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Exchanges -- Interamerican Dialogue

Cuicuilco: Public Protection of Mexican Cultural Patrimony in an Archaeological Zone

Ana María Salazar Peralta


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Associate Editor's note:

Many archaeologists may not be familiar with the extent of research conducted at Cuicuilco and its surroundings over the past 70 years, beyond the references to the famous circular pyramid mentioned in basic texts and occasional mention of the excavations by Cummings in the 1920s and Bennyhoff in the 1950s. Most are totally unaware of how the fate of the site has been politicized since early 1997 when the nearby Carso-Inbursa construction of a shopping and entertainment complex on the site of a mid-19th century paper factory was underway.

Various interest groups tried to alert the public about the consequences of the construction and associated risk to the adjacent archaeological zone. Matters came to a head in October 1997, when approximately 800 neighbors, professionals, students, faculty, and others--many of whom were signees of a petition expressing opposition to the construction--found themselves involved as plaintiffs in a legal battle initiated by a small group of neighbors and associates. The suit, directed against the president of Mexico and other authorities, denounced the destruction of Mexican cultural patrimony represented by Cuicuilco. The effect of the action was a judicial order to suspend construction, a decision that was ultimately revoked by a higher authority after five days. However, the Carso-Inbursa consortium responded with counter measures--a commercial suit for losses incurred against those responsible for the original action (including most of the 800 signees).

In the midst of the dispute--marked by disparate views of the role of archaeological sites and the concept of cultural heritage versus Mexico's political and economic interests--archaeologists commissioned to oversee the salvage operations required by law and financed by Carsa-Inbursa struggled to establish and maintain high research standards in an increasingly politicized atmosphere.

Legal proceedings have begun, initiated by both sides and guaranteed to have no immediate resolution. Many of the hapless signees of the original suit have legally desisted from the action on the grounds that they believed their signatures were destined for a different purpose. The commercial center, Plaza Cuicuilco, is bustling and an eight-story tower is close to completion. The adjacent archaeological zone of Cuicuilco, engulfed in a teeming urban zone, represents another important test case for the definition of limits on competing interests that threaten the future of significant archaeological zones.

Ana María Salazar, a social anthropologist, specialist in issues related to cultural patrimony or heritage, and a resident of the Olympic Village situated adjacent (and on top of) Cuicuilco, describes the process in the following article.

Emily McClung de Tapia

The political climate of Mexico City maintained a dynamic state of tension throughout 1997, colored by the electoral campaigns for mayor. Simultaneously struggling to establish democracy, the Mexico City residents also set the wheels in motion to protect the endangered cultural patrimony of Cuicuilco.

Publication of plans to develop a commercial and residential center on the archaeological site of Cuicuilco resulted in numerous demonstrations against the project's investors and the governmental agencies that had modified land-use designations to allow permits for construction. At the same time, the mild response by administrators of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología (INAH) was questioned. The vulnerability of the cultural patrimony in the face of accelerating capitalistic ventures was clearly illustrated, as well as the nationwide threat presented to areas that house resources of archaeological, historical, or artistic value that are being demolished by the forceful drive for countrywide modernization.

The protection and conservation of the cultural patrimony necessitates an update of the 1972 federal law on monuments, archaeological zones, and artistic and historic properties. This move has been the subject of legislative controversy and discussion. Under the framework of the 1992 constitutional reform, many laws and regulations were amended to adjust the jurisdiction and structure of substantive aspects of the free commerce treaty between Mexico, Canada, and the United States. Federal law governing monuments and archaeological zones did not escape discussion at that time, and was at the center of the controversy over privatization of cultural resource administration.

In its current form, federal law prohibits looting of national cultural resources by economic expansion. Academic groups and professional associations have energetically opposed reforms and amendments that promote privatization of cultural resources. However, the reality of the situation requires that academics extensively review the most conflictive aspects of jurisdictional contradictions with other legislation and regulations on urban development and construction that weaken the legal authority of protective agencies such as INAH and the Instituto National de Bellas Artes.

In addition to the academic groups that are traditionally concerned with the epistemological and legislative controversies over the protection of endangered cultural resources, the public also is concerned about the impact of urban development on the environment and ecology. A social conscience has developed with regard to conservation, care and protection of resources, and the effects of haphazard growth in what is already the largest city of the world. The development occurring in Cuicuilco, Delegación de Tlalpan, with its encroachment on the ecological reserve of Ajusco--one of the major arteries that supplies the southern part of the city with water from natural springs and canals--is a case in point. During the latter part of this century, water sources and forests have been seriously endangered by the imprudent and aggressive urban projects implemented by politicians and investors. With such a situation unfolding, we must seriously question the future of cultural resources like Cuicuilco. What academic, social, and political strategies should be implemented to produce solid legislation that protects research and conservation objectives for the cultural patrimony against unrestrained urban-commercial developments?

Cuicuilco: The Oldest Civilization of Central Highland Mesoamerica

According to translations of ancient Nahuatl manuscripts, Cuicuilco is known as the "place of prayer" or the "place of the rainbow." (F. Muller, 1990, La cerámica de Cuicuilco B: Un rescate arqueológico; INAH, México, pp. 11). Currently, Cuicuilco is recognized as the oldest known civilization of central highland Mesoamerica, with its remains of an ancient ceremonial center. Only partial archaeological investigation has been possible because the site is covered by a dense layer of volcanic lava and also because the 20th-century urban sprawl has extensively damaged the prehispanic metropolis. Consequently, it is difficult to conceptualize the complexity and true extent of Cuicuilco.

The remains of Cuicuilco are found in the southeastern portion of the valley of Mexico. A re-examination of Cuicuilco data has led us to conclude that its occupation precedes the emergence of Teotihuacan. Its founders, villagers dedicated to agricultural activities, developed a complex religious practice with a sophisticated ritual system that included making offerings of lithic and ceramic artifacts in their funerary practices. Grave goods have been dated to the earliest horizon of the Middle Formative. The site seems to have been abandoned around A.D. 200 after the eruption of a nearby volcano, Xitle, although it was reoccupied during the Late Postclassic. The majestic lava field of Pedregal de San Angel surrounds the Cuicuilco archaeological zone as a result of the violent volcanic eruptions, and covers an area of approximately 80 km2, including the foothills of the Ajusco mountain range and extending down to the lake shore. In 1956, Wolf and Palerm observed that lava deposits were very uneven, but reached a depth over 10 m in certain areas--a factor which has aided in the preservation of Cuicuilco (E. Wolf and A. Palerm, 1972, Sistema de riego en el Pedregal. In Agricultura y Civilización en Mesoamerica, Secretaria de Educación Pública, colección SepSetentas, México, pp. 100-105).

Currently we rely on the revealing information obtained from Muller's 1967 archaeological investigations that has enriched our perception of the lifestyle and customs of the ancient inhabitants of Cuicuilco (F. Muller, 1990). According to her findings, the city was built around a large ceremonial center (Cuicuilco "A") with an extensive patterned urban zone (Cuicuilco "B") that included plazas and avenues bordering a series of small, shallow pools, fed by runoff waters from the nearby hills of Zacayuca and Zacaltepetl. These feature terraces, ceremonial constructions, fortifications, and irrigation ditches and canals, built prior to the time of Aztec control. The 1990 archaeological finds at Cuicuilco "C"--consisting of a circular pyramid constructed within a plaza, with smaller structures associated to an agricultural system--were destroyed for the construction of Parque Cuicuilco, a three-tower office complex.

Not only is Cuicuilco an important archaeological site, but it has a wealth of cultural and folk traditions. Culturally, it offers a diverse and rich panorama of the multiple occupations that have left their imprints throughout the centuries. The cultural, ritual, and festive customs that were practiced at Cuicuilco have, since the arrival of the Spaniards, nourished a long history of oral traditions that are still present in the contemporary communities of the area. With the passing of time and the chaotic urban development, the expression of these traditions has recessed into the smaller districts, but they are still present in the agricultural cycles, equinox, and solstice festivals as well as those festivals dedicated to patron saints.

Adults in the districts surrounding Cuicuilco and the Loreto y Peña Pobre factory recall wonderful stories of their childhood memories. Photographs of factory employees tell of more than a century of microhistory and collective memory that illustrate social change in the name of modernization. In the long run, the notion of the past--for both specialists and the general public--promoted the first public movement to protect the cultural patrimony of Cuicuilco.

Urban Development and Cultural Patrimony

During the 1980s, under the presidency of Miguel de la Madrid, an awakening of the ecological conscience in the Mexican community occurred. One of the approaches to resolve the high-level pollution in Mexico City was to require that industries acquire technologies with a low pollution index or be permanently closed. In this context, the residents of the Cuicuilco area were surveyed, which ultimately resulted in the 1986 closure of the Fábrica de Papel de Loreto y Peña Pobre, which had been operation since 1823.

In 1987 an agreement was established to define land use for that zone and it was deemed a zona especial de desarrollo controlado (ZEDEC). Under these terms, the factory and the grounds were to be preserved as an example of industrial archaeological remains. However, it was then necessary to establish a new delimitation of the archaeological zone to integrate the Cuicuilco ruins.

However, in spite of the presidential decree published in the 1987 Diario Oficial to establish a new delimitation, the regulation law was never implemented. A series of land-use changes were rapidly approved without consulting INAH or any of the other agreement cosigners, thus annulling the preexisting agreement. This action marked the beginning of several presidential initiatives that impeded INAH's function to protect, preserve, and conserve the cultural resources of Cuicuilco.

Changes in land use between 1988 and 1995 were put into effect with no real public consultation. Presented as changes for the "public good," they were, in fact, attempts to impose the perspectives and interests of public officials, investors, and developers, protected by the complacency of the federal government. The corruption of public officials that has allowed the development of Inbursa (1988), Parque Cuicuilco (1990), and Centro Comercial y Cultural: Plaza Cuicuilco (1997) is a sociopolitical reality. However, these officials are neglecting to fulfill their primary responsibility--to protect national resources.

Because of the lack of governmental responsibility, the force with which the social conscience was awakened was not surprising. The constant contradiction of standards and the disregard for restrictions against urban development catalyzed the community to organize, challenge the changes of land use, and sue the responsible legislative bodies--such as the Asamblea de Representantes del Gobierno of Mexico City--for revoking the original land-use designations. This suit is one without precedent. The Junta Vecinal, composed of concerned citizens, initiated the suit, calling for a revocation of the disregarded legislative reforms that had established land-use designations for this urban zone, and it can additionally request a repeal of the new law for urban development.

The feelings of frustration and impotence of the community group immersed in this social and political struggle led to a division between factions of the group. A new community organization presented another lawsuit against the authorities who approved the changes in land use and who authorized the construction permits. This suit was directed against the president of Mexico, the city mayor, the director of INAH, the authorities of the city urban development program and the local officials of Tlalpan. This suit only achieved a judge's decree that in the future all regulations and standards should be observed. It was not successful in obtaining the desired response--to halt the construction undertaken by the Carso-Imbursa financial group.

Political candidates were quick to take advantage of the push-and-pull of the situation, incorporating Cuicuilco and the protection of the cultural patrimony as part of their political platforms. The commotion between public opinion and the--not always representative--political powers politicized and magnified substantive aspects of the Carso-Inbursa project. For example, a distinguished Mexican architect, prompted by the investment group, publicly declared his approval of the development and modernization of the area, denying that it had any visual impact on the archaeological zones, which were central to the controversy. Such propaganda infuriated the public and led a group of intellectuals to survey public opinion. Meanwhile, the academics echoed the social discontent, expressing their expert opinions without restraint, and exposing the many different areas in which the project would adversely affect Cuicuilco.

The Junta Vecinal, the core of the social movement, provided an ongoing and active dialogue through discussion groups for concerned citizens and affected residents, providing a venue for direct public expression on how to resolve the situation. Their intent was to avoid further political manipulation and to honor the wishes of the people themselves. This direct dialogue resulted in the presentation of proposals for the management of the cultural patrimony, urban development, environmental impact, and social and cultural aspects involved in the undertaking, and in the final agreement between investors, authorities, and the community groups of commitments to a more acceptable project. The final result called for a redesign of the height of an office building and elimination of 10 high-rise residential buildings.

Not all Rocks Represent the Cultural Patrimony, nor does all the Cultural Patrimony Consist of Rocks . . .

As a postscript, it is interesting to examine the events from an anthropological perspective. The 1997 discussion among archaeologists, public officials, and other interested parties presented conflicting views: On one hand, the institutional claims that "the project doesn't affect the cultural patrimony of the archaeological zone," and on the other, the realization that the area contains unique resources--the earliest hydraulic system of the central highlands of Mesoamerica and a stele at the base of the circular pyramid of Cuicuilco with glyphs associated to the agricultural cycle (A. Pastrana and P. Fournier,1997, Cuicuilco desde Cuicuilco. In Actualidades Arqueológicas, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas, UNAM, México; M. Perez Campa, 1998, El gran basamento circular de Cuicuilco. In Arqueología Mexicana, INAH, México).

This controversy over the protection of the national cultural patrimony impelled us to confront a conceptual paralysis over the definitions of the archaeological zone, the site, areas adjacent to the site, visual impact, and scale, primarily because of a paralysis in the legislation itself. All the protagonists in this drama were left in an uncomfortable position, but INAH, in particular, demonstrated that its place in the federal hierarchy has been battered throughout the past decade, stripping it of any legal authority to fulfill its mission of protecting cultural resources.

This situation, however, is not a valid justification for its delayed and inappropriate response. In 1987, when INAH relied on the strength of the agreement that adjudicated possession of cultural resources from the Papel Loreto y Peña Pobre factory and property, it could have implemented an integrated salvage and research project. It is incomprehensible that such an opportunity was ignored--indeed, publicly, it appeared that INAH had simply surrendered that right. This contention has been verified by reviewing the documentation of the controversy, which reveals that the administrative board consistently supported the investors' interests and ignored its responsibilities to the community in urban planning and development.

INAH's presence is often considered by developers as the "pebble in the shoe"--an interference with the progress of urban and tourist development in Mexico. Its public image has rapidly deteriorated, and, except in a very few instances, it is not considered an effective catalyst for the protection of cultural resources. It appears that its role has been reduced to the care of a handful of archaeological zones--preferred tourist areas which have inordinately high budget allocations for research and conservation.

Meanwhile, the balance of cultural resources in the nation has been left to the mercy of looters, deterioration, and progressive destruction. On numerous occasions we have documented the proceedings against the immediate intervention by INAH--the institution legally charged with the responsibility for protecting and safeguarding Mexican cultural patrimony. Such intervention, however, no longer carries any weight. Today, INAH demonstrates a lack of professional and legal competence to apply any specific measures for effective protection of cultural resources. It remains unempowered.

The pace of modernization and urban development adopted by government officials in the past decades has not adequately considered the value and cultural wealth of the vestiges of previous civilizations--like Cuicuilco--that are found in the urban landscape, nor have provisions been made for protection or conservation. In the social and political development of Mexico, the protection of cultural patrimony is not exclusively a federal domain, but it is also a community responsibility. All Mexicans must be attentive to the present and must rationally participate in the planning for the future. This generation of Mexicans is proud of its values and its national identity; it is threatened by the unrestrained ambition of investors and developers who put their personal financial gain before national welfare.

The Mexican public has set a precedent in the history of Mexican social development by assuming the role of codefender of the cultural patrimony of Cuicuilco. It overcame the negative tone of the challenge and successfully transformed it into a more acceptable and purposeful action. By staying within the framework of the legal issues surrounding Cucuilco and demonstrating violations of INAH standards, the public successfully revoked the land-use changes and temporarily suspended progress of the Carso-Imbursa project. Ultimately, the lawsuit obtained a redesign of the original project, downsizing it to a more acceptable scale.

The academic discussion groups held in 1997 were useful in providing a venue for all the different factions involved in the controversy to evaluate the cultural resources of Cuicuilco. With a broader context to understand the importance of the archaeological zone, the need to redefine that archaeological zone and add Cuicuilco to it became more apparent, as well as the need to revise the 1972 federal law that refers to the protection of national cultural patrimony yet provides several legal loopholes.

In conclusion, the Cuicuilco controversy has resulted a public consensus on the need to establish a management program for the conservation of cultural resources, guided by the highest ethics and a responsibility to history. The responsibility for implementation is charged not only to the democratically elected officials to whom we have entrusted our faith and confidence, but to the community--which should remain attentive to the social and historical processes in Mexico--as well. With community involvement, we can assist the transition to democratic change, rooted in a solid individual and collective ethic, where the community scruples and values can fortify the defense of the nation's cultural patrimony. In this way, we can produce a model of the Mexico in which we would want to live during the next century.

Ana María Salazar Peralta is at the Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas, UNAM, México.

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