The allure of Aztlan

Visual art: An old myth is emerging as a new reality for multicultural California.

We know the story of the Pilgrims, Plymouth Rock and Manifest Destiny.

But do we know the story of Aztlan?

It's another national origin story, analogous to the founding of this country by European colonists, from East Coast to West.

But Aztlan goes north-south, and its place is the American Southwest and northern Mexico.

Like the lost city of Atlantis, it's difficult to ascertain exactly where and when Aztlan existed. But the myth of Aztlan is very real and has resonated from Aztec times to the present.
In pre-Columbian mythology, Aztlan was the homeland and origin place of the Aztecs. Situated north of Mexico City (Tenochtitlan before the Spanish), Aztlan was believed to be an island that the Aztecs departed, by one account, around the 10th-century A.D. The Aztecs saw Aztlan as a primordial place of emergence and gave it sacred symbolism, just as Judeo-Christian cultures did with Eden.

Aztlan, and the legends that grew around it, seduced the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s with the promise of riches, and, much later, rallied Chicano activists in the 1960s and '70s to a higher consciousness. To present-day Latinos, it offers a new compass point to a multicultural society in a new millennium.

For centuries, historians have tried to locate the exact site of Aztlan - some say it's in the Four Corners region; some say it's even farther north; some say it's south, in the Mexican state of Nayarit. Explorers from Moctezuma Ilhuicamina's time to present-day Mexican journalists have tried to pinpoint Aztlan's precise location.

We may never know where the true, geographic Aztlan is. But that may not be as critical as the metaphor Aztlan has become, as a cultural and spiritual place that transcends physical borders. As myth and history intertwine, Aztlan has assumed added power in part because of its elusiveness.

More relevant today perhaps than it ever was, Aztlan is the subject of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's massive new exhibit, "The Road to Aztlan: Art from a Mythic Homeland."

The exhibit took five years to organize and features more than 250 pieces of art and artifacts from pre-Columbian times, the Spanish colonial period and the contemporary era.

"Aztlan affirms the persistence of tradition, language and spiritual beliefs," said Victor Zamudio-Taylor, co-curator of the exhibition. "It has given people the energy and impetus to keep going in the hardest of times."
A new cultural reality

Ideas about Aztlan are newly current because of a changing cultural landscape in Southern California and the Southwest United States. Recent census results show that Hispanic and Asian populations are growing at a phenomenal pace, and in California, no one ethnic group can claim to be a majority.

California is a truly multicultural place, and Aztlan is a multicultural myth. For some, it is an alternative to Plymouth Rock as a first place, a site of origin.

"The force of Chicanos and Latinos is growing significantly," said Dagoberto Fuentes, professor of Chicano studies at California State University, Fullerton. "Now we have 30 million in the U.S. Politicians are speaking Spanish right now. On the cultural side of things, Aztlan is very important and significant. It presents another side, a more positive side of our origin."

Said Zamudio-Taylor: "I think the demographics speak for themselves. The historic Southwest has long had a history of indigenous presence. What always surprises me about the United States is the amnesia."

The LACMA exhibit is one effort to recover histories, artifacts, artwork and stories that have meant many things to many people, yet sometimes get forgotten.


to a center

"The Road to Aztlan" follows LACMA's "Made in California," another sweeping multigallery exhibition that explored geography and identity. Organizers have divided "Aztlan" into three sections: pre-Columbian, colonial and contemporary. As a theme, Aztlan is used as a guiding rod, a dynamic myth that cuts across different time periods, frameworks and populaces.

The geographic focus, particularly in the first section, is the Four Corners region of the United States and most of Mexico, particularly Mexico City and north.

Section one features maps, pottery, masks and jewelry that illustrate the cultural and material parallels between ancient Pueblo cultures and Mexico from third-century B.C. to 1521. Ancient trade routes flourished between the regions: Turquoise extracted from the Southwest made its way to several Mexico cities, while maize planting and harvesting techniques spread north from Mexico.

Perhaps more significantly, the Pueblo and Mexico cultures shared color-directional symbolism, twin culture heroes, a feathered or horned serpent-god and similar versions of a ball game played on specially constructed courts.

The concept of a central origin place was critical among both peoples. Like the Aztecs, the Navajo, Acoma and northern Pueblo peoples believed they, too, came from the north. In fact, Pueblo myths also speak of a northern island surrounded by water as an emergence point.

"Here you have this notion of a center place shared by pre-Columbian peoples," Zamudio-Taylor said. "Many of those issues are really relevant for our contemporary culture, in our age of travel, high technologies, rapid speed of communication, global markets and globalization of culture. The idea of a place is relevant, of being anchored somewhere."


Part 2 of the exhibit depicts Spanish interaction with the native peoples of North America, a period of dramatic cultural clash and fusion.

The Spanish, too, were informed by the myth of Aztlan in their conquest. Actually, a mix of Aztlan with other myths - seven cities of gold, or C�bola, seven caves of Chicomoztoc - drove them northward into the Southwest in the mid-1500s.

Conquistadors such as Francisco V�squez de Coronado believed they would find riches there that exceeded those they found in Tenochtitlan. After much destruction and bloodshed, the Spanish finally realized that the fabled cities of gold were imaginary constructions.

The exhibit attempts to show that despite the violent overtaking of cultures, native traditions persisted. Old forms melded with new ones, and Native American textiles incorporated Spanish patterns, symbols and saints. Spanish styles found their way into Pueblo and Navajo weavings, and American Indians put their designs on Spanish silver, jewelry and tin.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is an important result of this cultural collision, as is the birth of the mestizo, or mixed-race person. The exhibit features several paintings and retablos of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a bronze-skinned version of the Virgin Mary.


The third part of the exhibit explores the contemporary manifestations of Aztlan, covering 1848-2000. Mexico ceded more than half its territories to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago in 1848, including the Southwest United States.

After the treaty, Mexican-Americans experienced life as a minority and struggled to negotiate their own cultural identities in the face of a dominant, and often unsympathetic, populace.

The myth of Aztlan was revived during the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s as a reconnection to an indigenous homeland. A source for self-affirmation, Aztlan is linked to the civil rights movement and farmworkers' labor struggles.

Several artworks illustrate contemporary views of Aztlan, from Gilbert (Magu) S�nchez Lu�n's colorful "Trailing Los Antepasados" to Yolanda M. L�pez's feminist "Nuestra Madre" to Enrique Chagoya's humorous "Uprising of the Spirit," which depicts Superman battling an Aztec king.

Armando Rasc�n's photo and text montage "Artifact with Three Declarations of Independence" includes a copy of the seminal "El Plan Espiritual de Aztl�n," written at the first Chicano National Conference in Denver in 1969.

"Aztl�n belongs to those who plant the seeds, water the fields and gather the crops," reads the plan, one of the first written documents connecting Aztlan with the Chicano Movement. "With our heart in our hands and our hands in the soil, we declare the independence of our mestizo nation."


A wide-ranging subject, Aztlan does have strong political currents. A more militant wing of Aztlan, the Mexica movement, encourages a return of the Aztlan nation-state, and the departure of those who arrived with westward expansion.

At the other end of the spectrum, Aztlan has been appropriated by those who oppose cultural and demographic change. Proponents of Proposition 187, which sought to deny health care and education to illegal immigrants, used Aztlan as far-fetched evidence to voters that Mexicans in California were determined to reclaim the land and root out European-American influences.

Further, there are those who question the facts and motivations behind articulations of Aztlan. Armand Labb�, director of research and collections at the Bowers Museum of Art, doesn't believe the Aztecs originated in the Southwest United States or northern Mexico at all. He proposes the Caribbean as a more likely origin.

A pre-Columbian specialist, Labb� views Aztlan as a nationalist, ethnocentric movement that may not belong in an art museum.

LACMA organizers have had to tread carefully and avoid loading this exhibition with too much politics. A publicly funded museum has never been the ideal place for overt political expression.

"We've had to do a lot of balancing, make people aware that this will be a forum for discussion," said Virginia Fields, LACMA's curator of ancient art and co-curator of this show.

"We have our themes - we have to stick to them, make it all tie together. This is not in a sense a Chicano art show, but about myth and history in this one area. We all have our perspectives. I'm hoping people will see this in the larger context."

Zamudio-Taylor recognizes that some members of the local Chicano community might find problems with a subject that strikes people on a very personal level.

"Some will think we're not political enough, some will think we're too political," he said. "We've been careful not to collapse everything together and start inventing links."

In conjunction with "The Road to Aztlan," LACMA is planning a series of family days, lectures, roundtables and festivals. A weekend festival is scheduled for mid-July, and a symposium co-organized with the University of California, Los Angeles, is also scheduled.

Through this exhibit, LACMA hopes to open doors to people and invite them to find their own Aztlan, whatever it might mean to them. And whatever it means - Aztlan as a multicultural crossroads carries important implications for a 21st century, multicultural populace still negotiating its own identity.

The Orange County Register

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