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In Search of the Aztecs : David Carrasco Set Out to Reveal the Secrets of Mexico's Greatest Archeological Find, El Templo Mayor. Along the Way, He Discovered His Own Roots

November 29, 1987|VICTOR VALLE | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Proud of itself Is the City of Mexico-Tenochtitlan Here no one fears to die in war This is our glory This is Your Command Oh Giver of Life Have this in mind, oh princes Who would conquer Tenochtitlan? Who could shake the foundation of heaven? --Anonymous Aztec poem

The discovery of El Templo Mayor (The Great Temple) in 1978 in downtown Mexico City provided the archeology story of the decade. In the months that followed, the international media reveled in the first glimpses of an exquisite parade of artifacts from the ceremonial center of Aztec civilization that flourished in Central Mexico from 1325 to 1521. But what did it all mean?

The answers are just now becoming available for non-scholars. And, in a curious role reversal, the job of "reading" the temple's meaning has been increasingly assumed by a Mexican-American scholar who sees more than a few parallels between his struggle to define his identity and the ambivalent mixture of pride and horror with which some Mexicans and Chicanos view the Great Temple's sublime and bloody heritage.

David Carrasco is a tall, beret-wearing Chicano professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado, the son of a Mexican father and Anglo mother who grew up feeling like an outsider in non-Chicano surroundings in Maryland and Washington. If he ever wished to escape his "otherness," he said recently of his childhood, the larger-than-life image of his father--a native Texan whose colorful career took him from barnstorming amateur basketball player to successful college basketball coach--prevented him from doing so.

Full-Fledged Identity Crisis

That internal conflict eventually blossomed into a full-fledged identity crisis that propelled the young Carrasco on a circuitous, sometimes dangerous search for his father's culture. But in the end, Carrasco chose the life of the mind. He emerged a scholar.

Now director of the Mesoamerican Archive at the University of Colorado, Carrasco has not only emerged as the leading U. S. expert on Aztec religion, but as research partner of Mexico's most influential archeologist, the man who directed the temple excavation project--Edwardo Matos Moctezuma. Moctezuma, who first met Carrasco 12 years ago, is also director of the just-completed Great Temple Museum, which overlooks the rear flank of the excavation site that was carved into the northeastern corner of downtown Mexico City's huge Zocalo plaza.

The irony of a Chicano interpreting the Aztecs for Mexicans didn't escape Carrasco last month when he visited the new museum that overlooks the excavation's rear flank.

"Here I am, a Chicano collaborating with a Mexican," he said in a Chicano accent laced with East Coast Puerto Rican rhythms. "I've been able to do it partly through (Moctezuma's) generosity, and partly by being bien trucha (on the ball)." Partly also, it would seem, from being in the right place at the right time.

Huge Stone Monolith

On Feb. 21, 1978, electrical workers digging trenches for power lines behind Mexico City's Municipal Cathedral stumbled onto a huge stone monolith upon which was carved the figure of the lunar goddess Coyolxauhqui. Discovery of the oblong bas relief led archeologists to believe they had indeed found the site of the Great Temple, which historical accounts had placed in the vicinity. They removed layers of asphalt and stone that covered the plaza and began excavating the site.

Excited by first reports about the temple, Carrasco, then 33 and just graduated with a doctorate in religious studies from the University of Chicago, said he felt compelled to travel to Mexico City and experience the excavation firsthand. But he feared Moctezuma wouldn't remember him from a single, brief meeting two years earlier.

"I'm David, I don't know if you remember me?" Carrasco recalls shouting in Spanish when he finally found Moctezuma via an opened rear gate at the excavation site.

Moctezuma recognized him, and immediately invited Carrasco to begin studying the religious content of the temple's treasures.

Fired by the discoveries and his collaboration with Moctezuma, Carrasco founded the Boulder-based Mesoamerican Archive, the most comprehensive archive of the Great Temple, and began the seminars that would result in the first in-depth analysis of the Great Temple. Released last week by the University of California Press, "The Great Temple of Tenochtitlan: Center and Periphery in the Aztec World" consists of essays written by Carrasco, Moctezuma and Austrian ethno-historian Johanna Broda.

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