Words by Amb. José Antonio Zabalgoitia at the
Opening of “Aztecs”Exhibition
Leiden, 5 August 2021
When I heard the news about “Aztecs” coming to Leiden, I was looking forward to this opening ceremony. This is certainly the most important exhibit of Mexican archeology that has been shown in the Netherlands in recent years, so I always imagined myself speaking before a crowded gallery at the Volkenkunde Museum.
But then came COVID and we must consider ourselves lucky to be allowed to meet tonight: several months later than originally planned; wearing face masks; and keeping a safe one-and-a-half-meter distance from each other. We must consider ourselves lucky indeed to be able to hold what I may dare call an “intimate” opening ceremony.
Just like those “intimate” wedding celebrations we have all been invited to, this is a gathering of a very select group of friends and family. This exhibit has been possible due to hard work by many people in Mexico and in Europe. Hosting us here in the Volkenkunde, is its Director General, Bart Drenth, accompanied by Wayne Modest, Director of Content, Martin Berger, Curator, and Paulien Burgering, Project Manager for this exhibit. Thank you for your hospitality.
We are fortunate to have among us Patricia Ledesma, Director of the museum at the Templo Mayor, where many of the pieces come from. Inés de Castro, Director of the Linden Museum in Stuttgart, where the exhibit was shown some time ago, intended to be here as well. Laura del Olmo, Deputy Director of Archeaology at Mexico´s National Institute of Anthropology and History, was also able to make the trip for this very special occasion.
The municipality of Leiden is represented today by Yvonne van Delft, Councilor for Labor, Economic and Cultural Affairs, and Judith Maas, Minister at the embassy of the Netherlands has also joined us from Mexico City.
We are honored to have here very distinguished members of the International Criminal Court: President Hofmansky, and Judges Flores and Perrin de Brichambaud are here. The President of the Interamerican Commission for Human Rights, Joel Hernandez, and the Registrar of the International Court of Justice, Phillipe Gautier, also accepted our invitation.
Mark Mooren, from Aeromexico, has also traveled to be here tonight. So with this very intimate ceremony we not only open “Aztecs” here in Leiden, but we also reach the final stage of its European tour, after Stuttgart and Vienna.
“Aztecs” is a walk-through of one of the most magnificent civilizations in the Americas. It takes us on a fascinating journey of what was the dominant culture before the arrival of the Spaniards. This splendid collection provides an opportunity to approach the architecture, the symbolic world, and the social structure of this complex culture. It allows us to understand the Aztec vision of life, time, death, and fertility. It enables us to overcome stereotypes and place Aztec culture within its context.
The Aztecs established themselves in what is today Mexico City and, in just 200 years, built an empire dominating most of Mexico and Central America. As the distinguished historian David Brading has pointed out: The history of the Aztec Empire “begins with a myth and ends with a prophecy”.
The myth, depicted today in our flag, refers to the foundation of the Aztec capital at a place foretold by their religious leaders and comprising seven lakes. The Spaniards arrived there exactly five centuries ago, in 1521. The prophecy refers to the belief that the god Quetzalcoatl, who had left on a journey, would return anytime from the sea. So the Aztecs initially confused Hernan Cortes with their god, which the conqueror took advantage of. In both cases, myth and prophecy, water plays a central role.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons that the Aztec culture resonates so powerfully in the Netherlands: because of the Dutch connection to water. The Aztecs built a majestic city on a lake and also developed a highly sophisticated form of land-lake agriculture. The Aztec system of artificially constructed cultivation areas still survives South of Mexico City, despite overpopulation and urban growth pressure. We may find certain similarities with Dutch polders.
UNESCO has recognized these similarities and included both this Aztec water-based agricultural model and the Dutch water defense lines on its list of World Heritage Sites.
Today, the Mexican and Dutch peoples find ourselves linked by our willingness to seek the best way to adapt to our environment and to tackle the opportunities and constraints it imposes upon us. Mexico and the Netherlands have become world leaders on the search for Nature-Based Solutions to domestic and to global environmental challenges. And some of the modern developments in these areas, come precisely from centuries-old teachings and experiences in both our countries.
Mexico is home to 70 indigenous ethnic groups, accounting for 17 million people, or 15% of our population. These groups, among which one fifth still speak Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, are an impressive reservoir of indigenous nature-based knowledge.
Mexico and the Netherlands can also connect and relate through Nature-Based Solutions. Through complementarity and cooperation, we can rely on our common vision to overcome together the greatest challenges of our time. Closer collaboration between our countries will improve mutual understanding and help banish stereotypes, so we can develop more effective responses to economic, environmental, and social challenges.
For our nations, water has long been a cornerstone of our relationship with nature and life. For both of us, water is at the core of our cultural grounding. There are several other longstanding cultural elements that bring us together as twenty-first century societies. We Mexicans are diverse, plural, resilient, creative, adaptable, spontaneous and joyful. The Dutch are hard working, organized, innovative, tolerant, frank, and straightforward.
We both want a clean and sustainable environment; more equitable economic growth; fair social development. We both strive for international peace and security. We must join efforts to achieve these goals together.
The exhibition that we are now opening, invites us to think about our roots, but at the same time, challenges us to think about ways to achieve together the future we all desire. Mexico and the Netherlands complement each other and have a bright common future still under construction. Let us look back to our history and past experiences to stand upon them, from the present, and shape a common destination.