XOCHICALCO, MEXICO—A sliver of the sun burned blindingly through a narrow tube in the ceiling of the cave, forming a circular pool of light the size of a soccer ball where it met a dirt floor strewn with offerings. Necklaces, wedding rings, charms, and photographs were placed carefully in its center, glimmering in darkness like small treasures.
Amid the chants and burning copal, visitors to the ancient observatory emerged from the cave’s shadows—one by one, they stretched out their hands, bathing in the beam of light that shone from heaven to earth.
Xochicalco, situated in the mountains in Morelos, Mexico, was once a thriving pre-Columbian city and its ruins are believed to be the largest astronomical observatory on the continent. For Maestro Mazatzin Acosta this was the last stop of a five-day journey through various ceremonial sites near Mexico City commemorating the Zenith Passage of the Sun, between July 25 and 29.
“The ancient calendar system, codices and the ceremonial sites and observatories are in a relationship,” said Mazatzin, who led a group of U.S. and Mexican journalists, activists, Danzantes and indigenous leaders during the Zenith Passage. “It shows that our ancestors were not crazy religious fanatics… they were scientists, doctors, and astronomers.”
Mazatzin, a Bay Area-based expert on the Tonalpohualli, or Aztec Calendar, has headed a movement across continents to teach about Mexica culture and traditions of honoring time and the elements—an ancient way of life that he hopes to revive and share. In 2007, Mazatzin advised a project that placed a 27-foot tile depiction of the calendar above the front entrance of City College of San Francisco’s Mission Campus.
Palm-sized butterflies that danced in the crowns of trees and a breathtaking view of rolling hills seemingly untouched by civilization, add to Xochicalco’s mystical charm. But the tranquility is deceiving—many visitors that stand atop the ancient ruins are unaware that this cultural and archeological gem is in peril.
In the hills of El Jumil, within a 2-kilometer radius of the archeological zone, a foreign mining company has quietly unveiled its plans for a gold mine that is threatening to destroy the UNESCO-recognized World Heritage site.
“(Xochicalco) is in danger from the mining companies,” said Mazatzin. “The laws that exist today don’t make it a crime for them to destroy our sacred sites.”
Esperanza Resources, a Canadian mining company, promises jobs and profits—but activists and residents fear that the price of the mining project is too high.
Health and ecological destruction are major concerns of activists speaking out against the invasive open-pit mine, claiming that the area’s flora, fauna, and water systems are at risk of suffering irreversible damages.
Greg Smith, CEO of Esperanza Resources, referred to Mexico as a “great place” to mine. “They have great mining legislation, a great mining culture. The government is supportive of mining,” Smith said in an interview with a Mining news outlet in May.
Dr. Alejandro Villamar is involved with two organizing bodies fighting the mining project, Red de Comunicadores Indígenas and Movimiento Mesoamericano Contra el Modelo Extractivo Minero.
According to Villamar, Mexico’s lax mining legislation—which gives precedence to mining over other uses of the land such as tourism, agricultural and commercial uses—has created a favorable environment for international corporations to exploit the country’s resources.
Opponents to the Esperanza gold mine are actively seeking to reform the legislation. A current campaign and manifesto will go in front of the Mexican Senate when it convenes in September.
Under current legislation, mining companies are able to obtain contracts for up to 50 years. The proposed amendment would reduce and limit these contracts.
In the coming months, Mexican lawmakers will be deciding on another controversial legislative measure that speaks to the privatization of natural resources that is sweeping the country, as President Enrique Peña Nieto proposed constitutional changes that would allow global oil companies to invest in Mexico’s state oil monopoly, Pemex.
For indigenous communities surrounding Xochicalco, changing the mining law is vital in establishing sovereignty and legitimacy as representatives of their culture.
“Part of the…larger framework of getting the mining law changed is establishing a precedent regarding the respect of indigenous rights and the rights of mother earth,” said Villamar. “That is specifically respecting rights of indigenous people so they can have ownership over their land.”
“If at least they’d paid us for what they’re taking,” said one local when asked for his opinion about the mining project. He would not reveal his name.
Another man walked away when asked to speak about the Esperanza Mining company on camera.
Whether it was fear, an instilled sense of powerlessness or the daily struggle to survive that silenced the community was unclear—but signs and banners were hung in trees, driveways, and decorated windows in Xochicalco, a town located at the foot of the mountain that houses the sacred site.
Communities close to Xochicalco were invited by companies many months before and offered compensations.
“In a poor community, which is abandoned by the government and social programs—if a company comes with promises and offers a few very badly paid jobs, the natural response is to agree with the project,” said Villamar. “The surrounding communities affected by the project (should)…defend Xochicalco, the water of the region, defend even the rights of the people who don’t want to exercise them.”
“It is true that there are no jobs,” said Gerardo Tristan, an activist in the mining cause. “It is easy for the mining companies to come in and buy off people with bicycles and blenders.”
As the sun set on its course and the light filtering through the Zenith tube grew faint, Mazatzin stood beneath it holding up a poster of his son, Ernesto “Xe” Acosta, who was killed in San Francisco in February. Xe had accompanied his father on the Zenith Passage for the past six years.
“The purpose of the calendar was to learn to live in harmony with everything and everybody that surrounds you,” said Mazatzin. “We as humans unfortunately have not been respectful to our mother earth…we are not taking care of her or the elements that give us life.”
Xochitl Bernadette Moreno contributed to this report.