Two Worlds Between Two Empires

Jay Silverstein
September 01, 1999

In the town of Arcelia in the northern part of the state of Guerrero, Mexico, a statue depicting the last Aztec emperor, Cuatehmoc, stands vigilant in the central plaza, spear in hand. Not far to the northeast, in a town called Ichcateopan, a local museum displays charred and mutilated bones purported to be those of Cuatehmoc. These remains bear witness to the agony the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortez inflicted upon the man before executing him on February 28, 1525, thus ending both his life and his empire. Yet despite the statue and the bones, Cuatehmoc never visited the town of Arcelia. Indeed, the name 'Arcelia', unlike most of the place names in this region, is not in one of the indigenous languages. It is much more recent, a combination of the names of the 19th century governor of Guerrero, Anselmo Arce, and his wife, Celia.

remain of building with  columns and a portrait of a man
Jay Silverstein

The remains at Cuatehmoc, the last Aztec emperor, on display in Ichcateopan, Mexico.

Five hundred years ago, no one lived where Arcelia sits now. Possibly no one could, because this land was a place where the armies of two empires clashed. When Cortez landed in Veracruz, the Aztec Empire was engaged in other struggles. Among them was a generations-old conflict that separated Central Mexico from Western Mexico. Arcelia is situated in what has been described as the "no-man's-land" between the two empires.

West of Arcelia the land is broken, cut by a ridge of steep cliffs that seems to shed gargantuan boulders as a tree sheds leaves in autumn. From atop the cliffs one can trace the Palos Altos River as it winds its way through the rugged landscape. Below, along the river banks, sit groups of temple mounds, houses, and ball courts. Most of these towns were long abandoned when the Aztec armies arrived, but others were probably abandoned because of the war that broke out between the Aztecs and their enemies, the Tarascans. Here on the ridge, however, basins carved in the stony soil still gather water in stagnant pools. Here, where no crops could be sown, where there is no reason to live except for the view, the soldiers of the Tarascan Empire sat in their watch-post, making points for their arrows, blading their swords with obsidian, and watching the path that led eventually to Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire.

East of Arcelia, the highway winds up the foothills of the central highlands. The valleys grow deeper and the hills taller, the climate cooler and the flora greener. Soon you come to Cerro La Malinche. There, half-hidden on the mountaintop, lie the fallen parapets of the Aztec fortress of Oztuma. Although the highway passes below the ridge, few travelers are aware of the fortress. Beyond La Malinche stands the citadel, the place where, according to a 1579 document, the Aztec captain sacrificed Tarascan prisoners that were brought to him.

The people of this ancient frontier rarely think of their history in terms of empires and war. Tidbits of history, passed down through a score of generations, mix with tales of UFOs and of buried gold from the revolution. The weather-worn mounds bear an undeniable aura of mystery, but those who search dig not for answers but for riches, the endless lure of forgotten but ultimately illusory gold. The denuded walls, temples, and ball courts, their stones stolen to build dams or simpler houses, attest to the cultural loss that followed in the wake of the Spanish conquest.

I grew to know these people and they me. A few would pass and say, "Gringo, why do you treat Mexicans so bad in your country?" But far more welcomed me into their homes, shared their food, and gave friendship, aid, and trust more freely than is our custom. As we walked through the hills and valleys and crossed the rivers and streams, my guide, Aurelio, told me of the plants and their uses: How the people still used a particular type of camote roots to prevent pregnancy, or how to eat the wild grape but not the acidic skin. Many of the ancient mounds were still guarded by a copal tree whose resin, when burned, was said to open a path to the gods. This knowledge was timeless, their connection to the past. In truth, my interest lay with the dead, not with the living, but it soon became apparent that the past is inseparable from the present and the living inextricably linked to the dead. During my archaeological survey of this portion of the Aztec-Tarascan frontier, I visited places known to shepherds and hunters, to old folks and to the adventurous young. Perhaps three thousand years of history lie fossilized in ancient plazas on mountain tops, in enormous stone temples built beside the Balsas River, and in palaces standing on remote hillsides. Almost all of them have been defiled by looters, and some had been leveled by industrialized agriculture, but most remain willing to tell of their dead, willing to yield their secrets to science—if science could arrive before the bulldozer or the next treasure seeker.

Many times I was too late.

In El Paso de Amatitlan stood the ancient foundations of Prehispanic houses, perhaps a thousand years old. I can see them clearly on ten-year-old air photos, but when I visited the site during my survey, I discovered I had arrived three months too late: a soccer field had been put in on top of the ruins.

Three years ago at the town of San Miguel Totolapan, bulldozers came at the behest of an American melon-growing company to level the site where the ancient town stood. A local school teacher salvaged a few objects from the momoxtlis, as the locals call the ancient mounds. A bronze ax head, a cranium, a pot, a grinding stone, and other items from this once-magnificent site sit gathering dust in a small locked room.

As an archaeologist, I naively thought I could stop the destruction. There was little I could do, however, when even local and regional authorities could not enforce the laws protecting archaeological sites. As my friend Lamberto said, "You will go home, but we will stay and things will be the same." I came as a guest and the people of Arcelia welcomed me as such, but a guest moves on and cannot expect to change much.

Yet through our friendship, the townspeople of Arcelia and I discovered a mutual interest in their ancestors and in the history of their region, known as the Tierra Caliente—the hot land. We began to make plans, to plant a seed of knowledge, the seed of a tree that would tell of their past and what can be learned about it if only we can preserve the ruins, the momoxtlis of their fathers and mothers. With this knowledge they can themselves fill in the legends and oral traditions that are often all that is left of an ancient and venerable culture. They can, perhaps, revitalize the traditions that, like the ruins, are fading under new economic and social pressures.

With this object in mind, my friends in Arcelia and I worked to put a museum in a vacant portion of the municipal library. Where once armies fought on the frontier of empires, we wrestled with modern bureaucracy. Eventually, the state director of libraries gave permission for us to proceed.

On July 28, 1998, in that unused portion of the municipal library, we opened El Museo de La Frontera: the Museum of the Frontier. A carved stone altar serves as the center piece of the exhibit, and display cases with obsidian spear points, carved stone monuments, ceramic pots and figurines, spindle whorls, and shell and stone jewelry are presented with historical descriptions. Already, I am told, the local museum committee has added to the original collection a display of photographs of the town from the time of the revolution. Through such means, the children of Arcelia will better understand their roots, and knowledge of the past will feed the pride of the present. It is in ways like this that the dead, through the living, can communicate to the future.

Jay Silverstein is a doctoral candidate in anthropology, College of the Liberal Arts, 409 Carpenter Bldg., University Park PA 16802; 814-865-2509; His work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, a Hill Fellowship, and a research grant from the College of the Liberal Arts.

Last Updated September 01, 1999