Tuesday, October 16, 2018
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Ancient future
John Ross
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The ghost of an Aztec poet-king haunts the construction site of a new airport.

Six centuries ago, what is now the slum city of Texcoco was a bird-filled paradise on the shore of the great lake system in the Mexico Valley, the cradle of Aztec civilization. Ruled by the poet-king Nezahualcoyotl, Texcoco was the empire’s cultural center. Its artisans, musicians, dancers and poets were celebrated throughout Meso-America.


the poet-king inscribed. Nezahualcoyotl’s Flor y Canto, the oldest known pre-Colombian poetry, is still handed down from generation to generation.

Teeming with fish, the chain of three lakes was visited each year by tens of thousands of migratory birds from the north. Ducks, geese and other waterfowl supplemented the diet of the booming lakeside population, and their feathers were woven into exotic capes and headdresses (LP, Dec. 14, 2001).

Nezahualcoyotl, who reigned for 40 years, constructed a 14-kilometer dike that mitigated annual flooding on the island of Tenochtitlan, the location of present-day Mexico City, and reduced the salinity that threatened fish life.

Spanish conquerors pulled down the dike, one of the largest earthworks in central Mexico, and Mexico City was inundated until settlers finally cut down all the surrounding forests, silting up the system so that the lakes dried up and blew away.

Somewhere in this gratuitous destruction, Nezahualcoyotl’s tomb was misplaced.

The poet-king was painfully aware of Texcoco’s ephemeral beauty: Although it is jade/ it will break/ although it is gold/ it will tarnish/ although it is made of feathers of the Quetzal bird/ it will come apart/ nothing lasts forever on this earth/ only for a little while.

Six hundred years later, the descendants of those long-ago lake-dwellers are threatened with eviction from their lands to make way for a US$2.3-billion airport.

On Oct. 22, the government announced plans for a new international airport on 25,000 acres of what is euphemistically called the "former" Texcoco lake. The site, seven kilometers east of Mexico City, won out over a competing project in Hidalgo state that would have put the airport an hour and a half from downtown.

Environmentalists say that the airport could displace the migratory birds attracted to the area’s vastly diminished wetlands. The decision has disrupted the alliance between the Mexican Green Ecology Party (PVEM) and President Vicente Fox.

"Birds and airplanes have a difficult time coexisting, and the birds often prevail — they are very persistent," Edward Cleary of the US Federal Aviation Administration recently said.

Urban specialists are also aghast. According to Jorge Lagorreta, a university professor and former Mexico City official, airport construction could mean "catastrophic flooding of unimaginable proportions" during intense summer rains because of Texcoco’s precarious location five meters above Mexico City, with nothing but a dead lakebed between them.

Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador has urged Fox to expand the existing airport rather than move operations to Texcoco.

Rejuvenation of the Mexico Valley lake system has been on the drawing board for a decade. One architect’s plans even envisioned relocating the airport to an island in the middle of a new series of artificial lakes. When the plans were unveiled, however, no lakes were depicted. Authorities now say that the revitalization of the lakes will be financed by airport revenues.

How much the government will pay irate local farmers for their lands is still not clear. Early estimates have come in around $8 per square meter, which translates into per-capita payments of between $7,000 and $20,000 for the nearly 5,000 residents of affected villages. Some are reportedly holding out for $30 a square meter, but for now, the land is not up for sale.

"The land is our mother — it’s not for sale," proclaimed a large banner carried by farmers during a rally outside the National Palace.

Although the Texcoco farmers’ struggle is endorsed by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) and guerrillas in Guerrero state, the campesinos are mainly seeking alliances with other indigenous communities, campesino organizations, disaffected National University students and workers. Supporters include farmers from Tepotzlan, in Morelos state, who successfully fought off expropriation of communal lands for a private golf course.

Campesinos from San Salvador Atenco deposed a mayor who supported expropriation of land for the airport and have been encamped in their village’s plaza since Oct. 22. In typical Zapatista fashion, the farmers have declared Atenco a "municipality in rebellion" and an "autonomous municipality."

They are in constant motion, organizing daily marches and caravans to pressure officials. Roads are barricaded and lookouts keep watch from nearby hills. When geologists took soil samples in January, campesinos escorted them off community land and confiscated their vehicles.

Six hundred state judicial police are said to be posted in the Texcoco district, and undercover agents are suspected of infiltrating the community. Authorities have said that "subversives" have taken charge of the community.

The campesinos’ cause has gotten a boost from the recent discovery of pre-Aztec remains in San Salvador Atenco. Anthropologists Luis Morrett Alatorre and David López Monroy estimate that "Texcoco man," a hunter-gatherer who appears to have died a natural death at about age 40, may date back 11,000 years. The remains have been sent to England’s Oxford University for carbon dating.

Local leaders say they will appeal to the National Institute of Anthropology and History to halt the airport project because it could possibly destroy a rich archeological find. In 1999, 17 sets of remains that are at least 5,000 years old were found at nearby Tlacal. The area has yielded everything from woolly mammoth bones to potsherds.

"These are the lands of our ancestors," campesino leader Felipe Alvarez says. "Their bones are buried here. Now they want to take even the bones away."


In the house of spring/ the singers sing/ and we are made drunk/ by the flowers,

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