We boarded the metro at Chilpancingo and exited at the Tlatelolco stop. We headed to Plaza de las tres Culturas, Plaza of the Three Cultures. A ten-minute walk through a rougher-than-we-were-used-to Mexico City neighborhood, then up a stairway and left onto the overpass. From there we stopped to take pictures and gaze at the scarred and scavenged ruins of Tlatelolco. Our guidebooks seemed to downplay its value as a destination, and yet the archaeological site appeared well-maintained and extensive. We continued on, down the stairs, into the fragments of a pre-Columbian society, where we paused to read the markers, admire the buildings, attempt to fathom the habitants from centuries back.
Travel is a search for surprise, or meaning, or self. That morning I stared at a tzompantli, the stand which at one time displayed this site’s trophies: human skulls. There had been a tzompantli at Templo Mayor, in the heart of Mexico City, a tzompantli at Tula, an archeological site north of the city. Distressed, horrified, we continued to walk through the ruins, following the path which led us past its temples, where we read of skeletons and offerings discovered in the foundations, past the palaces, and finally onto the plaza. I was trying to reconcile the bloody Mexica line with my personal construction of the ancestry which ran through my own veins.
Stones from the site had been used in the construction of the Spanish church, Santiago de Tlatelolco, so there we had two cultures accounted for, but which one was the third? The cold-war style apartment buildings? The monument to the culture that emerged from the clash of Cortez and Cuahtemoc?
When I asked natives about it, they were more interested in discussing the student massacre that had happened on the plaza in 1968. Countless students, protestors and bystanders were killed by the government, ten days before Mexico City hosted the Olympics. What had these thousands been protesting? Repression.
We set off to find the memorial, my husband in one direction, me in another. I trailed a family near the entrance to the 17th century church, then watched two blonde girls stare at a monument and talk briefly with an old man seated on its steps. Probably a beggar, I thought, who was targeting the tourists. When the girls left, I avoided the beggar, but noticed the offerings of flowers at the base of the monument. I leaned in closer. “A los compañeros caidos,” it read. I wanted to read all the names. It seemed to me I owed the victims that.
“Am I in your way?” the old man asked from where he sat.
I shook my head. “Not at all.”
“You came to read the names? You understand Spanish?” He had a friendly smile, with missing bottom teeth.
“This,” he said, point at the monument, “is a lie.”
“Why is it a lie?” I asked.
“The names,” he said. “It was just people, you know. Professors, students, people.” Did he know something about it?
“I was here,” he said.
As we continued to talk he delicately removed a magazine from its protective cover, opened it to a specific page, and shared with me an article with a photo of himself, looking just a year or two younger, sitting at the same stoop, along with another photo, of himself (but who would know if it was really him, the years change us unrecognizably) and a friend from over forty years ago.
“Look at the name,” he said. The caption on both photographs was Carlos Beltran Maciel. “Do you understand?”
“That can’t be him,” my husband said, now standing beside me. “His name’s there on the monument.” Carlos Beltran Maciel, 27, was among those listed as massacred. I translated my husband’s protest.
“Why do you think my name is there? If I am dead, I don’t exist. There are advantages to the government for me no longer existing.”
My husband said, “Why would the government lie?”
I asked him, “Why does our government lie?”
Since the protest, he told us, he had been imprisoned. For over forty years. Forgotten. More than forty years!
He had been out now for two years. And now that he was out, he didn’t want for anything: he bathed in the fountain there behind us. He didn’t mind it, really, although it would be nice to take a hot bath for a change. He had been an engineering professor, but he didn’t want for anything. He had been out for over two years now. No, he really didn’t lack for anything.
From observing the tzompantli to encountering this impoverished life.
Grief was an axe at my heart. I picked the largest bill out of my wallet and thrust it at him.
“You want to give this to me?”
“Yes, I want to give this to you, because your story pains me so,” I said. Then I turned and abandoned him, out of words, unable to face him. I would not turn back, I would not look at him again.
Later my husband said, “You didn’t really believe him, did you?”
There are too many stories of human injustices for me to be skeptical of this one, too many governments that make forgetting prisoners simpler than dealing with the embarrassment of their existence. The forgotten of so many countries, the secret prisons of so many countries, including our own, barely register on our national, much less personal, consciousness. That is the heritage that runs through all of our veins.
Yes, I believed him, this one face, this one story. And if it was a creative lie, it was 200 pesos in honor of those for whom it is true.