Tour of Mexico: Who the Aztecs Were

Posted by admin on Thursday Jul 26, 2012 Under Uncategorized

Mexico Series: Part 4Mexican Flag

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Mexican Pyramid Corner Last week right after I got back from Mendocino, I read this in The Washington Post:

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Archaeologists in Mexico City have unearthed the skulls and other bones of 15 people, most of them the children of traveling merchants during Aztec times.

Researcher Alejandra Jasso Pena says they also found ceramic flutes, bowls, incense burners, the remains of a dog that was sacrificed to accompany a child in the afterlife and other artifacts of a pre-Columbian civilization.

Jasso Pena said Friday that construction was about to start on five buildings in a Mexico City neighborhood when the National Institute of Anthropology and History asked to carry out an excavation of the site first.

Experts suspected the site was an important ceremonial center for the Tepanec tribe between 1200 and 1300. The influential traders living there were called Pochtecas.

Archaeologists say excavation is continuing at the site.

It’s this kind of thing, which happens all the time in Mexico, that makes you want to understand who the Aztecs were, how they created this empire, built amazing pyramids, the remnants of which are found today in the cornerstones of museums, between rail lines at metro stops and most importantly under the concrete sidewalk next to the Metropolitan Cathedral.

For it was there in 1978 that two city electrical workers jackhammering for the metro made one of archeology’s most significant finds: the ceremonial stone depicting the Aztec moon goddess, Coyolxauhqui, which led to the excavation of the Temple Mayor, the Aztec pyramid Cortez thought he’d buried forever.

Mexican Pyramid RemnantTenochitlan, now present day Mexico City, grew up in the areas around lake Texcoco around 1300. By the time Cortez landed in Veracruz in 1519, it was one of the most intellectually, artistically developed and wealthiest empires ever to have existed in Mesoamerica.

When the conquistadores stood on the causeway at what is now the barrio of Tepito and gazed at the Aztec City, Bernal Castillo de Diaz, one of Coretz’s soldiers wrote:

And when we saw all those cities and villages built in the water, and other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico [i.e. Tenochtitlán], we were astounded. These great towns and cues [i.e., temples] and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision from the tale of Amadis. Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream. It is not surprising therefore that I should write in this vein. It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before . . .
Coyolxauhqui Aztec Moon GoddessAnd when we entered the city of Iztapalapa, the sight of the palaces in which they lodged us! They were very spacious and well built, of magnificent stone, cedar wood, and the wood of other sweet-smelling trees, with great rooms and courts, which were a wonderful sight, and all covered with awnings of woven cotton.
When we had taken a good look at all this, we went to the orchard and garden, which was a marvelous place both to see and walk in. I was never tired of noticing the diversity of trees and the various scents given off by each, and the paths choked with roses and other flowers, and the many local fruit-trees and rose-bushes, and the pond of fresh water. Then there were birds of many breeds and varieties, which came to the pond. I say again that I stood looking at it, and thought that no land like it would ever be discovered in the whole world . . . But today all that I then saw is overthrown and destroyed; nothing is left standing

Well, I would not say nothing. Much of it is there waiting to be unearthered.

And about those traveling merchants . . . along with jade and quetzal feathers, they also traded in chocolate.

When you are in Mexico City, you must go to El Moro for a cup of hot chocolate—they have four different kinds— and a churro. Rick Bayless just created a little restaurant in Chicago–XOCO— which tries to duplicate the hot chocolate of El Moro, just to give you an idea of how good it is.

When I’m at home and I want to make this treat, I use Mayordomo bittersweet chocolate that I bring back from Mexico. You can use Abuelita or Ibarra, but the most important thing to use is a molinillo, sort of a wooden whisk, which is used to froth the milk.

I was told by a cook in Oaxaca that the Mexican believe you are transferring your energy into the drink.

Be sure to make this by hand and with love! For that, a blender just won’t do.

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Mendocino LandscapeThe great thing about being a woman of a certain age, which you probably are if you’re reading my blog instead of tweets, is that you have a lot more time to take spontaneous trips.

Exactly what Dave and I did last week.

Just as the heat was cranking up here in the Sierra foothills, we headed to Mendocino for a few days of cool fog, fine dining and great music at the Mendocino Music Festival. Great Music. If you were there for big band night, you will know what I mean when I say Julian Waterfall-Pollack and his arrangement of The Water is Wide. The crowd was in tears and then up on its feet for a standing ovation. You have got to hear this young pianist at some point in your life.

Miguel Angel ManceraAnyway, I’m interrupting my little blog tour of Mexico City even though everyone I know is asking me about the recent elections there.

Short version: Yes, Mexico City is safe with the usual precautions you would take in any big city, and Miguel Angel Mancera—the new mayor— is very cool. Because of his good looks and single status, he’s known as the George Clooney of Tenochitlan. However, that appellation belies his very real seriousness. As Mexico City’s Attorney General, he has been largely responsible for the security of Mexico City over the past several years and one of the reasons it’s so safe.

And I am planning to go to the DF after the summer monsoon rains there are over.

Now if I could just get George Clooney to play the role of Alejandro in the film version of Palace of the Blue Butterfly . . .

Mendocino SunsetMeanwhile back in the real world. . . . Well sort of real, because what could be more heavenly than this view from my rocking chair at The Little River Inn, the Mendocino hotel where we stayed.

Okay, a couple of things maybe, one of them being a great book to get lost in like Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins. You don’t need a blurb by me about this novel. Just get on Goodreads and you can find out all about it. Or better yet, go to Mendocino, get tickets for the Mendocino Music Festival and wander into the Gallery Bookshop to get a copy of Beautiful Ruins. I saw it on display there as an Independent booksellers’ choice.

I loved reading this book with the sound of waves crashing on rocks and the buoy bell in the cove below warning of shallow water. All very cozy and romantic.

Just to give you all a taste, so to speak, of my recent foray to the wild California coast, here’s The Little River Inn’s delicious olallieberry cobbler— a perfect summer dessert.

Little River Inn
Mendocino, California
Yields 12 to 14 servings

8 cups olallieberries, cleaned and picked over
2 cups sugar
½ cup flour
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Preheat over to 300˚. Mix all ingredients gently in a bowl, just enough to combine. Place in a 9” x 13” baking pan and shake to make a flat surface. Set aside.


1 cup flour
Pinch of salt
¼ cup sugar
1 tablespoon shortening
1 tablespoon softened butter
1 ½ tablespoons ice water
Egg white and sugar for topping

Place the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor. Pulse twice, then add shortening and butter. Process for about 15 seconds, then add the ice water. Process briefly, until the mixture is like a paste. Turn the pastry onto a floured surface and shape into a ball. Roll the crust with a floured rolling pin, shaping it to be slightly larger than the pan. Place the crust gently on top of the cobbler. Brush with egg white, dust with sugar, and bake for 1 hour and 25 minutes. If the crust needs more browning, bake for up to 12 minutes more. How much time you need to bake depends on the temperature of your oven.

Serve warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and enjoy!

Mendocino Beach

Note: This recipe works in a conventional oven only. Do not use a convection oven.

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Museo Nacional de Anthropologia and the Templo Mayor

Posted by admin on Thursday Jul 12, 2012 Under Uncategorized

Mexico Series: Part 3Mexican Flag

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Polanco area in Mexico CityDay 1. We’ll visit the Museo Nacional de Anthropologia and the Templo Mayor

Since we’re all armchair travelers here and price is no object, I asked myself where we should stay. I settled on the Polanco, the area where I lived with my mother and also where my character Lili works while she’s in Mexico City. The nice thing is it’s within walking distance of the Anthropology Museum, which will be day one’s destination. Great shops. Great restaurants, too, like Pujol and Izote.

But what hotel?

We could stay in the traditional and exclusive Casa Vieja with its charming rooftop dining area. After all, we can afford the seven hundred dollar a night price tag — at least in our dreams, right? Or maybe we should stay at the ultra modern Hotel Habita, the modernist cause célèbre on Avenida Mazaryk completely surrounded by sanded glass. Designed by the Grupo TEN Achitectos who won the Mies Van der Rohe Award for Latin American Architecture, this much-talked-about building boasts an extremely chic rooftop bar — the place to see and be seen. My character, Lili, ends up there one afternoon in desperate need of an ice cold martini. They make good ones. I know because I’ve had them!

Camino RealNo, I thought, we should find someplace both modern and ancient like the city itself, and so I settled on the Camino Real where we can hob-nob with diplomats, industry titans and billionaires like Carlos Slim. The Camino Real was designed by Ricardo Legorreta, one of Mexico’s most famous architects, a student of Luis Barragan and the person who brought the Mexican vernacular to the world stage.

On day one, we’ll begin by walking through Chapultepec Park to the Museo Nacional de Anthropologia. This impressive museum is to Mexico City — a city, I should say, that is filled with museums, — what the Met is to New York City or the Louvre is to Paris. It is the place to begin.

We’ll walk past the Paragua— the umbrella— a reference to the rain-god Tlaloc, to the diorama of the Sacred Perimeter of Gran Tenochitlan — the city of the Mexicas. Above the diorama, you can see the painting of the whole city of Tenochitlan as envisioned by the artist Miguel Covarrubias. Like Venice, Italy, Tenochitlan was built on islands, in this case both real and man-made, in the middle of Lake Texcoco. Travel was done by boat, though the city streets, according to the Spaniards, were wide enough for ten horses to ride side by side. This is the view the Spaniards might have had of the great kingdom of the Aztecs, one of those worlds within worlds you are always aware of here.

Diorama at Museo Anthropologica

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Mexico City: The Tour Begins

Posted by admin on Thursday Jul 5, 2012 Under Uncategorized

Mexico Series: Part 2Mexican Flag

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La Malinche Hotel in Queretero After being stunned by the beauty of the Huasteca, my mother and I drove on, spending a couple of days in the colonial city of Queretero in a hotel converted from one of the haciendas Cortez built for his Indian translator and concubine — La Malinche.

Of course, I had no idea who either of them were. The only conquistador I’d ever heard of in 1968 was Ponce de Leon and his crazed search through the swamps of Florida for the Fountain of Youth. So much for how great the educational system was back in the good ole’ days. Today, however, Queretero is a UNESCO World heritage site and much of its colonial splendor has been restored.

As beautiful as the countryside was, as elegant as the colonial buildings of Queretero were, nothing really prepared me for the glamor and excitement of Mexico City. I still remember descending from the mountains into the western side of the city, driving down the Avenida Reforma under palm trees, around the Diana Fountain and onto Avenida Mazaryk, where mansions lined either side of the avenue as far as the eye could see. It was Paris, Manhattan and Los Angeles all rolled into one.

Years later in a restaurant in Ashland, Oregon, I overheared a young man at the next table next trying to describe Mexico’s capital to his companions. “There are world’s within worlds there,” he told them. I borrowed his words for Palace of the Blue Butterfly because they were so true.

We lived only a short walk from Chapultepec Park where the Museo Nacional de Anthropologia is located. On my first full day in Mexico City, I walked through the park and into the Museum, and when I did, I stepped into one of those other worlds the young man at the restaurant was talking about.

When I was asked to give this talk on Mexico at a little salon we have up here I thought, where do you begin? Wil, an astronomer from UC, already lectured on Mayan cosmology, but then there’s the Mayan architecture of the classic period in Uxmal, the highland Mayas of San Cristobal de las Casas. There’s the great Zapotec City of Monte Alban near the City of Oaxaca — another World Heritage site. There’s the beautiful Baroque city of Puebla, the jewels of the Bajio — San Miguel del Allende and Guanajuato — the birthplace of Diego Rivera, and so on and so on.

West side of Mexico CityEventually, I settled on Mexico City, because it embodies all that is Mexico — it’s history, its rich cultural and artistic life, it hugeness and also, because to appreciate all those other cities one has to understand the history of Mexico’s metropolis from its pre-Columbian past to its impressive modern present.

So I began to think of this talk as more of a tour than a lecture. If I were to take you all with me, what would we do and where would we go?

I’d love to dispel the idea that Mexico is corrupt, dangerous and full of drug lords. Purely self-interest. I’d like to have readers for my novel, and if that’s what you think Mexico is, you’d never be able to believe my story.

So, future readers, let’s imagine that you’ve booked my tour — Five Days in Mexico City — and let’s take a look at our itinerary. You’ll have a different picture of the country if you come along with me.

Day One: The Museum of Anthropology and The Templo Mayor. The Conquest and Destruction of Tenochitlan.

Day Two: Coyoacan and the buildings of the first capital of New Spain, the Zocalo and the Centro Historico. The Rise of the Creole Class.

Day Three: Chapultepec Castle. Emperor Maximilian, Empress Carlotta and the French Intervention. Lunch at Hacienda Morales and a little shopping!

Day Four: Porfirio Diaz and his palaces — Palacio de Bellas Artes, the National Post Office, the Palace of Communications, now the National Museum of Art, and the buildings around Plaza Tolsa. Lunch at Girasoles and a new opera at Bellas Artes.

Day Five: The Art Nouveau buildings of the Colonia Roma, the Art Deco buildings of the Condesa and a visit to the Rosario Castellanos Bookstore where we learn about the modernist masterpieces of Luis Barragan.

Museo Nacional de Anthropologia

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