Arts & Culture

A still from Alfonso Cuarón's film, Roma, featuring two of the characters laying on a slab of concrete.

Set in Mexico City, Alfonso Cuarón's Roma raises important questions about class, race and the aspirations of a developing nation. Discover a catalogue of other films that have showcased life in the capital.

April 24, 2020

In his 2018 Oscar-winning film Roma, Alfonso Cuarón delivers a portrait of a Mexico City in flux, exploring issues of race, class and ambition in an era marked by unease and unrest. The film also operates as a sort of paean to the neighborhood in which the writer-director spent his childhood; Cuarón painstakingly re-created the Tepeji Street home he grew up in and blocks in the surrounding neighborhood of Roma, which had been developed in the early 20th century with Art Nouveau mansions to house Mexico City’s elite, but by the film’s setting of the 1970s had waned in popularity.

Some of the best movies set in Mexico City similarly examine tensions between what the city was and what it is, says Carlos A. Gutiérrez, founder of Cinema Tropical, a Latin American film programming, publicity and distribution organization based in New York City, and the co-director of Tucson Cine Mexico, the longest-running festival of contemporary Mexican cinema in the United States.

“Mexico City is not as visually iconic as New York,” Gutiérrez explains. His selection of films that best encapsulate and illustrate life in Mexico City creates not a picturesque travelogue but a broad-spectrum glimpse of the disparate social classes who call the D.F., or Distrito Federal, home. The following iconic films portray Mexico City through the years and myriad social and political changes.

Los Olvidados (1950), Luis Buñuel

By the 1940s, Mexican cinema had become well known for its overly exoticized, mystical representations of the country’s indigenous population. Directors such as Emilio Fernandez, whose Xochimilco (Maria Candelaria) won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1946, had created and popularized a Mexican iconography with stylized landscapes and depictions of indigenous people designed to enchant and amaze, instead of merely illustrate.

Buñuel’s Los Olvidados, a relentlessly grim portrayal of a group of poverty-stricken juvenile delinquents in Mexico City’s Nonoalco neighborhood eviscerated such overly romantic window-dressing and replaced it with visceral realism. Instead of morality and psychology, the film confronts existential issues about life and love; poverty is presented not to elicit pity but to present a reality that contradicts what had been commonly represented in the film industry of the time.

 “The film is iconic in its portrayal of marginalized people,” says Gutiérrez. “During the decades when the country’s economy was growing at a fast pace, here Buñuel follows a group of kids in the slums of Mexico City, revealing that Mexico was not all perfect.”

 Although the film was pulled from theaters after only three days amid outraged protests, critics were still able to recognize its merits; when it was selected for the 1951 Cannes festival, poet Octavio Paz even distributed an essay praising Buñuel, who’d go on to win Best Director that year for Los Olvidados. In 2003, the film was inducted into UNESCO’s “Memory of the World” program, which preserves documentary heritage of world significance.

El Callejón de los Milagros (1995), Jorge Fons

The movie adaptation of the 1947 Naguib Mahfouz novel Midaq Alley shifts the locale from 1940s Cairo to a run-down neighborhood in present-day downtown Mexico City, “and it works perfectly,” Gutiérrez says. “It gives a perfect representation.”

As its title implies, much of the four-part film is set on a single street where the characters live, work and struggle: Three parallel segments about alley life overlap and repeat scenes from varying perspectives before the final chapter revisits the narratives to resolve the plot lines—a gruff tavern owner who embarks on an extramarital gay relationship, a headstrong young woman (played by Salma Hayek, in her second movie role) spiraling into a life of prostitution, and a spinster whose quest to find love appears to be doomed.

Heated tempers, frustrated desires and dashed hopes commingle with warmth and gutsy humor, which earned the film a cache of international film awards and honors: 11 Ariel Awards (Mexico’s Oscar), including best film, best direction and best actress for Margarita Sanz; audience choice awards at the Chicago International and Guadalajara film festivals; and a special nomination at the 45th annual Berlin Film Festival for exceptional narrative quality.

Sexo, Pudor y Lágrimas (1999), Antonio Serrano

Serrano’s adaptation of his own long-running theatrical production set box office records in Mexico, grossing the equivalent of $12.4 million USD when it was first released. The battle-of-the-sexes comedy takes place amid the high-rise apartments and disenchanted yuppies of Polanco, one of Mexico City’s most posh neighborhoods.

“It’s a romantic comedy with a punch, focused on the ambitious Mexican middle and upper-middle class of the mid-1990s,” says Gutiérrez. As one of the first films in the wave of New Mexican Cinema, the movie not only spoke directly to the urban middle class but also served as a lifestyle fantasy for them, embedding philosophical musings on relationships inside an aspirational, glossy rom-com.

Sexo, Pudor … earned the audience award at the Guadalajara Film Festival, and won Ariel Awards for best original script, best actress, best original score, art direction and set design. A sequel is planned to begin production this year.

Amores Perros (2000), Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Iñárritu’s directorial debut is “a key film for Mexican cinema as it brings together the different classes and characters of Mexico City,” Gutiérrez says. Like Los Olvidados, the film interweaves three tales that intersect at a defining moment, but it takes viewers at a breakneck pace on a pulpy, feverish, side-streets tour through the lives of characters who inhabit markedly disparate social strata—wealthy models and magazine publishers on one end of the spectrum, dogfighting hoodlums and contract killers on the other. (The same structure and immersion in the criminal underbelly were used in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, with which Amores Perros has often been compared, although it’s been argued that the former is designed to glamorize the gangster component whereas the latter merely exposes them for what they are.)

Amores Perros won 15 Ariel Awards, was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards and earned several international awards. It launched the careers of actor Gael Garcia Bernal and Iñárritu, who won back-to-back Academy Awards for Best Director in 2014 and 2015 (for Birdman and The Revenant) and was president of the jury at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.

Güeros (2014), Alonso Ruizpalacios

This portrait of aimless Mexican youth may feel leisurely paced, but it still manages to pay simultaneous homage to French New Wave cinema, the “road trip” film canon and the transference of cultural heritage among generations.

During the four main characters’ road trip through Mexico City—the film’s chapters are named after different areas in the city—they pass time in hospital rooms, cul-de-sac homes and intellectual parties, taking wrong turns in untouched-by-tourism neighborhoods on their search for a mythical elderly musician. On a meta level, they’re also searching for meaning and purpose for lives that have been disrupted and upended by the 1999 strikes and student protests at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

“It’s a bit like the film Slacker, but highly stylized, and attempts to address social disparities,” Gutiérrez says. Güeros won five Ariel Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, in 2015.

People watching a film in a movie theater.

The Mexican film industry is flourishing, but most of the world is missing it. Here’s a look at the leading directors, actors and screenwriters who are behind the country's cinema rebirth.

April 28, 2020

Mexico’s film scene is booming, with a record 175 films made in the country in 2017. And in Hollywood, Mexican directors continue to win big at the Oscars every year—four of the last five directing Oscars have gone to Mexican filmmakers—but beyond the award-winners, the bulk of these films go largely unnoticed.

“There are amazing Mexican filmmakers—producers, directors, actors—winning awards internationally,” says Vicky Westover, program director of the Hanson Film Institute at The University of Arizona. “But we’re not seeing them; the movies aren’t showing in local art-house theaters or available on streaming platforms.”

Today’s era of filmmaking is reminiscent of Mexico’s first golden age of cinema in the 1930s and 1940s, when Mexico first arrived on the map as one of the world’s top producers of film. The industry began to fade in the 1950s and by the mid-1990s, fewer than 10 films were being made each year, in large part because there was little access to private financing.

Life for filmmakers in Mexico began to improve in the early 2000s, when the government-sponsored Mexican Institute for Cinematography, known as IMCINE, began financing films. The organization now spends around $44 million a year on film productions and over half the films produced in Mexico last year were subsidized by the government.

Around the same time, in an effort to increase the visibility of Mexican films, the Hanson Film Institute established Tucson Cine Mexico, which is now the longest-running festival of contemporary Mexican cinema in the United States. “These are movies that people will talk about for years after,” Westover says. “If there’s all of this amazing work being made, we’d like to be a platform for it.”

New Era, New Exposures

The Mexican film industry’s lack of visibility isn’t solely an issue related to international representation. “Even in Mexico, they aren’t aware that Mexico is an epicenter of world cinema,” says Carlos A. Gutiérrez, co-director of Tucson Cine Mexico and founder of Cinema Tropical, a Latin American film programming, publicity and distribution organization based in New York City.

As Gutiérrez explains, most Mexican theaters opt to show Hollywood blockbusters instead of any of the hundreds of titles produced domestically each year, in part because of challenges related to promotion and distribution. “Until recently, Mexican cinema was foreign cinema in Mexico, too,” he says. “But it’s always been a major player, and it’s currently going through a second ‘Golden Era.’”

Many players in the Mexican film industry who’ve recently achieved fame at an international level are part of this Nuevo Cine Mexicano movement, particularly the Academy Award-winning directors Alfonso Cuarón (Roma), Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman, The Revenant) and Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water).

“Beyond the ‘Three Amigos,’ though, there’s a host of Mexican filmmakers who are making movies that are equally good—and from a curatorial perspective, sometimes even better,” Westover says. “Great new stuff is constantly getting made.”

While the range of topics and styles of modern Mexican film is broad, below Gutiérrez and Westover identify and explain a few of the more notable thematic trends.

Diversity of Characters

“This is the process of a country recognizing itself as more diverse than it was,” Gutiérrez says. “For years, the stars of Mexican film and television were white or very fair-skinned—it was practically like watching Norwegian programs—and this was presented as being aspirational, in terms of race.”

Now, filmmakers have begun to focus on people who’ve long been underrepresented on the big screen. In 2019, Tucson Cine Mexico screened features such as La Camarista and Guie'dani’s Navel, which share the stories of single-mother hotel maids and indigenous families, as well as documentaries about Afro-Mexican communities and an Oaxacan society that welcomes and accepts transgender people.

“One of the reasons I was interested in Guie'dani’s Navel—in which a maid who comes to work for an upper-middle-class family brings her 12-year-old Zapotec indigenous daughter—is that I see it as a corrective of sorts to Roma,” Westover says. “Instead of a rather romanticized idea of a maid, this movie does a great job of letting you see the uncomfortable realities and conflicts of this class structure. It’s not all roses and being happy to clean up your messes, which to me was emotionally hard-hitting.”  

Plumbing the Past

“Particularly in the past two or three years, filmmakers have been going back to the 1970s and ’80s—less for nostalgia’s sake than in an attempt to understand and explain modern Mexico,” Gutiérrez says. “A lot of the politics and problems the country has recently experienced can be traced to the neoliberal policies that shaped the country for nearly half a century, and so filmmakers are trying to revisit the past to explain the present.”

Alonso Ruizpalacios’ debut feature Güeros, which screened at Tucson Cine Mexico in 2015, examines the effect of a more recent seminal moment in Mexican history: the 1999 student strikes at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, which themselves evoked comparison to the 1968 riots that redefined how Mexican citizens viewed their political rights and leaders. The film went on to win Best Picture, Best Director and Best First Feature at that year’s Ariel Awards, Mexico’s equivalent of the Oscars.

“People loved this film so much,” says Westover. “It was so amazing we showed it twice, which we hardly ever do. There’s a sly humor to it—an homage to the road-trip genre, but the humor is that you’re not actually going anywhere. However, there’s also quite serious critique of the political situation.”

Nonfiction Narratives

“We’re beginning to see some great films trying to decipher the human crisis from the war on drugs,” Gutiérrez says. “I don’t think even we as Mexican citizens fully understand what’s going on, what people are going through—the various powers, the narcos, doing the dirty laundry for the local, state and federal governments. There’s a giant gray area that the mass media isn’t really reporting. Mexico’s one of the most difficult countries to be a journalist in, so filmmakers have been able to create the narratives.”

The documentary Tempestad by Salvadorean-Mexican director Tatiana Huezo, which screened at Tucson Cine Mexico in 2018, recounts two terrifying tales of government corruption and ineptitude, including a woman who was arrested and spent a year in jail as a pagador (“payer”)—a scapegoat for when law enforcement authorities need to promote the illusion of progress in their fight against crimes like drug and human trafficking.

“Any completely innocent person could be arrested and sent to prison just so the justice of the peace could say they ‘solved’ that series of crimes,” Westover says. Then, once inside the cartel-controlled prisons, they’re told their families must pay to keep them alive.

“This is a serious subject matter, and the director educates us in the most artful, lyrical way,” she says. “It completely breaks with all conventions for documentary: You never see one of the people, for example, and often when someone is talking, the camera isn’t on the subject; instead, they’re showing you all sorts of things. You go along on this journey where you become immersed in a way that feels like you’ve entered their world. Mexican filmmakers are making really interesting, artistic choices.”

Going Up-stream

Streaming services like Netflix have become game-changers as developers search for unique, exceptional content, Westbrook says.

“They’re going to every country investing in local talent,” she says. “There’s suddenly so much opportunity to make films in Mexico that they don’t have enough crew members to fulfill demand, and I’m curious to see how that shakes out: Will Americans who can speak Spanish go down there and work? It’s an interesting dynamic with a big opportunity for cultural conflict, because here things are much more ‘stay in your lane — that’s my job,’ but in Mexico there’s more fluidity on set.”

Streaming services have also begun to import Mexican directors to helm productions in America. In May, Netflix signed Guadalajara native Manolo Caro to a multiyear contract to develop new television projects, including the series House of Flowers; Westbrook says that writer-director Beto Gómez, whose Cinderelo made its U.S. premiere at Tucson Cine Mexico in 2019, was also just tapped by Netflix for directorial services.

“It’s interesting to see these filmmakers make it big,” she says, “which, we’ve learned over 16 years of doing this, means we’re going to have to keep looking for the next crop.”

A stack of colorful books in a library.

Gaining knowledge of the world and embracing cultural diversity has become a necessity, not a luxury. Is a globalized reading list—part of the Worlds of Words program—the key to building cultural bridges?

April 28, 2020

To say that Kathy Short is a bit of a bookworm is an understatement. As the founder of Worlds of Words, a program designed to encourage kids to embrace cultural diversity through multicultural literature, she is constantly on the hunt for books that will help immerse children in world cultures.

The premise is simple: Offer alternatives to the Common Core State Standards’ text exemplar list, and offer a way for educators to globalize their classrooms and libraries.

“I’ve done some work in classrooms around the world and found that kids in other countries were much more engaged in other cultures,” says Short, who administers the program through the University of Arizona’s College of Education, where she’s also a professor. “We don’t see that same recognition in the United States. One of the reasons is that in places like Europe, it’s possible to cross a border every few hours. In many parts of the United States, that isn’t really true. Literature was one way that I could think of as a way to immerse children into a culture.”

And so, since she launched Worlds of Words in 2007, Short has helped the program amass a vast collection of globally focused children’s and adolescent literature.

A Hub for Educators

In 2014, the program moved into its current home in the College of Education on the UArizona campus. Open to the public, the space features a special collection of illustrations, as well as signed, first-edition books. Additionally, Worlds of Words organizers host author lectures, special events and workshops, and participate in the Tucson Books Festival.

Most importantly, though, the program is a hub for educators, as it houses loaner materials—books, community story boxes and family story backpacks—for schools, libraries and literature groups.

“We want educators to see the potential in the literature and in the way those books can be used,” Short says. “And for people who live locally, we have the global books in a separate section in our collection, so anyone can come in.”

Organized by world regions, the 35,000-volume library is largely focused on global literature written in English and that are published or distributed in the United States. That said, Short looks regularly for translated titles, which account for only 3 or 4 percent of the applicable literature in the United States. By contrast, in other locales—most African countries, for example—translated titles account for approximately 90 percent of the literature in circulation.

“You’d hope to find somewhere between 30 and 40 percent as a standard,” Short says. “We’re very ethnocentric in America and very market driven. That’s why, if I find any strong, translated books, they go on our list.”

A Bridge Across Cultures

The list, which Worlds of Words has further organized by grade level, also offers suggestions for paired reading. Take, for example, P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother? In it, a baby bird searches for its mother, encountering—among other things—a dog, a cat and a “snort,” a piece of heavy machinery. On the first-grade list, the book pairs with English writer Deborah Hautzig’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, in which a young girl falls into a rabbit hole and meets a variety of interesting characters. Alternately, Dr. Seuss’ popular Green Eggs and Ham pairs with Karen Backstein’s The Blind Men and the Elephant. In the latter, which is based in India, blind men each describe an elephant by feeling only one part of its body. The basic premise for each is easy for first graders to absorb—try something new and explore things outside your comfort zone.

By fifth grade, young readers might compare Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion to Gill Lewis’ Moon Bear, about a young Laotian boy and his bear cub companion.

So, what then, are the benefits to global comparative literature? Multiple studies have shown that reading across cultures helps encourage children to interact with others across ethnic backgrounds. Like Green Eggs and Ham and The Blind Men and the Elephant, it’s the idea that the world is meant to be explored.  

Indeed, an Australian study on the subject found that stories that depict diversity can help children see race and the differences therein as something beautiful, rather than a barrier.

That’s part of the reason Short includes both good and bad examples of multicultural literature in Worlds of Words’ program.

“For the most part, if the book is set in a global culture, we bring it into the collection,” she says. “And we are interested in good and bad examples. A bad example is a book that doesn’t authentically represent the culture. If kids don’t see the bad examples, they’re not really sure what makes something problematic. We want high-quality literature, though. We want to be able to promote that.”

A collage of black and white images featuring Indigenous communities

We sat down with photographer and research associate in the Southwest Center, David Burckhalter to discuss his long-range documentary study of Seri Indians.

Feb. 19, 2021

In 1970, David Burckhalter was just starting to tinker with photography when he happened upon the nomadic Seri people, who live on Tiburón Island in the Gulf of California and the adjacent mainland in Sonora. This chance encounter began a 50-year relationship with the tribe, which numbers fewer than a thousand people. Today, Burckhalter’s work spans the globe, but he has returned once again to the Seris with a new book project.

Revista: How did you discover photography?

David Burckhalter: Everything in my life has seemed to be by chance, just by going out there and being open to what happens. I had a job in Hawaii; it was a bird project. I was in biology and entomology. One of the guys I worked with was buying a new camera and asked if I was interested in his old one. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I was getting some good results. I decided to apply for grad school at the U of A. I was beginning street photography just around Tucson and realized I didn't know anything, but I was open to learning. I wasn't sure where it was going to take me, but I believed in myself and had confidence.

Revista: What first drew you to the Seris?

David Burckhalter: Because of the biology program I was in we started making field trips to Mexico. On one of those trips, I walked out of a restaurant after a shrimp dinner and a couple of beers and there were these Indian women in long dresses with their kids—they turned out to be Seris. What really attracted me were the faces; I couldn’t believe people looked like that. After I graduated, I said, I don't think I want to do [biology]. I had a master's degree and no job offers and only a couple hundred dollars in my pocket. I decided to go down to see the Seris; they were just starting to do these iron wood carvings and the women made beautiful baskets. So, at first, my entry into the villages was as a buyer of arts and crafts. I had an importing business. I still do that on a small scale. That started a long relationship that has gone on for 50 years.

Revista: What has changed in their community over the years?

David Burckhalter: When I landed there in 1970, their houses were ocotillo cactus-framed shelters and tarpaper shacks, and now they have permanent housing. They have a mold structure that they put up and a few concrete block shelters. They have access to cars and transportation—they used to be walking people—and the dress and appearance is totally different. All the men had long hair but now only women have long hair. The women used to face paint every day. And the men used to all wear cowboy hats but now they like baseball caps.

Revista: What is your current project with the Southwest Center?

David Burckhalter: I’m working on a book and it’s a magnum opus, you might say, about the Seris’ geography. I’ve been going out with a guide just to walk that land and focus on how their ancestors lived as nomadic people, living off the land and the sea. It’s been boots on the ground … for years I was just taking the same trip, but I realized that I really didn't know the land. I was just driving through it on the same roads every year. And so my project became that I want to explore the land to see what's out there, especially with the women, to find out where they go and how they do the harvest.

Revista: You’ve produced a lot of travel photography throughout the world. What has been the common thread throughout your work?

David Burckhalter: The attitude of respect that what you're doing is positive and you’re going to help transfer that—those cultural things that are being observed and recorded and documented—as a positive. It’s a hard decision to make because you realize that you're being intrusive, but on the other hand, there's this incredible image.

Revista: What’s been the most memorable or strikes you as your most important work?

David Burckhalter: I have an archive of 50 years of photographs of the Seris and I don't think anybody has anything close to that. … I've had a few people ask me what are your favorite photographs? The ones for me are the ones that are still in my head that I just didn't get. Or they were the ones that I was either too timid or I don't know why I didn’t take.

Revista: Are there any particular people or places you’d like to document but haven’t yet?

David Burckhalter: The Mayan Ruins. I've been to some but there's a bunch I would just love to see and then just go down there and walk around and eat great Mexican food. But right now, my whole focus is writing. What I'm trying to do is take people with me; the book I’m writing is like a personal geography. A personal journey. And I want the reader to feel like they're going with me and I'm showing them what's out there and in a creative, interesting way.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Interior and exterior of a small library

In an effort to promote economic development through education, UArizona scholars are making literacy more accessible binationally.

Feb. 19, 2021

At the top of a three-story building in Cajones Guanajuato, Mexico, you will find worlds upon worlds.

There you will find a library.

The library is housed inside Resplandor International, a humanitarian and educational non-profit organization that collaborates with individuals, families and communities in Guanajuato, Mexico. Resplandor was borne out of a desire by members of the UArizona community to encourage cross-border cultural competence and promote economic development in Mexico through education.

“Mexicans are great storytellers” but “[many families] don’t have books in their home” says Todd Fletcher, Resplandor’s founding director and an Emeritus Professor in the UArizona Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies in the College of Education.

Resplandor’s library, inaugurated in the summer of 2016, helps to fill in for the lack of home libraries and is a result of a partnership with Worlds of Words and director Kathy Short.

The library serves as a resource to the local community, with books in both Spanish and English. The books are sorted around themes and categories so that children can easily find books that interest them.

Representation Matters

Children also have unprecedented access to books with people who look like and act like them. “When children do not see their cultures represented in books, they receive the message that their cultural identities are not valued,” says Short, who is also a professor in the UArizona Department of Teaching, Learning and Sociocultural Studies in the College of Education.

At the same time, reading builds intercultural understanding, an important tenant of Resplandor and WOW. “Knowledge and experiences acquired through reading promotes greater understanding, acceptance and compassion for others,” Fletcher says.

Both Fletcher and Short emphasize the importance of reading for the sake of reading. “Books are not written to teach reading but to experience life,” says Short.

“Reading books in which their lives are reflected support children in deepening their understandings and comprehension,” says Short. “They have more experiences and knowledge to bring to those books and allows them to develop comprehension strategies and confidence to bring to literature reflecting less familiar experiences.”

A Rich History of Partnership

Resplandor opened its doors in 2009, but Fletcher, who has worked in Mexico since his undergraduate days, has collaborated with the communities surrounding Guanajuato for decades. Members of the UArizona community have benefitted from Fletcher’s connection to Mexico since 1986, when he started the Verano en México program.

The summer program is designed to introduce undergraduate and graduate students to the culture, history and education of Mexico, so that participants gain a context for, not only the lives of school-aged students in Guanajuato, but also children arriving into U.S. schools from Mexico. Participants complete educational projects, many related to literacy, and volunteer in the first week of a 2-week summer school Resplandor holds for 150 local students.

Fletcher and Short also initiated the Richard Ruiz Scholar/Artist in Residency program in honor of the late Richard Ruiz, former head of the UA Department of Mexican American Studies and faculty member in the College of Education.

“The purpose of the residency is to promote the love of reading for reading’s sake and literacy in the greater Guanajuato community,” says Fletcher.

There have been four Richard Ruiz scholars to date, and these scholars have provided classes, workshops and activities to the local communities surrounding Resplandor and in the state of Guanajuato. One previous scholar used art, poetry and theater to engage community members in literacy education.

“Our volunteers and team members feel very strongly, and we work to ensure that our efforts in teaching reading, writing, art and music are based in a pedagogy of love that connects in authentic ways with the kids we serve,” says Fletcher.

Overall, Resplandor’s library and the Verano en Mexico and the Richard Ruiz Scholar/Artist in Residency programs are meant to open up people to experiences and cultures beyond their own. “Differences create dilemmas and the most effective way to address and solve the issues and problems that result from these dilemmas and conflicts is through education,” Fletcher says.

“The border provides opportunities to build collaborations that pull from the richness of both Mexican and U.S. cultures, to use difference as a resource for creating something new that goes beyond what each culture could do separately,” adds Short.

Mayan ruins

Near the western border of the ancient location of the Maya Lowlands and in the modern-day Usumacinta region of Tabasco, Mexico, there is an architectural wonder: a human-made plateau that is 4,600 feet long.

June 1, 2021

In this communal space, the Maya could gather on a mound just west of the plateau on the summer solstice and look east toward the horizon for the sunrise over the northern edge of this plateau.

In 2017, an international team led by Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan, professors in the University of Arizona School of Anthropology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, discovered this Maya ceremonial complex known as Aguada Fénix.

Previously undiscovered, Aguada Fénix was detected using an airborne application of a remote-sensing technique called light detection and ranging, also known as lidar. Lidar uses lasers to create a 3-D model of ground terrains that are hidden by trees or obscured by forested areas.

Radiocarbon dating of 69 charcoal samples from the Aguada Fénix excavation site put the date of construction between 1,000 to 800 BC, making it the oldest confirmed Maya structure in history. Before the discovery of Aguada Fénix, the oldest confirmed Maya structure and ceremonial center was Ceibal, built in 950 B.C., and located in Petén, Guatemala.

Aguada Fénix not only contains the oldest Maya structure, but also the largest. As a modern-day comparison, the Empire State Building in New York City, one of the tallest in the United States, is 1,250 feet tall; the eastern plateau at the center of Aguada Fénix is 4,600 feet long, far exceeding the size of pyramids and palaces of later periods in Maya history.

Buildings and structures play important social roles, both in 1,000 B.C. and across human history. Archaeological discoveries like the one at Aguada Fénix tell researchers how societies were structured and what those societies valued.

Aguada Fénix marked a major shift in how archaeologists think about early human potential and interaction. Before the discovery of Aguada Fénix, archaeologists theorized that sedentary life, marked by the use of ceramics and the construction of smaller, residential dwellings, paved the way for communal ritual activities. Instead, the opposite appears to be true.

The communal work of the people in the Maya lowlands shows that large-scale public architecture was humanly possible before the need for a centralized ruling body. "During later periods, there were powerful rulers and administrative systems in which the people were ordered to do the work. But this site is much earlier, and we don't see the evidence of the presence of powerful elites. We think that it's more the result of communal work," Takeshi Inomata said.

Younger Maya ruins can tell us about the presence of powerful elites and marked social inequality. Maya stelae, for example, are tall, sculpted stone monuments meant to glorify the king and record his accomplishments. The earliest known stelae were produced around 400 BC, 400 years after the construction of Aguada Fénix was completed.

In contrast to the eastern plateau at Aguada Fénix, there are high-reaching Maya stepped pyramids that are emblematic of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica. In Calakmul in modern-day Camache, Mexico, the stepped pyramid known as Structure 2 is 148 feet tall, making it one of the tallest Maya stepped pyramids. A stelae found in Structure 2 shows that there was probably a king of Calakmul in 411 AD. This is 1,200 years after Aguada Fénix was finished.

The Mayans of Mexico’s southern lowlands inhabited Palenque, or modern-day Chiapas, from about 100 BC to 800 AD. Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal or Pacal the Great ruled until his death in 683 AD, more than 1,400 years after Aguada Fénix was completed. His sarcophagus was found in the stepped pyramid called the Temple of the Inscriptions, a funery monument built for him at his behest.

Yet, all of these momentous structures were built after the community work of Aguada Fénix.

"It's not just hierarchical social organization with the elite that makes monuments like [Aguada Fénix] possible," Inomata said. "This kind of understanding gives us important implications about human capability, and the potential of human groups. You may not necessarily need a well-organized government to carry out these kinds of huge projects. People can work together to achieve amazing results."