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Many, many suns ago, I was awarded a fellowship by Georgia Tech to spend a summer studying the indigenous architecture and town planning of Mesoamerica. The grant involved visiting all of the major archaeological sites in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. In addition, I was to photograph at least 2500 professional quality color slides for the Georgia Tech library. The education I received seemed only a little relevant to an architectural career in the United States, but it would make interesting conversation for dates and parties. Besides . . . Relaciones Exteriores (their State Department) let me ship home 125 kg (275 pounds) of indigenous textiles, building material samples, a large chunk of fresco, obsidian weapons and utilitarian Pre-Columbian ceramics. They were for educational purposes, mind you!
The Mexican Consul in Atlanta was a graduate in architecture from Georgia Tech, so the “red carpet was rolled out for me.” He arranged for me to be an official guest of the Institutio Nacional de Anthropoligia Y Historia (INAH). Its director was the world famous archaeologist, Ignacio Bernal. My curriculum would be based at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, directed by Dr. Roman Piña-Chan. Piña-Chan was an equally famous archaeologist. His mother was Maya.
The debut of the fellowship involved a tour of all six floors of the great museum. Only one floor is open to the public. The Mexican Consul had arranged for Dr. Piña-Chan and Dr. Ignacio Bernal to be my guides. It was opportunity that very few, if any, American archaeologists ever had. There was a problem though. I had studied Latin and French, but not a day of Spanish. I had no trouble getting the gist from written Spanish, and I was quickly picking up words and phrases from my host family. However, I could not then carry on a conversation in Spanish. That started the fellowship on a very sour note.
Dr. Bernal viewed himself as an aristocrat. He received a blank face from me in response to his opening questions. Alejandra, Dr. Piña-Chan’s beautiful graduate assistant, explained to him that I was an architecture student from Atlanta, not a professional anthropologist. Bernal grimaced at me condescendingly and said, “Idiotas.” The Gringo mestizo was a big waste of his time.
Dr. Piña-Chan was much friendlier and asked me questions in mixed English and Spanish about my life. Alejandra helped as a translator. His English and my Spanish steadily improved. He was curious as to why I would be interested in Mesoamerican architecture and what my background was. Then, the hosts realized that I was not even a rich gringo student from an important family. They had assumed that my parents had donated money for an archaeological dig in Mexico. Bernal uttered again, “Idiotas.” That was about the last thing he said, until glancing at his watch and saying that he had an appointment.
Dr. Piña-Chan confessed that he knew nothing about the Southeastern Indians. I confessed that my childhood had been little different than my Gringo friends . . . other than the fact that I was in the woods as often as possible. I had not grown up in a reservation or even the lifestyle of a Hollywood Western.
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After tour of the museum was completed, we chatted at the entrance of the museum’s executive offices for a couple of minutes. Piña-Chan instructed Alexandra to delete northwestern Mexico on my itinerary and add several more days in the Chiapas and Guatemala Highlands. I was to come back to the museum after each trip and discuss what I learned or didn’t understand with Alejandra or one of the other graduate assistants, who were in architecture or city planning. He also wanted me to study the ceramic styles.
The Mexican Consul told me that it was customary for graduate students to give their professors books as a propina at the start of a special academic relationship. I gave him two different books on the Indians of the Southeastern USA. I asked him to give one of the books to Dr. Bernal. I said “muchas gracias” and “adios” then walked away to be picked up by my Mexican girlfriend, so we could go to the Zona Rosa.
Just as I was about to hop into Alicia’s red Plymouth Barracuda, Alejandra raced up to us. Dr. Piña-Chan wanted to know if I could come back to his office and eat a lunch with him, so we could chat. He had opened one of the books and had many questions about the Indians in Georgia.
In a couple of minutes, I found myself in the inner sanctum of one of the world’s greatest archaeologists. Oh my gosh! Priceless examples of Pre-Columbian art were scattered about his shelves and over-sized office desk like Gringo executives display mementos of their college football team. He was glancing at the revised itinerary. “Ricardo, the Mayas in the Highlands still maintain most of their culture. Yes, also you need to spend at least two days in Palenque. It is my favorite Maya city.”
Alejandra returned with three light lunches from the cafeteria. We sat down. He opened up the pages in one book to the section about Etowah Mounds. He then told me that he had no idea that the Indios (Indians) in my state of Georgia had a civilization. Were they my ancestors? I proudly said, “Yes!”
He then proceeded with a chain of questions concerning the book’s photographs and drawings. I immediately told him that I was just an architecture student and never studied anthropology. He didn’t seem to mind. I later realized that “asking questions” was the way he thought. Here are some:
“Ricardo, why did your Indians make statues of slaves? Most of the stone and ceramic statues from Etowah are wearing, how you say . . . turbans? Look! All of the people in the statues are kneeling. There are no statues with standing people. In Mexico, a kneeling statue meant that the person was a laborer or a slave. These two statues seem to have been important people from what this book says. Yet their clothing is like what Maya farmers, laborers and slaves wore.
“Now look at this statue. This girl with the . . . how you say Alejandra?” He said something in Spanish. Alejandra laughed and said, “Pony tail.” “Yes, the girl with the pony tail, and no turban, is wearing very little jewelry, yet her dress is as ornate as a Maya priestess. I don’t understand this. The elite of your Indios looked like a mixture of priests and farmers!”
“The architecture is this book is very similar to that of Mexico during the Formative and Early Classic Periods.” He showed me some drawings of Olmec earthen mounds, plus early Maya pyramids and platforms. Did you not have any stone buildings? Is there no stone in Georgia?”
“Some of your pottery looks like Olmec pottery. You had white pottery. Only the Olmecs made white pottery in Mexico. Most of your pottery, though, looks like what either the Maya commoners made, or what we see in the mountains of northern Mexico. This is very odd. It looks like laborers from different parts of Mexico came to Georgia. In Mexico common pottery was made by the women, while men made the ceramic statues and constructed the buildings. Was it the same with your Indios?” Since my fellowship in Mexico archaeologists have discovered pottery in Georgia that is a thousand years older than any pottery in Mexico.
“Your copper art is superior to any copper artifacts that were produced in Mesoamerica, yet your Indios did not work gold. This is unusual. It is much harder to work copper than gold. Look here! In Etowah they found hard copper tools and weapons. This does not make sense. The Parapeche . . . you call them Tarascans . . . are the ONLY people in Mexico, who knew how to make hard metal tools. This is so incredible. Is there no gold in your state?”
“The book says here that your Indios grew mais, frijoles and calabaza. It says that all these plants came from Mexico. That is true. The book does not say how the plants from Mexico came to the Estados Unidos . . . United States. Have your archaeologists studied this question? Did they find Indios, who came from Mexico to your state?”
“All these marvelous things in the book you gave me makes me wonder if male slaves or laborers once came to your land from Mexico. Perhaps they took their maize and beans in their boats, but left their women behind. That would explain why your buildings and your art looks like Mexico, but most of your pottery does not.”
Alejandra told him that he had a meeting in El Centro with some government officials. Dr. Piña-Chan glanced at his watch and shook his head. He told me he much preferred talking with me. I had introduced a new world for him. He promised me that we would have more chats. We did.
As I was leaving, he reminded me again not to go just where the tourists went. He had given me an INAH pass and academic ID. He wanted me to walk out into the suburbs of these ancient cities to see what the landscape looked like before preservation architects and archaeologists restored the ruins.