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Preserving ancient art in land marked for solar energy development

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Jeremy Miller | Jan 30, 2014 05:00 AM

Like a great eye of reflective silicon, the largest utility-scale power plant in the United States is rapidly materializing in the Mojave Desert. According to company officials, when fully complete, the BrightSource Ivanpah Solar Power Facility will come on line early this year, supplying nearly 400 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 140,000 homes during peak sunlight hours. The Ivanpah plant is in many ways the centerpiece project for dozens of large-scale solar facilities planned across the region.

In spite of the carbon-free energy generated at Ivanpah, the 4000-acre plant on the California-Nevada border has drawn the ire of environmentalists who cite a host of problems, from disturbances to critical habitat for endangered desert tortoises, to plumes of superheated air – or “solar flux” – generated by the circular array of 170,000 heliostat mirrors, which, some fear, could potentially kill large numbers of birds.

While ecological considerations have dominated the discussion, utility-scale solar development also poses serious challenges to the desert’s rich cultural resources – an issue taken up by a 79-year-old activist and former civil rights worker named Alfredo Figueroa.

On a searing day last August, I met with Figueroa in a Mexican restaurant tucked into the back of a gas station on the outskirts of Blythe, Calif. He regaled me with stories about the labor rights struggle in the farm fields of California. In the 1960s, Figueroa took the stage with luminaries of the movement, such as Cesar Chavez and Bert Corona, working with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee and, later, the United Farmworkers Union to improve conditions for migrant agricultural workers across the state.

Activist Alfredo Figueroa in the Palo Verde Valley in southeastern California. Photograph by Jeremy Miller.

Over the last decade, Figueroa’s activism has turned toward the desert landscapes that surround his small stucco bungalow in southeastern California, a region besieged by large utility-scale solar projects.  The Palo Verde Valley, three hours east of Los Angeles along the Arizona-California border, is one of the most sunlight-rich areas in the country and has become the de facto epicenter of the solar energy rush – a phenomenon that Judith Lewis Mernit recently reported on for High Country News .

In these rugged valleys, Figueroa has discovered what he says are fragmented depictions of scenes from the Aztec codices, ancient texts that tell the story of the exodus of the Mexica people from their ancestral homeland of Aztlan, to Lake Texcoco, the location of today’s Mexico City.

Many people believe that, like Atlantis or Avalon, Aztlan was a mythical civilization. Renee de la Torre, a researcher at a cultural history organization in Guadalajara, Mexico, calls Aztlan an “imagined homeland,” in which, she writes, there is “a reproduction or re-enactment of the founding myths of the Mexican nation as a way to legitimize the existence of a spiritual nation that spreads over both sides of the international border.”

Yet Figueroa has different ideas. He speaks of a lost geography, a landscape punctuated with ancient place names and figures such as Quetzalcoatl, Huitzilopochtli and Ometeotl – deities of the Aztec pantheon.  All of which is to say, Figueroa believes the landscapes around his rough-hewn hometown of 20,000 are the cradle of Aztec civilization – la cuna de Aztlan, as he calls it.

The cornerstone of his theory that Aztlan not only existed but once thrived in the dry valleys of the Lower Colorado River, centuries before the rise of the Aztecs in Mexico, is the presence of giant pieces of land art called intaglios or geoglyphs. Ancient artists created these massive works by scraping away manganese-colored stones at their surface to expose lighter colored caliche soil beneath.

Peru’s massive Nazca Lines designated 20 years ago as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, are the planet’s best-known examples of geoglyphs. But the landscapes of the Lower Colorado Desert hold a similar, if lesser-known array of ancient images.

Some are geometric patterns: zigzags, waves and spirals. The Blythe Giant Intaglios, the best known of the region’s glyphs, depict human figures. The sprawling etchings look like cartoonish giants reclining on their backs, looking toward the heavens. Ironically, in spite of their great antiquity, the mysterious images are best seen with the aid of modern technology – from an airplane or helicopter – which has led some, including controversial author Erich von Daniken, who penned the book Chariots of the Gods? about aliens visiting ancient earth, to speculate that the glyphs were drawn to be seen by extraterrestrial spacecraft.

Along with the clues carved into stone, Figueroa says that the Chemehuevi language also holds evidence Aztlan existed along the Lower Colorado. Chemehuevi happens to be part of the Uto-Aztecan family of languages – a group of dozens of related tongues extending from the Nahua tribes of southern Mexico, to the Shoshone of the Great Basin – derived from Classic Nahuatl, the ancient language of the Aztecs that is still spoken by only a handful of people today.

“My grandfather spoke Chemehuevi, but we never picked it up. Today we speak a mixed up version of Spanish and Nahuatl,” says Figueroa. The ancient Chemhuevi has pretty much died out, he says, but it would have sounded similar to classic Nahuatl.

Relatives on his father’s side, Yaqui Indians from the Mexican state of Sonora, also speak a Nahuatl language closely related to Chemehuevi, while his mother’s side speak the Spanish-Nahuatl mix. Figueroa says only a generation or two ago, there were enough similarities between the two languages for his relatives to communicate with one another. The U.S.-Mexico border, however, has restricted the movement of people and culture between these ancestrally related tribes, and has proven not merely formidable to families caught on either side but to the cohesion of these ancient and endangered languages. (Figueroa is fond of the old adage, “We did not cross the border, the border crossed us.”)

“They have a hard time understanding us now,” he says.

Though these ancient languages may eventually disappear, Figueroa hopes that the desert of Palo Verde Valley and its ancient geoglyphs can be preserved. Even if his ideas about the lost homeland of the Aztecs are never fully embraced, the cultural significance of these landscapes is worth far more than alternative energy projects, he says.

“People think this is ‘just’ a desert, a place to put solar panels and nothing more,” he says, “It’s much more than that.”

Jeremy Miller is a contributing editor to High Country News. He tweets @JeremyJ_Miller.

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