Las Portadas de Semillas:
Annual State of the Culture Representations in Tepoztlán, Mexico
Albert L. Wahrhaftig
Department of Anthropology
Sonoma State University
The Portada de Semillas in 2001
Each year in the evening of September 7th, the people of Tepoztlán, a municipality not far from Mexico City, erect a twenty by thirty two foot portada de semillas as an offering to the Virgin of the Nativity, Tepoztlán’s patron saint. The portada is a giant mosaic mural created by gluing tens of thousands of seeds, 65 varieties of them in their natural colors, to a plywood backing and is the product of voluntary communal labor. It will stay in place throughout the year until it is time to remove it and commence construction of the next year’s portada. It is thus an example of ephemeral art and of art that has become deeply traditional yet is recent. The first portada de semillas was dedicated in 1991.
To be sure, the portada is an act of devotion, but it is more than that. It represents a deliberate, communally supported effort to consolidate and communicate the value of Tepoztlán’s traditional culture in the present day world. Each portada constitutes an annual public visual declaration about the state of Tepoztlán and Tepoztecan culture. Its makers are, in effect, analogues to the pre-Colombian tlacuilo, “the Aztec pictographic poet, whose wall art draws the past into the present through recourse to reds, blacks, and ochres…”(Campbell 2003:198)
The Tepoztecans, who were until the 1950’s a Nahuatl speaking community, are much given to visual communications (Wahrhaftig: 2001), and I think it reasonable to assert, as did Elizabeth Hill Boone in her essay on “Pictorial Documents and Visual Thinking in Post-Conquest Mexico” that “to put it simply, [after the Conquest] the Nahuas continued to think in visual terms and to express ideas pictorially.” (Boone 2001)
In each period of Tepoztecan history, and now more than ever, there has been much to communicate and now much need to communicate in a manner that transcends class, wealth, education, and politics, for the people of Tepoztlán struggle to preserve their autonomy and distinctiveness within an ever more encompassing neoliberal and globalized nation.
|Banner: The eight barrios of Tepoztlán, represented by their totemic symbols, throw an unwanted tourist train project into the garbage||Mural by Rius: "Dignity is worth more than a damn golf club"|
The watershed events of the last few decades have been efforts to defeat “development projects” promoted by outsiders which Tepoztecans have deemed contrary to their cultural, social, and economic interests. Standouts among these, along with repeated illegal seizures of Tepoztecan lands, were a 1962 attempt to build a Golf Club for rich outsiders (again, on fraudulently acquired Tepoztecan lands), a 1979 project to construct a teleferic cable car to loft tourists to the prehispanic pyramid of El Tepozteco, and a proposal in the early 1990s to route a touristic railroad through tunnels in mountains that Tepoztecos regard as sacred. (Conchiero 1996).. The so-called “Golf Club War”of 1995-7, Tepoztecan opposition to yet another megaproject for the rich, was the latest, largest, and most definitive of these. (Rosas 1997) In each instance, Tepoztecos united in a successful opposition
In their struggles to maintain their autonomy and the integrity of their culture, the people of Tepoztlán did not fight alone. They counted on the support of el Tepozteco, their hero-god, associated with the prehispanic pyramid overlooking their town. Always thought of as their protector and as a disciplinarian capable of punishing them for collective misdeeds by inflicting destructive windstorms (a power of his by virtue of being the son of Ehecatl, the wind god), el Tepozteco was believed by many to manifest himself as a warrior on the frontlines of the defense of their town during these periods of opposition. Those with a less literal sense of his interventions nevertheless have since childhood absorbed the particulars of their hero’s legendary existence. For them, he serves as a paradigm of Tepoztecan wisdom, courage, altruism, and leadership, especially in times of crisis.
The first Portada de Semillas, 1991
In the portadas, an assertive pride in Tepoztecan culture and the depiction of heroic events in the life of el Tepozteco serve as rallying points for focusing Tepoztecan spirit. All of this may be seen from the first in the evolution of the portadas de semillas. In 1991 the first somewhat makeshift portada was started with plastic flowers and hastily finished with boughs of greenery when time ran short. Its symbolism, the lambs of god, angels, the sacred heart of Jesus, and the cross, is conventionally Catholic.
1992 Portada de Semillas
In the space of just a year, however, the pordada of 1992 became assertively Tepoztecan. With its symbols in three layers, the Christian cross and the Marian emblem surmount on the left the glyphic image of el Tepozteco and the monument where he is said to have been baptized, and, on the right two rabbits, standing for the literal translation of el Tepozteco’s Nahuatl name. Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcoatl, represented as twin serpents, mediate these.
1993 Portada de Semillas
Just a year further on, the portada of 1993 even more assertively strikes an equation, placing at the lower right el Tepozteco as a warrior king and the monster (to be discussed) he slew at Xochicalco while on the bottom left the baptism of el Tepozteco by the Dominican friar Domingo de la Asunciacion and the monument commemorating that act are shown. Above are corresponding symbols of greater generality: Marian and Dominican on the left, the all-powerful sun and the Tepoztlán’s place-glyph on the right, all surmounted once again by the Marian symbol and Christian cross. This portada, the first constructed with seeds, places the pre-Conquest indigenous and the post-Conquest Christian versions of Tepoztecan culture on an equal footing.
1994 Portada de Semillas
Continuing the progression, the portada of 1994 devotes itself entirely to a codex-like recitation of the legendary life of el Tepozteco.
One might be tempted to say that in these four years the balance of meaning has shifted from Christian devotion to indigenous contentiousness, but that is far too simple a proposition.
The portada occupies liminal space between the secular marketplace and the sacred church atrium.
Just as Tepoztlán lives on a boundary between tradition and postmodernity, so, too, does the portada which, placed as it is on the liminal space of the arch marking the boundary between the secular market plaza and the sacred churchyard, mediates between ancient precedents and contemporary realities, That this is so became intensely clear in the portadas situated during the years of resistance to the Golf Club Project.
The Golf Club Project was no small thing. To be constructed on 463 acres of illegally obtained Tepozecan communal land, located over the aquifer supplying a town already desperately short of water, consisting of a high tech business park, a shopping center, seven hundred luxury homes each with a swimming pool, a heliport, and a golf club with a course designed by Jack Nicklaus, the project was backed by the most powerful of national and transnational corporations and politicians. While benefiting the ultra rich, the project promised jobs to Tepoztecans, but as peons making beds and mowing lawns. Worse, Tepoztecans foresaw an onslaught of neighbors who would denigrate their culture.
The legend of el Tepozteco contains a formula for this kind of crisis. (Lane and Wahrhaftig: 2004) Historically, this region of Mexico was once dominated by a powerful state centered at Xochicalco. Legend records that when el Tepozteco, abandoned as an infant by his mother and her family and adopted by an elderly and hitherto childless couple, discovered that his adopted father was to be taken to Xochicalco to be eaten by the monster who ruled there, for a diet of old men was part of the tribute he demanded, he insisted on going instead. As a result of this courageous substitution, and as a result of deception and trickery through which he gained advantage over the monster and slew him, el Tepozteco not only saved his kin but also freed all the principalities of the region. El Tepozteco, as boy-hero, illustrates the ability of astute and courageous folk to overcome the illegitimate demands of powerful external oppressors.
The 1995 Portada de Semillas
Thus, in 1995, the legend depicted in 1994, served as a metaphor for Tepoztlán’s confrontation with an equally dangerous Xochicalco in the form of the Golf Club Project. The next year, it is no longer a matter of metaphor.
The 1996 Portada de Semillas
In 1996 the Golf Club promoters are pictured as Spanish conquistadores. At the lower right, they appear at the governor’s palace in Cuernavaca, importuning his continued support. Alongside, Spanish soldiers assault three captives (in fact, three Tepoztecans taken as political prisoners). At the lower left, the united people of Tepoztlán stand before the powers of their sacred mountains. Above, the eight Tepoztecan barrios (represented by their respective totemic symbols) are knit into solidarity by the twin serpents of Mesoamerican faith and practice, while above all el Tepozteco raises his sword [1997 portada] and shield in full defiance.
The 1997 Portada de Semillas
Following a year of standoff in which the portada reminded Tepoztecans of their devotion to the Virgin, the Tepoztecan resistance was successful and the project was withdrawn.
The 1998 Portada de Semillas
In the portada of 1998, el Tepozteco celebrates victory by triumphantly playing his slit drum, itself a relic of a previous victorious confrontation. Below, the governor’s palace is in flames and the governor, a noose around his neck, is taken to be sentenced by a panel of judges. At the left, Tepoztecans, their barrios united, live harmoniously in their natural and magically powerful environment.
The 1999 Portada de Semillas
Two more examples will suffice to indicate that the portadas are more than cries to action and chronicles of conflict. The portada of 1999 extols the strength and value of traditional Tepoztecan social organization, using the making of the portada for the annual Feast of the Virgin of Nativity an example. On the left, the Tepoztecos make their plans by consensus. On the right Arturo Demesa, designer of the recent portadas, shows himself making his drawings, while above him, Rafael Carrillo supervises, as always, the gluing of the seeds.
The 2000 Portada de Semillas
In portada of 2000, elections are held both locally and nationally in the year of the millennium. At the bottom left, five competing political parties are within a circle, the appendages on its periphery symbolizing their promises. Their campaigners travel out on paths bearing their candidate’s pledges to every community in the municipality. To the right, the newly elected municipal president and his council sit within the circle, while now workers bearing full carrying baskets bring the benefits of good government to the surrounding communities. Here is shown the ideal of morality and the sacredness in politics, presided over by one muse representing Mexico’s history and another representing the Mexican state. In front of the all-powerful sun above them, Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor, symbolizing the traditional culture of Mexico, shakes hands with el Tepozteco, symbolizing Tepoztlán’s place within Mesoamerican tradition.
The portadas are a recent deliberate attempt to reinforce Tepoztecan identity in the face an of ever-increasing intrusion of the globalized world into Tepoztecan autonomy. Serving as annual public “state of the culture” addresses directing attention to the connection of present events to eternal sources of identity and community, they are a reinvention of the ancient Mesoamerican practice of sacralized visual communication on ritual occasions.
Mexican Murals in Times of Crisis. Univesity of Arizona Press. 2003
Concheiro Bórquez, Luciano
“Tepoztlán: dignidad tras las barricadas” Coyuntura Num. 67/68. Jan/Feb 1996, pages 36-47.(English translation by Albert L. Wahrhaftig –“Tepoztlán: Dignity Behind the Barricades”
Lane, Pacho and Albert Wahrhaftig
A Defender of His People: The Legend of El Tepozteco. (video: 60 min.) Ethnoscope Video. 2004
Tepoztlán: Crónica de desacatos y resistencia. Ediciones ERA. 1997
Wahrhaftig, Albert L.
“Talking Walls: The Iconography of Tepoztecan Resistance” Presented at the 100th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Washington DC, December 2, 2001