Xochimilco means flower field in Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs. This region has always been important not only for its flower production, but also for the crops grown here that have been destined to Mexico City since pre-Hispanic times. The Xochimilcas were farmers and founded their first dominion under a leader named Acatonallo, who is credited for inventing the chinampa system of agriculture in order to increase production. The chinampa is an agricultural method that uses small, rectangle-shaped areas of fertile arable land to grow crops on the shallow lake beds that existed in the valley of Mexico. These chinampas eventually became the main agricultural producer system with crops such as corn, beans, chili peppers, squash and more. The Aztecs became such an important empire in part because of the implementation of this method.
The city of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire, was a man-made island in the west side of the Texcoco lake. This city was connected to the mainland by causeways and canals. Getting to it was done by foot or boat. The city state of Xochimilco, around 11 miles south of Tenochtitlan, was also an island city, so most of the communication between the two islands was made by boat. All the goods harvested in the Xochimilco chinampas were transported to the capital by trajineras (boats) navigating the complex canal system. The lake, and consequently the canals, was drained by the Spaniards because after the conquest of the Aztec capital they neglected the dike system that protected the city from flooding.
The destruction of the lake continued until the 1950′s when the city of Mexico started to look for alternative sources of fresh water for the sprawling city. This prompted authorities to seek World Heritage Site status for the canals and the pre-Hispanic chinampa fields, in order to give them more environmental protection, which was granted in 1987. A lot of effort has been put into preserving and cleaning the canals that are the last trace of what the valley of Mexico used to look like before the Spanish conquista. Today around 170 kms (105 miles) of canals still exist in Xochimilco.
Although now part of Mexico City, going to Xochimilco is like going to a different world. It’s a very closed community with its own traditions, foods and in many cases language. Spanish is the official language of the country, but many Xochimilcas still speak Nahuatl at home and in their communities. Xochimilco has always fascinated me. And the more I learn about it, the more I like it.
My favorite part of Xochimilco is the market. From the tamales sold by my favorite vendor outside the market to the pork head tacos and “aguas frescas” (fresh flavored water), the food there is simply stunning.
Xochimilco is the last remaining trace of a lost empire. Its people, food, religion, canals and way of living might have been influenced by the outside world, but the core of Xochimilco remains intact. This community has a lot to offer to the country and the world and it’s worth fighting to preserve it. The chinampa system is a sustainable, organic and local agricultural method that could feed the whole city if it was used and exploded correctly. That’s why I am committed to writing about this beautiful part of my city. We need to create awareness about places like this where agricultural methods used for thousands of years can still be beneficial today. For now I will continue to enjoy Xochimilco and share this amazing part of my city where there’s something to celebrate every day, even if it’s only being alive.