A People Rediscovered: New Lecture Series Deepens Harvard Ties With Mexico

November 2, 2017
David Carrasco, David Hempton, Louanne Hempton
Professor David Carrasco with Dean David Hempton and Louanne Hempton at the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe. / Photo: Julia Grace Cohn, DRCLAS

In 1978 in Mexico City, workers from an electrical company digging in the city center unearthed an enormous carved stone disk depicting an Aztec goddess. In the hands of Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, Mexico’s premier archaeologist, that disk unlocked the door to a rich and vivid past.

Through almost 40 years of excavation and research, Matos and his team—including his longtime collaborator, Harvard Divinity School Professor Davíd Carrasco—uncovered the remains of the lost Templo Mayor, the great Aztec temple at the center of their capital city, Tenochtitlan. Dedicated to the Aztec gods of agriculture and war, Templo Mayor was the key to understanding the vast empire the Aztec people ruled for nearly a century before its sudden and stunning fall in 1521 at the hands of Hernan Cortes and his army of Spanish conquistadores.

To recognize the seminal importance of this research, leading Harvard University scholars traveled to Mexico in October 2017 to inaugurate the Eduardo Matos Moctezuma Lecture Series. The five-year collaboration between Mexican cultural institutions and HDS, the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS), the international provost’s office, the Peabody Museums, and others seeks to deepen relationships, advance scholarly efforts, and foster cultural exchange. This creative scholarly and cultural initiative is made possible by the financial generosity of Mexican José Antonio Alonso, who also serves as a member of the Executive Committee of DRCLAS, and contributes to the cultural work of the Mexico City Office of the David Rockefeller Center, managed by Mauricio Benítez, whose office organized the inaugural lecture at the National Museum of Anthropology and History.

At the center of the effort is Carrasco, who conceived the series, found the money, and brought together many groups at Harvard in a joint project to recognize Matos’s work and its importance to Mexico.

"I wanted to strengthen the Harvard-Mexico relationship," Carrasco says. "So I said to DRCLAS, 'Look, let’s set up a lecture series for this man, who is an absolute cultural hero in Mexico, the leading public intellectual.' "

Carrasco began his collaboration with Matos while still a graduate student. After the 1978 discovery of Templo Mayor, Matos invited him to join in the interpretation of the discoveries found by the Mexican archeological team.

“My role since 1978 has been as one of the interpreters of religious symbols for Matos,” Carrasco says. “The 400-odd cities and towns of the Aztec empire sent tribute to the capital, some of which was stored within the temple floors. Archaeologists have uncovered over 100 containers holding religious and other artifacts from across the empire. These artifacts tell a complex story of the many ways the people of pre-Spanish Mesoamerica understood themselves and their world.”

Excavation site of the Aztec Templo Mayor
Excavation site of the Aztec Templo Mayor, Mexico City, next to the Metropolitan Cathedral. / Photo: David Hempton

The scholars involved in the trip represent a series of firsts themselves, and deep collaboration between many parts of Harvard. Carrasco, the Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America (with a joint appointment in the FAS Department of Anthropology and HDS), is the first Spanish-surnamed professor at HDS. Accompanying him to Mexico City was Dean David N. Hempton, the first HDS dean to pay an official visit to Mexico. And Professor Matos himself is the first Mexican citizen in Harvard’s 400-year history to be honored with a lecture series. Also on the journey were Professors William and Barbara Fash, who have done groundbreaking work on Mesoamerican history and culture for the Department of Anthropology and the Peabody Museum, and Marie Luisa Parra of the Department of Romance Languages and Literature, who led the group on a tour of the home of renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

Dean Hempton reflected on the multi-day trip, which joined the celebration and inaugural lecture by Professor Matos with numerous visits to archaeological sites and museums.

“It was a tremendous privilege for me to be with my colleagues out in their natural habitat,” Hempton said. “We went down to celebrate some very longstanding collaborations [between Carrasco and Matos], and to admire the work being done on the ground by a very talented group of Mexican archaeologists, anthropologists, and lab technicians.”

Hempton says that now is a particularly important time for American universities like Harvard to forge connections with Mexico.

“Quite honestly, relations between our two countries aren’t the best they’ve ever been,” he said. “It was meaningful to be there after the terrible [September 19, 2017] earthquake, to express sympathy and solidarity with a people who have suffered a great deal.”

Worshipers in traditional dress hold a banner for St. John the Divine, Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe
Worshipers in traditional dress hold a banner for St. John the Divine, Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe. / Photo: David Hempton

Hempton also found his own scholarly interests deepened by the trip.

“From my point of view as a historian of Christianity, it speaks to a great moment of religious and cultural encounter: Cortes arrived in the Valley of Mexico and destroyed that ancient civilization, but you still see that ancient culture in Mexican Christianity today. At the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, for example, we saw pilgrims in Aztec dress carrying a banner of St. John the Divine. And the Virgin herself is depicted with a brown body, a symbol of divine solidarity with the people of Mexico.”

Beyond the thrill of uncovering a lost civilization, Matos, Carrasco, and their colleagues fostered something perhaps more important: a reshaping and new appreciation of the indigenous roots of Mexican identity. The Templo Mayor and its thousands of artifacts tell the story of a continental civilization that, beneath a layer of Spanish Catholicism and culture imposed by Cortes and his successors, lives on in the Mexican people.

“Matos’s research has turned the cultural tables, giving Mexicans pride in the knowledge that indigenous blood runs in their veins,” says Carrasco. “He has demonstrated how pre-Spanish culture shapes Mexican Catholicism to this day. And by that work, Matos’s greatest achievements have not been just scientific: he is a national hero who has made Mexicans appreciate and identify with the thriving urban civilizations and complex cultures their ancestors created before the coming of Europeans.

“By uncovering and interpreting the Templo Mayor, Matos showed the Mexicans who they really are. He revealed to them, ‘We’re not Spaniards. We are more than that, we are part of a mixture.’ And that is never going to go away.”

—by Gordon Hardy