El corazón sangrante and Crónica de las destrucciones:

Olivier Debroise’s critique of the mythic palimpsest


Persephone Braham

University of Delaware


The history of modern Mexico City begins with an apocalypse: the practical annihilation of a culture and the foundation of a new world upon its ruins. Mexican intellectuals, the progeny of this imperial venture, have come to view Mexican history as both cyclical and simultaneous: the past always exists in the present, and history is destined to repeat itself after the pattern of Aztec time. For this reason, the production of Mexican identity has centered, both temporally and geographically, on a metaphor of the sacrificial altar of the Templo Mayor in the capital, as the spiritual heart of Mexico. Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes are two of the principal architects of this temporal-spatial palimpsest: the construct of Mexico as a crucible of inevitable, cyclical violence and sacrifice, at once the victim and the victimizer of its sanguinary past.

This essentially pessimistic vision has many critics, among them José Rabasa, Carlos Monsiváis, and Roger Bartra. The Israeli-born Mexican art historian Olivier Debroise has contributed provocatively to their commentaries in both his art criticism and in his historical novel of the Conquest, Crónica de las destrucciones (1998). In the novel, Debroise interrogates the palimpsestic construct by proposing an alternative to traditional visions of conquest as an imperfect, but essentially calamitous superimposition: a syncretic sixteenth-century Azteco-European resistance movement. This rather experimental novelistic project can be better understood in light of another aspect of his corpus: his participation as curator in a 1991-1993 art exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art called El corazón sangrante / The Bleeding Heart. The exhibit presented a diachronic selection of images of the sacred or bleeding heart of Jesus, a palimpsestic symbol that, because of its resonance with Mesoamerican sacrificial rituals, provides a powerful syncretic metaphor for Mexican culture. The Corazón sangrante exhibition repositions the metaphorical bleeding heart, juxtaposing the popular religious icon, and its variations, with contemporary images by Mexican and Chicano artists. Their appropriations reveal both the extreme flexibility, even promiscuity of this symbol, and the pending obsolescence of the bleeding heart palimpsest as a rhetoric of identity. This essay examines some major elaborations of the bleeding heart palimpsest, and explores Debroise’s unusual critique of this particularly oppressive and totalizing metaphor for mexicanidad. As both author and curator, Debroise uses words and images to create a space for contemporary re-mappings of Mexican cultural geography.

The palimpsest, originally a technical term reserved for the study of ancient manuscripts, is a trope that the voracious literary community appropriated long ago, and it has become somewhat of a critical commonplace. The notion of the palimpsest supposes a resistance whose nature is both textual and textural, wherein an erased or subjugated text remains partially legible through the dominant text that overlays it. The premise of a historic and /or cultural palimpsest is not new to the discourse of Mexican ontology: practically every great theorist of Mexican identity has contributed to its construction. The result is a vision of a supposedly annihilated society that manifests itself, violently, through the centuries in the form and destiny of the dominant culture. The Aztecs, conquering adventurers and relative latecomers to the Valle de Mexico, reinforced their sovereignty by constructing their sacred sites and narratives on the foundations of vanquished or vanished empires, and these structures became the sediment, in turn, of a new civilization with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Visions of human sacrifice by coronary excision were imperfectly overlaid by passionary images; from 19th-century tourists to 21st-century journalists, Mexicans and outsiders alike have rehearsed Mexico’s tragic destiny under the sign of the palimpsest.

In order to appreciate the authority of the bleeding heart palimpsest in the discourses of Mexican identity, it is essential to understand it as both a historical and temporal phenomenon, and a spatial and geographic one. From its beginnings in early post-Conquest texts, the palimpsest’s narrative manifestations are deeply imbricated with a pictorial component. For the Aztecs, space and time were logically interdependent and almost conceptually fused: each implicated the other in the traversal of the sun from east to west within a fixed, corresponding temporal interval (cf. Florescano). Mexican time was cyclical, and each successive cycle erased the previous one, allowing history to begin anew. The repeated cycle was a way of preventing both change and disequilibrium. This was necessary because, according to Mexica beliefs, forward temporal movement implied a degradation of history, since it meant a movement away from the moment of creation, which was the moment of the greatest perfection of the universe and of mankind. The location of the Templo Mayor at the center of Tenochtitlan, as well as its pyramidal structure, represented an attempt to stabilize time in space: that is, to maintain what Inga Clendinnen calls its "eternally recurrent" nature (35). A well-known historical map commissioned by the Viceroy Antonio Mendoza, c. 1542 (fig. 1), which documents the foundation of Tenochtitlan, visually demonstrates this conflation of time and space: the central X of the city’s crossing canals and surrounding lake, its ceremonial heart marked by the eagle and the nopal cactus, is framed by a series of year glyphs whose blue tint echoes that of the water. The image not only represents a territory, but also narrates a history. (1)

Early Spanish representations of Tenochtitlan underscored the sacrificial function of the city center. Created by an anonymous European cartographer to accompany the published edition of Hernán Cortés’s 1519 letter to Carlos V, the map of Tenochtitlan in fig. 2 is projected according to a more-or-less-Euclidean standard. However, at the heart of this image, too, is the main temple precinct, represented in a narrative, dramatically non-Euclidean style and labeled "Temple of sacrifice." The Templo Mayor was destroyed in the conquest, and its remains obscured for centuries under colonial buildings. It was believed until the early twentieth century that the Templo Mayor was buried under the Metropolitan Cathedral (constructed between 1573-1813), a perception which was finally dispelled with the discovery of its actual location slightly to the northeast of the cathedral in 1978. The Spaniards’ often strategic reuse of sacred spaces and symbols created a sense of continuity informed by an undercurrent of conflict: the stones of the temple of the warrior god Huitzilopochtli were reportedly reused in the seventeenth-century church of (Spanish warrior god) Santiago Tlatelolco (Graziano 97). Expedients such as these guaranteed the persistence of indigenous symbols in overlaying Catholic practices, and reinforced the palimpsestic metaphor in Mexican culture.

Carlos Fuentes has been, to date, the maximum proponent of the temporal aspect of the palimpsest. In Nuevo tiempo mexicano (1994), Fuentes suggests that the history of Mexico is a virtual "pastel en camadas" (43): a layer cake in which all pasts exist simultaneously in the present, coloring and organizing the future. According to Fuentes, the Mexican government and other powerful groups manipulate this rhetoric of simultaneity in order to keep the Mexican public in a state of political paralysis. At the same time, as we see throughout Fuentes’s narrative corpus, the temporal palimpsest in implicated in the subversion of modern paradigms through the violent unfolding of the past within the present.

Octavio Paz is perhaps the most renowned exponent of the persistence of the Aztec past in the Mexican present. His Crítica de la pirámide, which he wrote the year after the massacre of student protesters in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas on October 2, 1968, firmly reiterates the connection between Aztec sacrificial space and the contemporary event: the spatial palimpsest. Mexico itself, Paz wrote, is a giant pyramid whose apex, the sacrificial platform-altar, is the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the capital of the Republic (116). Aztec violence permeates the space of Tlatelolco, the site of the final Aztec resistance under Cuauhtémoc, converting it into a bloody palimpsest fed by "los herederos del poder azteca": the present-day Mexican government (121). Indeed, it appears that the Mexican government, in its efforts to promote a cohesive Mexican identity, had effectively prescribed this interpretation in 1964 with its designation of the plaza as a conflation of "Three Cultures" (Pre-Hispanic, Colonial/Spanish, and modern/mestizo) in a single geographic location (fig. 3). After 1968 the space came to embody a conjunction of atrocities: the human sacrifices practiced by the Aztecs (fig. 4), their destruction by the Spanish conquerors, the 1968 massacre, and most recently the 1985 earthquake which destroyed a large part of the government-built Tlatelolco housing projects nearby, killing thousands and laying bare the hypocrisy and corruption of the ruling PRI.

Paz drew a symbolic causality between the Templo Mayor precinct, the erstwhile sacrificial center of Tenochtitlán, and its "twin" site in the neighborhood of Tlatelolco, which at the time of the Conquest was the second city of the Aztec empire. However, the Tlatelolco space is doubly significant in that, in addition to serving as a ritual center for Aztec religious activities, it was also the place where modern Mexican history originated, with the labors of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún and his indigenous informants of the Colegio de Santiago de Tlatelolco. Much of Paz’s work is based on Sahagún’s collected, often mediated reports, a fact which intensifies the image of a culture comprised of superimposed and competing texts, structures, and discourses. As Paz puts it: "Para mí la expresión ‘el otro México’ evoca una realidad compuesta de diferentes estratos y que alternativamente se pliega y se despliega, se oculta y se revela" (110).

It is to be hoped that these brief examples demonstrate that neither historical circumstances nor geographical proximities alone would have been sufficient to delineate the bleeding heart palimpsest: both political expediency and poetic discourse were brought to bear in its creation. Thanks to both a natural and inevitable syncretism, and the deliberate efforts of the early evangelizers, the most powerful icons and symbols of Mexico are layered, or palimpsestic: Tonantzin-Guadalupe; Eve-Malintzin; Quetzalcóatl-Cortés; Christ-Cuauhtémoc-Zapata, tlatoani-conquistador-caudillo-Presidente, etcetera. Faced with this pantheon of images it would be frivolous to suggest that their existence is purely artificial, or the product of a vast, right-wing conspiracy among intellectuals and sociologists. Nonetheless, it is essential that we ask how far the tragedies of the past must prescribe future envisionings of Mexico, or whether its destiny is more flexible. Proponents of the bleeding heart metaphor share a fundamentally synthetic, revisionist ideology with respect to the legacy of the Conquest. The palimpsest is a poetic invention, nurtured and elaborated from opposing sides--by both government and intellectuals--during decades of crisis, and from what some critics believe is an essentially alienated, even touristic perspective. Neither Paz nor Fuentes lives/d principally in Mexico: Paz wrote his master work on Mexican identity from California, and the historian Enrique Krauze famously denounced Fuentes as a "tourist of cultures" or vampire of Mexican identity in "La comedia mexicana de Carlos Fuentes," first published in Paz’s literary review Vuelta in 1988 (Textos heréticos 35). More recently, Roger Bartra has highlighted the connection between Western notions of indigenous mythical time (as undifferentiated and/or inconsequential) and Western notions of a mythical indigenous passivity and indifference to death. For Bartra, this is just one more symptom of the contagion of German Romanticism and Nietzschean thought among Mexican intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century. (2) The effects of liberal modernity on Mexico, he adds, have led to "a surplus of symbolism" (Blood, Ink 13).

The underlying irony of the palimpsestic thesis is that the techniques and processes of its construction bear a strong resemblance to what we know of both Mexica and Mexican historiographies. In Náhua culture, the task of the recovery and exegesis of history was governed by the interests and necessities of the elite class – just as, centuries afterwards, official history would serve the uses of the powerful. Mexica scribes organized and inscribed data that were pre-selected by the tlatoani (Florescano 39). The collected past had no significance until it was read and recollected from within an elaborate system of cosmological signs that were contextualized within sacred time and space. In the same way, the past organized the present through hierarchy, tradition and ritual. The other side of this coin was the revision of the past motivated by present political expediency, as occurred in the year 1427 when the Mexica managed to consolidate their control over the Valle de México. Existing historical documents were altered or destroyed and a new foundation myth established in their place. Likewise, the conquering Spanish labored to eradicate Mexica history by destroying its documents and monuments: efforts at recovery, such as those of Bernardino de Sahagún, will always be regarded as irrevocably tainted by the very context of their production. The construction of Mexican history since the conquest has been notoriously subject to manipulation for political ends, as documented by a host of intellectuals and historians, reinforcing the construct of a repressive state machine which validated itself in pseudo-communal mythologies.

Metaphors such as the bleeding heart give legitimate shape to abstraction. However, these cultural archetypes represent only a part of the phenomenon that Enrique Krauze and others refer to as the "ontología del mexicano" and Carlos Monsiváis, tellingly, calls the "fantasía de la mexicanidad." The danger of this partial representation lies in its massive diffusion and its political impact. As Paz pointed out in a discussion of the Museum of Anthropology, "En efecto, la imagen que nos presenta del pasado mexicano no obedece tanto a las exigencias de la ciencia como a la estética del paradigma . . . . adoramos a la Imagen que nos aplasta" (Crítica 151).

The Corazón sangrante exhibition curated by Olivier Debroise, Elisabeth Sussman and Matthew Teitelbaum at the Institute of Contemporary Art (1991-1993) juxtaposed a series of sacred images from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries with the kitsch-inspired inventions of Mexican and Chicano artists of the 1980’s and 90’s. (3) The contemporary artists’ adaptive and often cannibalistic re-use of sacred religious and cultural symbols reveals so-called Mexican culture as the product of a series of copulative images, whose capacity to morph and multiply can be poetically manipulated to expose the repressive ideologies that underlie them. Specifically, the curators suggest, the bleeding heart of Mexican discourse need not constitute the "crushing" symbol identified by Paz and other post-1968 diagnosticians, but rather, can be used to reveal and subvert the mechanisms of oppression.

The Mexican Bleeding Heart is a syncretic image with roots in both Christian and Náhua tradition. The adoration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus began as a popular cult in thirteenth-century Europe, probably inspired by the popular Medieval cult of Christ’s wound, and burgeoned into a full-blown devotion in seventeenth-century France following the mystical crises of the soon-to-be saint Marguerite-Marie Alacoque. The Society of Jesus propagated the cult in the New World, along with the equally syncretic devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe. In the imagery of the Mexican Baroque, the bleeding heart turned out to be a particularly evocative symbol for the imminence of Heaven, the infinite love of Christ, and the rewards of sacrifice. (4) The Heart was originally depicted alone, but at times reincorporated into the breast of Christ. Juan Correa’s Allegory of the Sacrament (1690, CS fig. 5) shows a grapevine springing from Christ’s wound in the region of the heart, from which his blood flows into the Bishop’s plate. Christ is depicted kneeling on a globe in the fountain or chalice from which the seven lambs of Revelations are waiting to drink. In the anonymous nineteenth-century Pascal Lamb (CS fig. 6), the Heart is Christ, complete with rib wound and crown of thorns. The lambs of God are drinking from the chalice that receives the blood.

In his essay on the iconography of the bleeding heart in Mexico, Olivier Debroise focuses on both the lowly origins and the sexual manifestations of the devotion. He describes the development of the cult of the Sacred Heart of Jesus among humble women who were most likely frustrated in love. The miracle followed the same basic trajectory with all these women: a rejection (amorous or otherwise), followed by a mystical crisis in which Christ appeared; and the conjoining, or carnal union of two hearts: "In similar narratives, the visionary literally penetrates into the interior of Christ’s body, where there occurs a complex mystical operation known as the "Interchange of Hearts’" (15). The quasi-sexual aspect of the revelation was seen in the case of the 13th-century Saint Gertrude the Great (also popular in colonial Mexico, according to Jacques Lafaye), whose heart was penetrated by a ray of light emanating from Christ’s wound. (5) The persistence of the cult of the bleeding heart into the twentieth century is well documented in Mexican popular culture as well as contemporary art: Frida Kahlo famously adopted the bleeding heart as a symbol of her suffering in Two Fridas (1939) and other paintings, later alluded to by artists like videographer Ximena Cuevas (Corazón sangrante, 1993).

In both Catholic and Mexica traditions, the bleeding heart symbolizes submission. Elisa Vargas Lugo comments on the drive towards mysticism on the part of New Spanish ecclesiastics of the 16th century, in particular the Jesuits. The Church hierarchy, wary at first of the Sacred Heart as a "marginal category in which it is quite difficult to distinguish the holy from the perverse" (Debroise 17), eventually allowed the cult to flourish. In the 17th century the New Spanish proliferation of the image and devotion of Mary’s Sacred Heart, and its obverse the sacrificial Bleeding Heart of Christ, supported the Trentine emphasis on the humility and obedience of Christ even at the moment of His sacrifice. The Sacred Heart cult, as Clara Bargellini observes, "corresponde [al espíritu de la pasión y muerte de Jesús], la gran cantidad de sangre vertida por Cristo y toda una serie de cultos a su sangre que culminarían en la imagen del Sagrado Corazón. Las imágenes de los momentos inmediatamente después de la flagelación, por ejemplo, que forman parte del culto al sufrimiento y a la sangre de Jesús, fueron añadidas a la iconografía pasionaria en el siglo XVII" (45). The Bleeding Heart was a part of a clear program of iconography generated in support of the authoritarian Church hierarchy, itself an adjunct to the absolutist Spanish Crown.

The Sacred Heart is one of the few human or divine organs that is semiotically self-sufficient: a metonymical symbol that has developed into a self-contained icon with its own setting and significance. Two other such images, often seen or suggested in some combination with the Heart, are the Mano poderosa or All-Powerful Hand, representing Christ’s hand bearing the stigmata, with a member of the Holy Family at each fingertip (another very popular image in Mexico, fig. 7), and the vagina dentata of the medieval bestiary, whose relevance to sacred imagery has been traced through the story of the Fall to the wounds of the Savior (Suleiman, Bartra). The blasphemous triple image of bleeding heart, stigmata, and toothed vagina eventually became the virtual protagonist of Octavio Paz’s Laberinto de la soledad (1950), which described the Mexican character as the cumulative result of blood sacrifice, rape, and feminine betrayal. For Paz, the melancholic, hermetic and savage Mexican is the son of the treacherous and violated Doña Marina, la Malinche. This gendering of the conquest is also traditional in Mexican social theory: "Fue lo español el germen masculino – que se unió al germen femenino del hombre primitivo y su tierra pasiva y acogedora" (Carrión 23). The conception of Mexico as the victim or outcome of an ontological wound, be it the primordial rape, coronary excision or the stigmata of Christ, was also put forward by Emilio Uranga in his Análisis del ser del mexicano (1952).

This multifaceted imagery has migrated, as well, to conceptions of Aztlán, the quasi-mythical Chicano homeland and Mexica place of origin. Gloria Anzaldúa has called the space of Aztlán "una herida abierta" while Daniel Cooper Alarcón offers the palimpsest as a trope for Chicano cultural identity. For him, Aztlán is a similarly layered construct comprised of discourses and debates about Chicano identity. It shares with the bleeding heart both concrete associations with given spatial and temporal points, and a metaphorical value that transcends specificity. Aztlán also represents an ancient ontological wound: a homeland irretrievably lost, overwritten (by Gringos rather than Spaniards), but still present and living in the collective memory. Thus, the identification of the cultural palimpsest with the bleeding heart or ancient wound is complicated by multiple, overlapping and competing narratives, metaphors and symbols.

Through their strategic reorientation of patriotic and sacred symbols, the images in the Corazón sangrante exhibition reveal both the seductiveness and the obsolescence of the mythic palimpsest as a rhetoric of identity. The modern images are parodies, appropriating the form of the icon while altering both its materials and ideological rationale. David Avalos, a Chicano artist from California, both reveals this complexity and mocks its underlying premise in his rasquachista "Hubcap milagro" series. The milagro Junípero Serra’s Next Miracle: Turning Blood into Thunderbird Wine (1989, CS fig. 8.) subverts the image of the Mano poderosa. Junípero Serra was the founder of many missions in California in the eighteenth-century, and this image, with Thunderbird Wine flowing from a vagina (or primordial wound), illustrates "the toxicity of the Christian mission in the New World" (Avalos). Curiously, the version of Avalos’s work that was included in the ICA exhibition, showing a heart at the center of the Mano poderosa, was different from that shown in the photo included in the exhibition catalog (and widely circulated as the representation of the piece). (6) However, the essential interchangeability of these symbols is underscored in another Avalos milagro (fig. 9, not part of the Corazón sangrante exhibition) which shows a heart with a razor-wielding vagina in the center, exposing the conflation of the bleeding heart, the primordial rape, and the vagina dentata, a symbol of feminine treachery.

Javier de la Garza is a Mexican artist whose work is frequently exhibited in the United States. In Aparición de la papaya (1989, CS fig. 10), a parody of the sixteenth-century apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Juan Diego, he presents a kind of Juana Diego in a field of nopales. The papaya, which is a symbol of the female genitalia and of the uterus, here takes the exact shape of the Virgin of Guadalupe, ironically invoking the origins of the Mexican according to the Gospels of Octavio: orphaned child of "la Chingada" and of the great mother, Guadalupe/Tonantzin. The Virgin’s halo has become instead a crown of thorns, which alludes equally to Christ’s sacrifice and to the barbed wire that traces the US/Mexico border.

As a designer of the Corazón Sangrante exhibition, Olivier Debroise’s curatorial juxtapositions reflected his reservations with respect to the symbolism at the heart of Mexican identity discourse. His novel of the conquest, Crónica de las destrucciones, also undermines the fundamentally negative premise of the bleeding heart palimpsest. The novel narrates the history of a post-Conquest millenarian sect: a group of rebels and curanderos who seek a better life following the series of epidemics that decimated the Valle de México in the 1540’s. The group is both heterogeneous and heterodox: each one of the principal characters embodies an essential contradiction. Gabriel Tlacateotl is an Aztec youth who is raised and educated in the court of Charles the V. After finishing his studies under the great Humanist Erasmus, he passes through a mystical phase, finally dedicating himself to the physical sciences and the construction of futuristic machines. His character thus represents the reconciliation of pre-modern and modern, indigenous and European, and spiritualist and rationalist paradigms. The Calquetzani Gregorio is a French mercenary soldier who becomes a Franciscan priest in Tlatelolco, abjuring lucre for a life of devotion and poverty. Román Vendaval, a castaway from the Hernández de Córdoba expedition of 1517, becomes a mute, in contrast to his former companion Jerónimo de Aguilar, who famously served as interpreter or lengua for Cortés during the Conquest. Julián de Wries, a homosexual Flemish painter, teaches iconography in Father Bernardino de Sahagún’s Colegio de Tlatelolco. Together, these figures build a utopian religious community called Poyauhtécatl in the mountains halfway between Tlatelolco / Tenochtitlán and Puebla de los Ángeles. Their location in space and time is highly symbolic: midway between the site of the apocalyptic destruction at Tenochtitlán and the founding of the city of Puebla as a millenarian project by the Franciscans. (7)

A parallel to true events, the axis of the novel is the erasure of a history through the capture and destruction of indigenous documents, and an attempt to reconstruct this history. The novel’s opening paragraphs warn of the precariousness of this endeavor: "Faltan documentos, y los pocos que existen, no están completos, no tienen fecha o son quizás apócrifos" (19). The resulting narrative will be woven from "crípticas referencias," "imprecisas menciones," y "glosas encubiertas" (20) supposedly taken from the chronicles of Bernal Díaz, Jerónimo de Mendieta, Motolinía and Sahagún, among others. The central source, and subject of the attempt at historical reconstruction, is a manuscript that has been disappeared by the ecclesiastical hierarchy: the Coloquios de Tlalquitenanco, comprised of a series of dialogues between Gregorio and Gabriel in which they reveal the motives and history of their heretical utopia.

Like the majority of the documentary sources mentioned in the novel, the Coloquios never existed. Rather, they were inspired by the speculations of a group of historians from various fields: Serge Gruzinski, Georges Baudot, Jacques Lafaye, and Jorge Klor de Alva among them. The textual quotations that lard the narrative are "paráfrasis paródicas" of evangelical chronicles and indigenous codices (Debroise 249). Debroise’s text is a recounting of the erasure of a collective textual memory, and the ensuing substitution of a series of documents that chronicle reconciliation rather than opposition. In a sense, his work is a corrective recreation of Sahagún’s project as he attempted the textual reconstruction of indigenous history after the destruction of the conquest. However, in this history, there is resolution, not vengeance: a conquistador is converted into a true evangelizer; an Indian preaches European humanist philosophy; and a homosexual artist serves as the hermeneutical interpreter between two cultures. He is the archetypal atravesado, an in-between who inhabits a temporal, spatial and cultural borderland, a figure that was described and elaborated by Gloria Anzaldúa. Debroise’s systematic rejection of binary formulas such as good and evil, Christian and pagan, or rational and mystical creates the image of a cultural continuum that, while fundamentally utopian, is in fact somewhat more in line with the realities of the post-conquest period as envisioned by scholars like James Lockhart than the poetic image of apocalypse.

The millennial vision proposed by Debroise contrasts with that of Paz and Fuentes, in which a variation of the original Sin condemns the Mexican to a perpetual repetition of the sacrificial moment. Debroise’s vision is, in fact, inspired by a number of known historical instances of indigenous millenarian movements that developed periodically during the Viceregal period. As Enrique Florescano has demonstrated, these movements generally advanced the fantasy of the restoration of a primordial or pre-Conquest state following a catastrophic de-Ibericizing event; or the appearance of a utopian syncretic community presaged by a series of apparitions and miracles (as the Conquest had been) that combined both Catholic and indigenous imagery (178). As Frank Graziano’s work has shown, actual indigenous rebellions of the Colonial period often had a violently millennial tendency: the Yucatan Maya rebellion of 1546; the 1616 Tepehuan revolt; the 1632 Nueva Vizcaya rebellion, etc. (89ff). Priests were killed, religious images destroyed, and Spanish plants extirpated in an attempt to return to the original order. Debroise, in effect, goes back to basics, re-reading the historical sources in an effort to circumnavigate the intervening, Nietzschean interval. Debroise’s alternative history challenges the assault of fundamentally modern, European paradigms on a hybrid reality. He writes against the mythic palimpsest, the historic space that locates Mexican identity on a sacrificial altar; against a concept and a textualization of history as a poisonous layer cake of blood and flesh; and against the myth of the hermetic, bloodthirsty Mexican as the son of a primordial rape.

The ideology of the bleeding heart palimpsest, whether in the 17th or the 21st century, uses fatalism to justify the lack of regard for the lives of the powerless on the part of those in power. Texts like Debroise’s acknowledge the power of such images but question their validity as symbols of origin. In his essay for the Corazón Sangrante exhibition catalog, Debroise echoes Roger Bartra’s rejection of the symbolic formula: "It is a cliché to think that the Mexicans, as products of the advent of history, are archaic spirits whose tragic relation with modernity obliges them to perpetually reproduce their primitivism" (Jaula de la melancolía 36). But Bartra, too, laments Mexico’s "heart of darkness": the crisis of nationalism at the end of the twentieth century (Blood, Ink, and Culture 16ff). What is needed, he suggests, is the final disassociation of government and cultural identity: a kind of de-nationalization of the Mexican nation. Debroise’s novel, in effect, implies that the foundation myth at the heart of Mexican nationalism is a misrepresentation of a complex, hybrid reality. Such a vision provides a rare departure from the rhetoric of the crushing symbols that have defined Mexico for a good part of its history.

Debroise’s critique gains additional power because he undertakes it on both a narrative and a pictorial level. Because the symbols commonly associated with Mexican destiny have such a strong visual and spatial component, equally compelling visual images must be produced in answer. The images in the Corazón Sangrante exhibition unravel the intricate web of meanings and associations around the Bleeding Heart without dictating a new vocabulary of identities. For Debroise, these artists reveal the "essential libidinous force behind the ideological constructions of this propaganda art" (Javier de la Garza 8). They reveal the defiance with which today’s artists receive and reprocess the ongoing bombardment of nationalist symbols in text and image.




1. Aztec Map of Tenochtitlan, Codex Mendoza, c. 1542

2. Cortés map of Tenochtitlán, 1524.

3. The Plaza of Three Cultures in Tlatelolco, D.F.

4. Aztec sacrifice, Codex Tudela, 1553.

5. Allegory of the sacrament. Juan Correa 1690.

6. Pascal Lamb (Cordero de Dios). Anon. 19th century.

7. La mano poderosa (not in exhibition). 19th century.

8. Hubcap milagro Series: Junípero Serra’s Next Miracle: Turning Blood into Thunderbird Wine. David Avalos 1989.

9. Hubcap Milagro Series: Combination Platter: Straight Razor Taco. (not in exhibition) David Avalos 1989.

10. Aparición de la papaya. Javier de la Garza 1989.




(1). I am indebted to Barbara Mundy for her explication of the narrative qualities of this image.

(2). Contrary to Paz’s analysis, certain critics, including Michel de Certeau and José Rabasa, do not believe that the Mexican palimpsest is necessarily an oppressive symbol. Rabasa believes that the palimpsest represents a dominated culture’s resistance to total erasure. Certeau asserts, further, that the palimpsestic trope suggests the cannibalistic consumption of the European religious and juridical culture by the indigenous one for the purpose of strengthening its own (Practice xiii).

(3). Images included in the Corazón Sangrante exhibition are indicated in this text by CS. Some others, such as the Mano poderosa, are included for reference but were not presented in the exhibition.

(4). "From Europe, devotion to the Sacred Heart was introduced to New Spain at the height of the Baroque era. This devotion enjoyed great popularity in Mexico, as did its iconography" (Chorpenning 122).

(5). For a penetrating analysis of the erotic aspects of mysticism in the New World, see Frank Graziano’s study of the cult of Santa Rosa de Lima, The Wounds of Love: The Mystical Marriage of Saint Rose of Lima.

(6). Avalos clarifies: "The reproduction … is an image of the milagro before I replaced the stigmata/vagina with a heart shape (happy Valentine's day). The work as exhibited at the ICA Boston had the heart not the stigmata/vagina. I had the original piece photographed and then changed it before exhibiting it. The photos were so well done that whenever I was asked for materials for reproduction I sent the photos of the original because I didn't have photos of the changed work. Some reviewers of the exhibition referred to the vaginal imagery which always tickled me. Obviously they gave more attention to the catalogue reproductions than the actually exhibited art work with the heart not the stigmata/vagina." (Avalos correspondence)

(7). Fray Toribio de Benavente or Motolinía, one of the first twelve Franciscan missionaries to arrive in what would become New Spain, described the construction of Puebla as a new Jeruslem and an earthly paradise; Jerónimo de Mendieta described the Indians as angels and Cortés as the agent of the Apocalypse.



Works cited

Avalos, David. Personal correspondence.

Bargellini, Clara. "Cristo en el arte barroco." Arte y mística del Barroco. Mexico: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 1994.

Bartra, Roger. Blood, Ink, and Culture. Trans. Mark Alan Healey. Durham: Duke UP, 2002.

---. La jaula de la melancolía. Mexico: Grijalbo, 1996.

Carrión, Jorge. Mito y magia del mexicano. Mexico: Nuestro Tiempo, 1970

Clendinnen, Inga. Aztecs. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.

Cooper Alarcón. Daniel. The Aztec Palimpsest. Tuscon: U of Arizona P, 1997.

Debroise, Olivier. Crónica de las destrucciones. Mexico: Era 1998.

--- . "Heart Attacks: On a Culture of Missed Encounters and Missed Understandings." In El corazón sangrante / The Bleeding Heart. Ed. Olivier Debroise, Matthew Tietelbaum and Elizabeth Sussmann. Exhibition catalog. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1991.

---. Javier de la Garza. Exhibition catalog. New York: Cavin-Morris Gallery, 1992.

Duverger, Christian. "The Meaning of Sacrifice." In Fragments for a History of the Human Body. Ed. Michel Feher. Cambridge: MIT P, 1989. Vol. 3.

Florescano, Enrique. Memory, Myth and Time in Mexico. Austin: U of Texas P, 1994.

Fuentes, Carlos. Nuevo tiempo mexicano. Mexico: Aguilar, 1994.

Graziano, Frank. The Millennial New World. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

---. The Wounds of Love: The Mystical Marriage of Saint Rose of Lima. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.

Gruzinski, Serge. La colonización de lo imaginario. Mexico: CFE, 1991.

---. Images at War. Trans. Heather McLean. Durham: Duke UP, 2001.

Lafaye, Jacques. Quetzalcóatl and Guadalupe. Chicago: U of Chicago 1987.

Lockhart, James. Náhuas and Spaniards. Los Angeles: UCLA P, 1991.

Joseph Chorpenning, Ed. Mexican Devotional Retablos from the Peters Collection. Philadelphia: St. Joseph’s UP, 1994.

Monsiváis, Carlos. Los rituales del caos. Mexico: Era 1995.

Mundy, Barbara. The Mapping of New Spain. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.

Rabasa, José. Inventing America. Tulsa: U of Oklahoma P, 1993.

Sulieman, Susan Rubin. Risking Who One Is. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.

Uranga, Emilio. Análisis del ser mexicano. Mexico: Porrúa y Obregón, 1952.

Vargas Lugo, Elisa, et. al. Arte y Mística del Barroco. Exhibition catalog. Mexico: Colegio de San Ildefonso / Grupo Tribasa, 1994.