Follow your REP: a month amongst archaeological sites, skeletons and Mexico astonishing heritage.


Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?

Frida Khalo

The 1st of  June I was landing at Manchester airport. It wasn’t raining but a gloomy sky welcomed me. I was back  in the UK. I  had spent the entirety of May in Mexico City, doing my Research Employability Project (REP) and I was already missing it!

The REP is a part of the WRoCAH training doctoral programme and involves a month away spent at a hosting institution, with the aim of enhancing your future employability, acquiring new skills and getting some hands on experience. I was very lucky to be hosted by the National School of Anthropology in Mexico City and under the supervision of Dr. Tina Ortega Palma; I was able to start an exciting project on a very special skeletal collection.

The aim of the research was to collect paleopathological data on a series of skeletons that was buried within the church of San Pablo and San Pedro, right in the heart of the colonial Mexican capital. Because of the central location of the church and also because the location of the burials within the church, on both sides of the altar (the most privileged of the places), these individuals were considered to be of Spanish origin, and of a higher social class. We wanted to understand how these people adapted to the Mexican environment, if they had specific pathologies and what was their overall health status. In order to do this I recorded a set of specific pathologies called non-specific stress markers, which are used with stature to inform us of the general fitness of the population. I know, I know, it all sounds super exciting and on top of that, well, MEXICO!

Mexico has been one of my top destinations since I was a kid. I was dreaming about the cenotes and the Aztec and Mayan archaeological sites.


Cenote a Dzibilchaltun

I recall watching a documentary in secondary school about a cenote that has been surveyed and a lot of archaeological materials have been found on the bottom as ritual offering. This is way too exciting for a very impressionable young mind and those images stayed with me as I grew older.

I was prepared. I have some Mexican friends who are from Mexico City and I collected information about the best area to live in, how to safely go around and generally how to approach a city of 20 million inhabitants. I was prepared, I felt prepared and then I discovered I wasn’t at all.

Well, to be honest, I was prepared from the organizational point of view. I knew where I was going to live, I knew where the main supermarkets were, I knew how to get there and how to get to work every day. There was a great deal of things I didn’t know though.

I didn’t know the public transportation can get so crowded that you literally can’t breathe. People on the platform helped to squeeze in the people on the edge so that the doors could close. I never thought that I would be grateful to be slightly taller than the average Mexican woman – it definitely allowed me to breathe more easily! I didn’t know that the metro and the buses have specific sections for women because of the high number of sexual harassments that women deal with every day. I didn’t know what the majority of the food was served from hundreds of food stalls located at every corner.  I didn’t know that I would stand out so much and feel different most of the time (my face is quite European, if that is even a thing. I could be from literally any country in Europe; at least as long as my mouth is shut and my Italian accent doesn’t come into the picture).

I didn’t know Mexico had an incredibly rich past, with hundreds of groups that lived there through history. Our Eurocentric view and education just teach us about Aztec and Maya, quite simply because these were the two groups that the Spanish had contact with when they first arrived in Mexico. But the picture is far more complicated and diverse. These other groups left astonishing monuments and artifacts all over Mexico. In this respect the Museum of Anthropology does an excellent job in illustrating the startling richness of the Mexican past.

collage statues

Example of different clay and stone figurines from the Museum of Anthropology


I didn’t know it is very rare to drink water and if you ask for water you will get a list of fruity water, made of fresh fruit, sugar and mineral water. Mango, tamarind, melon, barley, hibiscus, and tigernuts are the most common flavours. I didn’t know tap water is not used for consumption and big bottles of mineral water are held in every house and public places. The common tomato is called jitomate while the “tomate” is the green tomato which is the base of the green sauce: one of Mexico’s most popular sauce with green chili pepper. The food is a very important part of Mexican culture. Food stalls are everywhere and people are always munching on something at any possible hour of the day.


Food stalls


Food stalls

Scarcity of food is, however, a very compelling problem for the majority of the population, especially in the poorest neighbourhood. Big companies know that, as shown in the map of the distribution of Walmart in different areas of the city. The yellow areas are the ones with a socio-economical level identified as A, B and C+; the blue ones are C and D+, while the white areas are D and E.


Distribution of Walmart in Mexico City. From the exhibition “Imagenes para ver-te” at the Museum of the City.

I didn’t know racism is still so prevalent in Mexico, especially towards darker skinned people. The colour of the skin, the way in which a person dresses and talks will determine whether they will be discriminated or not. The indigenous people are the least privileged category and although their ancestors’ past is triumphantly portrayed in history books, little is done by the government to protect the modern indigenous people. Lighter skin people get better jobs, more easily and quicker. In this respect a very interesting exhibition is taking place in the City Museum on Racism in Mexico and its origins.


La mirada critica, Luis Gonzalez Palma


At this point you may think I am writing just a travel diary that has little to do with my research, but on the contrary, immersing myself in what is the modern society and trying to understand its big contrasts and paradoxes has a lot to do with contextualising the remains that I was working with. The modern Mexican society is a product of its troubled past, the coexistence of the Spanish and the indigenous heritage is everywhere. In some cases the final product is an incredible mixture of the best of both cultures, for example in the Arts and Cuisine whilst in other cases a high toll has been paid by the Mexican modern society for this cultural melting pot; for example the underlying assumption that everything that comes from Europe or the USA is better: ideas, people and lifestyle included. If these social differences are still quite obvious in Mexico, we can begin to imagine the social disparity present in Mexico City in the 17th-18th century.

A little historical and pictorial research will give you a quick overview on how Mexico City was back then. The city has been divided into parishes, reserving the central ones for the wealthier and of European origin. The further away from the centre, the more indigenous the people were. I found particularly amusing the study by Sánchez Santiró (2004) who reported some of the civil laws that were approved in New Spain in the 18th century. We see a series of laws that frantically aimed to condone some of the behaviours that were already taking place and could not be stopped. For example, a few years after the laws on parishes was approved, which regulated who could attend and live in specific parishes of Mexico City; a royal decree admitted that if indigenous people or mixed-race were working for a wealthier family in the centre, they were allowed to live on site and attend the local church. The society is much more fluid than a map on a piece of paper, and people were moving amongst neighbourhoods, regardless of the divisions depicted on a map in some royal cabinet in Spain.

I couldn’t separate the tourist experience from the anthropological one since every time I visited a monument or discovered a new piece of information about Mexican society, I would tend to see it from an historical point of view. How was this behaviour back then? Where does it come from? What was its effect on the past and modern society? How much has been lost of the original Mexican society, and how much is left? I am sure I won’t be able to answer all these questions but they will definitely help me in interpreting the data on the individuals I studied with a completely new perspective.

This REP has been an immersion into a new culture, a walk through the astonishingly rich Mexican history and a complete rediscovery of how monuments, arts and people (past and present ones) speak to us, relentlessly. We just need to listen.


Cited works

Sánchez Santiró, E. 2004. El Nuevo orden paroquial de la Ciudad de México: población, etnia y territorio, EHN 30:63-92.



Yes, this happened. (Chichen Itza).


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