If I were inclined to believe in a deity, it would be Tláloc, the Aztec god in charge of making it rain. To call him the Rain God, however, is to oversimplify the manifestations and metaphors of his godly responsibilities and of water itself. Tláloc has many names. In Náhuatl Tláloc means el néctar de la tierra. By virtue of his rainmaking role, Tláloc was, and perhaps in some quarters still is, venerated as dador de vida—giver of life. By virtue of the destructive potential of water or the lack thereof, Tláloc can bring on tempests, floods, hail, blizzards, hurricanes, and drought. He can give and take away.
Just to be clear, I am not a theist or a polytheist, but I am romanced by the imagery and poetry swirling around Tláloc, and I hold in high regard the power of water.
Last spring, Tláloc was at work, drumming thunder and throwing lightning bolts across the dark skies over the Lerma Marshes in the Valley of Toluca about 50 miles southwest of Mexico City. We were with several long-time birding friends on a standard birders’ pilgrimage—looking for a bird threatened with extinction in the last remnants of a largely destroyed landscape. It is a pastime fraught with despair.
The black-polled yellowthroat is a small, secretive warbler now confined to five wetlands in central western Mexico. The Lerma River, the second longest in Mexico, originates at about 9,800 feet on the Mexican Plateau and flows 470 miles to Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest lake, near Guadalajara. Its once vast marshes have been cleared for agriculture and drained for crop irrigation and urban water. In a recent article about the yellowthroat’s current distribution, population, and prognosis, the authors estimate the remaining habitat where it is found is 23,462 acres. By comparison, the metropolitan area of nearby Mexico City is 366,952 acres. The authors call for urgent action if the little bird is to survive—for instance, protecting and restoring some portion of what remains of the marshes, stopping illegal burning and harvesting of aquatic plants—none of which in my humble and pessimistic opinion is likely to happen.
It is a beautiful sprite of a bird with a jet-black mask and lemon-yellow breast, and we had no trouble seeing a few. We tricked them by playing a recording of the male’s song. Thinking their territory was being invaded, they popped into view here and there in the marsh to defend their turf. The God of Technology—probably not a term that translates easily into Náhuatl—is in the birder’s pocket. I cannot speak for my companions, but seeing the yellowthroat so easily and so well produced a certain euphoria in me that dampened if only briefly the true state of its peril.
Eight months later, we were in Mexico City. We joined five friends, all birders and lovers of nature, two of whom had been with us at the Lerma Marshes. This was a trip about museums, markets, eating, walking, watching people, talking to merchants and waiters and taxi drivers, and marveling that the largest metropolis in the Western Hemisphere—with 21.2 million inhabitants—can function with such friendliness, politeness, good humor, sophistication, and the veneer of efficiency. We make no claims that this urban swirl is sustainable and we are not stupid. There is great socioeconomic disparity in Mexico City, as in all countries and vast metropolises. Unequal Scenes is a project that documents inequity around the world using drones, https://unequalscenes.com/mexico-city-df.
On our last day in Mexico City, on the recommendation of Jeffrey Banister, a social scientist at the University of Arizona, we visited the Cárcamo de Dolores, a municipal pumping station in Chapultepec Park that has transported water from the Lerma River to Mexico City since the 1950s. Here we encountered Tláloc lying on his back, arms and legs outstretched, eyes to the sky, two ears of corn in his right hand. I wondered, is Tláloc just taking a nap or is Tláloc dead? Is this his bed or his sepulcher?
In the 1940s, Mexico City’s exploding population was creating an urban water crisis (even though the capital built on a spongy marsh experiences regular flooding). Officials embarked on an engineering project to construct 40 miles of aqueducts and 26 tunnels to bring a regular supply of water from the Lerma River to the city.
Mexico holds dear the profession of civil engineering. There are six engineers honored in the Rotunda of Illustrious People in the city’s Dolores Cemetery. Perhaps this veneration relates to the importance of large infrastructure projects in Mexico’s rapid transition from a third- to first-world country; perhaps it is because Mexico has long cherished the pyramids, temples, cities, and ceremonial centers built by its pre-Colombian civilizations. In this spirit, Ricardo Rivas—the architect of the Lerma pumping station, which resembles a Greco-Roman temple—set out to commemorate the engineering feat of his colleague Eduardo Molina, the civil engineer and Director of Water for the Federal District who designed the water transport system, as well as the 39 workers who died during the nine years it took to complete.
Rivas commissioned the famous artist and muralist Diego Rivera to create works of art in and around the pumping station to celebrate water. At the entrance, Rivera created the giant recumbent figure of Tláloc in a reflecting pool. Undergoing repairs to fix damage from the September 2017 earthquake, the pool was unfortunately empty on the day we visited, leaving Tláloc forlornly high and dry. Inside the pumping station on the walls of the gigantic tunnel that sluiced water into the city, Rivera painted vibrant murals that portray in gorgeous, fantastical images the role of water in the origin and evolutionary development of life, including the origin of Homo sapiens. Rivera based much of the imagery on the scientific theories of the Soviet scientist Alexander I. Oparin, a proponent of the primordial soup theory of evolution of life from carbon-based molecules. That Tláloc and Oparin inhabit the same art stage is proof of Rivera’s extraordinary gift for uniting myth and science as if the two were not at odds.
Two-thirds of Rivera’s murals would be submerged for 40 years. In 1990, the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes embarked on a decade-long project to restore the murals before they were totally erased by the rushing water and to open the pumping station as the public museum it so richly deserved to be. Underground tunnels were constructed to reroute the Rio Lerma water from the pumping station. Visitors can now stand and peer into the cavernous maw covered with Rivera’s amazing murals. In 2010, additional renovations began that included remedying what was lost in the renovation of the murals—the reverberations of water. Mexican artist Ariel Guzik designed a remarkable computerized mathematical system to replace the sound of water called the Cámara Lambdoma. Four outdoor sensors detect wind speed, seismic vibrations, angle of sun, and ambient temperature to activate a series of computer signals that in turn trigger organ pipes playing ever-changing murmurations.
The Cárcamo, with the ethereal music of the Cámara Lambdoma, is a jewel, one of the most beautiful and haunting spaces I’ve ever visited. Fifty miles to the southwest, black-polled yellowthroats, jewels of the Lerma Marshes, flitted in the cattails of their ever-shrinking waterscape. Here we were standing in an exquisite place that celebrates nature while at the same time destroying it. And I am left with a question. Can art take the place of nature?
Here’s the sound of water on an irrigation canal on the Rio Mayo, December 28, 2018.
Jeffrey Banister has written about the capture of water in “Deluges of Grandeur: Water, Territory, and Power on Northwest Mexico’s Rio May, 1880-1910,” Southwest Center and School of Geography and Development, University of Arizona.