Did a small town in Mexico bulldoze a historically protected chapel at the heart of its community last month? That’s the question Mexican authorities are trying to answer after the structure was torn down July 26 and its pulverized remains dumped in a nearby canyon.
“It is an unprecedented event,” Raul Delgado, director of Sites and Monuments of Cultural Heritage, told E-Tlaxcala. “No similar phenomenon has occurred in Mexico; communities are very zealous about conservation, and integrity of these assets are … of high significance and important to their identities.”
The Chapel of Christ was built by Franciscan monks in the 18th century in what’s now San Pablo del Monte, just outside the state capital Tlaxcala, on the road that once linked Vera Cruz to Mexico City. The chapel was a classic example of colonial-era architecture, with two neoclassical bell towers added on in the 19th century, as well as a sacristy and vault from the 20th century. Recent photographs show the chapel painted a cheerful robin’s egg blue with gold trim. “It was a solid building in good condition,” said Arturo Balandrano, national coordinator of historical monuments at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).
So it’s a bit bizarre that on July 25, heavy-duty machinery showed up on-site and began knocking the chapel down. The rubble was transported out of town to fill and level a canyon, so by the time the job was finished, all that remained was an empty lot.
INAH filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s office, and since the church was technically federal property and protected by the Federal Law on Monuments and Archaeological, Artistic, and Historic Zones, authorities have gotten involved. Those responsible could face up to 11 years in prison if they’re caught.
Fingers were initially pointed at parish priest Juventino Rocha Lima, but he stated that he and the priests who assist him were unaware of the demolition. He was backed up by PAN Senator Marina Gomez del Campo Gurza, who said Lima was not consulted in the affair.
Now it appears the destruction may have actually been ordered by the community itself. According to El Universal, about 500 families occupy the neighborhood surrounding the church, and they have been raising money to build a new temple to house 14 religious images of Catholic saints. Each year, the church members appoint 14 people to be stewards or “majordomos” of the icons, and these individuals — who enjoy a respected position in society — might have led the effort to demolish the chapel.
Anastancio Francisco Zambrano Carrillo, assistant chairman of the chapel, told the newspaper that the building was in serious disrepair. Its walls were cracked and a severe storm had collapsed part of the roof so badly that some families didn’t want their children attending catechism there. The townsfolk insisted that they sent letters to INAH about the problems, though INAH denies ever receiving any.
On July 30 and 31, locals announced they would not allow judicial authorities to arrest the people involved. Spokesman Mario Acocal said they had agreed to collect signatures saying the demolition was a community decision, as well as to not let reporters enter the area. “Who is to blame if the neighborhood decided it?” asked local resident Dona Beatriz. “Let them come and detain us all.”
It’s a heartbreaking story, one that breaks open many questions facing historical preservationists today. Just how much do we preserve the past at the expense of the present? And what do we do with historic sites when there’s little funding or interest in preserving them? Should the perpetrators really be held accountable if they were merely doing what was best for their families?
The Mexican Archdiocese Norberto Rivera Carrera has blamed it all on the bureaucracy of Mexican authorities. “The government cries for that which it has not preserved, the churches and the temples that are the cultural, historic and spiritual patrimony of the nation,” he wrote in a text called “Save Our Heritage,” explaining that 26 religious sites in central Mexico City are currently in need of urgent intervention. “Bureaucratic tangles are more destructive than the passage of the centuries.”