Newsletter Issue:
Spring 2023

Mystical Encounters and Cultural Agencies: Margarita de Orellana and Alberto Ruy Sánchez in Tenochtitlán, the Aztecs’ Ancient Capital

By Alicia Campos, Cohort ’22

Upon our arrival in Mexico City, on the first night of our astral dreams, we touched the serpent of the patios and the gardens of Tenochtitlán. It was not the evil serpent of the Spanish conquest, nor Huitzilopochtli, the ancient earthy serpent of the Aztecs, mother of the sun god and god of the war, but the serpent of Los Sueños de la Serpiente, by Alberto Ruy-Sánchez, where the main character recreates his past and reinvents his ancestors with the many lives within himself. His dream of the serpent accompanied us during our residency and through the cultural agency Artes de México founded by Alberto and his wife, Margarita de Orellana. 

The love of Ruy-Sánchez and de Orellana for Mexico inspired us through the week. They told us how they undertook the enterprise of rescuing Artes de México, which was first founded in the 1950s. In the late 1980s, under the cultural agency of the couple, the magazine took a new direction. Margarita, a historian, and Alberto, a writer, both have doctoral degrees in Communications. They took on the role of publishers in the late 1980s and since then, 135 issues of the magazine, Artes de México, have been successfully published and broadly welcomed internationally.

Alberto Ruy-Sánchez and the author at the Cultural Center Artes de México. Photograph by Lisa Tremaine.

Alberto told us, “Mexican cultures are so vast” and therefore organization was essential as the magazines are monographic; each issue takes different directions and digs into contemporary cultural practices or comes from the indigenous populations’ belief systems. Margarita made us aware that not only academicians but also the best writers and ‘conocedores’ were passionate about their Mexican identity and culture so they collaborated with Artes de México. Historian de Orellana considered the writing of those who truly know the villages to be exquisitely expert reflections of Mexican Indigenous communities and the history of Mexico.  

Margarita went further to say that “nature is culture.” During our residency, we learned about plantas sagradas, or Sacred Plants, used by the Maya, Nahua, Mazatec, Huichol, Otomi, and many others to tell us pre-Columbian stories and history about Indigenous communities. These stories talk about mushrooms, peyote, cannabis, and their various uses to connect with spirits and gods, to heal and promote fortune, traditions that still survive today. Healers and ‘chamanes’ used plants in the past for habitual rituals to connect with the universe within which we are immersed as part of religious and therapeutic encounters, maybe not so much understood in contemporary life (Glockner). De Orellana specified that healers can heal “with words in their language,” and that “the chamán with prayers can heal.” Mexican culture contains infinite possibilities and identities, Margarita assured us. We must consider that there are more than 20 million Indigenous people geographically dispersed which counts as 15% of the country’s total population with 63 different languages spoken other than Spanish, namely, Nahuatl, Mayan, and Mixtecan, with hundreds of different dialects still being spoken today. “We are the first publishers that have printed bilingual books in Mexico, up to eight languages,” Alberto explained, and he told us about a special book with prayers that was displayed in the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Indigenous traditions, rituals, dances, and arts, where magical encounters happen, are passed down over generations, and Artes de México acts as a cultural agency to support this invaluable preservation.

As we walked toward Colonia Roma, where Artes de México is located, we observed Art Nouveau, eclectic façades, and protruding tree root gardens. On our journey to reach the Cultural Center founded by Margarita and Alberto, we also encountered indigenous women selling handmade dolls and precious bead hummingbirds, street sweepers, ‘organilleros,’ and small art galleries such as [OCSN] OTRA COSA SIN NOMBRE, where we could experience first-hand the cultural richness that Alberto and Margarita were adding to the picture through Artes de México. Most of these people left their villages to come to the city or live on the outskirts of the city, as we could hear them still speaking their native languages. 

Street Sweeper in CDMX.

Once we arrived at the Centro de Cultura, with its brick façade and cozy patio, we distinguished the library, an art gallery, several rooms on the second floor, and a shop on the first floor. Besides publishing the magazine, Artes de México also participates in conferences and fairs within la República, invites artists and writers for presentations, and promotes artists’ exhibitions. Artist Joel Rendón exhibits a permanent collection of ‘grabados,’ or engravings in their small gallery. Rendón studied art at Academia de San Carlos de la UNAM. Alberto informed us that Artes de México invites many artists from different disciplines, among them renowned poets such as Efraín Bartolomé from Chiapas. Bartolome’s poetry is about nature as a divine manifestation of animals, plants, and rivers, stories of others and himself, and the flesh and blood of Chiapas. I enjoyed attending one of his readings in the late 90s, El Ojo de Jaguar, a singular experience at the heart of the Mayan universe in the jungle of Chiapas that carried all of the weight of a lifetime of mystical encounters into our present.

The poet Efraín Bartolomé at the heart of the Mayan jungle in Chiapas. Photograph taken by Guadalupe Belmontes Stringel.  
'Offering Altar’ at the Artes de México Cultural Center.

Cultural agents Alberto and Margarita motivated us by exhibiting their unique relationship, a mix of love and familiar friendship, and their passion for Mexico’s cultural roots, tortuous history, and cultural identity, carrying all the passion and the weight of the pre-Columbian traditions and culture to our present. The Dream of the Serpent is “the irruption of historical events, the zigzagging winding memories of a traumatized mind when it remembers” (Castillo & Pérez). The city of the Aztecs does not forget the good and the evil, the beauty and the horror, the skin and the suffering, as Tenochtitlán still breathes and is welcomed through Artes de México, where the pre-Columbian Mexican cultural traditions are honored. Artes de México brings to our awareness the importance of protecting Indigenous communities, as these hold the soul of Mexican mystical encounters. 

Mazahua woman. Resistance movement near Zócalo. Displacements from San Simón de la Laguna. Indigenous community living in CDMX.

Works Cited

Bartolomé, Efraín, Ojo de Jaguar, UNICAH /CASA JUAN PABLOS, 1982.

Castillo García, María Esther, and Pérez Castillo, Pablo, Alberto Ruy Sánchez, El Merodeador tras los Sueños de la Serpiente. Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro CONACYT. 

Glockner, Julio, Plantas Sagradas, Issue 127, Artes de México Magazine, 2023.

Ruy Sánchez, Alberto, Los Sueños de la Serpiente. Alfaguara, 2018.

Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía,

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