Tres cultures

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The Colorado Freedom

Tres cultures

by Ari Armstrong

The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on January 12, 2006.

The original plan was to take the metro to the bus station, then take a bus to the pyramids of Teotihuacan outside of Mexico City. Then we decided to take a taxi to the bus station, and finally, at the suggestion of the two cab drivers (Alfonso and Vicente), we hired the taxis for the entire day.

Before heading out to the pyramids, we dropped by a site called Tres Cultures. Signs near the Aztec ruins assured us that, yes, members of the oldest culture killed people as sacrifices to the gods. A Catholic church rose above the Aztec ruins, representing the culture brought by the Spaniards. I was puzzled about the third culture. Apparently there's some dispute about what structures are supposed to be included, but I liked Alfonso's account, that the third culture is manifest by a modern communications building.

Then we visited the famous Basilica. After walking past the gift shop, which features life-size, full-color plastic reproductions of Christ hanging on the cross -- and who wouldn't want one of those on the living room wall -- we sat for a short video that told the story of Juan Diego.

In the early 1500s, Mary appeared to Juan Diego in a series of visions and told him to tell a local bishop to build a church on the appointed hill. For some reason, the bishop didn't believe him at first. So, at Mary's bidding, Juan Diego cut some roses he found growing miraculously on the hill and took them to the Bishop in his robe. What convinced the bishop was the fancy painting of Mary that had also miraculously appeared on Juan Diego's robe. (Apparently, the bishop didn't consider the alternative explanation that that Juan Diego was a talented painter who ate some of that magical cactus.)

Now the painting hangs in the modern cathedral built next to the original structure. Across from the painting of Mary hangs a more formal if less mysterious work titled "Conversion de los Indios." Scores of Indios are lined up, eager yet orderly, awaiting the opportunity to give up their cultural heritage and be converted by the blessed priests to Catholicism. Yet this graphic account did not fully mesh with some of the textual descriptions of the Conversion offered at other locations.

Outside, a large statue of the Pope stands smiling, right hand outstretched, left hand holding a staff on which a miniature dead man is hanging.

Teotihuacan features two pyramids, where priests used to impress the masses from fancy temples with their bloody rituals. The museum featured various artifacts and human bones.

The first two cultures of Mexico, then, feature human suffering and death. The more civilized Christians worship the icon of a brutally tortured man hanging from a cross, while earlier priests viciously hacked people apart.

By contrast, the third culture promotes science, reason and human well-being on Earth.

Other aspects of modern Mexican culture present a problem, including piles of trash in the streets, miles of primitive shanties and smoke and filth. I saw a set of stairs that were supposed to be part of a walkway over the highway; instead the stairs just stopped in the middle of nowhere. Driving is crazy. There's a make-work mentality among the multitudes selling shit in the streets, the omnipresent but surprisingly ineffectual police, and the ridiculously full-service staff of the state-monopolized Pemex stations.

The government is famous for its corruption. I talked with Alfonso about how many of the stories about Mexico that make it into U.S. papers involve police investigated or busted for dealing drugs. Alfonso said he isn't a fan of Vicente Fox, el presidente, because Fox has failed to clean up the politics or set the economy on firmer ground.

But there is also a bright spirit in Mexico. People there seem to have an easier time enjoying life compared with their Puritan-influenced northern neighbors. The popular arts are bright and the dancing vigorous. Families are strong, and equality for women has improved. A large middle class partly insulates itself from the worst problems of the country. U.S. companies such as Wal-Mart, Starbucks, McDonald's and IBM coexist peacefully with more traditional businesses. (And some U.S. citizens complain about the influence of Mexico!)

What are today's three dominant cultures of North America? The negative culture of Mexico combines rampant superstition, Marxist tendencies, corruption and a willingness to let things run down and fall apart. The negative culture of the United States combines Protestant conservatism that's unfriendly toward elements of science and free trade, a deeply regressive left, an increasing tendency to follow "the rules," even when they're stupid, and xenophobia.

And then there is a culture adopted by the best of Mexico and the best of the United States: a transnational culture marked by peaceful exchange based on individual rights, productivity and hard work, an acceptance of reasonable cultural differences, and a willingness to drop negative elements of one's own culture and adopt better alternatives.

I went to Mexico City because my brother met a woman from there, completely fell for her, and asked her to marry him. I didn't understand all of the Spanish-language ceremony, but I understood enough. The priest said that love, the love of my brother and his esposa, transcends race and language and culture. It is the sort of love that Colorado's anti-immigration crusaders would do well to discover.

The Colorado Freedom