Flashback-A Visit to the Olmec Heads

March 31, 2010 in Mexico, North America, Travelogue


"an idol moment"-taken by my Dad, Winter, 1988

There are lots of big rock piles to climb in this part of the world:  Aztec, Mixtec, Toltec, Maya, the list goes on and on and after a while, they all start to look the same.  I remember as a kid begging to be allowed to stay in the van and just READ instead of go climb around on one more boring set of ruins.  I was a brat.  I know.  Tucked away on the east coast of Mexico between Villahermosa and Veracruz were an entirely different sort of people, a much older civilization, about whom very little is known.  These were the Olmec.  They too built great cities, worshiped animistic dieties and were fabulous artists.  The most enigmatic thing about these people is their physical difference from the other people groups that inhabited the continent in early times:  The Olmec appear to have been African in their physical features.



Hannah- 13 yrs- March 2010

The great Olmec Heads are carved from volcanic stones and some stand almost six feet high.  They are mostly the heads of warriors, clad in elaborate helmets, staring out of dark eyes from the ancient past.  They were mainly found at La Venta, the biggest Olmec city, and have been moved to a park in Villahermosa.  The park is exactly as I remember it from my childhood:  a labyrinth of jungle paths crisscrossed with leaf-cutter ant columns and coatimundi scampering through the underbrush.

With an Olmec head

The park still houses a mini-zoo including Ocelots, jaguar, crocodiles, jungle hogs, an aviary, snakes of all sorts and more.  It is a little bit surreal to return to childhood memories with one’s own children and tell stories from exactly the same winter that my daughter is now experiencing.  Ezra is always the most fascinated by these stories, “So, Grampsy was here… RIGHT here… when you were a kid?  Where did he walk?  In the middle of the path, or on the side?  Did he take pictures RIGHT HERE?”  He is an unending font of questions regarding the familial history of each place we visit that his Grandparents have traversed… and there are a lot of places.  It’s hard to tell what’s going on in his little pea brain, but I think, for him, it’s a way of linking to the past and bringing the people he loves into his own memories for the day.  I like this about him.




22 years later

We walked through the park, the boys growled at the jaguars and we took the requisite pictures next to the best of the Olmec heads.  “Are we done yet?” asked someone, “Are there any more?”  “There’s at least one more,” I replied, we haven’t gotten to my favorite one yet.  My favorite one is the one I remember having my picture made next to when I was 13.  It’s an alter carved out of a solid piece of rock with a priest emerging from a cave (a common theme in Olmec religious art) and I squatted next to him an my Dad took a picture.  We found him, looking little worse for the wear; what’s another 22 years when you’ve been sitting around for almost three thousand?  We took Hannah’s picture, and mine next to the stone and I experienced yet another flashback in which I am 13 and 35 all at once and my husband becomes my father for just an instant as the camera shutter closes and before I can blink he is himself again.  It is in these moments that I’m not at all sure that time is linear.