Friday, March 9, 2007

What is a Chichimeca?

Some of you have been wondering what exactly is a Chichimeca, other than one of those strange, long Mesoamerican words that pop out every now and then. Those of you who aren't interested in my archaeologist/professorial side may want to skip this entry...

Chichimec is a word used by Mesoamerican people to describe the foreigners who lived to the north of their civilization. Some archaeologists have named the general region that these peoples came from the "Gran Chichimeca". In modern geographical terms this area begins roughly around Jalisco, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, and continues north through Zacatecas, Durango, Chihuahua and Sonora. It then jumps the modern political border, running through Arizona and New Mexico and ending somewhere in southern Colorado. The puebloan people of of the US Southwest, such as the Anasazi would have been considered "Chichimecs" by the Aztecs, Toltecs, Tarascans and Maya. In northern and northwest Mexico, the many historic groups encountered by European explorers (Guachichiles, Tarahumara, Huichol, Zacatecos, Opata, Pames, Seris, Yaquis, etc) would have been considered Chichimecs too.

What you have to bear in mind is that while these groups had contact with Mesoamerican cultures, through trade and probably some exploration on both sides, shared a similar diet, and had certain ideas and religious principles in common, they weren't Mesoamerican. According to 16th century Spanish accounts that record the views of indigenous people from the highlands of Central Mexico, these groups were considered mostly uncultured foreigners who could often be violent and dangerous. They had a reputation for being nomads who roamed a barren desert that only the truly tough of spirit could survive. Interestingly, despite this view that almost borders on contempt, the historical chronicles of the Aztec and Tarascan cultures (the two great empires that had held power in Mesoamerica for about 200 years when the Spanish arrived in 1519) insist that their kingdoms were founded by members of these groups who arrived in Central Mexico after a long and mythic pilgrimage/migration from the northern deserts. The rulers of both groups were descended from these Chichimecs. Basically, the uncouth country bumpkins made good in the big city, write very large.

I'm not going to get into all of the particulars that this idea entails, but suffice it to say that the word "Chichimec" was an over generalization by Mesoamericans to refer to all of the diverse groups that lived throughout northern Mexico and the southwestern US. It's sort of like saying "Mexican" to refer to all Latin American people from Mexico down to Chile and Argetina. Some "Chichimecs" lived in small groups that hunted and gathered and moved around quite a bit. Some did this but also raised some crops on the side. Others settled down for years at a time in adobe houses and farmed for a living. Some archaeologists further complicate this picture by pointing out evidence that some of the people being called Chichimecs may have actually been Mesoamericans who reasons that are not completely understood moved north and mingled with the foreign population. This point is that these groups covered an enormous range of territory, were culturally and linguistically diverse, and shouldn't be considered a single culture.

All this being said, there's something about the iconic image from the Mesoamerican perspective of the Chichimec as an uncouth, uncultured foreigner from the north with a bit of a temper that speaks to the imagination. Outsiders that are rough around the edges, yet who made their way south to the "civilized" world, threw themselves into learning the ins and outs of the political and economic systems, and eventually successfully worked their way from the bottom (mercenaries for hire that were forced to live on the worst land) to the top (emperors) based on their unflagging ambition. Kind of a Machiavellian spin on the "American Dream". And being that I myself am an (occasionally) uncouth foreigner from the north who has chosen to "invade" a new country, studying the archaeology of the Gran Chichimeca based out of a university located IN the Gran Chichimeca, I do fit the profile of a Chichimec pretty well. So why not go with the flow and use the screen name? Who knows, maybe a little of the Chichimec good fortune will rub off on me too...

Wednesday, March 7, 2007


I just turned in a draft of my dissertation to my committee of professors who must approve it prior to being able to graduate. It's a big step and means I'm almost done with my PhD!

Now I have to wait for probably a month for their comments. I'm hoping they'll say it's ready to defend, but it's pretty uncommon to have that happen the first draft out. I'll most likely have to do a set of revisions first. So that adds another month of waiting. Well, at least it's almost over!

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Weekend Happenings

We spent most of the weekend just wandering around the neighborhood and visiting with some friends, but here's a picture from one of the many temporary art installations that are strewn around the neighborhood for the next week or so. This exhibition is called "Habitantes Incomodos" (Uncomfortable Inhabitants) and involves many different artists. It seems like some are trying a little too hard to be clever, but the idea is nice.

This one is called something like "No todo lo que es verde brilla" (Not everything green shines). The artist put the tops of the ubiquitous VW Bug taxis in the fountain in the Plaza Citlatepetl and filled the rest of the fountain with iris plants. Both are apparently green plagues in the city (the "Bochos" taxis are always green and the aquatic plants are invading the waterways of many historic neighborhoods that maintain portions of the original Aztec canal/chinampa agriculture systems. I guess now they'll be a problem in the Condesa too?).

Anyway, for your consideration:

Contact Sports

So how does one spend the weekend in Mexico City? Well, at least for me, Friday begins with a visit to the weekly street market on Campeche street. Early in the morning a cluster of stalls pop up that sell everything from fruits and vegetables, meats, cheeses, toys, underwear, kitchen utensils, hair accessories, clothes, plants, potting soil, CDs and DVDs, fresh squeezed fruit juice, soups, tacos, huaraches. The vendors stick around till about 1 or 2 in the afternoon, depending on business.

Of course, those of you who have been to Mexico before or who have seen the glossy magazine photos or travel documentaries on PBS are expecting that I am now going to append a series of beautiful colorful photos of this very traditional part of Mexican daily life. Well, I am going to have to disappoint you. The answer is no. Why you ask? Well, I'll let you in on a secret: marketing is a contact sport and you need both hands free to stand the faintest chance of getting everything on your list. A big shoulder-slung marketing bag that can handle a lot of weight helps too. Luckily M. X was willing to go with me and help show me the ropes.

Although there is a grocery store one block from the apartment, the Friday market is our one chance in this neighborhood to get our hands on the best and freshest fruits, vegetables, and cheeses to be gotten. The hard part is that the rest of the neighborhood is also in on this vital piece of information and are there to compete! The toughest cookies are the 4 foot tall, elderly women who let no one and nothing stand in their way of getting the ripest, biggest avocados and the juiciest papayas. Throwing a few bony elbow jabs is part of the game as they scoop their booty into plastic bags. Mere seconds after handing their bag over to be weighed and the price tallied they are already halfway done with their next bag. The stall owners have to be sharp as they are often attending 3 or 4 of these tough customers at once, keeping track of everyone's tab on pieces of notebook paper. The other stalls tend to be a bit more relaxed, which makes for a nice break.

After dodging the abuelitas and the odd fully coiffed giant poodle (our neighborhood is overrun by yuppies with pure bred dogs, but that's for another entry) we secured our mangos, papaya, squash, tomatoes, oranges, eggplant, Oaxaca cheese, live basil, parsley, and cilantro, potting soil (of course), a cutting board, vegetable peeler, and squeegee (M. X is a demon for window washing) We then rewarded ourselves by stopping by one of the market's numerous taco stands for a big bowl of consome and tacos de barbacoa (both made with mutton). We next washed down our late breakfast with a giant, fresh-squeezed orange juice purchased from another stand that would later be selling Oaxaca-style homemade ice creams. Can't wait for next week!