With the monumental Pyramid of the Sun in sight, one passenger in my van ride to the ancient city of Teotihuacán outside of Mexico City complained about our compulsory stop at a “tequila factory.” By the end of my visit to the archeological site, I came to see that the ancient pyramids we were all so eager to see were just as modern as the cinder block tequila factory. It became apparent that tourists are central characters in cycles of local subsistence, in the production of landscapes advertised as ancient, and in shaping notions of what is and is not valid culture and history. These practices are not outside or secondary to Teotihuacan; rather, together they constitute the modern ancient city. As the tour van arrived at the empty outdoor workshop, our driver gave two honks and in seconds a man and a woman scurried out of a building and took their positions before agave-processing machinery—the factory came to life just for us. The woman, wearing blue jeans, converse shoes, and speaking broken English, sat my tour cohort of 10 on a bench and explained the many uses of the agave plant before alleviating the awkward performance with a complementary round of tequila shots. We were then given an hour of free time in the factory’s gift shop and restaurant.
I knew this was coming. Like any privileged western youth preparing for a trip, I consulted the collective wisdom of the tourist community on TripAdvisor.com. I selected the tour company because it was the most affordable. Reviewers and the sites of more expensive tour companies bashed this particular company for “[wasting] your time […] taking you to exhibitions or stores where you are ‘suggested’ to purchase, or to restaurants that pay them a commission.” In short, pricier tours drove you past the obstacle course of tourist traps along the way to the main attraction, the ancient city of the gods.
What the community at TripAdvisor.com was in fact doing was making a case about what constitutes valid, true, and pure culture. They ripped Teotihuacán from its modern position in Mexican history and placed it back in the time of its ancient life—suggesting that meddling with this ancient identity was tantamount to cultural degradation. Those who chose the pricier tour, avoided complicity in these practices of cultural appropriation (for profit) in the hands of those to live less than a mile away from the site.
In my mind, this is an act of historical amnesia, not to mention a superficial understanding of historical time. The pyramids have not loomed in their present state over their surrounding poor towns since the 8th century. They have a modern history.
Because of my height and small build, I was asked to sit in the middle seat of the van, between the driver and tour guide, Alejandro. He gave his rehearsed remarks in English, yelling over my head to the back of the van. But during the hour-long trip, Alejandro, speaking out of script in Spanish, talked to me about the excavation of Teotihuacan as part of Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz’s Mexican centennial celebrations in 1910, the recent discovery of Wal-Mart’s blatant corruption in the construction of a store at the entrance of the archeological site, and the seemingly unbelievable return of the PRI party to Mexico’s national politics.
The pricier tours that focus on the still-ancient city of the gods ignore the modern city of Teotihuacán. They ignore that for dictator Porfirio Diaz, the archeological site was unveiled in 1910 as a political argument, well understood as an early example of what UC Berkeley geographer Gillian Hart calls re-nationalization (Diaz’ new articulation of ancient Mexican identity) in the face of fervent de-nationalization (Diaz is remembered for opening Mexico to foreign capital leading to dramatic inequality and eventually the Mexican Revolution which began on the year of Teotihuacán’s excavation). UC Berkeley’s own chancellor-historian Nick Dirks’ argument of “history as a sign of the modern” is apt as well. By proposing that the grand civilization in Teotihuacán was second only the Roman Empire, Diaz hoped to assert Mexico’s place in modern western civilization (and implicitly 20th century capitalism).
The pricier tours also ignore the living city of Teotihuacán, one that is at the center of poor communities’ struggle for subsistence and reproduction. Like the tequila factory owners whom I, and countless other tourists, are “forced” to visit, people all around the pyramids depend on the ancient history that attracts tourists. These cycles and practices are not outside of Teotihuacán; they are modern and living Teotihuacán. These merchants to the tourist industry embody a temporal dialectic between modern poverty and ancient culture necessary for modern life in many tourist destinations.
For the average visitor to Teotihuacán, a walk down the “Avenida de los Muertos,” the archeological site’s central walking path, means avoiding countless street vendors between photo ops. I was no exception. Yet at the end of my walk, after rejecting at least 15 vendors, an old vendor sitting on the stones of an ancient wall responded to my brush off with an exhausted “ustedes por que no nos compran?” (why don’t you all buy from us?) He was speaking not only to me but to the collective tourist, interested in ancient ruins and not the city’s living dependants. Even as tourists struggle to frame street venders out of their vacation photographs, these vendors exemplify the relationship between past histories and modern poverty in the archeological site. (For a spatial, rather and a temporal, analysis of the visibility of poverty, see Ananya Roy and the #globalpov project.)
My experience of the modern city of Teotihuacan exposed, in my eyes, the necessity to rethink the relationship between time and culture. Cultural sites, to many tourists, are most genuine when seemingly undisturbed by the passing of time. But such sites are nonexistent. Tourists also tend to see themselves outside the cultures they visit (often even try to remain outside so as to keep local culture “pure”). Yet as this story illustrates, in Teotihuacán the tourist is a key character in the region’s modern culture and practices, for better or for worse. There is much to learn about ourselves in examining what we try to ignore.
Luis Flores is a recent UC Berkeley graduate with degrees in Political Economy and History. He is a junior fellow at the Oakland Institute and a 2013-14 visiting scholar at UC Berkeley under the auspice of the Judith Lee Stronach Prize. He can be reached at email@example.com.