On that Saturday, I decided to eat my lunch in Dolores Park in the Mission. The amount of activity at the park is always surprising for its size. Tennis players in one corner. Children playing in another corner, not too far from where gay men in speedos sun themselves on a hot day. In between, Mission area hipsters have picnics alongside large Latin families. You can hear the ringing bell of the Mexican popsicle vendors with their little carts.
Entering the park, I heard the sound of drums. Loud and deep drumming coming from one edge of the park. I followed the sound and discovered that the drummers were a pair of men - tan, muscled men who seemed to be wearing not much more than colorful loincloths and feathered head-dresses. Flowers lay around their feet and they were circling three other people who kneeled solemnly. Two of them were a young couple. The third was an older woman who wore a colorful dress and had her eyes closed intently, as in a deep reverie. She sat among piles of flowers and incense.
I sat down to watch. Sitting around me were about twenty others who, by their dress or by their serious gaze, seemed to be part of all of this. There were also a few spectators, like myself, but most of the others didn't seem particularly dark or Latin.
Sitting near me was a young girl, in her late teens perhaps. She was tall and slender and beautiful with dark skin but sparkling green eyes. Tattoos, abstract glyphs from afar, decorated most of her bare legs.
"What is this about?" I asked her "What is going on here?"
"This is a wedding." She answered. "We are all descendants of the Mexica and these are our ceremonies, our rituals. We follow the old ways. Some think that we have disappeared but we are here, all around this area. Everyone here is so out of touch with their culture [waves her hand to indicate San Francisco] and they forget what came before them. They live their lives not aware of all the treasure they have inherited from their ancestors. These people here around us now, these tourists, they come and just watch, like its a show. They take pictures. But this isn't a show. This is how we honor the gods of Fire, the gods of Death and of Life. A wedding is a sacred event, like a harvest, that connects the old life with the new, and also how we say that we are still here and this will continue - forever."
"Until the end of the world?"
"Until the world is reborn."
"I am just here too, watching"
"Yes, but you are one of us, one of the tribe, are you not?. We are speaking Spanish but Spanish is the language of the conquerors. I am learning Nahuatl. You should too. You should join us."
"How do I find you again?"
"We are meeting next Saturday. Let me tell you the address..."
"Yes. Ok. I'll try to remember. Yes."
The Other Mexican Empire
When Hernan Cortes landed on the coast of Mexico. he stumbled into an existing war. Much of Cortes' skill, as documented in first-hand accounts such as Bernal Diaz del Castillo's Conquest of New Spain (a fantastic read!), was in knowing how to play different Mexican tribes off of each other. The Aztecs were great warriors but they were not well-loved.
Prior to the arrival of Cortes, the Aztec empire was not only fighting small border wars and dealing with internal conflicts but it was also in the midst of figuring how to deal with a formidable new enemy - the Tarascan empire which controlled much of Western Mexico.
The Tarascans were an independent Mexican empire. Their capital was at TzinTzunTzan, the land of the hummingbirds, where a series of small pyramids still stand today. Their language is an isolate, markedly different than other Mexican languages. Many linguists believe that the Tarascans were a South American tribe which had ventured north.
Whatever their origins, the Tarascans were clearly an advanced, warring state. Their metal-working skills were unrivaled in the New World and their new empire was quickly expanding. Over a period of approximately one hundred years, the Aztecs mounted several expeditions to try and conquer the Tarascans, but every attempt resulted in griveous losses. The most well-known is in 1478 where the Aztec king sent forth a force of 24,000 of his elite warriors. They were confronted, however, and ultimately decimated, by a force of over 40,000 Tarascans.
The Tarascans have not been as well-researched as the Aztecs. They left behind few written histories. But there has been a surge of recent interest. In an article titled "Mesoamerican Anomaly? The Pre-Conquest Tarascan State" one author writes:
Recent investigations, particularly over the past twenty years, have revealed a complex culture far more interesting than anyone had imagined. Not only did the Tarascans rule a substantial empire at the time of the Conquest, second in geographical size only to the Aztec – they had also created a culture which was in many ways unlike anything else in Mesoamerica.
As the Aztec empire was crumbling, the king, in a final act of desperation, sent messengers to the Tarascan king Tangaxoan. In effect, asking their greatest enemy for help. The Tarascan king sacrificed the Aztec messengers.
The Tarascans themselves fell quietly. Before the Europeans reached the West, the Tarascan empire was already crumbling from the ravaging effects of disease. Smallpox and Measles killed this powerful and mysterious empire.
Finally, a personal admission. I am Mexican but I am not descended from Aztecs. My paternal great-grandmother walked in bare feet and wore colorful skirts. She and her husband spoke no Spanish. They only spoke Tarascan.