Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Origin of team sports

As the 2012 Olympic Games begin, it’s a grand time to visit the ball courts at Mexican archeological sites and see evidence of what was one of the earliest the team sports. The Mesoamerican ball game was being played in 1000 B.C., some say as far back as 1400 B.C. That’s well before the games started in Olympia in 776 B.C. 

It’s not unusual for cultures to have religious games.  The Greek Olympic games were held every four years to honor Zeus -- accompanied by a truce honored for the duration of the games by all city-states.  What probably started as a sprinting competition on the stadia in Olympia expanded to the pentathlon--jumping, discus, javelin, wrestling and a foot-race. Winners were admired, immortalized in poems and statues.  

In Mesoamerica's ball game there is evidence one of the players was sacrificed at the end of some games -- proof of the religious nature of the game.  Early Spanish conquerors prohibited playing the game; anything related to indigenous religion was, in their eyes, the cult of the devil.

Nonetheless, several teams were taken to Spain to show the king’s court this remarkable sport.  Players played very few exhibition matches before suffering a similar fate of almost all indigenous people taken to Europe at that time.  They succumbed to smallpox, measles, or other European diseases for which they had no immunity.

Those few games played had a tremendous impact on European sports.  Until then individualized sports reigned: only one person could win. Everyone else lost.  In traditional Olympic events the gold medalist is the winner.  Other competitors, though excellent athletes, are still losers.  It was the Mesoamerican ballgame that introduced the idea to Europe that all members of a team can be winners.  

Though no longer played and the rules of the Mesoamerican game long since forgotten, portrayals in ceramic art and sculpture consistently depict a solid rubber ball and seven players on a team.  Players were allowed to hit the ball with all parts of their bodies except hands and feet.  They wore protective leather padding over their head, shoulders, elbows, knees, around their waist and over their stomach.  The ball weighed 3.5 to 4 kilos (7 to 9 pounds). 

There is no standard sized court; what is standard is the shape.  Two parallel mounds give the ballcourt its characteristic capital letter "I" shape -- wide at the ends, narrow down the center.   Sloping sides lead to a seating area on the top of the parallel mounds.  With time it became fashionable to have steeper sides culminating with the grandest of all courts at Chichen Itza -- almost a hundred meters long with vertical sidewalls. 

Rings are positioned vertically in the middle of each sidewall where the sloping side meets the vertical wall.  The most important points were scored by getting the ball through the ring.  This was a very rare event because rings are barely larger than the ball and were positioned far from players who couldn’t use hands or feet.  

A less important point was scored by hitting the ball against the ring and having it bounce off.  It is believed points could also be scored by having the ball bounce on a marker or by hitting the ball against the corners at each end of the sidewalls.  Points may have been scored for dominating the ball.  There were many ways of scoring points, all of which were of different value.  No two games were identical.  

The ball game may have had a similar function to Greek oracles.  Wise priests, perhaps even nobles, understood the nature, and order, of the points to be part of a conversation between two gods who were influencing the scoring of the points and thereby allowing the priests to eavesdrop on the divine dialog.  Priests could gain insight into the needs and concerns of the gods and use that insight to guide their offerings.  

Hang around the ball court in Chichen Itza and you'll hear a group being told that the captain of the losing team was sacrificed for playing poorly. The next group may be told the captain of the winning team was sacrificed for playing so well and that he went on to become a god and accompany the sun on its daily journey through the sky.  I side with those who say that the sacrificed player had volunteered before the game even began.  

Just as in a conversation there is no winner or loser, in the eyes of the priests and nobles there probably was no winning or losing team.  The winners and losers were the spectators.  Those who watched, without understanding the religious subtleties, placed bets on each point.  Spaniards report it wasn't only trinkets that were bet.   People bet harvests, home, and even themselves and their families into slavery.  Huge sums were transferred at the ball games.  The bets were paid as the points were scored. 

Those of us who enjoy team sports, either as players or spectators, might say a quiet thanks to those ancient Mesoamericans; is there really much difference between what happens at today’s sportsbooks and at the ancient ballcourts?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

How the Indigenous saw themselves after the conquest

Chapultepec Castle is one of my favorite places and I was delighted to hear it would host the exhibit titled "Compared Views in the Viceroyalties of America, Mexico and Peru" (Visiones comparadas en los virreinatos de America.  Mexico y Peru).  Though scheduled through October 7, there is good reason to visit it today or tomorrow.  The most fragile pieces will not be on display for the duration of the exhibit. This touring exhibit, curated by Ilona Katzew, opened in 2011 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as "Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World".  

Though its name changed when it moved to Mexico City the exhibit is essentially the same, bringing together 170 items from collections in Peru, Chile, Spain, France, United States, and Mexico

In naming the exhibit, Los Angeles referred to Spanish colonial rule, Mexico uses the more correct reference to viceroyalty government in which, from a legal standpoint, New Spain and Peru were integral parts of Spain. 

At the exhibit I serendipitously encountered Salvador Rueda Smithers, Director of Chapultepec Castle’s National History Museum.  He told me “calling the exhibit 'Contested Visions' in Spanish would not have honored the purpose of the exhibit.  Compared Views encompasses finding opposing ideas as well as similarities inspired and compared through Indigenous eyes.  The exhibit focuses on the Indigenous as they saw themselves -- not as Criollos or Mestizos saw them.  This exhibit is basically the seed of ethnography… art and ethnography at a moment in time before they separated."

Through art, "Compared Views" gives us insights into the way Spain imposed itself on two powerful short-lived empires, Inca and Aztec, which, though unlinked, perhaps even unknown to the other, existed for less than two centuries prior to Spanish conquest.  

It is mainly through oil paintings on canvas or magnificent screens (biombos) that we are drawn into the rigid caste system of both cultures.  Paintings document the machinations families of influence undertook to preserve privilege.  Elaborately painted genealogies trace Indigenous ancestry in efforts to conserve property rights and to recall agreements and promises made by the conquerors.  Text on the paintings includes Indigenous names written in the Spanish style using first and second surnames.

This exhibit does not deal with the horrors of the conquest, smallpox, starvation, and slavery.  It is an exhibit of the view of survivors, mostly those of privilege who successfully adapted to the new order.  A particular 1734 portrait sticks in my mind.  Juana María Cortés Chimalpopoca is shown wearing an elegant huipil, taking vows in Mexico's Corpus Christi convent established ten years earlier for noble Indians or "Cacicas" (female Caciques).  Juana is portrayed alongside the shield of nobility awarded by Phillip II to Antonio Cortés Totoquihuaztli, governor of Tacuba (1550-1574).  Juana's father, José, thus documented his claim as a descendent of a prehispanic governor of Tacuba through the portrait of his daughter's entry into a convent for Indigenous nobles.

Interspersed in the exhibit are pieces of prehispanic art from Peru and Mexico -- three are special treats. On the back wall of the exhibit's first room is a Chimalli, an Aztec shield, decorated with feathers.  Along with Moctezuma's headdress Hernan Cortez sent it to his sovereign, Charles I, who marveled over how "brilliantly the use of feathers replaced that of the brush."  Emperor Maximilian returned the Chimalli to Mexico in 1864.  According to Professor Rueda, Maximilian wished to bring the headdress back as well but his brother Emperor Franz Joseph refused permission. 

If you go left from the Chimalli around the other side of the display case two dimly lit cases form a corner.  One contains a marvelous cotton Xicolli (ritual vestment), the other a mask covered with bark paper -- the only prehispanic bark paper other than in a codex that is still conserved.  Professor Rueda exclaimed, "I had never seen these before!  They have never been exhibited and they'll only be on display during the exhibit's first two weeks."  Hence my suggestion you drop what you're doing and visit the exhibit quickly.

About the mask, Professor Rueda went on to say, "I imagine the priest wearing a sacrificed person's skin, hands covered in blood, the mask over his face, thorns in his bleeding ears, holding in his hands the bloody heart of a still living sacrifice.  Though refined in many ways, the Aztecs were very cruel.  The demand for blood was high; this is a chilling piece."   

The Xicolli, with a black and white repetitive design of circles and squares, according to Professor Rueda, "is the only prehispanic textile design known to survive to our time.  We knew the varied designs from codices but had never seen a real one until this was found.  You can see the precision in the design, the importance of their geometry.  We realize it expresses something not yet understood about their technology, about prehispanic Mexican thinking…  Though we may not know how they thought, we do know their designs were done with great exactitude, geometrically perfect and with proportion.”

I hope you’re lucky enough to run into Professor Rueda on your visit.  Either way I’m sure you’ll be glad you went.  

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Money that grew on trees

Chocolate is one more of Mesoamerica’s many gifts to the world and, “chocolatl” or chocolate is another of the many Nahuatl words to enter our modern vocabulary.  Cacao, the bean from which chocolate comes means “food of the gods.” Who can argue with that?    

Chocolate probably originated in the Amazon region but Spaniards first encountered it in Mesoamerica.  The Mesoamericans cultivated a cacao species different from that of the Amazon; it appears there was little to no cross fertilization of the two species. 

The cacao bean (in English frequently referred to as cocoa) gave lie to the adage "money doesn’t grow on trees."  For millennia, in this part of the world, it did.  The cacao bean was an accepted unit of currency throughout Mesoamerica.  Even purchasers with no cacao beans in hand used prices set in beans to guide their barter.   A buyer purchasing a length of cotton cloth know how many cacao beans the blanket was worth and how many his bags of corn were worth, thereby knowing whether to add or subtract corn in order to seal the deal. 

Columbus, on his fourth voyage, encountered and seized a Maya merchant dugout canoe described as "being as long as a galley and eight feet wide, had a cabin amidships, and a crew of some two dozen men, plus its captain and . . . women and children.  It carried a cargo of cacao, copper bells and axes, pottery, cotton clothing, and macanas (wooden swords set with obsidian blades)." Columbus' son Ferdinand wrote, "They seemed to hold these [cacao beans] at a great price; for when they were brought on board the ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen [out of their head]." 

Indeed they were valuable.   A thousand cacao beans, the product of a single tree, could buy a slave at the Laguna de Terminos market.

Reference to cacao and chocolate is found in ancient Maya hieroglyphic writing.  Vases, which seem designed to hold beverages, have been found with hieroglyphic text identifying the owner and its intended use as a cup from which to drink chocolate. 

Throughout Mesoamerica cacao was considered sacred and used for medicinal and ritual purposes.  Today it is known as an antioxidant with the ability to lower cholesterol and blood pressure as well as having mythic aphrodisiac properties.  Cortez was sufficiently impressed and reported this property of chocolate to the Spanish court.  The legend continues -- probably accountable for chocolate as a preferred gift for Valentine’s Day.

In prehispanic Mesoamerica, "xocolatl" (bitter beverage in Nahuatl) or perhaps "chokolatl" (hot beverage as a combination Maya and Nahuatl word) was the preferred drink of the upper classes. They were the only ones who could afford to drink their money.  Frothy, hot, water-based chocolate was reportedly available all day long in Moctezuma's palace.     

Though Mesoamerican money did grow on trees, it grew in climatically restricted areas; its use as a favored drink of the ruling classes kept it scarce.  If there was an abundant harvest, supply and demand would kick in -- more people could afford to drink it and they would sip it right back to its former scarcity -- an inflation-proof currency.

The cacao tree is unusual in that its fruit can grow anywhere on the bark.  It grows on the tree trunk, along the branches, or dangles from the end of a branch.  Each pod, the size of a small papaya, of which there are about twenty per tree, contains thirty to sixty cacao beans in a mucilage-like substance.  After harvesting pods, farmers must quickly break them open and dry the seeds, or they will rot.  Today the seeds are dried on large cement terraces in front of houses.  Overflow crops even dry on the shoulder of highways.  If kept dry, seeds last for years. 

Cacao trees grow in low, humid, tropical regions of Mesoamerica, especially along the coasts of southern Mexico and Central America.  Cacao orchards are pleasing places in which to walk.  The trees grow as undergrowth in the shade of taller trees that fix nitrogen into the soil.  If you’d like to visit such a farm I suggest you combine it with a trip to the Comalcalco archeological site near Villahermosa, a cacao-producing area of Tabasco.

Today a brisk trade goes on between Tabasco where most of Mexico's cacao is grown and Oaxaca with the highest per-capita consumption of chocolate.  Next time you're in the city of Oaxaca find a chocolate molino near the market. Choose your preferred combination of cinnamon, almonds, sugar, and cacao, have it put in the grinder and prepare for a grand treat.  Purchase a "molinillo", lathed from a single piece of wood, in the market and use it to turn your chocolate into frothy hot chocolate.  A chocolate molino is one of my favorite stops in Oaxaca. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

On a well-beaten path in Puente de Ixtla

If you've driven to Taxco from Mexico City you've passed the turnoff to Puente de Ixtla, in southern Morelos.  Perhaps, you, like me, have wondered what is Ixtla?  And, is there really a bridge there?  Last week I went in search of the bridge and found it -- another destination gem in Morelos.

Ixtla derives from a composite Nahuatl word -- "itz", meaning obsidian and "tla" abundance.  "Puente" refers to an attractive, 16th century, three-arched, stone bridge spanning the Tembembe River, now dwarfed by a higher concrete bridge.

With a railing-height stone-wall on each side, the old bridge is wide enough for a horse drawn carriage or a cart pulled by a team of oxen.  As I walked across I imagined traversing the bridge 4 to 500 years ago as part of the Camino Real from Mexico City to Acapulco.  It is certainly one of the very few places where the Camino survives in its original design.  Even the roadway portion of the bridge is stone.

In addition to local traffic it is a bridge that was certainly crossed by viceroys on their way to Acapulco for the annual fair upon the arrival of the "Nao de China" -- the fleet from Manila.  Alexander von Humbolt must have crossed it on his famous trip when he referred to that Royal Highway as the Road to Asia.  He noted it was in Acapulco where one boarded a ship to the Philippines.  During the viceroyalty period most everything that went back and forth between New Spain and the Philippines undoubtedly crossed this old stone bridge -- furniture, silk gowns, ivory, porcelain, silver coins minted in Mexico, cochineal dye, books, government documents.  During the war for Independence the Insurgent army used it.  Zapata headquartered his army in Puente de Ixtla for a portion of the Revolution.  Before the automobile age, the Puente was crossed by those travelers who gathered for Mass at dawn in the Franciscan hermitage on the outskirts of Cuernavaca then set out as a group on their way to Acapulco.  The bridge at Ixtla was certainly a landmark for them; one by which to gauge how far they had traveled, how far they had yet to go.  

The new concrete bridge is barely wide enough for two lanes of vehicular traffic with no space for a sidewalk.  Pedestrians are directed to the old bridge, now in its fifth century of constant use!
Though only half an hour south of Cuernavaca, Puente de Ixtla has a rural feel to it.  Turn off the highway at the first exit to Puente de Ixtla and you're in a bustling town rarely visited by tourists.  Many of the seemingly endless shops are selling agricultural products.  The older part of town is close to the river; you'll know you're there when the street angles down.  Turn left at the church and that street will take you right into the market.  As you poke along, live chickens will be for sale within arm's reach of your car window.  Two right turns get you back to the main street within sight of the bridges -- old and new.  Puente de Ixtla's charm is not its architecture; it is its ancient bridge, its history which hopefully you will imagine as you block out the contemporary.    

Parking is available across the street from the storefront office labeled SRE (Secretariat of Foreign Relations).  Yes, Mexican passports can be requested in Puente de Ixtla!  It is a federally sanctioned municipal passport office and one of only three in Morelos.  In Puente de Ixtla, unlike the busy passport office in Cuernavaca, for only a hundred-peso surcharge, Mexicans file the paperwork for passport without an appointment, it's ready four days later.  A photo studio, copy shop, and bank where necessary fees can be paid are all within two blocks of the SRE office.  At the SRE office you are only two doors uphill from the bridge.  

The second half of the town's name refers to obsidian.  Obsidian is volcanic lava cooled so quickly it bypassed crystallization and became glass instead of rock.  It was the source of ancient Mesoamerica's sharpest tools.   

Teotihuacan, in the Valley of Mexico, was Mesoamerica's premier producer of obsidian tools.  In fact, its financial success was based on it.  Because of its abundance of obsidian Puente de Ixtla very likely fell under Teotihuacan's control during the time that Teotihuacan was central Mexico's religious, political, and financial powerhouse.  When other cities or towns competed in the obsidian trade Teotihuacan's income was affected; it would send its warriors out to conquer the offending place and demand all obsidian production flow through Teotihuacan.  Teotihuacan fit the classic definition of an empire, controlling distant colonies without an interest in controlling the territory between the metropolis and its colonies.  What it was interested in was trade and its most important product was obsidian. 

It was a wonderful day exploring a seemingly isolated yet unexpectedly busy town.  I highly recommend a detour when you next visit Taxco.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A one-stop mural shop

The areas around the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s (UNAM) Rectoría (administration building) offers a unique view, where one can see monumental art by different artists, all of it created in the same time period: 1952.

Five years ago this grand array of art and architecture was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site as "an outstanding example of the application of the principles of 20th Century modernism merged with features stemming from pre-Hispanic Mexican tradition . . . . one of the most significant icons of modern urbanism and architecture in Latin America".

Approaching the Rectoría from the south on Insurgentes Avenue, David Alfaro Siqueiros' tile mosaic is the first of the artistic statements to come into view.  Be it on canvas or murals, Siqueiros liked texture in his art.  On the south side of the Rectoría he took a bold step towards his goal of producing three-dimensional mural art by including curved surfaces of faces, arms, hands, and pencils emerging from the wall.

Three-dimensional mural art sounds like a contradiction in terms, but Siqueiros achieved it a decade later in the Siqueiros Polyforum, when he incorporated metal sculpture into his mural art.

An untiled smaller Siqueiros mural on the north side of the Rectoría is less attractive, but has a clearer message.  The hand, fingers, and pencil point to a list of dates:  1520, 1810, 1857, 1910, 19??, referring to the conquest of Mexico, proclamation of independence, laws of reform and new constitution, revolution, and the next social upheaval.  Back in 1952 who ever thought we would live to see the year 2000?  The open-ended date has been restored many times after students painted in the date of the next upheaval. 

Just north of the Rectoría is the library building designed and decorated by architect and muralist Juan O'Gorman.  As it was a library building, O'Gorman put in very few windows.  Except for vents in the stairwells and translucent onyx in the lower-floor reading rooms, the entire building is covered on the outside with natural stone mosaic.

The west and south sides of O’Gorman’s library are visible from the Rectoría.  The west portrays the university shield and university life.  At first glance, the shield appears to be framed by a double-headed eagle; however, it is two different majestic birds. The Aztec eagle of the Mexican shield and the South American condor are on either side of a map of Latin America--the western hemisphere sans Canada and the United States.  The letters BN and HN in the top corners are abbreviations of the collections housed in the building:  Biblioteca Nacional (national book library) and Hemeroteca Nacional (national periodicals library). 

On the south side of the library building O'Gorman gives us views of European life.  In two large circles he presents the European views of the universe.  Ptolemy's theory positions the earth in the center of the universe, contrasting with Copernicus' revolutionary theory where the earth is one of many planets in the solar system, all part of a much larger universe.  

The opposite side of the library building portrays the Aztec view, with the island of Mexico-Tenochtitlan as the center of the universe, connected by canals to the rest of its known world. 

Each side of the library building is a perfect rectangle.  A cardboard box could have been the maquette for its design.  It has become the emblematic building on the university campus, photographed in every Spanish language textbook you've ever had.  

When proud Siqueiros -- upset over being eclipsed by young upstart Juan O'Gorman – was asked what he thought of the library building, he replied "Juanito has given us a "gringa vestida de China Poblana,"”  He implied it could have been a building taken from Manhattan and just dressed up Mexican -- as the China Poblana.  (The China Poblana wasn't Chinese at all, but likely a captive slave brought from India as a child, who, because of her intellect and beauty, became a sensation in Puebla during the viceroyalty period.)

Across Insurgentes Avenue lies the university stadium.  Its stone mosaic is Diego Rivera's rendition of the university shield flanked by athletes.  Under it all is Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent.  The stadium was refurbished for the 1968 Olympic games and a dish for the Olympic flame was added above Rivera's mosaic.  The shallow chromed dish always makes me think of another artist; James Metcalf.  

Born in New York, Metcalf died earlier this year in Santa Clara del Cobre, Michoacan.  As a sculptor and metallurgist his search of ancient techniques led him from Paris to Mexico where he found them in Santa Clara.  Craftsmen there were using a pre-hispanic design of bellows and technique for shaping copper ingots heated in charcoal fires to produce the copper kettles used throughout Mexico known as "cazos de Don Vasco".  

Shortly after the conquest Vasco de Quiroga allowed copper production to continue in Santa Clara, but insisted it be to produce a Spanish designed kettle.  By applying ancient techniques to produce modern design, Metcalf put Santa Clara del Cobre "on the map" of artistic metallurgic production and was commissioned to make a hand-hammered copper bowl for the flame in Olympic stadium.   

Hopefully you’ll be on the UNAM campus someday soon.  Enjoy seeing these very different works by three of Mexico’s great muralists.