers and maids, many of them direct descendants of the Aztecs. During the Aztec empire, Chapultepec Park was the private estate of Emperor Moctezuma, boasting a palace, personal zoo (of animals as well as human oddities), giant circular baths, and botanical gardens. Before that, it was the summer resort of Emperor Nezahualcoyotl from Texcoco, Mexico—Tenochtitlan’s sister city across the lakes. Other than building the aqueducts that brought fresh water from the springs in Chapultepec Park to all parts of the city, Nezahualcoyotl was one of the great Aztec poets and used to walk through Chapultepec composing verse five hundred ago. Below, Luis reads “The Song of Moyocoyatzin,” one example of Nezahuacoyotl’s pre-Colombian pessimism:
Like a painting
we will fade,
like a flower
we will dry out
on the earth
As we walked out of the park, Luis wiped off his face paint and explained how it’s impossible to recreate the Aztec world as it was, and that its not even something he’s interested in doing. There are so many overlapping cultures within Mexico City, so many layers of the past buried beneath the streets of the city, and so much cultural unconsciousness and racism. The past is gone and now irretrievable.