Spirit of Place : Tlatelolco

The spirit of place is a strange thing. Our mechanical age tries to override it. But it does not succeed. In the end, the strange, sinister spirit of place…will smash our mechanical oneness to smithereens – and all that we think . The real thing will go off with a pop, and we shall be left staring.” ( D.H. Lawrence)

The city is not just a geographical or spatial place. It is an essential process of our lives and our history. The city is us and where we come from. To take back the space of the city is to recover for all of us a territory that transcribes our lives. (CuauhtemocCardenas, First elected Mayor of Mexico City)

In the Old World’s classical religions the concept of genius loci referred to a presiding deity or “spirit of place” and now in the New World and in contemporary cultures, the term refers more to a location’s distinct place-ness that is its past, current and future essence, rather than a necessarily protective entity. In keeping with Rupert Sheldrake’s research into morphogenetic fields, and his notion that places also have “fields of memory” that often have to do with unresolved trauma, it seems that Mexico City’s Tlateloco provides an interesting case in point.

Also known as Xaltelolco, which translates from Nahuatl, known informally as Aztec, as “ little hill of the land”, Tlateloco is located in an area of the Cuauhtemoc borough of Mexico City and centered upon the Plaza des Tres Culturas . The three cultures that are represented in this plaza are from the Pre-Colombian Aztecs, who called themselves Mexicas, the Spanish catholic conquering colonizers, and a modern office and Nuevo Leon housing complex of contemporary “ Mestizo” culture of the independent nation.

This district of Mexico City which arose as a Pre-Colombian city state , was eventually taken over by the ascendant Aztecs who commandeered this territory as part of their empire during the 13th century. The site subsequently became a setting for tribal warfare, and a partially excavated temple site has revealed practices of ritual torture, human sacrifice as well as a market in slave trade. During the Spanish conquest , a war between the Conquistadores and the Aztecs in 1531resulted in the slaughter of some 40,000 Aztec men, women and children, thought to have taken place in one single day. The deaths from this battle, which was in truth a massacre, left a deep scar within the collective psyche of the newly established colony. Centuries later a plaque was set up on the site that reads: “ The battle was not a triumph, nor was it a defeat. It was the painful birth of the Mestizo nation that is the Mexico of today”.

After the Spanish conquest, the Aztec temple dedicated to their War God Huitzilipochthli was demolished and the plaza re-named Santiago de Tlatelolco after the militant Spanish patron Saint James whose mythic crushing of the Moors was widely credited with the subsequent victory of the Latin American conquest. Building stones and other ruins from the War God’s temple were used in the construction of the Franciscan Church of Santiago de Tlateloloco commissioned by Hernan Cortes in 1524, which stands there to this day, together with the remains of a Franciscan convent. (colonial-mexico.com)

Tlatelolco‘s age- old and violent fractal of conquest, destruction, repression, and bloodshed has continued on through several more iterations in modern times with no end in sight. In 1968 the government was preparing to host the Olympic Games, as an opportunity to elevate the stature of a prosperous and stable Mexico in the eyes of the global community. In opposition, a coalition of leftist high school and college students sought to use this same opportunity to bring attention to their country’s social ills , especially the violent overreach of police and military against the citizenry. The students were also demanding immediate release of classmates jailed in previous protests. In response, the Mexican government prepared an Olympic Battalion; a paramilitary squad to insure that protesters would not be able to interrupt the games.

The confrontations began on October 2nd, 1968 as protesters gathered at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas for an afternoon rally, 10 days before the opening ceremonies. At the same time, that activists gathered, snipers from the battalion assumed strategic posts up on the Neuvo Leon housing complex, which gave them a clear view of the citizens below. During these peaceful protests, Mexican army and police infiltrated the crowd and blocked off all of the exits from the square. Although no one is certain where the first shot came from , likely from an agent provocateur , at 6:10 PM the Plaza became a living hell and yet another massacre occurred. Other security forces joined in and fleeing protesters were easy targets with as many 300 to 2,000 killed, exact numbers remain unknown, and many others wounded, arrested and “disappeared”. This Night of Tlatelolco has left a lasting memory in Mexican politics and especially among this country’s student population.

Two decades later, on September 9, 1985, these and other painful memories concerning this site re-surfaced with the 8.1 magnitude earthquake that caused major damage in Mexico City. The Tlatelolco Complex was hit particularly hard as two of the Neuvo Leon housing units collapsed, killing all of its residents inside. This tragedy was made even more painful by the revelation that this collapse was exacerbated by a lethal combination of illegal cost cutting during construction and lack of proper maintenance. The final toll was somewhere between 200 and 300 fatalities . Due to earthquake damage, eight other buildings in the complex had to be demolished and four more had their upper floors removed. A persistent aura of danger remains as poor maintenance continues and this high crime area is under virtual curfew by night fall. (Drew Reed, theguardian.com, May 2015)

The latest iteration in the Tlatelolco fractal occurred in September 26th disappearance of 43 leftist student teachers from the Raul Isidro Burgos Normal Rural School of Ayotzinapa in Tixla who were part of bus convoy headed for Mexico City to demonstrate on the anniversary of the October 2, 1968 Night of Tlataloco at the Plaza des Tres Culturas. These students were last seen in the custody of police ,government security and army personnel in Iguala. As of now, the official government story is that the local drug cartels were responsible for the kidnapping and cremation of the students in a garbage dump in the town of Cocula, near to the abduction site. Locals scoff at this explanation given the fact that there was heavy rainfall all night on the date when this cremation supposedly took place. Funerary and other forensic experts maintain that a cremation of that many bodies would have required a degree of heat only possible in an indoor facility. Massive nation wide protests have ensued with the incident remaining unresolved and thus likely to give rise to yet another cycle of violence.

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