Travel – Mexico City’s Newest (yet Oldest) Attraction

 By: Joan Didion

About the Author: Joan Didion is an American author best known for her novels and her literary journalism. Her novels and essays explore the disintegration of American morals and cultural chaos, where the overriding theme is individual and social fragmentation.

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"an assault upon the imagination"
Vogue August 1, 1965

Mexico City that week was hot, rich, dense with Texans drinking Margaritas and buying French silks and trying to get reservations for Puerto Vallarta, but we were there only to work, and we were tired. “You must see the new anthropological museum,” everyone said; people said it in the jammed restaurants, in the elevators of the Baumer and the Mária Isabel, in the commissary at Estudio Churubusco. “You must make time.” We nodded wanly. We dreamed of beaches.

Nonetheless I went one afternoon at six o’clock, recalcitrant and cross and alone  (“I have found my way around plenty of museums without you, just never you fear,” I informed my husband, and slammed the door, cracking still more plaster in a city where building sometimes seem to crack before they are dedicated) ; and perhaps that, after all, was the way to go, for the new National Museum of  Anthropology in Chapultepec Park is less a conventional museum than an assault upon the imagination, and such places move us most when they catch us exactly so: alone, recalcitrant, unawares.

The “giant stone Olmec head” once featured at the National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec.

What could I tell you? That the Pedro Ramirez Vasquez building – with its massive fitted blocks of volcanic stone, its expanses of featureless marble, its profligacy of water- seems as emotional as a ruin, as timeless and brutal as Mexico itself? That the building houses one of the world’s greatest archeological collections, sum of all we know of all the years before Cortés? It is not enough to tell you.

To understand you must go alone at twilight, must walk very slowly across the vast approach, listen as the traffic on the Reforma recedes into some profound stillness. On a knoll among the pepper and eucalyptus trees, among the pines, blowing, closing in, rests a giant stone Olmec head, the long grass grown around it as if it had been there always.

To see that is to begin to imagine for a vicarious flickering moment what John Lloyd Stephens saw when he glimpsed Copán in the jungle rot of Honduras: “It lay before us like a shattered bark in the midst of the ocean, her masts gone, her name effaced, her crew perished, and none to tell whence she came, to whom she belonged, how long on her voyage, or what caused her destruction.” [This summer the Olmec head is at the New York World’s Fair.]

The Olmec head at the World’s Fair in New York City.

Or so it seemed to me. Inside, the collection is too overwhelming to see all at once; one comes away remembering certain small things, haunted by oddities. A jade bat, a small perfect thing. A child’s toy, the figure of a dog on a wheeled platform – found in the ruins of a people who had perceived no other use for wheels. A head from Monte Albán, a face with two expressions, the left evil and the right virtuous.

The night I was there a guide led five or six other Americans through the monumental rooms, her careful English drowned now and then by the shattering of the water in the central court, a great open fall of water from a canopy, a fall that suggests only immolation. I walked with the group for an hour or so, listening to the guide talk in her pretty monotone about gold and jade and sacrificial games, and then I fell behind, to watch the falling water in the court. I stood by the water a long time, until my face was wet from the blowing mist and it was time to go to dinner. I did not tell my husband about the falling water, but he knew, because when I suggested casually that we spend a few months in Yucatán, he said only: “Two months might be stretching that particular rôle.” After a moment we both laughed, and the orchestra played “The Yellow Rose of Texas” for the Texans, and we had another drink, to self-depictions.

Click here to listen to “The Yellow Rose of Texas”

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