The Goddess Tzapotlatena
Last Saturday 21st March, I attended the inauguration of a statue of the Goddess Tzapotlatena that has been erected on the top of a especially built new roundabout on the principal western entrance and exit from Ciudad Guzmán that leads to the motorway to Guadalajara and Colima. This inauguration was an important event in the cultural life of the city where I live.
Beforehand, a number of different people had told me about the event. The personal secretary of the President of the city’s local government (the Ayuntamiento) had sent out a general email invitation. My friend Nena invited me to attend from 10pm on the Friday night beforehand. She is a member of a group of Aztec dancers and her dancing group were going to spend the night before, which is also the spring equinox, dancing and performing rituals around the base of the statue. The coordinator of the course in “Alternative Tourism” at the University where I work had told me he would be present along with many of the students on the course. The night before the inauguration, I attended a lecture about the educationalist Paolo Freire, and the coordinator of the lecture told me that I should be sure to attend the inauguration.
So this was clearly going to be a significant event. On the Saturday morning, I cycled the two or so kilometers to the outskirts of the city where the new roundabout has been built, and upon which the statue has been erected. For a month or so beforehand, the statue of the goddess had been enclosed from head to toe in what looked like a huge blanket, prompting one of my Mexican friends to comment that she looked like a victim in the narco-traficante wars.
When I arrived, the Goddess was a quarter unveiled, allowing glimpses of her bronze body. She stands about 5 meters tall on a pyramidal base. Each side points in one of the four cardinal directions and depicts different pre-Hispanic deities who serve to guard the Goddess.
The statue is rich in symbolism. Her two earrings are representations of the sun and the moon. She represents the Mother Goddess seen in her youthful form, portraying abundance and fertility. Her body rises up from a huge maize-cob. Although she is a Goddess who was present in many parts of Meso-America, here she is being claimed for, and associated with, Ciudad Guzman.
The original name for Ciudad Guzman is Zapotlán, and before that it was called Tlayolan, which signifies place of maize. The sculptor believes that Zapotlán is named after the Goddess Tzapotlatena, who, before she was deified as the Goddess of medicine existed in real life as a healer and midwife. In creating this figure therefore, he is aiming to connect Ciudad Guzmán to its mythical and pre-Hispanic roots.
I arrived about half an hour before the official unveiling. There were still a few of the Aztec dancers milling around who had stayed at the site all the previous night. They had left beautiful decorations and offerings on the ground as part of their rituals.
As I was looking at the details on the base of the statue, a man approached me and asked me what I thought of the statue. I told him that from what I could see so far I liked it very much. He told me he was the sculptor, and proceeded to talk to me about the significance of the statue before he was interrupted by a chain of people wanting to congratulate him. I did, though, manage to take his photo in front of the statue.
The sculptor’s name is Javier Silva Sánchez. He is from Ciudad Guzmán but has worked principally in the United States, where he has achieved more recognition than in Mexico. The completion, therefore, of this statue in his hometown held special significance for him. He wanted to create the statue in bronze, and so had asked the citizens of Ciudad Guzmán to donate old keys to him to enable him to do this.
His personal story is very interesting. He had always been interested in art and as a youth quickly developed an artistic vocation. Unfortunately in his teens, he had an accident in which he lost most of the fingers on his right hand. He then gave up art until another artist told him to start working with his left hand. From that point on, he has been an increasingly successful sculptor.
As I waited and took photos, more people began to arrive, dressesd in white as had been requested. There were rows of seats on the west side of the statue which were being filled up. People were using the free magazine that had been distributed to protect their faces from the sun. The front row was reserved for the President and other local dignitaries.
Eventually, late as often in Mexico, the inauguration began. There were speeches from the President, short poems read, a long tribute to the sculptor mentioning all the key works in his artistic career, before the President, the Regidora responsible for culture (another local politician), and the sculptor stepped forward to pull the cords that unveiled the statue The moment in which the goddess fully appeared was very moving. Even as a non-Mexican, I felt touched and blessed by her presence.
Later, there were more speeches by the sculptor and by the local historian, who spoke about the significance and symbolism of the statue. He said:
“What we can see in this statue is a synthesis of the elements that make up the origin of our town, that is Tzapotlan-Tlayolan-Tzaputlatena, which is the emblematic tradition of a duality that shapes one identity. It is the tangible and the intangible, the material and the spiritual, and maize and the goddess: this is Zapotlán.”
There was a long poem read by the local poet known as Apolonaire, and various other short literary and philosophical readings. At the end, a group of musicians called Amate from Colima played traditional pre-Hispanic music, and the Aztec dancers came into the foreground, and started to dance around the statue.
One of the principal reflections I had about this event was that I had never before experienced such a complete integration of the different cultures that overall make up Mexico. The event had managed to include the contemporary political culture, with all its customary importance given to status and acknowledgment, the genuine valuing of artistic and cultural life (which I think, overall, we are less appreciative of in the West), as well as the pre-Hispanic origins of Mexican culture.
Normally these cultural aspects are separated, and each sphere – the political, the artistic and the pre-Hispanic- has its own form and rituals. What was interesting and moving in this event was to witness these spheres combined. The other important culture that was not present was the Catholic Church.
By now the formal part of the ceremony was more or less at an end. The politicians and other people started to drift away, and I also decided to leave. This took longer than expected, however, as I was asked to do two television interviews, offering the perspective of an ‘extranjero’ (foreigner) on the event – one live for the local TV station and the other for a TV programme that the Ayuntamiento was making.
As I cycled away, I turned back back to look at the statue. She was now surrounded by dancers. It seemed to me they were claiming her as their own.