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

Times Staff Writer

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.

Jose Cuellar, an associate professor of anthropology at Stanford University and resident scholar at Stanford's Center for Chicano Research, sees further reverberations from Carrasco's examinations of the stone offertory boxes, masks, knives and human remains excavated from the temple between 1978 and 1982. Carrasco's ongoing analysis of the religious and political basis of Aztec human sacrifice may inspire a deeper examination of Aztec heritage, Cuellar said. It is a disturbing subject that many Chicanos and Mexicans view with ambivalence.

"How is it that our ancestors could sacrifice so many people?" Cuellar asked. "That's very problematical for us. His (Carrasco's) research is looking at Aztec human sacrifice in a more general, comparative sense and how it developed historically."

Neither the Great Temple nor his roots were on Carrasco's mind when he began his studies in 1967 at New Jersey's Drew Divinity School. Fresh out of Western Maryland College, the then 21-year-old Carrasco was looking forward to becoming a Methodist minister.

But like the stone buried beneath the Zocalo plaza, the influence of his father, David, prevented the younger Carrasco from setting roots.

Raised in El Paso and the north Mexican state of Chihuahua, Carrasco's father had already boxed and played for Mexico's national basketball team when he joined the Navy in 1942.

While stationed in San Diego, his father fought a professional boxer to a draw, a feat that expedited his transfer to petty officer's training school in Bainbridge, Md. Once there, Carrasco said, his father met his mother, Marji, a Pennsylvania Dutch and Kentucky farm girl.

Promotion Hard to Get

After his father completed his tour of duty in 1945, the family returned to El Paso where David Carrasco discovered that his chances of advancing from assistant to head coach at the high school where he taught were slim.

The family returned to Maryland. His father secured a head coaching job at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, where his teams won three state championships. This success, Carrasco said, landed his father a head basketball coaching job at American University in Washington, D. C., where the senior Carrasco racked up conference championships from 1955 and 1963.

"It was at that point I began to become aware that I was different. 'Dave Carrasco, the Mexican-American,' the newspapers would say. 'Dave Carrasco, the Texas-Mexican.' There was this otherness. (But) there weren't other Chicanos around."

Later, while at Western Maryland College, Carrasco said he did several stints in a summer jobs program in rural Puerto Rico. "That's where my identity as Latino became clearer to me," he said. "Because the Puerto Ricans would treat me as a Mexican."

The family pulled up roots again in 1965. The next stop was Ecuador, where Carrasco's father coached teams for three years and where David, then 21, spent a summer.

Internal Struggle

It was in the fall of 1967, at the start of his training at Drew Divinity School, that his internal struggle began to surface, he said. "I was there one year, and right away I knew it wasn't the place for me."

What bothered him most was the seminary's inability to explain the poverty he had seen in Puerto Rico. The shadow of his father--by then a winning head basketball coach at American University, who integrated his teams with black athletes--further accentuated what he perceived as the Drew Divinity School's "provincialism."

"The Protestant theological world view is a valid one," he said, "but in terms of who I was, which was muy mestizo (very racially mixed), it angered me. I could see my father's teams as part of a wider array of that human experience" which the seminary ignored.

He changed course, enrolling in the University of Chicago's history of religions program. Immediately, Carrasco said he discovered the late Mircea Eliade, a giant in the comparative study of world religions, and Charles H. Long, a "brilliant" black professor.

Carrasco also began working with the Chicano and Puerto Rican gangs of Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood at the Casa Aztlan community center. "You could say, in a way, that I wanted to find my father's culture," he said.

'These Were Gang Guys'

Instead, he found rejection. "These were not university Chicanos," he said. "These were gang guys . . . tough, hard-nosed guys. The Morgan Deuces, the Latin Kings, the Spartans. They would shoot people's legs off." But he didn't quit.

Eventually he became so immersed in his work and the politics of Chicago's turbulent Vietnam anti-war protests that he even did a brief stint with the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican street gang turned militant cadre. "In fact," he added, "I was their minister of information" when the Young Lords began working with the Black Panther Party.

On Dec. 4, 1969, the killing of Fred Hampton and seven other Black Panthers by the Chicago police convinced Carrasco to drop out of the Lords. But he continued to spend his nights working with Chicano gang members.

Two Worlds

After another year, the demands of his separate worlds began to tear him apart.

"I started to fracture inside," he said. "I'm staying out late, my marriage is starting to fall apart. I'm in the streets all night, I'm chasing rucas (girls), I'm getting drunk, I'm carrying a gun once in while. But by day, I'm in the university studying."

Professor Long, Carrasco said, finally "pulled my chain," but not before his marriage had been undermined (it ended in 1984). "He came to me and said, 'You're going to have to make a choice. If you want to live your life in the barrio, that's OK, but you're not going to be able to do both things.' He was right. I couldn't."

Carrasco chose the university, where he believed he could make a more useful contribution and maintain his sanity. "But I decided to come at my academic work from a deeper root, from the perspective of Mesoamerican religions."

But it was not until he graduated in 1978 that Moctezuma handed Carrasco the remarkable opportunity that changed his career.

Since the start of their collaboration nearly a decade ago, Moctezuma said he has become progressively aware of the important role Carrasco can play to help dispel the exotic and denigrating myths about the Aztecs and the other ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica.

The idea that Aztecs practiced human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism because of widespread protein deficiency is one such myth, Carrasco said flatly. The conventional explanation that Aztecs believed the offerings of human hearts and blood sustained the sun in its orbit and prevented the universe from collapsing are also incomplete, he said.

"I am studying human sacrifice (by the Aztecs) in relation to the widespread practice of bleeding oneself as act of ritual offering," he said. The sacrifices of hundreds of victims from conquered city states, he said, became occasions for the common Aztec citizen to ritually pierce and bleed their bodies with thorns and other implements.

"The human sacrifice of your enemies was therefore the expansion of that concept (of personal sacrifice) into the areas of conflict with city states," Carrasco argues.

Stage for Spectacle

Brightly painted and adorned with pennants and smoky incense braziers, the Great Temple was the stage for a bloody, multimedia spectacle where the underlying message was conveyed to common citizens and enemies with potent theatricality.

Though hair-raising, Carrasco said the ceremonies caused a total and disorienting stimulation of the senses which facilitated the education of both citizens and enemies about the Aztec political order and the conviction that human sacrifice protected the cosmos from total destruction and chaos.

But ever-increasing conquest, he said, only undermined the empire's political authority and cohesion--a weakness Cortes exploited in his eventual conquest of Tenochtitlan in 1521. The Aztecs, Carrasco asserts, had become progressively impotent by relying on military dominance.

"It's like the imperialism of the United States in Vietnam or Central America," he added. "It obviously weakened us a great deal. Imperialism has that kind of death wish in it." The Great Temple, therefore, illustrates a universal theme: hubris and impermanence.

"This civilization collapsed, just as the Mayas collapsed," Carrasco concluded. "Our contemporary situation is also facing these strains. So it's valuable to look at the Aztec case to understand the decisions that were made there."

New Excavation

Carrasco has continued his partnership with Moctezuma. Just miles away from the Great Temple, a team under Moctezuma's direction has started a new excavation of the Tlatelolco ceremonial center with funding from Carrasco's archive. Both expect the interplay of archeology and analysis that began at the Great Temple to continue at Tlatelolco, the ancient marketplace and sister city of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.

Through it all, Carrasco has become something of an item within academic circles. UC Santa Barbara and Stanford University tried and failed to woo him away from the Boulder campus, offering professorships and generous research support. His own university responded by providing Carrasco and the archive $150,000 in university and private research funding for the next five years.

Some stress his Indiana Jones flair, street-smart style and imagination as a historian as the incongruous traits which have put Carrasco in the midst of a new, more coherent interpretation of the Aztecs and their ancient predecessors. Broda, a veteran anthropologist with the National Institute of Anthropology and History, agrees:

"He is an interesting mix," she said. "His enthusiasm derives from his personal search for identity, and from a preoccupation with the origins of Mexican culture. His imagination, his creative way of rethinking pre-Hispanic culture and religion," Broda added, has helped "recreate much of the drama of Mexican religion."

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