Felix Alvarez, a longtime Chicano cultural activist in San Jose and Modesto, was vacationing in the Yucatan at the pre-Columbian city of Chichen Itza with his late wife, Mary Contreras, in 1991, when he walked up onto one of the pyramids.
The pyramid he was standing on was the platform dedicated to jaguar and eagle warriors that sits right across from the giant pyramid. The Mayans used the platform as a ceremonial staging area.
“While I was standing on the pyramid, I said, ‘I can do this. This is doable,’” explained Alvarez.
Those words became reality on December 8, 2012, when Alvarez, his family, friends, fellow activists, and XIPE TOTEC Esplendor Azteca dancers arrayed in colorful ceremonial dress consecrated what he describes as the “1st Chicano Teocalli Tonantzin Guadalupe Pyramid in the U.S.” built at his ranch, “Ranchito Rio Tuolumne,” along the Tuolumne River south of Modesto.
“I built this Teocalli/Calmecac to honor La Virgen de Guadalupe on December 12 and to celebrate the 481st anniversary of the Milagro en el Tepeyac to Cuautlatoczin/Juan Diego,” he announced.
The pyramid he constructed is 20 feet by 20 feet x 5-1/2 feet. “We used concrete blocks, rebar, cement, rock, gravel, sand and clay from my property to create it,” he noted. “ I consider it a work of art. “
His reason for building the pyramid has long roots in his history as a cultural activist, first with the Teatro Campesino and then with his own Teatro de Los Pobres that he started in San Jose in 1978.
Since the inception of Teatro de Los Pobres, Alvarez has organized theatre presentations and protests targeting a variety of issues, including U.S. intervention in El Salvador, solidarity with the Nicaraguan revolution, immigrant rights, corporate promotion of alcohol and cigarettes in the Chicano community, United Farmworkers Union battles, health care for undocumented children, and an array of labor struggles and other issues.
His group was instrumental in starting the tradition of Dia De Los Muertos in the San Jose community, as well as the performance of “La Virgen del Tepayec,” the play about the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe to an Aztec holy man, Juan Diego.
However, his inspiration behind the pyramid actually started earlier in 1970 when he was a member of Teatro Campesino (Farmworker Theatre) in San Juan, Bautista, California and portrayed Juan Diego in the first production of the apparitions of our Lady of Guadalupe.
“We had decided for the first time to do something as religious as a play about the visions of Guadalupe. We were inspired by the farmworkers carrying the image of La Virgen at front of the labor marches,” Alvarez said.
“What many people didn’t understand is La Virgen de Guadalupe has always symbolized one of the most powerful icons of the Mexican people in our history,” said Alvarez. “I knew that Zapata had carried her during the Mexican revolution and that when the Mexican people declared independence from Spain, they did so under her banner.
“I was the first Chicano to portray Juan Diego, the indigenous Mexican to whom she appeared,” said Alvarez. “I began to immerse myself in the story and background. I started performing in the play in 1971 and later directed and staged the play until 2002.”
However, Alvarez stopped directing and staging the play, as he did every year in San Jose, after Juan Diego was canonized by the Pope as a saint.
“I thought it was wrong,” said Alvarez. “The canonization represented that the church now had 100 percent of the ownership of Juan Diego. The church has gone into so many countries, robbing and taking away the beliefs and way of life of the native population.”
He noted how in Mexico and elsewhere in the Latin America, the Spanish would build a church on top of a temple or pyramid where the local indigenous people worshipped.
“One of the things I began to realized in my research that to me, Tonanztin, represented Mother Earth and my religious past, not Virgin Mary,” he emphasized. “I began to realize that message of the apparitions to Juan Diego in 1531, December 8 through 12, represents a connection to my indigenous past.”
“ All of us who are Mexican have La Virgen as a connection to the past. The church has imposed La Virgen as the Virgin Mary – but to the Mexican people La Virgen is Tonanztin- Nuestra Madrecita. As long as this happens, we are still connected to the past.”
It is very significant that the place where Tonanztin appeared - Tepeyac - was her temple for thousands of years.
Alvarez noted that before Juan Diego was made into a Catholic saint, La Virgen and Juan Diego were outside of the church.
“When one looks at the basic story line of the appearance of Guadalupe, the Spanish church doesn’t believe Juan Diego,” he said. “When the church realized it couldn’t wipe the apparition out, they tried to own it. Building this Teocalli represents my response to the church – it represents a sacred temple to the Earth Goddess, Tonanztin.”
When he stood on the pyramid after the first phase of construction, Alvarez came up with another inspiration.
“I have just built a pyramid on top of the Christian cross. This symbolizes that we must reverse the conquest, reverse the colonization, and return to the true beings that we are. My response to the Church’s canonization of Juan Diego is we have to bring back our indigenous beliefs, our way of life, our culture,” Alvarez concluded.
When he finishes the pyramid, he said people would be able to see the cross that the pyramid is built upon. “Next December I will respond by performing a drama on Tonanztin reflecting this new insight,” said Alvarez.
Alvarez emphasized that Juan Diego’s Nahautl name “Cuauatlatoczin” is “eagle that speaks” or “speaks like an eagle” – a wise man.
“Tonanztin is the cultural link that connects us to our past,” he divulged. “It was a supernatural appearance of her standing in front of the sun, asking that she wants her temple to be rebuilt. Her message was: You will not be overcome. Millions of people go to her temple every year, showing that we were never subjugated. Because of her appearance at Tepayec at that point in time, we have legitimacy. “
“At some time, I will go to Mexico City and demand that the Catholic Church leave Tepeyac. If we really want to go further, we should ask that the church return all Aztec relics and gold,” stated.
With the help of two local Mexicano construction workers, Alvarez started constructing the pyramid on November 21 and finished on December 6.
“I showed them a model that my friend Hector Flores made and told them that we were going to use Rasquachi technology. I wasn’t going to hire a U.S. architect. It had to be home made in our own way,” he noted.
The pyramid is filled with rock, sand, clay and earth. Beside its function as a teocalli – sacred place - to do ceremonies to connect with his faith, it will also be a calmecac, a school or place of learning.
“It will become a teocalli to organize ceremonies and also a calmeca to provide learning – and will be surrounded by Mexican Ancestral Foods I have been growing for last 9 years, as part of my work of returning to growing, cooking and eating ancestral foods,” stated Alvarez.
Among the indigenous plants he is growing include corn, chiles, tomatoes, squash, frijoles, chayote and avocado.
“The pyramid will become a complete teocalli and calmeca from which the Teatro will continue to do its work,” he said. “On the political end, it represents Chicano self determination. This place is not sponsored by the government, California Arts Council, foundations or anybody,” he emphasized.
“This is my humble way, as one Chicano, to have my own place built by my hands, not by the handouts of others. It will be a place to unlearn the crap we have been subjected to since the Spanish conquest,” Alvarez concluded.
“Our Cultura is Not for Sale” - Felix Jose Alvarez
You can contact Felix Jose Alvarez at (408) 836-9339 or email at felixmar [at] comcast.net