"There is no creation without tradition; the 'new' is an inflection on a preceding form; novelty is always a variation of the past."
author- Carlos Fuentes
The exhibit, "Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico", is now being shown until July 1, at the L.A. County Museum of Art. This exhibit gives us the opportunity to view the vibrant creativity and achievements in art and other material objects that reflect the level of civilization and worldview of Pre-Columbian and early colonial societies in southern Mexico. These works were created by independent and allied kingdoms that were located in what is now the present states of Puebla, Oaxaca and Tlaxcala.
These Postclassic and early colonial societies that flourished in the period between 900 a.d. to about 1521 a.d., were comprised of Nahua-Mixtec and Zapotec peoples who had managed to maintain their independence from both the aggressive Aztec civilization advancing from the north and the early stage of the Spanish conquest.
These economically and politically developed societies gave rise to a number of complex cultures that created a vibrant and astounding level of art and architecture whose creativity was nothing short of magnificent. To facilitate all of these complex economic, political and cultural activities and maintain close relationships among these various kingdoms, a system of monetary exchange was also created by them along with a sophisticated system of communication that utilized pictographs to represent ideas and words.
The religious epics of these kingdoms possessed a common element which was the important role and influence of the religious and cultural deity Quetzalcoatl who according to belief was incarnated in the form of a plumed serpent. The symbolism of the plumed serpent is still very strong in Mexican culture and is a part of the country's national identity.
The development of these Pre-Columbian civilizations and their economic and cultural achievements which were later synthesized with aspects of Spanish civilization, laid the foundation for the development of present-day Mexican society. The legacy and contributions of these indigenous civilizations to the present are similar to the
These architectural and engineering achievements have stood the test of time.
influential role played by classical Greek and Roman civilizations in the development of modern Europe. Many aspects of the cultural and religious traditions derived from these Pre-Columbian societies continue to exist and influence our contemporary lives. In addition to the ties of blood, there are historical strains of religion, music and culinary tastes from these early civilizations that are interwoven within our present cultural practices.
The material objects and cultural legacy being exhibited at LACMA are not something totally extinct or detached from us in the present like some sort of ancient dinosaur fossils in a science museum. We have evolved into a mestizo people and this indigenous aspect of our lives and history that spans over 2000 years is an essential part of our identity that cannot be ignored nor pushed aside and is a rich foundation that should be greatly enhanced. In our contemporary world, it would be an illusion to romanticize and try to mechanically emulate or even copy the practices of these past societies as we cannot return to live in the past nor repeat it.
This would be similar to modern Europeans wishing to return to their past by dressing up and behaving like ancient Greeks or Vikings. Our present obligation then, is to preserve and build upon the positive aspects of this indigenous cultural legacy in a proud and creative manner and ensure that it is an essential and healthy part of our minds and lives.
Most people in this country have no knowledge or true appreciation for the legacy and cultures of these Pre-Columbian civilizations. These civilizations are not studied as an essential component of American history except for perhaps a short and superficial overview in middle school world history courses. Ignoring the true history of the Americas and dismissing the contributions of its indigenous peoples has deep roots that are embedded within the historical settlement of the hemisphere by European colonial powers.
The economic and political control exerted by these colonial powers forcefully imposed an outlook of cultural and linguistic chauvinism upon the Americas as part of their conquests. Early colonial ideology gave rise to a Eurocentric perspective that viewed the Americas from the standpoint of European history, culture, language and religion, all of which negated the importance of indigenous civilizations.
This is a fundamental element and strategy of the colonial system and is a necessary instrument in order to ensure its physical and mental dominance over newly acquired lands and peoples. This Eurocentrist worldview has negatively affected the study of history and cultures in our present-day schools as a sanitized Euro-American perspective is still being taught
Cultural chauvinism leads to intolerance and Mayor Chester's inability to spell..
under the cover of "Americanism". In reality, this approach ingrains a narrow cultural chauvinist outlook that views other cultures and languages, and especially indigenous ones, as inferior and thus not worthy of being studied or respected.
This skewed and traditionally biased perspective also instills a dominant attitude of cultural superiority and arrogance toward people, cultures and languages that are supposedly different from the supposed Eurocentrist norm. This also results in a shroud of historical and cultural amnesia that has unfortunately enveloped our society and which prevents most people from knowing the history of the Americas and its connection to our present world. Unfortunately, this national amnesia tends to reinforce a prevailing situation of widespread historical ignorance and increasingly intolerant policies throughout the country.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art should be commended for organizing this exhibition and making these invaluable works of art accessible to the broader public and for providing a cultural education for thousands of people which is a task that needs to be encouraged throughout the country.
While this exhibit and others similar to it play a vital and growing role in broadening people's perspectives in regard to indigenous history and its cultural contributions to the Americas, there unfortunately exists a parallel and contradictory trend today that is uninformed and prejudiced in nature. This increasingly unenlightened cultural trend is comprised of a traditionally strong and ingrained racial and chauvinist intolerance that arrogantly dismisses the importance of these vibrant civilizations and the present-day descendants of these societies.
Such a negative and developing trend rejects any understanding nor appreciation of the contributions made by these early peoples and cultures which arose from the soil of the Americas, and so in essence, rejects the true history of this land and its legacy for us today.
One aspect of this contradiction is represented by the material objects that were created by these indigenous civilizations and their epic stories which are exhibited in private collections and praised in museums by select audiences; while on the other hand, the ethnic studies programs in the schools that are geared to educate young people about these cultures and their heritage are under siege and increasingly in danger of being eliminated.
An additional aspect of this contradiction is that many people who are indigenous descendants of these early civilizations of the Americas are being hounded by police and threatened like criminals in Alabama, Arizona and other states in a campaign of ethic cleansing. In other words, we like your cultural heritage and objects of art as something interesting and archaic when viewed in a museum, but not necessarily to have in contemporary high school and college ethnic studies programs nor having the people around whose ancestors created these Pre-Columbian cultural achievements.
The difficult and ongoing work of struggling against Eurocentrist policies and promoting cultural education in this society must be continued if we are to break out of this deeply-rooted and self-enclosed shroud of cultural narrowness and insensitivity. It is at times frustrating, yet we must continue to push forward toward eventually resolving this contradiction by achieving the goals of ethnic, cultural and linguistic equality and the teaching of an objective and well-rounded history of the Americas.