'Plumed Serpent': Mexico in metaphor


"Legends of the Plumed Serpent: Biography of a Mexican God," Public Affairs. 240 pages. $35.

Mexico has long been a favorite playground for tourists seeking sun-drenched beaches, discos where the music pumps until dawn, and smooth tequila that makes their heads spin. However, there are also tourists who go to Mexico with their brain turned on.

For them, biographer Neil Baldwin has written a book about Mexico that aims to be a mix between travel guide and history text. It traces the creation and the enduring power of a mythological symbol older than the nation itself: the plumed serpent god known as Quetzalcoatl. Baldwin correctly asserts that the story of Quetzalcoatl, whose modern image is the centerpiece of the Mexican flag, provides insight to Mexican culture.

However, Baldwin went a little overboard in his effort to write a thinking person's guide to Mexico. The first part of the book is so densely written - filled with convoluted descriptions of early drawings and sculpture of Quetzalcoatl - that it is confusing to anyone without an archeology degree. It reads as if Baldwin spent years studying Mexico and then poured all the information he collected into the pages of the book, with very little analysis to help readers.

It is the second half of the book ' starting with an account of Hernan Cortes' seduction and conquest of the Aztec king Moctezuma - where Baldwin demonstrates his skill as a storyteller. There are no new discoveries in Baldwin's account of Mexican history, but the later chapters are compelling and easy to read. That is where those who know little about Mexico will learn the most.

Some 5,000 years ago, Quetzalcoatl was created by the Olmec as the life-giving god of good harvests. He was the master of water and the teacher who showed men how to raise corn, to weave, to dance.

To the Aztecs, he was a harbinger of annihilation. Legend told the Aztecs that the plumed serpent would return from "where the sun rises" to rule once again over Mexico. So when Cortes and his men sailed over the eastern horizon, Moctezuma bowed down to them. Two years later the Aztec king watched the pale-skinned foreigners slaughter his people and burn down his empire.

Quetzalcoatl lives on. Centuries later, the deity was adopted as a symbol of indigenous pride to those who fought with Emiliano Zapata in the Revolution. And its significance endures today among peasant farmers in the Zapatista movement that has consumed Chiapas for the last four years.

Part of the reason Quetzalcoatl remains important to Mexican people is that their culture values legend and mysticism almost as much as real events and heroes. And as Mexico struggles against economic crisis - marked by the spiraling devaluation of the peso - Quetzalcoatl represents a time when Mexico was advanced, wealthy and fearless. Peruvians cling to symbols of their Inca ancestors for the same reason. And Central Americans often boast about their Mayan roots.

Baldwin cites Octavio Paz to make that point. "As political myth," Paz said, "in the popular imagination, many of our heroes are translations of Quetzalcoatl. This is significant because the theme of the Quetzalcoatl myth is the legitimation of power."

Ginger Thompson lived in Mexico while a correspondent for The Sun. She has been a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and is joining the New York Times.

Pub Date: 9/20/98

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