The couple I was traveling with had worked themselves up into a bit of a spat by the time we reached Mexico City. He was rabid to see everything. She was having stomach problems and wanted to be comfortable. It was beginning to look as if we might not make it to our destination- the Museo Nacional de Antropología – Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology.

“What do you care if we go,” he said. “You’ve already seen this museum.”

It was true. I had. Which is why I knew what to say next. “I have seen it, which is why I can tell you that it’s one of the best museums in the world. To be this close to it and not go would be really, really stupid.”

Revelateur Studio's photo of the National Museum of Anthropology.

Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology. Photo by Revelateur Studio.

We went to the museum and everyone was happy.

It stands to reason that this should be a great museum. The isthmus connecting North and South America was home to a variety of highly developed, pre-Columbian cultures, and the museum collection, which fills 23 rooms, has excellent examples. There are colossal Olmec heads, Mayan frescos, the gigantic Aztec “Calendar” stone, and scale models of Teotihuacán and Tenochtitlán (Mexico City). My friend fell in love with an Olmec sculptured masterpiece, the wrestler.

Michael McCarty's photo of the Aztec Calendar in Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology.

Aztec Calendar. Photo by Michael McCarty.

Any description of Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology would be incomplete if it didn’t mention what a masterpiece the museum itself is. The building was designed by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, Jorge Campuzano and Rafael Mijares, and opened in 1964. The exhibit halls are laid out in a two-story u-shape around a central patio. On the bottom floor you will find a room displaying the artifacts of each pre-Columbian culture (ie, the Mayan room, the Toltec room, etc.). Climb the stairs to see a display showing how the people of that particular culture lived. Or pass through the exhibit hall to the garden and see some of the giant stone artifacts exhibited outside, among plants, as they must have looked in situ.

Although some of the pieces are only labeled in Spanish, many are labeled in Spanish and English. And whether or not you choose to read the descriptions, you will have plenty to keep you busy for the better part of a day.

CarlosVanVegas' photo from Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology.

Another pre-Columbian masterpiece. Photo by CarlosVanVegas.

Many travelers go to Mexico’s beach resorts and never come to see the capital. This is a mistake. I was lucky to spend two full weeks in Mexico City the first time I came to this country and I never ran out of things to see. Why not tack on a few days in Mexico City at either end of your trip to Cancun? There’s enough here to occupy a person for weeks, but at the very least, three must-see sights; the ruins at Teotihuacán, the Diego Rivera murals and the National Museum of Anthropology.

Nacho Facello's photo from the National Anthropology Museum.

Pre-Columbian art of all meso-America in once place…Photo by Nacho Facello.

Visiting Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology

The museum is located in Chapultepec Park, in the heart of Mexico City (easy to get there by Metro). Along with the outstanding collection mentioned above, the museum also hosts visiting cultural exhibits from around the world. Check the website for updates.

Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 9:00 AM to 7:00 PM, year round.

Admission: 59 Mexican Pesos. Sorry, no credit cards.

This woman is everywhere. She is more prevalent than the iconic images of Frida Khalo which show up on post cards, Tee-shirts and shopping bags. More prevalent than the ghostly images of Catrina . Even more prevalent than her Son. I know that this, the extreme reverence for the Virgin Mary, is one of the characteristics which distinguishes Catholicism from other forms of Christianity. Still, sitting here in Guanajuato, the love for Guadalupe seems extra appropriate. Mexicans have a cultural obsession with motherhood. If something is good, it’s “vale la madre”. If it’s bad, it’s a “desmadre”. Oedipus should have been an Aztec.

The Virgin Comes to America

On December 9th, 1531, we are told, a Mexican peasant named Juan Diego wandered up Tepeyac hill outside of Mexico City.  There he had vision of teenage girl surrounded by light.  She spoke to him in his native Nahuatl and said that a church should be built on the site.

The location was no coincidence.  A temple to the Aztec mother-goddess had once existed at this very place, but had been destroyed by the conquering Spaniards.

Mural of Juan Diego and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Photo by Laurie Avocado.

Believing the young woman to be the Virgin Mary, Juan Diego told the Archbishop of his vision.  He was instructed to return to Tepeyac Hill and ask the woman for a sign.  He did, and per the Virgin’s instructions found roses (not native these parts) growing on the top of the hill.  Diego returned to the Archbishop on December 12th and opened his cloak to release the flowers he had collected.  When he did so, the roses fell to the floor and the image of the Virgin was miraculously imprinted on his cloak.

That image is now displayed in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and is Mexico’s most beloved icon.

Original image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Photo by Joaquín Martínez Rosado.

What Does It All Mean

It means a lot to Mexicans, and perhaps to all Catholic Latinos.  In the city where I live, the church dedicated to Guadalupe is at the top of a hill.  Every year on December 12th, families parade up to the church with their small children in costume- the little girls as the Virgin with her starry turquoise cape, and the boys as Juan Diego wearing straw hats and with mustaches drawn on their faces.

In Spanish classes I was taught that every detail of the image is symbolic:  The aura surrounding her is shaped like the fruit of the nopál.  Her two hands coming together in prayer represent the union of the two cultures (Hispanic and indigenous) and offer protection.  Her blue star-studded shawl, as well as the crescent moon at her feet, evoke the heavens.  The neckline of her dress is reminiscent of the vestments worn by church nobles, and her dress is tight across the belly indicating that she is already pregnant.

At The Mercy Of Guadalupe. Photo by Señor Codo.

Traveling in Latin America provides many opportunities to reflect on how religions get layered on top of one another.  One hears of statues of saints, that have statues of indigenous deities inside them.  It always makes me wonder who is having the last laugh.  Is it those clever Catholics usurping the beliefs of the natives? Or those clever natives finding a way to continue their rituals right under the Church’s nose?  One thing is certain.  Our Lady of Guadalupe would not be as beloved as she is, if she had made her appearance to a Spaniard, rather than the humble Juan Diego.  Between the two of them, they converted a continent.