In fieldwork, you always have to expect the unexpected. You can write up your hypotheses, organize where you want to go and when, and firm up your contacts ahead of time, but I can promise you that something totally unforeseen is likely to happen. If it does, you simply have to flow with it, and if you are lucky, something “magical” may occur.
The Cathedral in Mexico City is one of the oldest and largest churches in the western hemisphere. It stands in its baroque splendor on the north side of the Zócalo, the grand plaza; the National Palace is on the east side of the plaza, and the tall hotel where I stayed in 1996 is on the west side. I had been there 35 years earlier and knew that the huge snake-faced goddess named Coatlicue had been discovered buried in the ground that was now the Zócalo. Every year from the conquest of Mexico to the excavation of the site in 1824, Indians had come with gifts of fruits and flowers and laid them on the stone pavement in front of the Cathedral. Until the enormous statue was unearthed, the act had been accepted as something very pious and very Christian.
In 1978, ditch diggers from the electric company uncovered a huge circular stone decorated in relief to the northeast of the Cathedral. It was a representation of the dismembered body of Coyolxauhqui, sister of Huitzilipoctli, the Aztec god of war. In a fit of rage, he decapitated her and threw her body down temple steps. But he repented his haste, and threw her head into the sky where it became the moon. Excavations began immediately after the enormous stone was discovered, leading to the magnificent ruins of the Great Temple or Temple Mayor of Tenochtitlan, the liturgical center of the Aztec Empire.
I had just finished a wonderful vacation in San Miguel de Allende, where I had participated in an amazing women’s ritual in natural hot springs (Griffin 2000). I thought the research part of my trip was over. It was January 5th, and my sister, her partner Bill, and I were staying in Mexico City for a few days until we could get flights back home. There had been a big labor demonstration that evening in the Zócolo in front of our hotel and the plaza was still very crowded. Bicycle taxis negotiated the insane traffic and there were vendors everywhere, their blankets on the ground spread with trinkets. This was the night before Los Reyes, when the Three Kings or Wise Men were supposed to arrive in Bethlehem bearing their gifts. In some countries, this is when children receive their gifts, not at Christmas. Small carts sold cotton candy to celebrating families, strands of pink candy floated on the updrafts like smoke rings. Children and adults alike leapt up, trying to catch them. Some even grabbed long sticks and waved them above their heads hoping to snare the sweetness. The Three Kings were there with a large toy camel, posing for photos for a few pesos. A clown told jokes and families crowded around a life-size nativity scene made of woven sticks and palm husks.
I heard drumming and headed around the side of the Cathedral to the ruins of the Temple Mayor. There, right in front of where Coyoxaugtli was discovered, were four circles of barefoot dancers, each circle enclosing the smaller ones. The smallest circle danced around a pile of shoes and backpacks, all belonging to the dancers. The footwork was fast and the energy was palpable, driven higher and higher by the deep drums. They danced forward and back, whirled from side to side, down to touch the earth and back up again, all in a pattern I couldn’t discern. Both the men and the women wore blue jeans, but they had wide straps of animal hide covered with seed pods around their ankles that rattled with each step. One dancer in the center seemed to lead the rest; when he tired a young woman took his place. I watched as an Indian woman took a conch shell and smudged it with smoke burning in a ceramic chalice. The smoke moved toward me and I could smell copal. A male dancer took the shell from her and blew into it, as she reached for another conch to smudge. Soon there were four shells sounding long notes into the night. The dancers sank to the ground – and then rose with their arms in the air and faced the Aztec Temple in the east. A male dancer said something; I couldn’t hear it all, only gracias and Huitzilipoztli. This was repeated in the west, the north, and concluded in the south.
It was done. With smiles at each other, never at those of us surrounding them, they put on their shoes, got their backpacks, those who were bare-chested got dressed, and they dispersed into the crowd. There was no explanation, no attempt to solicit money as I have seen elsewhere, and absolutely no acknowledgement of the audience that had gathered to watch. It was as though we didn’t exist. The dancers were clearly dancing for themselves. It had the feel of something sacred, something they did for and of themselves under the full moon in front of the Great Temple. I felt as if I had been given a very special gift being allowed to see it.
The next evening I heard the drumming and went down to the Zócalo again. There was a small group of dancers, wearing wonderful costumes this time. There were large peasant feather headpieces, leather outfits and the glitter of gold. But during the dance, a young woman passed around a basket and asked for donations. It was a dance for the tourists, Mexican and foreign alike. Bored, I went back up to my room.
My sister and Bill left for Chicago the next day and I had another day before I flew back to California. I had gone that morning to see Freida Kahlo’s house. I was fascinated by a glass case full of small female figurines labeled “Tlatilco, 1700 b.c. – 100 a.d. Apparently Freida had been fascinated as well, for she collected the figures called Mujeres Bonitas, or Pretty Women. They were made of clay, and from 1 ½ to 3 inches tall. Some showed the pubic triangle, others the classic line of the labia, and still others were pregnant. The sign in the case said they were used for agricultural fertility. I found them wonderful but wasn’t allowed to photograph them. In the afternoon, I wandered over to the Zócalo. A small crowd was gathered in front of the Temple Mayor, forming lines in front of three men and a woman. These individuals faced the lines and held chalices with burning copal. I watched them for a time as they ceremoniously smudged the people in line, one by one. I couldn’t hear what was being said, but noticed the youngest male smudging wave his hand and signal to a tourist that photographing was not permitted. The males doing the smudging were differing ages; one had gray hair and looked Indian, as did the next, whose hair was jet black. The youngest male looked white and was probably in his late 20s. I saw he was wearing a cross made of four crystal spars held together with an amethyst and wondered at it. The men were dressed in white, with colorfully woven bands about their foreheads and waists. The woman, who looked to be in her late 30s, was pale and wearing a white Mexican dress embroidered with beautiful flowers. They were all barefoot.
After watching for some time I decided to ask someone what this was all about and chose a young woman who had just been smudged. I introduced myself in Spanish and she immediately told me she was from Watsonville, California, and this was her first time in Mexico. The man who had smudged her had “welcomed her home” and told her what tribe she descended from. He cleansed her with copal smoke and then blessed her. She was followed in line by her sisters and her mother and father. I asked her why she did it and she just shrugged her shoulders. Her sister didn’t want to talk to me, she rushed off to borrow a pen and write the name of her tribe on her arm before she could forget it. The mother was very friendly, but instead of telling me about her experience, she urged me to get in line and be blessed.
The youngest male had blessed everyone in his line and had stopped to explain to the crowd what they were doing and invite people to join in. They were doing a cleansing to make room for peace and prosperity for Mexico City and her people. This was also to acknowledge their roots and to ask the blessings of the grandfathers and the grandmothers, he explained, gesturing toward the Temple Mayor. He emphasized that everyone and anyone was welcome, and he made eye contact with me.
So, of course I had to ask, “Even someone with no Aztec blood?” He smiled and held out his hand to me and I went forth to be blessed. He asked me where I was born and told me to hold out my hand, into which he put a small crystal. “Welcome, Little Sister of the Anahuac, welcome to your land.” He told me to close my eyes and he gently blew smoke from the burning copal into my face, over my head, and around my body. I don’t remember everything he said and some of it I couldn’t understand, unfortunately, but my field notes say he told me about a mass migration that passed through the area that is now Chicago and dispersed throughout Central America. He put his hand on my forehead and said, “Be filled with the Divine Sprit that gives us brilliance of mind and fills the heart with love and peace and makes all things possible.” He kissed the base of the chalice and offered it to me to do the same. I did, and the blessing was complete.
I returned to a low stone wall and sat making fieldnotes. It seemed obvious that most of the people in line had not done this kind of thing before. They were very curious about it and didn’t know exactly what to expect. They were a mixed lot: a man with a briefcase, an Indian couple in their late 30s, a man in a suit and tie, women in conservative skirts, young people in jeans. Some people seemed middle class, others were clearly working class. People with packages under their arms stopped and stared, some got in line. Everything was done in whispers.
After about an hour, I noticed a young man watching me and realized he probably had been watching for some time. I ignored him, but it wasn’t long before he was sitting on the wall next to me. He asked me if I were a reporter, and I responded that I was a professor studying religious rites. He responded that he studied them too and pulled a small book out of the woven bag he carried. His picture was on the back cover as the author, Jose Garcia something. The book was about Anahuak ceremonies, daily life, and government. As I was under the impression that the only writing to be handed down on this was by Christian conquistadores and missionaries or on painted codices, many of which were destroyed, I asked him about his sources. He told me they were oral and, sure enough, it said so on the book’s cover. We talked a bit but I was wary. This felt as much like an attempted pick up as it did a conversation between scholars. But then he said he was with the dancers from a few nights earlier, that what was happening was a spiritual movement and that he was an officer of the Consejo Nacional de Tradicion y Cultura de Anahuak, the National Counsel of Anahuak Tradition and Culture, and he helped to organize the dancers and other events. We exchanged business cards, except his was a used piece of official stationary from the Los Guerreros del Conocimiento, the Warriors of Knowledge. Jose repeated again that this was a large spiritual movement and asked me out to lunch. I refused politely, and he kept pulling out identification until I finally agreed to go for a coffee near the Zócalo.
I like to think I am fluent in Spanish. I was when I lived in Spain many years earlier, but I admit that my language skills have gotten rusty. So it is hard for me to tell in a foreign culture and language how much of what people tell me is exaggerated or just plain fabrication and what they believe to be true. But once Jose realized I was interested in his work and not in him, he was a goldmine of information. I asked him to tell me all about the dances.
He corrected me gently. They were not dances, they were Chintontekiza, propitiating cosmic movements. Those involved are not dancing but working to reintegrate us with the Earth and cosmos. This is the way they salir del silencio, come out of the silence. At the end of the movement, they explain what they are doing and give thanks, Tlazo Camati, in Nuatl, the ancient Aztec language. This is the birth or the rebirth (my fieldnotes don’t make it clear) of the Feminine. It is happening all over, he informed me. But the Mexican government wants to chase the dancers and the people who are doing the blessing out of the Zócalo. I asked him if the people in the lines weren’t mostly Catholic like most Mexicans. He avoided a direct answer by saying, “Well, there is a great spiritual movement now to connect with our ancient roots and integrate ourselves with the Earth.” I asked him about the dismembered goddess, and he told me that it was really first unearthed in 1964, but the government was so afraid of its power that they covered it back up again until it was unearthed in 1978 and led to the discovery of the Temple Mayor. Everything, he said, movements, discoveries, everything has to be in the appropriate time in the moon cycle. It wasn’t the appropriate time in 1964, but it is now. He told me firmly that the female equals peace and the moontime for peace is now.
The movements in the Zócalo are part of a great strategy, a form of public theater that is designed to awaken consciousness, especially female consciousness. But if I wanted to learn about the woman, he confided, I had to speak with Bernardina Green. She was planning an event that would show people without a doubt that it was time for “female energy. ” He scribbled a name and telephone number on my fieldnotes. I should call her right away, he said, especially as my flight home was the next afternoon.
Maybe someone else could have resisted, but not me. I had come to Mexico in part to seek out Goddess women and learn what they were doing. I should have known that they weren’t all in San Miguel de Allende. So I went back to my hotel and called the number Jose had given me. No one was home, but fortunately an answering machine took my information. I went back out and looked for bookstores where I might find more information on what I had just learned, but to no avail. When I returned to the hotel, Bernardina had called. I called back immediately and was invited to come to her home for an interview. I jumped in a taxi and gave him the directions she had given me. It was only about 20 minutes away, but it felt like it was on the far outskirts of the city. By now it was about 6:00 P.M. and it was beginning to get dark. Suddenly I began to question my sanity. Here I was in a foreign country, dashing off into a part of town that was anything but reassuring – especially in the dark, going to meet some woman suggested by a guy who had tried to pick me up. Before I could get my wits together, the taxi stopped and I was there.
The building wasn’t at all reassuring. I had worked in the housing projects in Chicago, and this felt similar. I told myself that I was being classist, but by now it was dark, there were no lights in the halls or stairwells, and her apartment was on the 3rd floor. I took a breath and began the climb. Fortunately a door above me opened and light spilled out, I hoped it was hers. It was.
Bernardina Green was probably in her late 40s, although I’m never really good at guessing ages. Her hair and eyes were jet black and her skin was pale. She wore a red Mexican dress with bright embroidered flowers and I could tell she must have been a genuine beauty when younger. A framed photo of her on a bookshelf later verified this for me. Bernardina greeted me warmly, calling me “My Queen” and “Little Daughter.” I took a look around the room as she went to make us coffee. There was an altar holding a stone replica of Coatlique in the bookcase facing me, candles and a photograph of a young boy. On the sideboard was another altar, with a Huahacan clay figures of a young woman, a pregnant woman and flowers. The apartment appeared fairly humble, but comfortable. There were several large oil paintings on the wall; they seemed really incongruous with the building and neighborhood. One painting was a romanticized Aztec warrior staring at the sea. I learned later it was supposed to be Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec Emperor. Another painting was of a flaming pyramid of suns descending over Mexico and its two famous volcanoes. She had commissioned that, she told me later. The third oil was especially interesting. It was of a slightly younger Bernardina, but here she was portrayed as a green goddess, Mother Earth. Above her head was a sun held aloft by Coatlique’s striking serpents, and inside the sun was a rabbit, a representation of the moon. The Goddess wore a flower and skull headband and her womb was full of flowers. White petals fell from her nipples like flowing milk.
As I studied the painting, the phone rang. I suspect Bernardina had the only phone in the building, as the call was for one of her neighbors. She stuck her head out the window into the interior courtyard and called loudly for him to come to the phone. It was a portable phone, so he took his conversation out on the stairs. This happened two more times while I was there. As we drank the strong coffee she had made, she told me her story. When she spoke it was very dramatic. Her expressions mirrored her words, although she smiled and laughed a lot. I had no tape recorder and took notes as quickly as I could.
She began by saying she didn’t like to talk about herself but it was necessary for her to do so in order for me to understand what was happening. Her great grandfather was an Irish Jew named Greenberg who dropped the last part of his name when he migrated to Mexico. She had been educated in part in the United States and was fluent in English. She had worked with the wife of President Lopez Portillo as the Director of the Ollin Yoloztli Concert Hall. In 1977 she became convinced that she was to start a spiritual/political movement in Mexico. She began to study and decided that the problems in Mexico stemmed from the fact that people had lost touch with their roots. One of her favorite sayings was that a tree that is born without deep roots dries up and bears no fruit. In order to help people connect with their roots, she organized a ceremony that paid homage to the Aztec god Quetzalcuatl. The following year her marriage fell apart and she divorced. It was a very difficult time.
But on September 12, 1979, she began to pray and meditate. She told me her head exploded in light and on the 13th, she began to hear voices telling her to prepare the way for the return of Cuauhtemoc. She didn’t believe it and was very disturbed, because she was a practicing Catholic at the time. But she began to have visions, visions of both the future and the pre-Columbian past. “I thought I was going crazy,” she told me. “I was very afraid.” With time, she became convinced that the voices were not a sign of mental illness and that she was sane. During this period, however, she lost most of her old friends. In 1982, she led a group that occupied the Zócalo for Cuauhtemoc. When the police threatened them with violence, the women in her group stepped forward and went to the front, so that they would be attacked first. The attack was stopped before it began.
“This is the kind of audacity that women have!” she told me proudly. “Women, especially Mexican women, are taught to stand behind their men, make them look good and smart, not take credit, and to sacrifice themselves. Enough of this! It is time for women to scream their worth!” Christianity blames women for everything, she went on, beginning with Eve. But the creator was a duality, male and female. The Spaniards who wrote the history hid the wife of Cuauhtemoc. “The ones who write the histories always hide the women.”
In 1990, on April 22, Earth Day, Bernardina invoked the first homage to Coatlique at the National Museum. She and her followers pushed past the guards who were trying to prevent them from entering and laid flowers at the feet of the giant statue. “I had to do something,” she told me, “the Pope was coming to Mexico and I had to do something.” In 1995, she created the Women’s Flower War. Approximately 300 women dressed in white gathered in the Zócalo and formed an eight pointed star around the Mexican flag. They filled the star with white flower petals as they chanted the word “Mexico” for over an hour. The goal was to infuse the colors of the Mexican flag with the energies of the old gods wherever it stood, including in the Mexican embassies all over the world, so that the gods would enlighten the political rulers of the country. She pulled out photographs and newspaper clippings of the event to show me. “We did magic,” she said to me. The nature of magic was circular, she went on. “We put out love and strength in our magic and it returned to us. The energy of the universe is love. That is always central. We are unnatural children, separated from Mother Earth. [But] things are not separate, we are merely forms of this universal energy. This energy unites everything.” We have two fundamental tasks ahead of us, she continued. We have to rescue Mother Earth and to “rescue the best that all the original cultures of the world have to give us…Consciousness is awakening rapidly now for species survival.”
Her latest project was to plan a march in February, the month of the rabbit. Men would lead a torch-lit procession to the tomb of Cuauhtemoc in Ixcateopan in the state of Guerrero. Women would march back – over 100 miles all the way back to the Zócalo, where they would knock on the door of the Palacio Nacional. Grandmothers would lead the way, and when they fell, the young women would help them to rise. They would carry a banner with Coatlique at the front of the march. The snakes that seem so fearsome on her visage are really for wisdom, she told me. Carrying her banner will signify the coming of feminine spirituality to Mexico, the awakening of feminine consciousness. She had invested all her money in the movement, she confided, but she couldn’t take credit for what was happening. It was the time for it.
Bernardina asked me to stay for rice and beans, but by now it was 10 p.m. and I was exhausted and a little nervous about getting back to the hotel in the dark. She pulled out her latest book as a gift for me, posters, photographs, and a prayer she had written and artfully painted in codice-like designs on what looked like parchment. I offered to pay for them, but she refused. “Come back and bring other women with you,” she urged. “We are planning an event for the Winter Solstice in 1999 and would like international support.” She gave me an abrazo and led me to the door. I was fortunate that there was a taxi passing by as I went outside. I went straight back to the hotel and fell into bed; I was on overload. The fieldnotes I wrote the next day on the plane mention that there were times when I felt my eyes glaze over as Bernardina talked. She kept insisting that her beliefs and prophecies were scientific as “it” was all mathematical. That meant that somehow it fit the Aztec calendar, and so it had to be true. Nevertheless, I liked her. She was articulate, dramatic, charismatic, warm, funny, and wonderfully generous.
I went out to the Zócalo the next morning to finish up my roll of film before leaving for the airport. I passed silent women sitting in the middle of the sidewalk with their hands stretched out for coins, shoe shiners, vendors of hot corn and tamales as I walked over to the Temple Mayor. They hadn’t begun yet, but the dancers/movers were there. I watched as they spread out things to sell on blankets: jewelry, pamphlets, and such. Someone in the crowd asked if they sold rosaries. They laughed quietly among themselves, this clearly was a joke to them. They finally said no, politely. I saw some printed material on Chitomtekiza and something called “The True Origin of the Virgin of Guadalupe” which I bought. The seven page, single spaced broadside explained in great detail how the appearance of the Virgin Mary in Tepeyac was an invention of the Spanish, how it was very controversial for several hundred years, how the painting that supposedly appeared miraculously in the cape of the Indian who saw her was declared a fake by experts, and how the Church finally accepted the appearance and the miracle and made the Virgin of Guadalupe the Empress of America. But, according to the pamphlet, the truth was that when the Aztecs first migrated into the area they looked for a site where they could give thanks to mother earth. Tonantzin Coatlicue means Mother Earth in Nahuatl. Her serpent skirt symbolized wisdom to the ancestors, not violence, not fear. The place that was chosen to honor her was Tepeyac.
“Era inevitable la derrota espiritual asi como la militar. Sabian que tendrian que enterar para siempre Tonantzin ( No Author 1996). The spiritual defeat was as inevitable as the military one. They knew they would have to bury Tonantzin forever.
I asked one of the dancers who were all taking a break if they came there often. “Every day,” he replied with a smile. As I turned to catch a taxi to the airport, I remembered that Bernardina had told me that the dances in the Zócalo were not reinvented because they were never lost. They kept them alive in the Indian villages. Besides, she had said, Mexico is a great laboratory that has produced a universal genetic memory made from the original red, white, black and yellow races. In the Popol Vu, the sacred text of ancient Central America, it was written that a new race of people would be born, a synthesis. This had happened and now “it was time.”
I leaned back in the cab and couldn’t help but imagine Tonantzin Coatlicue rising there in the Zócalo, shaking the dirt out of her serpent skirt and watching the “dancers” with a pleased smile.
 Preserved leather scrolls painted by Aztecs.
[3}That was a little ironic as I was at least her age and probably older. But I’ve always looked young for my age, a fact I hated until I hit 40.