May 25, 2007

Why do filmmakers continue to use the human sacrifice to depict Aztec culture?

By Heriberto Escamilla

I don’t see movies often enough to consider myself a legitimate “critic;” but like everyone else, I have opinions that are not always, but sometimes as valid as anyone else’s. So along with some reflections, I’ll share a few. Last night, I attended a screening of “La Otra Conquista,” which opened this past weekend at the AMC 26 Promenade Theaters on Palm Avenue. I understand this was actually the second release of Salvador Carrasco’s 1999 record setting, epic depicting the struggle between the Indigenous Mexican culture and the one espoused by the legendary conquerors of Mexico.

The story focuses on the spiritual struggles of a young indigenous scribe, Topiltzin. But the hero’s internal conflict is only part of a more pervasive battle represented in an obsessed Hernando Cortes, repentant Friar Diego and proud Tecuichpotzin, surviving daughter of the emperor Moctezuma.

In the opening scenes, a contingent of Spaniards disrupts the ritual sacrifice of a young woman, presumably a virgin. The soldiers arrive a few seconds too late to prevent the graphic and gruesome extraction of the young woman’s heart, but do manage to stave off consummation of the ritual. In the scuffle, the soldiers kill the shaman and other family members, including Topiltzin’s grandmother. More central to the story, the bearded strangers also topple and destroy a statue of Tonantzin, the Earth Mother, who according to historians was one of he major deities of the Mexica pantheon. The destruction of the idol shakes the foundation of Topiltzin’s life and plunges him into a very deep despair. For the rest of the 105 minutes, we witness Topiltzin’s struggle to find internal peace.

I liked what I understood to be the movie’s message, that while the body may be subjugated, in this case converted to a different way of living, the spirit is indomitable. It may suffer, but eventually, it will find its own way of expressing life.

I recommend it with one caution. I wish filmmakers would choose some other ritual, other than human sacrifice to represent Meso-American cosmology. I am not among those that deny that my ancestors practiced human sacrifice. There is in my opinion too much archeological and historical evidence indicating that the Azteca and Maya in particular, the two biggest civilizations of pre-Colombian Meso-America, practiced this ritual. Others may have followed, but we don’t know. But as much as I would like to believe that people in my family tree never took another person’s life to gain the favor of a deity, to do so would be denying reality.

Having acknowledged this blemish, well, I suppose it could be more of a rot, on my family tree, I find some consolation in the story of Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his own son at God’s request. In other words, if my ancestors did engage in such a barbaric practice, there is some evidence that they were not alone. Of course, Abraham, at least as the story goes, never follows through, but the intention was certainly there. There is also ample evidence from many other parts of the world suggesting that my ancestors were not the only ones to sacrifice human flesh.

So let’s accept the premise that human sacrifice is part of our inescapable legacy. I would like to believe that it was an aberration and not the norm; that it was not a practice shared by all of the old inhabitants of Mexico and Central America. I would like to believe that it grew out of a desperate attempt to overcome doubt and reconcile oneself with a creator; I would like to believe that the people who descended into these depths were lost.

But, let me get back to my point. I understand the ritual of human sacrifice as an attempt to honor our Mother Earth. Our ancestors rightfully believed that the Earth was alive; just look around you at all the trees and plants; they grow, they fall sick and they eventually die. I am not saying they talk, think, breath or “alive” in that sense. After all, there is more life on this planet than human. I’m saying that they respond to light, to touch; they are like our ancestors said, alive.

If the earth is alive, then it stands to reason that she needs sustenance. Our ancestors also noticed that we owed our lives to the Earth. Try as they might, they saw their physical bodies return to her bosom. They saw that over and over and over. So maybe they started creating all manner of belief systems about what happened to the spirit after the body returned to the earth. There was after all consciousness that seemed to live in dreams, when the body was “dead.”

I’ve spent some time with my brothers the Huicholes of the Sierra Madre, who some people say still carry the old ways of our ancestors. They tell me that the earth, the wind, the sun and the water are indeed always talking to us, always asking us to feed them, but that we have forgotten how to listen. The Huicholes say they listen and they don’t sacrifice people. Maybe some of our ancestors didn’t hear well, or stopped listening altogether?

But I really do wish that filmmakers would choose another ritual. I think a lot of unreasonable people see these movies and simply don’t understand the logic. They are disgusted by the gruesome portrayal of human heart extraction and use this as evidence to condemn an entire group of people and their descendents. Scenes like this often perpetuate stereotypes. People who hold such beliefs must be sick in some way. In my opinion, they were lost like the rest of us. Let’s not condemn nor romanticize, but learn to listen.

There were and continue to be so many other rituals that include singing, dancing, the appreciation of the rain, the sun; life-affirming rituals that celebrate the joy of being alive. Why can’t filmmakers use rituals like this to represent the legacy of our ancestors? Why is it always the acts of despair that get so much of our attention?

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