by Ricky Toledano
When rain poured over the awnings, I remained dry as I walked up the stone stairs of the streets of Cuetzalan. Wet were memories of memories, running downhill in the race between those of father and son. I had never been to Cuetzalan, so there was no way I could remember how the awnings protected the sidewalks from the daily 3pm collision between the tropical air from the Gulf and cold air from the snow-topped volcanoes of Central Mexico. But the déjà vu was dispelled when I recollected my father telling me about this jewel among the historic cities of his native Sierra Norte of Puebla, together with a plethora of details from his childhood in the lush moutains, including the chicatanas — the plump ants I finally got to see — the ones his grandmother would fry when they came out in the rainiest season. I found them the next morning in Cuetzalan, covering the ground, their wings glued by the dew.
Mine was the memory of the many shades of green that a boy from Chicago discovered in the Sierra Norte some thirty-five years ago. My aunts had taken me to Teziutlán, home of the Toledanos, winding our way through the cloud forest that wiped the bus clean as it moved slowly up and down the muddy path to my father’s village. I remember the deafening birdsong, the butterflies, the smell of corn cooked in its infinite forms, the hale, but mostly I remember the flora—whether the flowering morning glories hanging in tapestries or the great fern trees—with the uncanny talent I have had since childhood to record the name of any fruit, flower or plant if pointed out to me but once—an acumen that naturally extends to food.
And in a country known for food, few places can match the food of Puebla, and in Puebla everyone knows that the very best comes from the Sierra Norte.
There is something about the taste of food grown in volcanic soil that I can’t quite explain. I think tomatoes only ever found another real home outside of their native Mexico in the snows and ash of Mt. Vesuvius in Italy. It must be the vitality of youthful soil, and I’m quite certain my ancestors also knew that, because the Totonac, the inhabitants of the region who had flourished in the region between 200 and 800 AD, were subsequently bullied by the warlike Tolteca, Chichimeca and Mexica who coveted the soils of the crafty Totonacos, demanding tributes from their produce, as well as for their talent with stone.
At least that is what the guide said, taking us around the ruins of Yohualichan, ‘the House of the Night’, just 30 minutes from Cuetzalan. Our guide — a young lady studying pedagogy but volunteering at the archeological site — was as beautiful as her gentle yet meticulous voice. She was proud of her indigenous heritage, giving us all the time we wanted to talk about the fauna and flora; the architecture, including the ōllamalitzli ballcourts, one the of two largest in Mesoamerica, whereby the ancients would sacrifice the winners to the Gods:
The guide was pleased with our interest in the legends and myths of the ancients, their customs, and she even told my nephews and me what she knew of the more contemporary history of the archeological site, jolting us with the name of the famous politician, Vicente Lombardo Toledano, a cousin of my grandfather, who had been successful in helping the locals establish the park’s protection.
“There are other ruins,” she said, throughout the region and on to the more famous El Tajín, but they are on private properties that cannot be accessed, including by the ancient paths that have been cut off by the farmers. They were the roads used in ancient times to deliver fish from the coast in Veracruz to the capital of Tenochtitlan (today Mexico City) on the high plain— passing through Cuetzalan.
The guide was so enchanting that I could only imagine how the conquistador Hernán Cortéz must have fallen in love with the beauty and astuteness of Malinche, who must have been just like our guide. Their encounter was the start of the syncretism between the disparate cultures that is ubiquitous in Mexico today, something I saw in the great pole placed in the square in front of the Church of San Francisco de Asis in Cuetzalan, where the Totonac flyers still conduct the ritual of the dance:
The region is a green cradle, home to an assortment of waterfalls and caverns carved by the many streams running down to Veracruz. I only had time for one cascade, Las Brisas, which was enough to return me to my father’s memories. Imaging that the same stream could very well fall from his village upstream. I couldn’t resist and stripped to jump into crystalline water rolling over stones in every color, recalling his fondest memories from the village where he’d skip school and church to play soccer or swim in the stream when the sun burst through the mist.
More significant about the trip to Cuetzalan for me was found in the practice of taking pictures— looking at things from distance even when they up close— because I discovered an irony, the kind that halts you when watching water slide over stone, smell beans cooked with avocado leaf or corn with epazote: I had to go to Europe, Brazil and India in order to focus on what had always been mine and one of the greatest gifts my father had given me— México.
A special thanks to Fabián, Frida and Chucho for the great time and company.
All images by Ricky Toledano unless otherwise specified.