Anales de Tepoztlán




View of Tepoztlan
Tepoztlán viewed from El Tepozteco's pyramid


Albert L. Wahrhaftig
Department of Anthropology
Sonoma State University

Click on images to see a larger image

The rare cases in which small and traditional communities have successfully opposed national and global projects which threaten their well-being and identity merit detailed examination. In 1994, in one such instance, the traditional Nahua community of Tepoztlán in the state of Morelos, Mexico, unified and succeeded in forcing cancellation of a project, sponsored by the most powerful of national and international politicians and corporations, to build a luxury subdivision, business park, and golf club on Tepoztecan communal lands. The so-called Tepoztecan Golf Club War is Tepoztlán’s most recent instance of what Edward Spicer (1991) called an “oppositional process” which stimulates the production and enhancement of a persistent system of cultural identity.

This paper treats one of the many ways in which this pueblo’s identity was (and continues to be) depicted and communicated by visual means, namely through mural art. A tradition of mural painting with, arguably, considerable antiquity provides a means to crystalize and render visible communal values difficult and even cumbersome to articulate in words. In the town center, a variety of murals, many drawing on a traditional iconography and some traditional in their technology as well, define in mythic, historical, ecological, and political terms the wider context of Tepoztecan resistance. At least one element of this visual complex, the Portada de Semillas, an annually constructed archway supporting a mosaic of glued-on seeds, has been institutionalized and continues as a communal project which voices current community opinion.

Certainly graffiti (such as this wonderful example from the nearby city of Cuernavaca) and elaborate wall paintings, especially for political candidates and rock concerts, are endemic throughout Mexico and not unique to Tepoztlan, yet those in Tepoztlan seem to have a unique cultural focus.

Cuernavaca grafitto
Graffito in Cuernavaca: "If shit were worth as much as gold, the poor would be born without assholes."

In a first stroll down Tepoztlan’s main street, one cannot help but be impressed with the extreme cultural heterogeneity and visual clutter. A welcome sign extolling Tepoztlan’s New Age character segues into announcement of a traditional torterilla. Across the street from a traditional chili mill stands an outlet for microwave dishes; alongside the New Age Milky Way boutique is a grocery and down the street a shop hawking fabrics from India. Special occasions add to the clutter the banners of electoral candidates and their wall paintings.

Welcome to Tepoztlan Tortilleria Chili Mill Satellite Dish Store Milky Way New Age store
"Welcome to Tepoztlan, Picturesque Place of Magic and Energy"
Chili Mill
Satellite Dish Store
The Milky Way, a New Age boutique

Grocery Indian Fabric store Political Wall Painting Political Wall Paining
Grocery next to Milky Way boutique
Indian fabric store on main street
Political wall painting
Political Wall Painting


Amidst and beneath this surface-level clutter are traces of Tepoztlan’s own and older tradition, one which provides models and inspiration for the town’s contemporary visual language. There are the stylistic characteristics of the prehispanic and Conquest-era codices; images graven in architecture as on the facade of the town’s principal church; the Colonial-era murals remaining in the ex-convent which has become the town’s historical museum; local monuments; and the multisensory drama of “El Reto”, Tepoztlan’s annual historical pageant, shown here as it was enacted around 1930.

El Tepozteco as represented in codixes
Ex-Convent Facade
Monument at Axitla "El Reto" circa 1930
El Tepozteco as represented in codices
Facade of the Church of the Virgin of Nativity
Colonial mural in the ex-convent
Colonial mural in the ex-convent
The Monument at Axitla A performance of "el Reto" at Axitla, circa 1930

Turning away from the commercialization of the main street, one begins to understand how Tepoztecan identity is ubiquitously reflected in a constellation of richly meaningful visual symbols. For Tepoztecans, the barrio, of which there are eight, is a much alive and fundamental base for social organization. It is a focus for communal work and festivity . Though bearing Hispanic names such as Barrio Santa Cruz, each barrio is symbolized by a creature associated both with the barrio’s identity and with its unique environment and ecology. Barrio identity is reflected through use of these symbols on house names, street signs and even street lamps and fountains, and especially on estandartes which travel to the site of each local festival. Within the barrio, houses, often displaying their names in Nahuatl, have a specific identity, as do businesses. Finally, a potent community-wide symbol is El Tepozteco, the local deity who lives in a prehispanic pyramid overlooking the town and who is the subject of an annual pageant on the town’s main holiday.

Sign in Barrio
Floral offerings at a barrio fiesta
Map of barrios
Barrio symbol on house
A sign convenes a day of communal work in barrio Santa Cruz
Floral offerings for a barrio fiesta
Map of Tepoztlan's barrios
Barrio symbol (ant) on house name
Barrio symbol on street sign
Barrio sign on fountain
Estandartes in barrio chapel
Barrio symbol (ant) on a street sign
Barrio symbol (scorpion) on street lamp
Barrio symbol (scorpion) on fountain
Estandartes in barrio chaple
Barrrio symbol (ant) on store
El Tepozteco on handbill
El Tepozeco in performace of el Reto1
Barrio symbol on a business sign
El Tepozteco on handbill
El Tepozteco on his pyramid in a contemporary performance of "el Reto"

In past decades, the people of Tepoztlan have successfully resisted development projects engineered by “outsiders” which threatened the integrity of their unity, traditions, and environment. Of these, the most recent and egregious, backed in 1994 by enormously powerful national and international corporations, was to consist of a touristic complex including a Golf Club designed by Jack Nicklauss, 700 luxury residences with swimming pools, a club house, a high tech corporate business park, hotels, restaurants, boutiques, and a heliport, all to be placed on Tepoztlan’s communal land within the “protected” Ajusco-Chichinautzin Biological Corredor (Rosas 1997:16). In a water-scarce environment, the golf course alone would have used five times more water than the entire town consumes. Tepoztlan’s determined resistance which included unseating the “traitorous” municipal government (after hanging the members in effigy from the city hall), forming a “free municipal government”, barricading the town against repressive forces sent by the Governor of the state of Morelos, demonstrations, and marches, eventually achieved an international notoriety such that foreign corporations withdrew their support and the project died.By mid 1996, Tepoztecans had won their “Golf Club War”.

The municipal governent hung in effigy.

An accompaniment of the Golf Club War appears to me to be an intensification of Tepoztlan’s sense of unique identity and an efflorescence of its visual expression. There were, first of all, the banners prepared for marches and demonstrations; not very aesthetic, but certainly pithy, and graffiti. Then murals. A dragon, “Unidos Somos Resistencia” placed at the entrance to the town. Rius, Mexico’s most famous cartoonist, painted a pair displayed on the facade of the Presidencia [Rius murals], while the perimeter of the town’s central plaza was covered with a varied collection of minor murals [plaza murals]. In what was then a restaurant fronting the market place, a large and complex mural recounting the life and deeds of El Tepozteco appeared in 1985 [market mural].1. Tepoztecans found many ways to express visually their opposition to the Golf Club project and, significantly, now, six years later, these murals remain. The walls of Tepoztlan are a living memory, preserving some information, “forgetting” other information, and even editing information as time goes on.

Banner at Demonstration Graffito: Tepoztlan is not for sale
Dragon "Unidos somos resistencia"
Banners at a demonstration against the Golf Club
Neatly stenciled grafitto on the parrrochial house: "Tepoztlan is not for sale. No to the Golf Club"
Dragon: "Unidos Somos Resistencia"








Rius Mural #1 Rius Mural #2 Mural in Plaza El Tepozteco in mural
Rius Mural at Presidencia
Rius Mural at Presidencia
Mural in Plaza El Tepozteco, detail from mural facing marketplace

Mural in Plaza Mural in Plaza
Mural in Plaza Mural in Plaza




In this context, the Portadas de Semillas evolved to their present and impressive form. They now are, I contend, an annual visual “state of the pueblo” address, a moral summary of the issues confronting Tepoztlan. September 8 is both the day of “El Reto”, the pageant honoring El Tepozteco, and the celebration of the town’s patron, the Virgin of Nativity. In 1991,Tepoztecans inaugurated the custom of decorating the arched entry to the plaza in front of the Virgin’s church with a portada bearing an increasingly elaborate mosaic. The first Portada, crude in design, bland in its symbolism, and made from plastic flowers, was followed by a quantum jump in 1992 to the second, this one made from thousands of seeds in their natural colors glued to a plywood backing, a technology that has persisted to date. It consisted of an array of symbols but, unlike its predecessor, combined clearly Christian with clearly local pre-Christian elements. Its designers defined objectives which also persist to date,namely to preserve the distinctiveness of Tepoztecan culture and to communicate its value and importance to the pueblo. Further, to the decorative aspects of the Portadas were added strong symbolically expressed messages, which increasingly used the legend of el Tepozteco as a medium for defining and expressing a communal solidarity and morality.

1991 Portada 1992 Portada
1991 Portada
1992 Portada


As Corona Caraveo and Pérez y Zavala (1999) have shown, the mythic figure of el Tepozteco represents the qualities and values which strengthen Tepoztlan’s determination to preserve its autonomy and the integrity of its culture. A magical being, child of a human maiden and the God of Wind, el Tepozteco in one dramatic episode slew the cannibalistic monster of Xochicalco, thus freeing not only Tepoztlan, but also the populations of Cuernavaca, Yautepeque, Huaxtepeque, and Tlayecapan; in another, he taught the arrogant lords of these places a lesson in good manners and proper respect for others; in another, having been slighted by the people of Cuernavaca, he escaped with their magical drum which ever since has been preserved as a trophy in the barrios of Tepoztlan; and finally el Tepozteco led his people’s conversion to Christianity. . El Tepozteco is thus a metaphor for the ideal Tepoztecan, powerful, true-hearted, just, community minded, and able to wield the powers of Tepoztlan’s hills, springs, and winds while assimilating such items of foreign origin as prove useful. His presence is felt in the arena of contemporary struggles, as when, at an assembly of peoples and organizations in solidarity with Tepoztlan in September 1995, one speaker said: “Just as el Tepozteco destroyed the thousand headed monster who was el Xochicácatl, devourer of men, we have dealt the death blow to the monster which the KS group represented” (Corona Caraveo and Pérez y Zavala 1999:58) and his presence is actualized as when in 1995, 1997, and 2000 the actor representing el Tepozteco at el Reto was present at the investiture of the newly elected municipal President to present his badge of office and instruct him to respect the voice of the people and be honest or, otherwise, suffer a cruel punishment.

The spirit of Tepoztecan resistance became increasingly evident as the Portadas evolved in technical excellence and communicativeness during the “Golf Club years”. The theme in 1993 was the seemingly “The Two Cultures” which have fused to become the unique culture of Tepoztlan, yet that year the program which accompanies each Portada inauguration ended with the statement that “We are cheerful and peaceful, but we are also rebels when anyone abuses our beliefs, when they want to manipulate us religiously or politically, when those in power disguise what they are doing with what they are saying.” That of 1994 used the Legend of el Tepozteco to speak of reestablishing the history of Tepoztlan, of the Tepoztecans own unique way of feeling that they are Tepoztecan, and manifested that “Hopefully they shall not conquer us, as some have been conquered by egotism, by violent attitudes, by lust for power and money. We do not reject the culture outside of our own, but we strongly feel our own; we aren’t closed to the cultures of today, so long as they help us to understand ourselves and communicate better as a community ....” . In 1995 the Tepozteco legend framed the argument about the ecological devastation that the Golf Club project would have caused. Explaining the scene where el Tepozteco’s maiden mother-to-be bathes in the waters of Axitla, the program which accompanies the Portada said, “The water flows fresh and crystalline from the turquoise and jade flanks of the majestic Tlahuiltépetl (Hill of Light), a part of the Ajusco-Chichinautzin [protected] biological corredor which is at risk of disappearing along with the people of Tepoztlan if wells are dug to irrigate the envenomed pastures so that a few rich people can play golf.” By 1996, the Portada was a triumphant expression of Tepoztlan’s defeat of the Golf Club project. Surmounted by a victorious el Tepozteco shouting of justice and dignity to a government which is deaf and blind to the people of Tepoztlan, the left side of the Portada contrasts the leadership of Tepoztlan “which knows how to listen in order to have the right to be heard” with, on the right, the corruption and mendacity of the state government. Many if not all of these Portadas employ the time hallowed Mexican tactic of “idols behind altars.”

1993 Portada 1994 Portada 1995 Portada 1996 Portada
1993 Portada
1994 Portada
1995 Portada
1996 Portada

Passing quickly through the remaining Portadas, that of 1997, devoted to the Virgin of Nativity, might seem a reprieve from the politics of previous years. Even so, the emblem of the Dominicans was interpreted as a “Cross of the Four Winds” and the program explained how the symbols of the eight Tepoztecan barrios embody prehispanic observations about the unique ecology of each barrio. That of 1998 returned to the Golf Club War, now history, memorializing individuals who lost their lives during those times and symbolically emphasizing “the aquiferous strata which give life to Tepoztlan, for if they are not taken care of and are allowed to die, that will be the death of our natural environment.”

1997 Portada 1998 Portada
1997 Portada
1998 Portada

From this point onward, with Tepoztlan apparently secure in its natural and sociopolitical environment, the Portadas struck a positive note. That of 1999 extolled the value of native modes of organization, using how the pueblo prepares for its annual celebration as an example, and that of 2000, the millennial year of both local and presidential elections, showed how a campaign should be conducted and how those elected should govern through consensus and pay off on their promises.

1999 Portada 2000 Portada
1999 Portada
2000 Portada

The walls of Tepoztlan continue to talk in many voices. There is now a proliferation of graffiti, some gang related, some simply hostile, and even some that are rather creatives such as one which turned which has turned the name, Tepoznieves, into an allegation that the proprietors (often said to be outsiders getting rich off Tepoztecans) are “not Tepoztecan.” The graphic style of Rius has diffused to other themes and other areas as in a mural at the town’s main entry welcoming the Zapatistas. Codex symbols and the Portadas’ moral tone have been imported into a series of moralistic wall paintings produced by the municipal government. Symbols derived from codices increasingly identify commercial enterprises. El Tepozteco’s Nahuatl name, Ome Tochtli, Two Rabbit, is a fitting symbol for a bus fleet. Admittedly the visual culture remains heterogeneous, as in the case of a Day School sign in Walt Disney style. Yet the balance seems clearly to be shifting to representations reflecting and reminiscent of traditional Tepoztecan culture and values, images and values which are deliberately being perpetuated, by means such as a contest in which school children were awarded prizes for the best drawings of la leyenda.

Hostile Grafitto: Get out. Calm down or we'll fuck you over.
Nieves Tepoztecos "edited" ino Not Tepoztecos
Rius mural welcomes the Zapatistas near the entry to the town
Another welcome to the Zapatistas
A moralistic message from the Presidencia with the glyph representing Tepoztlan

Tlahuica co-op's glyph Ome Tochtli bus Ome Tochtli Co-op
Pyramid and Tepoztlan glyph on Co-op facade Ome Tochtli (Two Rabbit, el Tepozteco's name in Nahuatl) on bus Ome Tochtli represented as two rabbits on the bus co-p facade Walt disnery style wall painting on a kindergarten

A prize winner at the childrens' contest Childrens' contest: El Tepozteco tells the monster to swallow him.








Although at present I know of no way to accurately measure the impact of these visual symbols on Tepoztecan consciousness, what I can say is that they have become increasingly eye-catching, increasingly articulate, and each in its own way reiterates the theme expressed by the title of the 1996 Portada:



Corona Caraveo, Yolanda and Carlos Pérez y Zavala
1999 Tradición y modernidad en Tepoztlán: Historias y leyendas de un pueblo en resistencia. Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana, Unidad Xochimilco. División deCiencias Sociales y Humanidades, Departmento de Educación y Comunicación.

Rosas, María
1997 Tepoztlán,crónica de desacatos y resistencia. ERA, México.

Spicer, Edward
1971 “Persistent Cultural Systems” Science 174:745-800