A Tale of Two Tour Guides

In early 2019, I visited Mexico with some friends and we visited a number of historic sites with tour groups. Ultimately, I am glad we had guides to show us around and I think we had a richer experience because of it. Having said that, our experience with the tour guides was a poignant reminder of why it can be problematic to rely on just one source for information about historical matters.

Our first tour guide, a man named Gabe, set the bar pretty high when it came to tour guides. Completely bilingual, he was comfortable making jokes in Spanish and English and knew his script cold. It’s possible he was simply regurgitating company talking points and if that was the case, my hat goes off to the tour company for using talking points supported by modern scholarship. Chances are, however, Gabe gave us a speech he had probably written himself, considering all the personal tidbits he incorporated into his tour speech.

Gabe in the lower left corner

Right from the get go, he let us know he was not going to use the term Aztec, explained why he was not going to use the term, and then proceded to let us all know he would be using the term Mexica instead. While I cannot speak for the others in the group, I know that I personally appreciated his decision and his impassioned explanation. Moreover, I was very impressed by his ability to translate Nahua terms and his granular knowledge of artistic displays.

Xochimilco tour
Frida Kahla tour

The tour guide we had in Veracruz was not quite as impressive. Carlos employed far less humor in his presentation and never even used the term Mexica. Compared to Gabe, Carlos’ presentation was a tad dry and left a bit to be desired when it came to historical accuracy. Now just to be clear, Carlos was not a bad tour guide. He was very accommodating and had some great food suggestions—the restaurant, Villa Rica Mocambo if I remember correctly, he dropped us off at the end of the tour was so good we ended up coming back just two days later.

Quiahuiztlan
Picture from La Antigua

The main difference between Gabe and Carlos probably boils down to personal interests. While I cannot know for sure, I am pretty sure Gabe researched Mesoamerican history on his own and I am pretty sure Carlos just used the company script. Unfortunately, the company script probably relied upon outdated sources which ended up hamstringing Carlos’ ability to provide accurate information. By and large, Carlos did not say anything that raised eyebrows amongst other members of the tour group and I think that’s worth noting.

Cempoala

Owing to the research I have had to do for the Tenochtitlan Trilogy and my studies in school, I have learned quite a bit about pre-Hispanic Mexico. I genuinely enjoy reading books by the likes of Restall and Townsend and have a very strong interest in Mesoamerican history. Because of this, it was easy for me to tell that Gabe gave a much more accurate presentation than Carlos and I am inclined to believe that anybody who had Gabe and Carlos as tour guides would probably recognize that Gabe had a better understanding of the Spanish-Mexica war. Nonetheless, Carlos provides tours in Veracruz and Gabe provides tours in CDMX so I can’t imagine there is a great deal of overlap between their customers. Consequently, at least some of the people who were given a tour by Carlos never had any exposure to Gabe. It’s possible that all of Carlos’ tourists went out and read the most recent academic texts on the Spanish-Mexica war but I suspect that’s probably not the case. In any case, tourists who relied primarily on Carlos’ take probably received some bad information.

Unfortunately, bad information is not always easy to recognize. Sometimes a misleading narrative can be well-crafted—Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind or Shakespeare’s MacBeth are some great examples of this. So whether writing a historical novel or visiting a historic site, it’s worth noting that relying on just one source entails risk. Sometimes that one source can be someone like Gabe and sometimes that one source can be someone like Carlos. To know one way or another, it’s usually best to consult multiple sources and, all told, good sources are like good stories: the more, the merrier.

Review of Apocalypto film

I first saw Apocalypto in high school and enjoyed my first viewing immensely. I had little to go off when it came to assessing the accuracy of the movie but I found the actions sequences very entertaining and enjoyed the fast-paced, straightforward narrative. Since then, I have learned a great deal more about Mesoamerican history and I understand much better the problematic elements of the movie. The movie suggests the post-Classic Mayans carried out human sacrifice on a scale completely incongruous with the academic consensus and that people who lived in the hinterland had yet to transition to an agricultural lifestyle but did have to worry about getting raided by distant city-states. In reality, the Mayan people had been practicing agriculture for centuries by this point and warfare was carried out by major polities against other polities, not tiny villages buried deep in the jungle. For that matter, the idea that villagers would practice a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and maintain no connection to any sort of major metropolis contradicts a great deal of what we know about the Yucatan Peninsula in the early 1500s. As someone who takes a great interest in history, especially history related to the European colonization of the Americas, these inaccuracies are troubling to say the least.

Nonetheless, when it comes to assessing the quality of the movie, it is important to note that Apocalypto is a rather unique movie. After all, the box office is not exactly overwhelmed with movies set in pre-colonial North America, let alone movies filmed entirely in maya t’aan. I don’t think this should make audiences necessarily forgiving of the many inaccuracies included in the film but I think it does put them in context. At the end of the day, movie studios are profit-seeking organizations and the movie was intended for a general audience, not academics that specialize in Post-Classic Mayan history. To be fair, the many inaccuracies of Apocalypto could be attributable to shoddy scholarship but I think it stands to reason that some can be attributed to studio executives believing it would be alright to compromise the historicity of the movie for the sake of narrative cohesion.

I think it is also important to note that the movie does not claim to be based on a true story. This simple proclamation can generate understandable interest from audiences and helped power the financial success of movies like 12 Years a Slave and Apollo 13. If promotional material for the movie had featured language like this, the movie’s casual approach to history would be far more troubling in my opinion. Putting aside matters of historical accuracy, Apocalypto has many standout scenes. The scene where the village gathers to hear the story about the hole in Man has to be one of the better parables put to film and contains some incredibly rich symbolism. Audiences more interested in action than lengthy parables will also find plenty to enjoy in Apocalypto. The second half of the movie functions largely as an extended chase sequence but, owing to careful build-up beforehand and thoughtful pacing, never feels tiring. Some of the scenes in the movie are disturbingly bloody but even movie-viewers who tend to avoid the macabre will be able to appreciate the stunning photography in the movie.

Ultimately, I have mixed feelings about Apocalypto. The movie took an approach to history too casual for my tastes but I appreciate that the movie explores a time and place largely ignored in film. Additionally, I appreciate that the movie worked well on a narrative level and that it gave performers from traditionally under-represented groups the chance to showcase their talents for a wide audience. I would not suggest the movie to anyone looking for an accurate depiction of life in pre-Hispanic Mexico but I think movie-viewers who enjoy straightforward stories and long chase sequences can find a lot to enjoy in Apocalypto.

Review of The Young Jaguar, Book 1 in the Pre-Aztec Trilogy

Truth be told, I cannot remember how I first discovered Zoe Saadia’s work. While she was at one point a traditionally published author, I don’t think I have ever come across her work in a brick and mortar store. Perhaps I found her accidentally or perhaps I found her through Bookbub. No matter the case, I consider myself a big fan and will be sure to read more of her work in the future. Just recently, I finished her pre-Aztec trilogy, which has me reflecting on the first entry in that installment, The Young Jaguar.

To be completely honest, I was not that keen on the book cover and might have passed it up had I seen it in a bookstore. If I had, it would have been a big mistake. The Young Jaguar was one of my favorite reads of 2018 and a great example of historical fiction that educates as it entertains. I have studied Mesoamerican history pretty intensively–I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Spanish-Mexica war and I have traveled to numerous pre-Hispanic sites in Mexicobut I knew next to nothing about the Tepanecs prior to reading The Young Jaguar.

In all fairness, not that much has been written about the Tepanecs in English. A long time ago, they were one of the most powerful polities in all of Mesoamerica but they were eventually supplanted in power by the Mexica, who established a much more powerful and much longer lasting military confederacy. During the time period that The Young Jaguar is set in, the Tepanecs are at the height of their power and the Mexica are eeking out a miserable existence along the shores of Lake Xochimilco. Most of the Tepanec elite can not be bothered to spare a thought for the weak Mexica people but the antagonist of the novel, Revered Uncle, is practically obsessed with them. He fears the Mexica will one day displace the Tepanecs but he cannot approve any military campaigns against the Mexica since he is a mere advisor. Few agree with his dark predictions but the death of Acolnahuacatl offers a unique opportunity to install a new ruler sympathetic to his own world viewif Revered Uncle is willing to force aside the legitimate heir.

Initially, the protagonist of the novel, Atolli, is inclined to offer his support to Revered Uncle. At this point, he does not understand Revered Uncle’s ultimate goal but he knows he is very fond of Revered Uncle’s daughter. It soon becomes clear, however, that supporting Revered Uncle will put Atolli in direct conflict with his father. His father cares little for politics but has a strong sense of duty that compels him to support the legitimate heir, a man who’d rather make war against distant peoples than confront the threat posed by the Mexica. A Mesoamerican version of Ned Stark, Tecpatl is willing to put his own life at risk to make sure the legitimate heir takes the throne. His foreign-born wife, Sakuna, feels a similar sense of duty, but devotes herself to protecting her family, even if it means making a deal with Revered Uncle that would force her to betray Tecpatl’s trust.

While the complex dynamic of the characters creates for some interesting twists and turns, the great strength of The Young Jaguar is Saadia’s ability to make the reader understand the motivations of the various characters. There may be no better example of this than Revered Uncle. A thuggish schemer, Revered Uncle a penchant for violence matched only by his knowledge of his domestic politics. He is not exactly a sympathetic character but he is definitely a character who understands the threat posed by the Mexica. He genuinely cares about the well-being of the Tepanec nation and like Tecpatl, the heroic War Chief who opposes him at every turn, cares little for material wealth or formal titles. He is as cunning as Tecpatl is naive and he helps makes The Young Jaguar a fascinating read. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Mesoamerican history or to anyone who enjoys fast-paced narratives with complex characters.

This book is available on Amazon in the Kindle store and through Kindle select.