Mesoamerica Conference | Spotlight

Mesoamerica, a model of repression, resistance, and resilience

A brief essay by Roberto Cantú, Professor of Chicano Studies, Cal State L.A.

“Mesoamerica is foremost a transnational region that includes Mexico’s high central plateau, the gulf coast, and Central American countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, among others. Mesoamerica is also a transcultural area known as the birthplace of an ancient civilization with multiple forms, from Olmec and Teotihuacano, to Maya, Toltec and, among others, the Aztec or Nahua. In the past, the cultures in present-day Mexico and Guatemala (for example, the Nahua and Maya) were viewed as separate and distinct; current Mesoamerican scholarship, however, considers all the cultures in Mesoamerica—in spite of linguistic and cultural differences—to stem from a Mesoamerican civilizational “core.” That core includes the calendar, writing, astronomy, mathematics, the archetype of corn in myths, and the motifs of royalty.

Mesoamerica’s branch of Nahua culture fell during the conquest of Tenochtitlan (1521), an event that was made possible thanks to the thousands of native allies of Hernán Cortés and his Spanish soldiers. This conquest, viewed as “Spanish” to this day, did not result in the total obliteration of Mesoamerican peoples. Nor did it destroy native languages, belief systems, and a corresponding cultural Mesoamerican sensibility.  Although Mexican nationalism produced the idea of “mestizaje” as a way to unify a country and to erase particularities, it is now well-known how mestizaje—understood as cultural and “racial” blending—became a modern mode of assimilation of indigenous peoples. It forced them to repress their traditions and language, to learn Spanish, and to “blend” in the Mexican cultural mainstream, but always as Indians, seldom as Mexicans.

Mesoamerican peoples have expressed their resistance to “blending,” mestizaje, obliteration, and cultural repression from colonial to modern times in Mexico and Guatemala (to name only two modern nations that emerged from a Mesoamerican origin). For a recent example, consider the Maya revolts in 1994 in Chiapas, Mexico. In spite of institutionalized prejudice, ideological biases, and military persecutions in the recent past, Mesoamerican peoples—from Mexico to Central America—are the heirs of  a living tradition that continues to inspire the arts, the literature, the politics, and the cultural identity of Latin Americans, including U.S. Latinos.

Taking measure of Mesoamerica

Cal State L.A. conference to explore ancient codes, cultures, clashes—and their staying power

Long ago the cultures of ancient Mexico and Central America began influencing modern society in many ways—in music and literature, in landmarks such as the Mayan Theatre (now a nightclub) in downtown Los Angeles and the Aztec Hotel in Monrovia, in words (such as avocado and chocolate), and in tattoos and T-shirts emblazoned with hieroglyphics and other designs.

Aztec skull.

“The Mesoamerican world was not destroyed in the 16th Century. It is a living culture,” said Roberto Cantú. “People still speak Mayan. People speak Nahual.”

An expert on Latin American literature and a professor at California State University, Los Angeles, Cantú and his colleagues at Cal State L.A. will host “Continuity and Change in Mesoamerican History, From the Pre-Classic to the Colonial Era,” a conference of international scholars presenting more than a dozen panels, lectures and workshops. Presenting key lectures will be David Carrasco, founder of the Mesoamerica archive at Harvard University, and John Pohl, curator at UCLA’s Arts of the Americas Fowler Museum.

Palace at Palenque, a Maya city.

The event—Friday and Saturday, May 15-16, centered at the University-Student Union—will explore the ancient ways of the Aztec, Maya, Toltec and other cultures of Mesoamerica civilization—and to examine how remnants of those worlds remain vital today.  The conference is free and no prior registration is necessary.

The panel presentations will focus on astronomy, ancient sports, religion, language, archaeology and more. For example, the “Literature and History” panel will feature scholars from Cal State L.A., UC Merced, Mexico and the Ukraine addressing the myths and realities of the conquest of Mexico (in Spanish), massacres, the Chicano movement and a mythic Aztec past, and evolving portrayal of Mesoamericans as literary subjects.

Here are some of the other panels:

“Ulama: The Survival of the Mesoamerican Ballgame”

“Mesoamerican Society, Beliefs, and Myths in Film and in Modern Chicano and Northern Mexican Literature”

“The Aztecs and their Cosmovision”

“Mesoamerican Landscapes, Rituals and Religious Narratives”

For details, see the complete conference program here:

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