Mexica Sustainability: Respecting Indigenous Knowledge as Law
By Vanessa Hidalgo
There are many legal traditions that have contributed to both the present common law and civil law traditions used in many countries today. These legal traditions portray the past, present and future of our societies. It is important to note that not all legal traditions have been written down, some are performed orally or even passed down through actions. The definition of the word “law” and its implication varies, dependent on the context, culture, society, and history. Law is not always written down and law cannot be simply defined by colonized thoughts and ideologies. Instead, my paper views indigenous knowledge and practices as Mexica law, with a particular focus on Mexica sustainability and the need for those traditions in Mexico City today. It also discusses the impact of colonization and Western ideologies and how that has led to current Mexico City issues of sustainability causing contemporary reflection on how Mexica Indigenous knowledge can be used to combat those issues.
First, my paper begins with a history of Tenochtitlan and Mexica indigenous legal traditions on sustainability. Second, an explanation of the impact of colonization on the water in the Valley of Mexico. Third, current issues in Mexico regarding sustainability and the resilience of Mexica practices that can combat those issues today.
Mexica knowledge and practices were imperative for Tenochtitlan sustainability. They were an agricultural society that depended on the fresh spring waters that surrounded them. They had a very complex system put in place that not only respected the land that they lived on but provided them with a lifestyle that encompassed their spiritual beliefs. Although the laws were harsh when it came to wastefulness, it was necessary to create a city that would sustain the Mexica for centuries. Everything that they used was always recycled or put back into the earth protecting their environment from air, land and water pollution. Their lives depended on water and it was what kept their chinampas and their milpa plots flourishing. The creation of their water gods, Tlaloc and Chalchiuhtlicue are a reflection of the importance of water and the need to intertwine their spiritual beliefs with their water use. This gave them a connection with the land that they believed was given to them from the gods.
Mexica oral stories are also important to view what was important to them and what was law. They believed that the Valley of Mexico was the place their gods placed them, and they did what they could to preserve this important land base. Their oral histories and practices are what was law. Law to the Mexica was not just the ordinances put in place to prohibit wastefulness, but it was the forming of the chinampas and tending to them. The religious rites and sacred rituals surrounding the water after every birth and every death. It was the educational teaching of cleanliness in the home and water culture that was law. Mexica law was the practice of planting their maize during specific times of the year and the rituals done to bring the seasonal rains that would help the maize grow. The cultivating of the milpa plots was also a form of Mexica law, the plants had to be planted with certain vegetation that would enable them to live off one another and grow.
All of the practices that provided the Mexica the ability to sustain their constantly growing city was Mexica law. Without these laws, Mexica sustainability would not have been what it was, every practice and action had a reaction. If the chinampas were not protected from the floods and built properly they would not survive, and Tenochtitlan would lack food. If the water was not respected and cleanliness was not sacred, then pollution would threaten their land, air and water. Unfortunately, when Cortes arrived colonization slowly depleted and disrespected indigenous law. Indigenous law was thought to be pagan and was destroyed physically, mentally and spiritually as Spain sought to change indigenous water culture.
This can be seen with water policing in the 1700’s and the Western laws and beliefs that sought to disenfranchise and oppress the indigenous people of Mexico who had preserved the beauty of their lands. Sadly, indigenous acknowledgement came late in 1992, but indigenous people continue to be resilient. Today, the chinampas are still used by farmers who provide their produce to some of the best restaurants in the world. The growing concern surrounding the water crises has spurred investigations to use indigenous knowledge to try and reduce the harm to the environment and the water. The 500 years of destruction to the land in Mexico cannot be fixed, but the continued resilience of the Mexica in Mexico today and the indigenous histories passed down can provide a wealth of knowledge that can preserve what land and water there is left.