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Category Archives: New Museum (less than a year old)

Awesome On-Site Museum at Tlateloloco (After A 50 Year Wait!)

A sign for the new on-site museum at Tlatelolco, depicting its pre-Hispanic glyph (a mound of sand)

A spectacular on-site museum has just opened in Tlatelolco showcasing the artifacts from the archaeological zone. To be more precise, there are two new museums to be seen – the impressive ground-floor exhibit showcasing the items found during the many phases of excavation at Tlateloco (Mexico-Tenochtitlan’s twin city), plus the extraordinary collection of Kurt and Lore Stavenhagen on the second floor of the CCUT Tower (the Tlatelolco University Cultural Center), a.k.a. the building which used to be the headquarters of Mexico’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. Neither of these sections is your average, run-of-the-mill pre-Hispanic museum. Once again, Mexican creativity is at its museographic best!

A snapshot in time of the architecture of a pre-Hispanic pyramid, an early Spanish Franciscan church and school, and a modern-day apartment building, forming the scenery of the Plaza of the Three Cultures

Stunning architecturally, with the dramatic backdrop of the Plaza of the Three Cultures (given that name because of the three phases making up the rich heritage of the zone: (1) the pre-Columbian ceremonial center, (2) the viceregal church and remains of the first school build for native Indians in New Spain, and (3) the modern-day high-rise apartments, once exemplary architecture, today left in squalid, tenement-like conditions), the displays showcase approximately 350 pieces culled from over 2,500 in total, highlighting the religious, political, social and commercial aspects of the people who inhabited Tlatelolco at its height.

A glimpse of the impressive displays inside the museum which showcases artifacts discovered duirng 50 years of excavations of the site.

Tlatelolco, established around 1337, was an impressive market site, which reached its splendor between 1465 and 1519. Hernan Cortes wrote a descriptive account to the King of Spain, narrating the vast selection of wares traded at the open-air market, as well as the organizational structure, thus we have a good idea of how the locals lived there. Tlatelolco was also the last strong-hold against the Spanish conquistadors, since this is where Cuauhtemoc was taken prisoner in 1521, thereby establishing the official date of Mexico’s conquest (take note that since part of Yucatan wasn’t conquered until the 18th century, 1521 is more of a symbolic, and somewhat arbitrary date, but don’t get me started on that topic). Plus, this is where the Spanish evangelists set up a school for locals, and where the Florentine and Badiano Codices were written. The area was also the site of two more recent tragedies – the student uprisings of 1968 where innumerable innocent people were slaughtered, and the earthquake of 1985, where even more people lost their lives. Tlatelolco is steeped in tragic history!

An anthropomorphic vessel with an unusual head-lid found in a dig at Tlatelolco.

The spick-and-span, state-of-the-art museum reflects changing times – providing lots of interactive displays (Ipads, computers and bar codes for the electronically savvy, who chose to scan signs for information), as well as a computer room.

One of several showcases exhibiting the use of natural dyes, part of the permanent exhibit on the 1st floor of the CCUT - be sure not to miss this fascinating section.

A personal collection of pre-Hispanic ceramics and other artifacts amassed over close to four decades by a prominent immigrant family (1942-1984), the Stavenhagen Collection can be easily skipped over, since it is hidden away on the second floor of the CUUT. This corpus, on public display for the first time ever, is unequaled by anything I have seen (except, obviously, the National Museum of Anthropology).  It is composed of 560 stunning pieces, objects of art, hand-picked from an amazing accumulation of approximately 3 thousand pieces of hand-crafted earthenware and carved stone, dating back thousands of years, evidence of the stupendous workmanship of the Amerindian cultures of Mexico.

An impeccable example of the Teotihuacan symbol for time is emblazoned on this hand-carved stone, part of the Stavenhagen Collection, which is on display to the general public for the first time. Refugees of WWII, the Stavenhagens started collecting pre-Hispanic pieces when they arrived to Mexico. The family recently donated their acquisitions to the UNAM, the country's National University.


Apparently so extensive, the family transferred part of its private repertory to the Museum of Xalapa and to the Museum of Colima years ago. Rodolfo Stavenhagen donated part of the family’s legacy to the UNAM (Mexico’s National University), which have been classified by general topics (rather than by the more conventional geographic and chronological criteria) ranging from daily life, love, maternity, bodily decoration, death, early man’s relationship with animals, etc. Although many of these pieces are unprovenanced, the majority belonging to the Mezcala, Maya, Mexica and Zapotec cultures.

This ceramic hairless (and often toothless) Mexican dog was typically found in ancient funeral offerings, since natives believed it led the deceased on their journey to the underworld. The Xoloitzcuintle recently regained its American Kennel Club recognition, making it a potential dog show breed. The worldwide population of Xolols is estimated to be around 30,000.

The wait for this site was exaggeratedly long –  given that it was originally envisioned for the mid 60s but never materialized.  However, the outcome of the laudable collaborative effort of the two giant Mexican cultural institutions (the UNAM and the INAH – the National Institute of Anthropology and History) is fantastic! Aside from providing a dignified abode for pieces which were in storage for decades, it breathes life into the often overlooked site of Tlatelolco Hopefully more museums of this stature will continue to pop up. This is a new “must” on my list of basic sites for tourists and residents alike! Visit or re-visit Tlatelolco – you won’t be disappointed!

Another spectacular artifact showing the quality craftsmanship of the native populations who inhabited Central Mexico prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. This museum is a must for tourists and residents alike!

Note: The museum is not easy maneuver. The difficulty lies in the fact that there are several exhibits spread between two separate buildings, with an absence of signs  – makes it easy to miss important collections.  Hopefully, this is an oversight that will be remedied with time.

Two images from the Mezcala culture of Mesoamerica. Every item on display has been hand picked and is exceptional in quality.

The Tlatelolco Museum (Museo de Tlatelolco) is open Tuesday through Sunday; 10am to 6pm; entrance fee is $20 pesos; Ricardo Flores Magón 1, Nonoalco-Tlatelolco.

 

Tequila, Mescal and Mariachis – How Mexican Can You Get?

Tequila, Mescal and Mariachis – How Mexican Can You Get?

MUTEM pays tribute to tequila, mescal and mariachis

Three of the most emblematic symbols associated with Mexico – for better or worse – are tequila, mariachis and charros (Mexican cowboys). The Museum of Tequila, Mescal and Mariachis (the MUTEM, as it is known colloquially) showcases all three!

A typical gala charro (Mexican cowboy) outfit used by Mariachi musicians

This month, the UNESCO recognized Mariachis as Intangible Cultural Heritage (meeting the committee’s stringent criteria, since it is “transmitted generation to generation and continuously recreated during festive, religious and social events; it strengthens the sense of identity and continuity of its communities, within Mexico and abroad”). With this honor comes a commitment from Mexico to promoting this genre of music and foster related research. More than anything, I applaud this declaration because it raises what is seen as a folkloric expression to a more serious level, assuring that Mariachi music remains vital and will, hopefully, be taken more seriously.

Mariachis playing on a chalupa or flat bottom boat in the Xochimilco channels in southern Mexico City

Mariachi music, for those unfamiliar with this traditional Mexican music, is played by a group that varies in size and style. It takes songs from different regions of Mexico – including jarabes, polkas, waltzes, the traditional serenata and corridos, many of which were not written for the express purpose of being played in a “mariachi” format – and turns them into a sound that is unmistakably Mariachi!  The vast majority of lyrics are associated with romantic courtships or rural life, and became recognizable worldwide during Mexico’s Golden Age of Motion Pictures, with actors such as Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete and Luis Aguilar to name a few, who often broke into song intermittently in their films.

A sampling of instruments which give Mariachi music its unique sound

Mariachi bands are made up of guitar, violin, trumpet, vihuela (an acoustic guitar with a rounded back) and guitarron (an acoustic bass guitar on steriods) players. The groups usually range between 6 and12 members, decked out in gala charro outfits with tight-fitting pants (or skirts, in the case of women Mariachis) studded with silver-plated buttons commonly linked with chains running along the side seams, a short jacket, long bow tie and the typical broad-brimmed Mexican sombrero, embellished with portmanteau embroidery and optional sequence.

A collection of hundreds of artisanal tequila and mescal bottles in the MUTEM

Mariachi bands can be heard and hired in Garibaldi Square. Yes, believe it or not serenades are still popular in Mexico, particularly for quinceaños’ festivities, to charm disgruntled novias, at weddings and for birthdays and saint’s days, though given the current economic climate, they are not as ubiquitous as year’s begone since they have become less and less affordable. The musical groups congregate in Garibaldi, which is lined with numerous bars, situated just off the city’s central artery (Eje Central) downtown. That is, appropriately, where the Museum of Tequila, Mescal and Mariachis is located.

A spruced up and renovated Garibaldi Plaza downtown

In the city’s attempt to clean up the “Plaza de Garibaldi,” the zone has been given a recent face lift, including the creation of the MUTEM (last year). Mariachi music has morphed over the years, but it’s roots can be traced back to the state of Jalisco in the 18th century.  The MUTEM is the only place in Mexico City to learn about the history of this music, or about tequila or mescal, which are all intertwined. (There are other tequila museums in Mexico (country) – one in the heartland of Jalisco – in Tequila (city) and another in Guadalajara (also in the state of Jalisco.)

The MUTEM has several displays illustrating how tequila and mescal are made

In order to retain the international honor that the UNESCO has bestowed it this month, Mexico is required to “protect” this living manifestation of its cultural tradition, so hopefully this small, yet comprehensive, museum will take on greater importance, and continue to expand its displays, which showcase the production of tequila, mescal and mariachis!

The open-air roof bar provides a great place to sample hard-to-find labels of tequila and mescal from around Mexico

By the way, the MUTEM offers one of the safest watering holes on the Plaza, since the third floor is the museum’s roof-top bar. The entrance ticket to the museum includes one shot of tequila or mescal of your choice from a broad collection which lines the walls! (Mexican antojitos or snacks are also available at a reasonable price.)  As an added bonus, you can listen to mariachi music to your heart’s content – for free! The best groups on the plaza alternate sets in this open-air space. If you chose to continue your spree, you can sample the agave-based liquors, selecting from a long list of top-notch tequilas or mescals carefully selected from around the country. And, given that the museum and the restaurant-bar is run by the city government, there is no fear of being overcharged or taken advantage of (as is often the case at the surrounding local bars) as your mind gets fuzzy from the libations!

There are hundreds of agave plant species in Mexico, but tequila is made ONLY from the "Agave Tequila Azul" or Blue Anaweber variety of plant, giving it its D.O. distinction

Thus, not only can you learn about the Mexican D.O. liquors – both tequila and mescal have been granted the seal of Denominación de Origen (D.O.) under the international appellation system, assuring that these beverages have been produced in a specific region and comply with stringent quality criteria – and Mexican music, but also sample the music and drink to your heart’s content in a safe environment, at a reasonable price.

The boutique handicraft and spirit store at MUTEM sells unique items you may want to stock up on, either for yourself or for gift-giving!

Be sure to check out the ground-floor museum store, which is brimming with a hand-picked selection of handicrafts unavailable elsewhere. The MUTEM staff travels around Mexico, combing the countryside for unique keepsakes, which it offers at affordable prices at its gift shop.  Plus, the spruced up Plaza now has underground parking, where you can park your vehicle yourself, rather than leaving it with often unreliable valet parking services or having to walk several blocks late at night (very convenient, particularly when your steps are wobbly!).

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Happy New Year from me and a 20 member mega-Mariachi group!

Happy New Year with a Mexican touch! Be sure to check out the MUTEM in 2012!

 

Mexico’s New Constitution Museum: Trying to Make Sense of a Complex Legislative Trail

The recently inaugurated Constitution Museum

Mexico’s new Constitution Museum has yet, once again, given a new purpose to what was originally a Jesuit School and Temple dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Abandoned when the Jesuits were banned from all Spanish territory in 1767, the building fell into disrepair, until salvaged almost half a century later by Mexico’s first emperor, Agustin Iturbide, who hosted several Constitutional Congress meetings here in 1823 and 1824. This is where Mexico’s first (or second – depending on how you count – more on that in a minute) constitution was signed by such historical heavyweights as Fray Servando Teresa de Mier and Miguel Ramos Arizpe. Mexico’s first president – Guadalupe Victoria – was sworn into office here as well.

Sparse explanations dot the ex-Jesuit school

Having previously served as a library, a military barrack, a military hospital, a customs warehouse, a home for the mentally ill and an animal stable, it was Public Education Minister José Vasconcelos who commissioned the very first mural here after the Revolution, launching what would become, unbeknownst to him, Mexico’s world-famous Muralist Movement. From then on, the building was assigned to education-related functions, housing the Hemeroteca collection (periodical library) and more recently, the National University’s Museum of Light, an interactive children’s museum.  In August of this year, it was re-purposed with its latest mission, narrating this nation’s constitution history.

Architectural detail from by-gone days add character to an otherwise bland exhibit

Mexico’s history is complex, and its constitutional history is even more complicated, justifiably meriting a museum all to itself.  Its first Constitution, by all counts, is the Constitution of Cadiz – promulgated in 1812 – however, the museum ignores this fact, perhaps because this legislation was handed down by Spain rather than issued in Mexico (however, duly note that the main square in downtown Mexico City, informally referred to as the “Zocalo,”  is formally named  “Plaza of the Constitution,” precisely after the liberal Constitution coming from the Courts of Cadiz – the first Constitution for Spain as well as Mexico, even though Mexico was still known as New Spain at that time.)

Roberto Montenegro's historic mural entitled "Tree of Life," fully restored

The Museum begins its count with the Constitution of 1814, and continues with the Constitution of 1824, the Constitution of 1836, the Constitution of 1843, the Constitution of 1857 and the Constitution of 1917, as well as the Plan of Ayutla, the Act of Reform and the Laws of Reform. It is hard to keep up with all that legislation, which is why this country needs a museum dedicated to all of its Constitutions!  In fact, the name of the museum in Spanish is Museum of Constitutions – in plural!

Details of Montenegro's mural

The exhibit is quite sparse and simple, made up of written texts except for two small, circular showcases. The building, seeped in over 400 years of history, is more impressive than the museum itself. Hopefully, with time, memorabilia and new material will be added to make the museum, and the topic it covers, richer and more interesting.  In fact, the saving grace of this museum (located on Carmen Street #36, on the corner of San Ildefonso downtown) is its backdrop – Roberto Montenegro’s recently restored, seminal work entitled “The Tree of Life” (often referred to as the Tree of Science) – the first mural painted in modern Mexico – and three of his stained glass window designs.

One of the three magnificent stained glass windows designed by Montenegro and Xavier Guerrero in the early 20s

 

Presidential Assassin or Future Saint?

(I apologize for posting so sporadically this month.  I have had SERIOUS tech issues with my photo management software, which seem to be unresolvable, so after almost a month of frustrating, time-wasting effort I have changed software programs and I can now see and use my photos again!  Time will tell if the glitch has been solved permanently. Keep your fingers crossed for me!)

Tucked tucked away in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City, for very defined interests, the Museo de Padre Pro (Museum of Father Pro) showcases the life of a very controversial figure in Mexican religion and history.  Father Pro was a charismatic Jesuit priest who studied and lived in the United States, Spain, Belgium and Nicaragua before repatriating to Mexico in 1926.  Unfortunately, he returned to a nation convulsing in the bloody Cristero War. The dubious relationship between Miguel Agustín Pro and the assassination of President Álvaro Obregón is addressed face on in this permanent exhibit.


Mexican history is not easy to understand, and this chapter of Mexican history, in particular, is a complicated one.  It was President Benito Juarez who separated Church and State over 150 years ago, but this mandate was not easily enforced.  Even with the last and current Constitution (of a series of 6!), the government continued to view the Catholic Church as a foe.  The framework of that Constitution, when passed in 1917, clearly forbade religious instruction in schools (Article 3), prohibited public worship outside of ecclesiastic buildings (Article 24), restricted religious organizations the right to own property (Article 27), and went to the extreme of stripping priests, ministers and rabbis the freedom of wearing religious garb in public, participating in politics and even commenting on government policy (Article 130).  These restrictions were repealed only recently, under the government of President Ernesto Zedillo in 1998, to be specific, but it is important to note that these anti-clerical laws were strictly enforced when Father Pro returned to Mexico.


Plutarco Elias Calles, Mexico’s President between1924-1928, cracked his whip on the Catholic Church, by implementing even more rigorous legislation than that stipulated in the Constitution, under the guise of the so-called “Calles’ Laws,” thereby limiting clerical civil liberties such as the clergy’s right to vote or receive trial by jury. 

Father Pro was a warm, caring priest, sympathetic to religious factions.  He held  mass in secret and became a social activist helping hundreds of impoverished families financially and spiritually, thus falling into Calles’ disfavor.  Pro was eventually linked to President Obregón’s assassination in 1928, when, according to Museum information, his brother Humberto, sold his car, which was used as a get away vehicle by the assassins of Obregón.  To his misfortune, Humberto had forgotten some personal papers in the glove compartment of the car, linking him directly to the murder scene.  Given Pro’s antagonistic relationship with the Calles government, the President arrested him along with two of his brothers,  accusing them of sabotage and terrorism.  Father Pro and his brother Humberto were executed without due process, within the framework of the Calles’ Laws – without a trial and without concrete proof involving them in the crime (their brother Ramon, who was not clergy, was released).  Calles, in order to send a message to religious activists, went to the extreme of carefully documenting the police firing squad execution, photographing the details of the event and printing the pictures in the national press the following day.



Father Pro was vindicated, at least by the Catholic church, when he was beatified by Pope John Paul on September 25th, 1988, on the anniversary marking his execution.  His remains are deposited to the right of the main altar of the church adjacent to the museum, the Sagrada Familia, an emblematic landmark in Colonia Roma which was built when the then fashionable neighborhood was being urbanized roughly a century ago.


This museum appears to me to be doubling as the official platform to promote the cause of Pro’s sainthood. There is a wide discrepancy in the number of lives reported lost in this oft forgotten chapter of Mexican history, with estimates running between 90,000 and 250,000 depending on the source.  Guilty or innocent, there is finally a museum in Mexico City which recalls the tragic ending of Pro’s life and pays tribute to the thousands who died on both sides of this little-talked-about war, assuring that the Cristero War and the people who lost their lives fighting for freedom of religion, will not be forgotten, regardless as to whether Pro is sanctified or not.