Mystical calendar cycles are all the rage here in the weary, wary end-days of 2011.
And it’s not just That Maya Calendar Thing. Hollywood has joined the calendar fad, loudly, by promoting a new action movie as premiering on 11-11-11 (November 11, 2011)–though few ticket-buyers will recall the bigger 11-11-11 of yesteryear, when the official end of World War I in 1918 was intentionally set at 11:00 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month (November), with the armistice signed in a soon-famous train car.
MEXICO, seeming at first glance so far from all this (“so far from God,” as the 1910 dictator probably never really said), manages nonetheless to come full circle into the middle of the tea leaves. This is because of global excitement (at least in some circles) over That Maya Calendar Thing. Enthusiasts can tell you that the ancient Maya civilization of southern Mexico, peaking before the Aztecs, had evolved a pictographic calendar which, the interpretations say, accurately looked all the way forward to the year 2012. But there (cue the Dragnet music: dum-duh-DUM-dum), the Maya calendar ominously stops.
In a world nervous about techno-speed and banking disasters, the Maya end-point has become a rallying cry, oddly melding fundamentalist rapture and New-Age chic. It’s the big warning: The Old Global Order is going to come crashing down, right in the End Year, 2012. This is a lot to lay on the unsuspecting ancient Mayas–Nostradamus meets the Celestine Prophecies under jungle palms.
But Mexico invites such mystical musings, some not so ancient. The violence of its presentday drug war has become a symbol of the ways that seemingly impossible social breakdown can burst from what seems a clear blue sky.
And again, there’s a Cycle Ap for that. The application of mystic numbers works even on the drug war–with a little hocus-pocus math, and a few more facts than Maya Envy.
In short, Mexico has endured particular chaos once every hundred years. And such chaos, symmetrically, tends to last about a decade.
The first glimpse (leaving aside older precedents for the moment) was the Mexican Independence War, looming suddenly in 1810, then devastating a new-born nation until 1821. At the time, the decade of chaos could scarcely be viewed as part of a cycle–because the other shoe hadn’t yet dropped. Another hundred years would have to pass before the next great explosion began to suggest a pattern.
Then came 1910, a round century after 1810. Mexico was witnessing festive parades and monumental statues to commemorate the anniversary of the long-ago Independence War–when suddenly the old ghost rose. As if the monumental parade images were coming to life, 1910 brought the Mexican Revolution, which would rage for a disastrous decade, until 1920–as the recorded national population fell by a million.
Then another century passed. Understandably, the combined memories–the 1810 war and the 1910 war–would stir comment in a much more modern Mexico as it passed into a new millennium. In 1999, millennial imaginings were everywhere. Up north, the United States was alive with fears of the supposed Y-2K Bug in computer networks, or possible Times Square bombings on New Year’s 2000. But there was a time lag. This millenniun wouldn’t produce its American nightmare for another year, not until 9/11. Meanwhile in Mexico, the delay switch on millennium fear ran even longer. The natural moment of reckoning would be 2010, because of 1810 and 1910. Could it possibly happen a third time?
In 2000 the idea seemed laughable. Political change was coming peacefully to Mexico. The 2000 presidential election proved that reform was possible; democracy was robust. But the reformers, once in power, started to meet some old ghosts–who at first seemed barely noticeable. These were the gang fights and drug-smuggling conflicts that Mexico had always known. By about 2004 they were mushrooming. By late 2006 there was official declaration. The government declared an unprecedented military crusade against organized crime: the “drug war.”
By 2008 the nation was shocked by growing combat–though this was still barely a blip compared to what was coming. As 2008 kicked off, the Sinaloa Cartel was making a full-court press along a great swath of the border, just south of the United States, attacking rivals in a thousand-mile span from Tijuana, bordering California, to Ciudad Juarez bordering El Paso, Texas. On the other half of the border’s 2,000 miles, the eastern half, epidemics of cartel extortion and mass killing had at least cooled a bit after 2007, but would have stunning renewal–in 2010.
It was 2007, in one of the more remote and peaceful-looking border towns, when I first heard the Hundred-Year Theory and its omens for 2010. The small city of Piedras Negras, opposite Eagle Pass, Texas, is so deep in the inland brush country, and so far from the big border cities, that in 2007 it seemed a sleepy, friendly sanctuary. But then a midnight cab driver loomed into my experience. Like the Ghost of Christmas Past, he said suddenly into the rearview mirror: “Mexico no tiene pena que dura cien años” (roughly: “Mexico never lets a problem last more than a hundred years.”) I had to ask him to repeat. What did he mean by this riddle?
He sighed. The corruption builds up, said the philosopher taxista, until the volcano has to blow. And like Old Faithful, its steam erupts on a schedule. In the darkness of the cab, on silent streets where nothing moved but your shadow, it was a long way to 2010. By that time, peaceful Piedras Negras would be rocked by so much combat that U.S. advisories said don’t go there.
In both 1910 and 1810 the steam had began building in the summer, so naturally the summer of 2010 invited scrutiny. Would there be signs of a big breakpoint? Well, yes and no. By July 2010 the eastern borderlands of Mexico had descended into the “New Federation” war, with formalized combat a bit different from anything before. But the death toll per incident still stayed at old levels, no more than about 20 dead even in the worst clashes. The record in outright massacres in the Mexican violence still seemed to be held by La Marquesa near Mexico City, when 24 men were mowed down–way back in 2008. The summer of 2010 brought ragged fits and starts, scant confirmation of any kind of eerie patterning, and no great burst to mirror 1810 or 1910.
Then it came. On August 24, 2010, the Mexican military issued an obscure announcement. In a single humble sentence, it admitted that an enormity had been discovered. The San Fernando Massacre soon shocked the world, fantastically upping the ante on Mexican violence. Cartel gunmen had killed 72 people–non-combatant immigrants, including 14 women–in a single, war-sized orgy. It proved not to be an isolated exception. The same town would produce another frenzy a half-year later, massacring so many victims–surprised bus passengers, this time–that to this day many of the details are suppressed by the Mexican government. There were more: the 200 occupants of mass graves on the other side of Mexico, in Durango; the 55 terrified civilians killed in the casino hit at Monterrey.
It could be interpreted many ways. Our wisdom deals poorly with rhythms that lead beyond our knowledge. The response is either tidy, mystical prophecy, or head-in-the-sand denials, scoffing that the earth can’t move (Galileo probably never really said those famous words–“E pur si muove”–“It does TOO move”–when the Inquisition told him that God’s world couldn’t move in cycles).
In Mexico the questions go back farther than 1810 (to segue back to That Maya Thing).
It was 1519 when Hernan Cortes (or Hernando Cortez) sailed to the coast of Mexico on some very unlikely winds of doom, which seemed to come out of a clear blue sky. His arrival would destroy Meso-American civilization too completely for much thinking about future cycles (though the grandfathered myths about the bearded Quetzalcoatl and the eagle-eating-the-serpent might be viewed as shell-shocked Aztec versions of Celestine closure-seeking).
It didn’t take a decade for Cortez’s entrepreneurial genius to destroy Mexico that first time. The years 1519-1521 weren’t a precise calendar parallel to 1810-1821 or 1910-1920. But not so far off. Like the War to End All Wars delaying the real dawn of the 20th century until 1914, and the Y2K disaster getting predicted a year too early, the calendar of communal nightmares doesn’t always cooperate precisely.
The remnants of the Aztec empire, reduced to a smidgeon by European diseases, could still transmit worlds of experience in the misty realm of symbol, on an unbroken stream from the old monumental rites and sacrifices (which had made the Aztecs themselves look rather nightmare-ridden, long before Cortez). There was the mystical closure offered by the Virgin of Guadalupe (Did she really appear, a decade after conquest, to an humble, shell-shocked Aztec who had been renamed Juan Diego, with her supernatural proof left in the form of a puzzlingly ordinary oil painting?) Meanwhile, Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilopochtli were poured into venerated saints. To watch some of the folklore dances that would cross the generations is to marvel at how much symbolism never gets put into words: the rigidly erect, heel-pounding male dancers encircled by the swirling petticoats that nobody is so crude as to call anatomically-correct symbols like the can-can. There is a power in pre-literate symbol (to borrow a bit from Octavio Paz), and it isn’t reduced by a crushing history of endurance and pain.
So who’s to say, at last, that such power can’t set a deadline on what it has to endure–by tapping into that ordinary, everyday mystery called hope–while the volcanic cycles seem to come out of nowhere, and wipe the books clean?