Heritage Destruction in Cholula, Mexico

Heavy machinery working next to the Guadalupe psychiatric hospital at the base of the Great Pyramid of Cholula and sanctuary to the Virgen de los Remedios. Photo courtesy Josue Gomez
Heavy machinery working next to the Guadalupe psychiatric hospital at the base of the Great Pyramid of Cholula and sanctuary to the Virgen de los Remedios. Photo courtesy Josue Gomez

In 2014, via expropriations and without adequate permits by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the state government of Puebla, Mexico commenced construction of a park within the area surrounding the Great Pyramid of Cholula. Construction on this area is prohibited by a federal decree issued in 1993 for preserving the large monument built between years 200 and 500 AD in several stages, the latest of which is crowned by the sanctuary to Virgen de los Remedios. First constructed between 1591 and 1666 by Catholic friars of the order of San Francisco, an earthquake tore down the temple in the early 19th century and it was later reconstructed in 1874. The Guadalupe psychiatric hospital was then constructed in the 20th century on the east side of the pyramid.

The project proposed by the state government fails to acknowledge the value of historic buildings and archaeological deposits as cultural heritage, it assigns new meanings in the form of economic value, reframing cultural heritage as a commercial resource to be exploited for maximum profit. According to a spokesperson for the INAH researchers union, “it trail-blazes the path to implement legislative changes at the national level, appropriating heritage and privatizing spaces for economic profit”.

Mechanisms for the legal defence of heritage in Mexico are outlined in the federal law for archaeological, artistic, and historical zones and monuments of 1972, but only contemplate tangible heritage. Despite UNESCO international conventions signed by Mexico protecting intangible heritage, there are no binding laws at the national level that protect the intangible aspect of it. Using an official discourse of heritage and claiming to dignify the space, the project in Cholula does not aim to communicate, research, or preserve the existing heritage, affecting not only archaeological remains, but also cultural continuity and collective space.

 

Heritage and development

In 2012 Cholula was included in the Pueblos Mágicos program for boosting tourism and by early 2014 the Puebla state government fast-tracked legislation allowing the expropriation of land for development in the “public interest”, including large private, infrastructure and tourism projects. This state level legislation serves as a mechanism for displacing agricultural practices and privatizing common spaces.

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Map showing areas of proposed park surfaces and already constructed features. Photo courtesy Josue Gomez

Enforcing an expropriation decree for 21 hectares on August 26, 2014 police forces fenced off the land causing general outrage among locals; bells tolled and people gathered to confront authorities. The first version of the project presented by authorities included artificial lakes, fountains, bicycle courses, parking lots and commercial buildings surrounded by fencing with pay-gates. Thus, the main perceived threat to the community is not only the destruction of archaeological remains but the altering of religious procession routes of the Virgen de los Remedios and the appropriation of heritage practices for commercial purposes.

A GIS analysis of the project presented shows that in the 21 hectares expropriated for the park, a minimum of eight will be covered by hard surfaces or concrete slabs affecting rain-water filtration and water-bed levels. Of these eight, four hectares are for pathways and plazas, approximately three hectares for parking lots, and about one and half hectares for two artificial lakes . In addition a private museum, hotel and store fronts are considered for the former psychiatric hospital building. This action reduces heritage to a commodity to be consumed through tourism under the logic of the neoliberal economic and political model.

Since February 2015 construction works were carried out without proper INAH approval. After a temporary suspension in May 2015, works were resumed in November covering replacing over six hectares of meadow, baseball and football fields to the south and east sides of the pyramid with concrete slabs. This change to the immediate surroundings of an earth building may cause severely affect to the structural integrity of an already compromised building due to the tunnelling of archaeological explorations in 1931–1956. Despite locals demanding that the INAH demonstrate legal approval for the construction works, there has not been an official response.

 

 

Local actions

When news of the park’s construction spread, local inhabitants came together to defend their heritage. Unsuccessful attempts at dialogue and peaceful demonstrations led to state government repression and the imprisonment of four citizens opposed to the project.

The Virgen de los Remedios in procession, October 2014. Photo courtesy Miguel Toxtle
The Virgen de los Remedios in procession, October 2014. Photo courtesy Miguel Toxtle

The last two of these demonstrators were released recently, after thirteen months in prison. Additionally, ten arrest warrants were issued against active members of the community opposing the park, including one archaeologist (BA) living in Cholula.

Most visibly, in August 24, 2014 locals joined in a symbolic embrace of the Pyramid demonstrating their will to protect what they consider their own. On October 3rd, 2014, for the first time in more than 300 years, the original image of the Virgen de los Remedios was taken down from its temple in a special procession to pray for the peace and safeguarding of the territories of San Pedro and San Andres Cholula. This action is reserved for special occasions when Cholultecas have suffered difficulties, and in 2015 the holy image was taken down in procession for a second time to commemorate the previous year’s event, accompanied by representatives of the 42 communities linked to the Virgen in the region.

 

Collective Space

Cholultecas have a reading of heritage based in a sense of common ownership of the past. This notion challenges the official discourse of National Heritage that separates the material remains of indigenous peoples from their present realities. By maintaining direct ties with the material remains of the past and the meanings created and reproduced in everyday practices around the Great Pyramid, the inhabitants of Cholula have developed a sense of collective identity rooted in the deep history of the city spanning over 3,000 years. This idea of heritage as source of collective identity is shared not only by those practicing the Catholic religion and participating in the cargo systems. It is also a means by which new immigrants become part of the local community. The arrival of new populations to Cholula, although not always peaceful, continues to shape the town’s identity today. Everyday practices around the Great Pyramid contribute in creating a sense of place where newcomers can participate in the community and share a sense of identity anchored in the Great Pyramid. By quotidian use of this space, new population groups engage directly or indirectly in the process of giving meaning to it. Either by participating in the processions and bajadas, or traversing the physical space, new inhabitants engage in social practices shaping their identity. It is in this landscape that religious practices become normalized and intertwined with everyday practices like floriculture and agriculture, leisure and sport, giving the fields around Tlachihualetpetl (man-made hill) a general sense of collective space.

For the inhabitants of Cholula the official discourse of heritage is not sufficient for protecting their identity anchored in the remains of the past. Through the legislative separation between archaeological and intangible heritage, the continuous history of this sacred city is divided and its relevance lost. This split undermines the continuity of social and religious practices that have long been in place, denying the connection between modern populations and their archaeological past.

In September 2015 the President of Mexico announced the creation of a Secretariat of Culture to oversee issues related to heritage and art. This political move dissociates education from culture, historically linked in an official discourse of heritage as part of the national identity created by the post-revolutionary State. Its creation is aimed at communicating cultural contents to selected publics as assets for increasing touristic enterprise. However, it ignores the role of research and overwrites functions of autonomous institutions like the INAH in the preservation of heritage, handing these over to the private sector.

Projects like the one in Cholula serve as a gateway for the application of this new legislation and as another mechanism for stripping local communities of their lands and heritage, forcing them into new ways of political and economic subordination. In this process, heritage is re-framed as a resource to be exploited through a market based logic, ignoring the value of heritage in shaping the identity of the people of Cholula and Mexico.

 

Josue Gomez received a BA in archaeology at Universidad de las Americas Puebla and a MS at the Department of Anthropology, U Oregon where he specialized in GIS. He is currently a PhD candidate at the U Western Australia (UWA) working with Aboriginal communities and issues of heritage in Australia.

Amanda Lorenzini is an anthropologist from Cholula where she studied at Universidad de las Americas Puebla receiving a BA in anthropology and recently, an MA in anthropological studies of Mexico. She specializes in political economy and rural anthropology and has researched on the field topics such as the history of commodification of papel amate in Puebla.

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