Sifting the Ashes of an Older American Dream

It is easy to get lost in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). As I wandered through the Americas exhibit on a lazy Saturday morning, my two friends and I made figure eights around each other, one following intricate silver dishes around the room, one scrutinizing each plaque, and I examining the dark wooden drawers and cubbyholes.

When our paths slowed and we converged on the third floor, I consulted my friend’s map and realized that the main entrance to the exhibit did not lead to the art I was primarily interested in: the Pre-Columbian section. The exhibit’s layout privileged post-colonial America. We had to actively seek out the older America, going down into the subterranean part of the museum to find it.

Three large, orange-clay urns greeted us with wide animal eyes. I let myself be pulled from one warm, earth-colored vessel to the next. This part of the exhibit had a different feel from the rest; whereas the Europeanized furniture and paintings encouraged passive perusal, the first rooms of this lower level stopped me in my tracks—I tried not to flinch under the steady gaze of the jaguar or the serpent. There were more children in this room, children with dark hair who complained to their parents in Spanish that their feet were tired. This was a different America—the original America, the forgotten America, now strange.

My two Mexican-American friends and I had been in the museum for quite a while. When one friend suggested we go to a taquería in East Boston for lunch, several heads turned in recognition of the word—and perhaps in hunger, too.

Pre-Columbian art, and especially Nahua art  (commonly known as Aztec art), has always captivated me. I’m certainly not the only one. Here in the United States, we have a preoccupation with reconstructing the past. We are proud of our exogenous roots, as if our families had come over in boats just a generation ago. For those of us with a Latin American background, however, our roots are a mix of the exogenous and the indigenous, and the mystery surrounding the indigenous roots only makes us cling more urgently to them.


The MFA offers us a glimpse of those roots—jade necklaces strung behind protective glass—but it is a sad glimpse, like the glimpse of a married woman’s neck, visible but somehow inaccessible. The black and red lines on the pottery, lines that threaten to fade away at any moment, are palimpsests with the ghosts of layers beneath them—layers of codices lost to the fire of the conquistadores, painstakingly painted on folded amatl paper by trained tlacuilos, masters of the red and black ink. The loss of the codices was also the loss of the origins they recorded. When Hernán Cortés’s men knocked down the causeways that fed water to the great city of Tenochtitlan, they cut the veins that brought life to the people. We are left with only remnants. We can try to contextualize them, but sometimes a plaque can tell us no more than “Figure.”

In Taquería Jalisco I ordered pozole: pork and hominy soup to which I added many spoonfuls of salsa roja. The broth took on an orange hue not unlike the pottery I had seen in the museum. As I felt the taste of Mexico slide warmly down my throat, I wondered just how far I was from the Mexico that had made the museum’s pottery. Certainly the corn was close to the origins, but what about the burrito my friend was eating? The Jarritos we were drinking? The music in Spanish in the background? Our conversation in English? So much was burned, but so much remains to tantalize.

In the end, the art in the lower portion of the MFA, the part submerged in the earth, means what we make it mean. It is the mythical, and not the historical, that forms who we are. I  choose to live the myth that I descended from a tlacuilo whose tears mixed with blood as she watched her beautiful amatl pages succumb to red flames and turn to black ash.

El vuelo verde del quetzal

escribe en el cielo

chalchihuites que reflejan

el lago de nopales

el lago de lágrimas

el caldo espeso con sangre