I first heard of Cortez while poring over a World History, 5th Edition text book in Mrs. Dowell’s homeroom. The long list of previous student borrowers at the front of the volume explained the grafitti which filled the margins. Strewn across the bound paper, a complex network of geometric and comedic depictions, presumably of the borrowers immediate environment.
Although I made adding my own documentation a priority, I was not so distracted by this secondary task as to not notice the typical Anglo-saxson colonization themes in each paragraph: violence and securing of resources. Pictures of natives in elaborate ceremonial dress bowing and handing over gold to Caucasians in military garb reinforced my historical conclusions. I vaguely recall imagery implicating Cortez as a long lost God or leader thus locking in “divine leadership” as an addition to the “typical themes of the Anglo-saxson colonization”list.
Thirteen years later, while visiting El Paso as an Exploration Geologist on an ExxonMobil Amex fueled field trip, I’d forgotten all learned in Mrs. Dowells sixth grade class. I’d arranged to arrive early enough to visit the granite formations of Huaco Tanks on the outskirts of El Paso. Like so many before me, I was drawn to the long since weathered monolith. An igneous intrusion, the only rise on an expansive horizon for hundreds of miles in any direction. While my initial intent was to climb, to conqueror, I found that the simplicity of connecting with a culture 8,000 years my senior cultivated far greater satisfaction. It was here that I viewed my first petroglyph, red pigment carefully brushed atop the coarse canvas of rock, Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent.
Archeologists believe that most of these markings were created by the Archaic Indians (6000 B.C.-400 A.D.) and the Mogollon (one of the 4 major SW tribal sects), Jordana branch (400 A.D. To 1400 A.D.). The simpler geometric patterns legacy of the former and the more complex such as masks (and Quetzalcoatl) left behind by the later. Increased intricacy in paintings is likely a result of a societal shifting to a mixed agricultural means of sustenance apposed to exclusively hunting and gathering.
My gaze locked over the ancient markings, my eyes tracing the outline of each curve. The hired guide told a story of a Mesoamerican deity who chose to live on the Earth among humans. According to Toltec teachings (predecessors to the Aztecs), he was the inventor of books and the calendar, the giver of maize, guardian of the morning sky, and even credited with creating present day humans. Tragically, after breaking a celibacy pledge he left the community by way of sea, promising to return in the year 1519. Coincidentally, this is the year Cortez made first contact with the Aztecs. We speculated as to weather the conquistador asserted his being the reincarnate Quetzalcoatl or the Aztecs presumed this as many christian/native legends and customs have been blurred since colonization began. Either way, literature describes the petroglyph as a “colonial helmet” which might suggest a connection.
When the discussion ceased, feeling there was much to contemplate, I retreated to a corner of the cave. Running my fingers over the enclosure surrounding me, I imagined a young artist looking at the same walls and seeing more than just rock. Conjuring a vision of a primitive brush and palate, I wondered what was in the artists heart when he poised to make his first stroke. Was it the same motivation which drove the graffiti in my history book? Did the artist combine adolescent monotony and depictions of immediate surroundings?
It is clear, individuals want to leave a mark, weather board in sixth grade history class, a power hungry spaniard, a philosophically complex civilized people, or a thirty year old urban female nomad. Graffiti in all its forms is necessary and inevitable. Eight-thousand years from now, I wonder what future humans will gather from the drawings they find in the margins of fossilized text books…