Margarita Vargas-Betancourt

August 19, 2013

“Between Scarcity and Excess: Problems over Water in Santiago Tlatelolco during the Early Colonial Period”

Paper delivered at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Society for Ethnohistory, New Orleans, Louisiana.

During the colonial period, like in the precontact era, the need of water to drink, irrigate, and obtain resources as well as the need to control flooding shaped the life of the people who lived in Santiago Tlatelolco, one of the two indigenous republics included in Mexico City. Adaptation to a lacustrine environment was the first dilemma that the Tlatelolca experienced when they founded their city. The arrival of the Spaniards and the establishment of a colonial system brought about different types of problems. In this paper, I will discuss some of the strategies that the Tlatelolca used to obtain and control water in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The purpose will be to elucidate to what degree these mechanisms reflect continuity or transformation of indigenous culture.

[SLIDE 2] Colonial documents, such as manuscript maps, chronicles, and lawsuits, suggest that the Tlatelolca fought environmental, political, and legal battles over water both before and after the arrival of the Spaniards. The Ordenanza del Señor Cuauhtemoc, a sixteenth-century amate (paper made from bark) document housed at Tulane University, includes a map that depicts the boundaries of Tlatelolco, traits of the orography and the hydrography of the region, and the hydraulic system built in this part of the basin of central Mexico. In the Ordenanza, the parts that constituted the hydraulic system, such as defense walls (albarradas), causeways (calzadas), dikes, canals (acequias), ditches, and dams, suggest the extreme obstacles that Tlatelolca and Tenochca had to overcome to survive in a lacustrine environment.

[SLIDE 3] Tlatelolco and Tenochtitlan were located in the island in the middle of Lake Tetzcoco; Tlatelolco was located to the north, whereas Tenochtitlan was located to the south. Lake Tetzcoco was part of a lacustrine system in the basin of Mexico that was constituted by five interconnected lakes: Xaltocan and Zumpango to the north; Tetzcoco in the center, and Lakes Xochimilco and Chalco to the south. Lake Tetzcoco was the largest of the five lakes and also the one with the lowest elevation; consequently, water from the other lakes drained into Lake Tetzcoco.

The Mexica arrived to the basin of Mexico in 1193.[i] Since they were the last northern group to migrate, they found most of the land occupied, and they established their city in a small island surrounded by swamps, cattails, and reeds. The island did not have enough land to support their population, but from the beginning they started overcoming this environment through the construction of land. The initial element of a complex hydraulic system was the chinampas: rectangular platforms constructed with mud and decaying vegetation that served as foundation for residential structures or garden plots.

The vegetation of the basin’s lakes supported this technique because of the intertwined roots that constituted it. Indigenous peoples attached these natural platforms to the bottom of the lake with piles made from trees. They used willows because their roots fixed the platforms in a permanent way. They placed each chinampa close to one another, but they left some space between to give way to irrigation canals. Then, natives took mud out from the bottom of the canals that surrounded the chinampa, and they spread the mud, which was rich in organic nutrients, over the chinampa. By doing this after each harvest, they created sustainable and fertile soil. They fertilized it even further with aquatic weeds and night soil. Over the years, the layers of mud spread on the platforms made the soil deeper and deeper until the chinampas were fixed to the bottom of the lake. In this way, floating platforms transformed into permanent ones. At first, water canals separated each chinampa from the others, but gradually, as their soil became attached to the bottom of the lake, they connected with each other, and thus gave way to solid ground.[ii]

[SLIDE 4] Sometime after the foundation of Tenochtitlan, a group of Mexica (the Tlatelolca) decided to move away from Tenochtitlan, and they founded their own city in a small sand island. For this reason, they called it Xaltilulco which means sand mound.[iii] As the Tlatelolca constructed the land of their city with soil and stone, the name evolved from Xaltilulco to Tlatelulco which they said means earth mound.[iv] Tlatelolco was located in the north of the basin. There sustenance problems were more serious than in the south because of low precipitation, severe frosts, and the shallow nature of the soil which made it inclined to erosion. To make things worse, northern lakes were also the most prone to drying. On the other hand, during the rainy season, the Cuauhtitlan River originated other rivers and streams that flowed into lakes Xaltocan and Ecatepec, which then flowed to Lake Tetzcoco. As the level of water of Lake Tetzcoco rose, it would flood Tlatelolco first and then Tenochtitlan. Thus, the location of Tlatelolco was the least favorable in terms of the environment.

To survive, Tenochca and Tlatelolca developed a complex hydraulic technology that transformed marginal swampy land into intensive agricultural land, prevented flooding, and controlled the level of water. Apparently, the Ordenanza depicted the rights that each community had over the hydraulic system. These rights were especially important for the Tlatelolca because commerce was one of their most important economic activities, and they needed to be connected to the rest of the basin in order for their market to function. Rights over the lake’s water were also fundamental for the sustenance of both communities because the lake provided the largest supply of protein to the inhabitants of the island and the basin in general.

The structures that constituted the hydraulic system not only served to control water but also as boundary markers. According to the Ordenanza del Señor Cuauhtémoc, the Tlatelolca built the oldest defense wall of the system, called Tlaminiltli Atenamitl, which ran from a place known as Coyoco near the dam known as Atzacoalco, located to the east of Tepeyac, to Tepetzinco, a hill located in the middle of Lake Tetzcoco, later known as Peñón de los Baños [SLIDE 6]. The Tlatelolca constructed this dike to prevent fishermen from Tetzcoco from entering Tlatelolco’s part of the lake. They also had conflicts over water and land rights with the Tenochca. For this reason, circa 1435, the rulers of Tenochtitlan, Tlatelolco, and Tetzcoco –Itzcoatl (1428-1440), Cuauhtlatoa (1424-1452), and Nezahualcoyotl (1431-1472)—got together to reaffirm that the aforementioned defense wall was the boundary of Tlatelolco’s water rights.[v]

The ambiguity of Spanish authorities towards indigenous hydraulic structures shaped the development and management of Mexico City’s hydraulic system. On one hand, they use causeways as the principal axis of the city. On the other, they neglected and even damaged defense walls and canals. Documents and maps suggest that by the seventeenth century, the main pre-Hispanic causeways continued to exist. The Tepeyac Causeway, the Ixtapalapa Causeway and the Tlacopan Causeway continued to form a principal network for communication, transport, and flood protection.[vi] In addition, the Tepeyac Causeway along with the causeways from Santiago Tlatelolco to Tenayuca and to Azcapotzalco constituted a second important network that protected the city from flooding.[vii] Despite all, flooding continued to afflict the city.

The neglect that the Albarrada de Nezahualcoyotl and the Albarrada de Ahuizotl experienced probably accounted for the floods that the city suffered after the arrival of the Spaniards [SLIDE 6]. During the battles between the Spaniards and the Mexica, both dikes were damaged. The Albarrada de Nezahualcoyotl was practically destroyed. Although this dike still appears in the map that Cervantes de Salazar made in the seventeenth century, in 1620 members of Mexico City’s cabildo (city council) wanted to use the remaining defense wall as construction material for the streets, canals, and bridges of the city. According to a manual for architects in the New Spain, by the eighteenth century the Albarrada de Nezahualcoyotl, also known as Albarrada Vieja, was in ruins, and thus, functionless.[viii]

The Albarrada de Ahuizotl suffered a similar fate. At first, Spanish authorities decided to dismantle it and to use its remains as construction material, but after the 1555 flood, viceroy don Luis de Velasco (1550-1564) ordered its reconstruction.[ix] After its renovation it was known as Albarrada de San Lázaro because it went by the Hospital of San Lázaro. This defense wall constituted a continuous circle that protected the city on its east side [SLIDE 5].[x]

During the battle with the Mexica, Spaniards began to fill in canals, and they continued with this practice. However, they soon experienced the negative effects of this policy: the slowdown of commerce. In precontact times, the lakes located next to the towns of Citlaltepeque and Xaltocan were connected to the northern part of the island through canals. Merchants took their products to the island, especially to Tlatelolco’s market, by canoe. When the canals were filled in, their activity ceased. In 1542 Viceroy don Antonio de Mendoza ordered the indigenous governor of Lacoyuca to describe in detail the canals that existed in the northern region of the basin under Moteuczoma’s reign. Then, the viceroy ordered him to use native labor to open up canals once more, for he wanted to revitalize commerce between the communities located in the north of the basin and Mexico City.[xi] By the seventeenth century, water canals continued to be the main means of communication and transportation. There were seven main canals that flowed from Mexico City to the Albarrada de San Lazaro. The canals that crossed Tlatelolco were the same that had existed before the viceroyalty: Tezontlalli and the canal that passed in front of the Santa Ana Chapel.[xii] At the albarrada, seven floodgates allowed the water in the canals to flow to the city in the morning, but it blocked its flow during rainy afternoons. Canals constituted, then, an additional protection against flooding.[xiii]

Another major function of Mexico City’s hydraulic system was to provide drinking water for the city’s inhabitants, including those of Santiago Tlatelolco. During the early viceroyalty, Xancopinca was one of the main sources of water for Santiago Tlatelolco. It was a spring found in Bernabé Aculnahuac, a town near Tlacopan. From Xancopinca, water flowed through clay pipes to the church of Santiago. Then, flowing from east to west, water went to the Calvario Chapel. As time went on, the spring began to dry up, and the people of Santiago Tlatelolco suffered lack of drinking water.[xiv] In the cabildo session that took place in May 1555, Jerónimo Ruiz, the alcalde (mayor), proposed to direct to Santiago part of the water that flowed into Mexico City from Santa Fe and Chapultepec. Not surprisingly, most of the members of the cabildo disliked this idea. First, they replied that during precontact times, Tenochtitlan did not share its drinking water with Tlatelolco. They finally agreed to give water to Tlatelolco if Mexico City’s needs were met first.[xv]

The Map of Santa Cruz suggests that in the sixteenth century, part of the water that came from Santa Fe went to Santiago Tlatelolco [SLIDE 7].[xvi] In the map, the water got to a caja de agua (water reservoir) that abutted the Franciscan friary to the south of the church. In 2002, archaeologist Salvador Guilliem Arroyo, director of the archaeological site of Tlatelolco, found the remains of a structure that appears to be the water reservoir depicted in the Map of Santa Cruz. According to Guilliem Arroyo, water came from Chapultepec through a subterranean aqueduct. A stone vertical pipe connected the aqueduct to the water tank, and it controlled the level of water that entered the reservoir. Once the caja was full, excess water flowed out by another pipe that went under the vestibule. The result was that the water tank did not overflow; instead it constituted a reflecting pool that mirrored the fish and the plants painted beneath the water surface. After water went into the tank, it ran to the east to the tecpan (palace, later, city hall), where it provided water to the tecpan’s inhabitants and irrigated the royal gardens. To get water from the caja, people crossed a gate that led to the entrance hall of the tank, and then went down a one meter staircase that led to the water. Murals covered the entrance hall where people entered to get water from the tank [SLIDE 8]. The inside of the tank was also decorated with paintings. The water in the tank formed a reflecting pool that allowed the people to see the murals below the water level.[xvii] Thus, by many means, the people who got water from the caja were surrounded by a pictographic discourse located outside and also inside the tank during the process.[xviii] According to Guilliem Arroyo, the reservoir was constructed during the erection of the first church at Santiago Tlatelolco circa 1536, and it was closed down when Torquemada finished the third church of Santiago, approximately between 1580 and 1610.[xix]

The arrival of the Spaniards and their introduction of a different environmental and economic system resulted in the scarcity of water in the basin of Mexico, and a fierce competition over this natural resource. In the 1560s, the Tlatelolca and the Tepaneca from Azcapotzalco engaged in a complex and fierce litigation over land and water. The disputed territory lay on the limits between Santiago Tlatelolco and Azcapotzalco, specifically between three estancias: Santa Cruz Quaqualco, San Juan Tilhuacan, subject towns of Santiago, and San Bernabé Aculnahuac, subject town of Azcapotzalco [SLIDE 9]. The proceedings of the conflict suggest that what made this land so significant was not its size, but its resources. The people of Santa Cruz, San Juan, and later San Bernabé claimed that the swamp, marshlands, water canals, salt, fishery, spring, and land in the challenged jurisdiction were the basis of their sustenance. They built houses and cultivated maize in the ground; they had a fishery in the swamps. They used the marshlands to get tule and carrizos (swamp plants); they used the swamp’s clay to make adobes, and, in addition, they extracted salt. In fact, the lawsuit suggests that the main economic activity of Santa Cruz and San Juan was the sale of adobes in Mexico City.[xx]