Sam McManis

Discoveries: Is California’s Aztec past hidden in plain sight?

“I don’t like to say this is sacred (just) to Native Americans, because it should be sacred to all,” Alfredo Acosta Figueroa said of the geoglyphs.
“I don’t like to say this is sacred (just) to Native Americans, because it should be sacred to all,” Alfredo Acosta Figueroa said of the geoglyphs.

The desert wind howled, and Alfredo Acosta Figueroa moaned. It was a deep, guttural sound rising clear from his diaphragm, anguished and heartsick.

“Ah, mannnn,” he lamented, voice trailing consonants like kicked-up gravel, evoking the same poignancy as when he once sang corridos at 1960s farmworker rallies. “Ohhhh. Ridiculous! They’re destroying it.”

He paused, sighed audibly, and seemed to deflate a bit into the passenger’s seat. Figueroa, at that moment, looked every bit of his 83 years, face fissured like the hillsides ringing Blythe and the Palo Verde Valley, his signature straw fedora falling lower over a furrowed brow.

“Pull over,” he said, at last. “Just park right here. Yeah, on that shoulder. Ah, mannnn. Get out. I’ll show you. I don’t want to show you, after what they’ve done. But I show you.”

We had been driving for an hour on the back roads north of Interstate 10 near the Arizona border, me at the wheel, Figueroa riding shotgun and his eldest son, also named Alfredo, mostly silent in the backseat. Plenty of times on this sunny February afternoon Figueroa had requested we stop the car on sandy shoulders. Each time, it was to point out features in the hills and the arid landscape that, he said, supports his fervent, almost messianic, belief that this is the sacred ground known as Aztlán, the site that tells the creation story of Figueroa’s Chemehuevi ancestors and, pretty much, those of all Aztecs.


But this was the first time all day he had asked to stop and wander in the desert to get a close-up look at one of the huge (50 feet wide and 200 feet long) geoglyphs, Native American symbols carved into the rock, desert as canvas. He wanted to show me Kokopilli and Cicimitl, two of the most prominent geoglyphs that constitute the Blythe Intaglios, renderings of Aztec gods and symbols depicted either as human or animal, formed by scraping away the dark, manganese-stained top layer of rock to show pale, powdery caliche soil underneath. He wanted to inspect what’s left after, more than a year ago, bulldozers from Blythe Solar and McCoy Solar Power built a road that skirts and somewhat alters the geoglyphs, and to show how close (less than 300 meters) the solar-panel farms come to the “sacred” site.

Figueroa almost couldn’t bring himself to come and see what he calls a desecration, but what the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the public land, and Blythe Solar, which has contracted with the state to build the alternative-energy plant, calls a site capable of “generating enough electricity to power 264,000 homes.” Twice, on the drive over, Figueroa demurred, saying “I don’t want to go. It hurts me too much. Leave me at the house. You go with him, son.” A silence ensued, fraught with tension. “OK,” he said at last, “I go. First time I’ll see it since the road (was built), you know.”

And here we now stood outside the car, wind whipping so hard that the brush was sibilant and animated. A metal BLM sign (“Restoration in Progress”) on the barbed-wire fencing paralleling the freshly paved, two-lane road creaked in the gusts. We had to wait to cross the road until a stream of cars, heading southbound toward the freeway, had passed.

“Working on a Saturday,” Figueroa’s son muttered, referring to the solar-farm construction. “Man, there used to be nobody. No road.”

“Ridiculous!” the elder Figueroa growled.

It was only a short walk, maybe 50 feet, from this new road to the meseta where the two geoglyphs sit. From the sky, via satellite images or Google maps, the forms are fully shaped and easily discernible. Kokopilli, a massive representation of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, shows a round-headed figure either playing a flute or drinking from a straw, five plumes jutting from his head and his body breastplate taking the appearance of an anthropomorphized bee or bird in flight. Cicimitl, farther east on the same meseta, is said to be an animist figure aligned at 13 degrees magnetic north with the three peaks of the Mule Mountains.

Up close, though, stepping carefully on the jagged, blackened rocks, all you see is sculpted lines that give only a partial rendering of the work as a whole. In time, Figueroa will explain that significance but, first, he and his son are still trying to process the transformed landscape.

“Ah, mannnn, see how they broke it up; it used to be all together before they plowed through,” Figueroa said. “The sun and arrow (geoglyphs), they are gone. They really did a job on it. Look at the fancy bridge. And there’s a concrete (culvert) and wash over (to the north). Ridiculous!”

Figueroa reached into his satchel and took out a paper with the image of, among others, Gov. Jerry Brown, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and former state Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez grasping ceremonial shovels at the 2011 groundbreaking of the solar project, spurred by Assembly Bill 32, a state mandate to reduce carbon emissions. The paper billows in the wind. Figueroa will say later that he tried all avenues to stop the project, appealing to the California Energy Commission, the BLM, the builders of the Blythe Solar Power Project themselves – all to no avail.

The effort now is more modest: to build fences around these two geoglyphs, in the same manner that, since 1957, fences protect the other intaglios 13 miles away near the Colorado River. Figueroa says it will take about $50,000 to build and will need the approval of the BLM to construct. But he says his nonprofit, the La Cuna de Aztlán Sacred Site Protection Circle, has a memorandum of understanding with the BLM to partner in protecting “the cultural resources” of the area.

He took out a signed copy of the memorandum and waved it around, to emphasize the point.

“I get worked up over this,” Figueroa said. “But I have to. This is sacred land. Our (Chemehuevi) tribe chairman Charles Woods, he said, ‘What would people do if they were plowing through the walls of the Vatican?’ People would be going nuts. But I don’t like to say this is sacred (just) to Native Americans, because it should be sacred to all humans. La cuna means ‘the cradle.’ And this is the cradle, the umbilical, of civilization in the Northern Hemisphere.”

Figueroa’s contention that the Palo Verde Valley is where the Aztec gods descended and that these geoglyphs date back to around 8,000 B.C. draws arched brows and maybe even a little eye-rolling from academics. Figueroa has tried to interest archaeologists in hearing his theological theories; mostly he’s been ignored. Figueroa has, however, been invited to give lectures from his book, “Ancient Footprints of the Colorado River,” at UC Riverside and other institutions with Chicano studies programs.

Tom Jones, the BLM archaeologist in charge of the intaglios – but not the two geoglyphs near the solar farm – said his agency “recognizes the antiquity of these items. We believe them to be very ancient and important to the tribal entities that live on the river.” But he said proving the age of the geoglyphs and determining whether they are the “cradle” of Aztec civilization is impossible.

“I wouldn’t necessarily discount Mr. Figueroa’s assertion,” Jones said. “It’s kind of a gray area in terms of archaeology. The prevailing view among archaeologists is that the cradle of the Aztec civilization is probably more appropriately placed in Northern Mexico. But, I mean, well, you can kind of extrapolate, people had to get from one place to another, eventually, and if people came across the Bering Strait and down, they had to go through the Southwest (of the United States) to get to northern Mexico.

“The intaglio process is a removal process, so what you’re doing is essentially moving rocks from one place to another. To try to determine at what point a rock moved several thousand years ago is really, really difficult.”

Indeed, the genesis of the geoglyphs, essentially who built them, is a matter more of faith than empirical data. Most historians deem the idea of Aztlán as mythical. Figueroa and an organization called the Inland Mexican Heritage believe early Mojave and Quechan settlers to the Colorado River basin built them nearly 10,000 years ago. Artifacts, such as ceramics, show that native people have only been in the desert around Blythe for 3,000 years.

Figueroa, a sixth-generation Blythe resident, said his ancestors passed down the origin and migration stories over hundreds of years. But the intaglios only first became widely known – aka “discovered” – in 1932, when the London News published aerial photos of geoglyphs. No such geoglyphs exist in Mexico, where many archaeologists say Aztec civilization first took root hundreds of years before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1521. A set of geoglyphs in Peru, called the Nazca Lines, is the only other similar site in the Americas. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Nazca Lines have been intensely studied by academics, who have no consensus as to their purpose or exact age, but some theorize that ancient people were signaling to their gods in the firmament.

One skeptic turned grudging supporter is Boma Johnson, retired BLM archaeologist. Writing in Figueroa’s book’s preface, Johnson stated he studied evidence Figueroa compiled from Aztecan codices and, “I see many difficulties in his reasoning and lines of evidence, yet I see enough good evidence to intrigue me. … (T)he idea of the lower Colorado River being the so-called ‘Lost Aztlán’ is not that wild of an idea.”

Johnson’s partial endorsement may be the only outside support Figueroa has for his theory that the geoglyphs were made by the ancient ones before heading south to Mexico City, but he does not care. “They tell us, you cannot prove anything,” he said, raising a crooked index finger, “The hell I can’t. I have the codices.”

When I apparently didn’t express enough enthusiasm in his study of 20 volumes of ancient writings he perused in university libraries, he repeated, louder into the wind, “I have the codices! These are codices written prior to the invasion of the Spanish (in Mexico). People have no respect for our culture.”

Then he smiled, jutting his chin out into a significant headwind.

“Don’t use the word ‘myth,’ ” he continued. “It’s facts. Like, Blythe originally was an island. It’s written in the codices! I’d show it to you, but I can tell from your expression it’s too big of a shock right now. The last (journalist) I showed around told me, ‘Stop, stop, I can’t take anymore, my brains are coming out of my ears.’ Facts are facts. But if you have no kind of imagination, then, sorry, you won’t see it out here. Might as well take me back home.”

Figueroa, father of nine, grandfather of 26, is more wiry than frail, and though partially stooped, strides around the geoglyphs like a man a few decades younger. He is used to a fight, used to people being dismissive. He comes from six generations of miners and agricultural workers in the area around Blythe. He has worked in – literally, in – those hills and has long been an advocate for Chicano and Native American rights. In the 1960s, he worked alongside United Farm Workers leaders Cesar Chavez and Bert Corona, brandishing a guitar and singing corridos at rallies up and down the state. Once his days working in the nearby mines ended, he became an activist protecting the land, first stopping the proposed Ward Valley nuclear dump and later successfully protesting against the Eagle Mountain landfill.

“I know struggle, and the sites here are very delicate but have little protection, especially Kokopilli and Cicimitl, thanks to those damn solar panels,” he said. “They can willfully ignore that this is the sacred la cuna, the cradle, but I was a miner and I know these hills. Anglos, they think you gotta go to Babylonia or some place to see the beginning, the Tower of Babel or something. But I show you our towers.”

Stops we made around the valley earlier in the afternoon included pop quizzes, something like huge Rorschach tests. He had me point the car toward the Big Maria Mountains north of town, and pressed a finger against the windshield toward a jutting rock. When I failed to identify the telltale beaklike rock formation, he took pity on me.

“That’s Huitzilopochtil (Aztec sun god),” he said. “Now look over to the left. See that mountain? Who was the mother of Quetzalcoatl? That’s Chimalman. That dark peak on the extreme left. See? It’s got a face and got her breasts. She’s pregnant. That’s Chimalman. When the Spanish came, they said, ‘Oh, that must be the mother of Jesus Christ,’ and they named it the Maria Mountains. But this whole range is where (civilization) got started.”

Now we found ourselves walking slowly inside the dark stones that make up the head of Kokopilli, which “represents the creation of the cosmos and mother earth.” We have stood silently at the mouth, Figueroa’s son apologizing when his cellphone rang and respectfully wandered off to answer it.

Then Figueroa led me to the eye. We stood over it, just staring for a few seconds. Someone had put a stone threaded with turquoise in the middle of the eye/cairn.

“New Age-type people,” Figueroa said. “They must’ve added that. They mostly like to take the (peyote) out here. But at least they’ve got some feeling for the land.”

He paused, bent lower to inspect, but not touch, the turquoise stone.

“This is the center of the world,” he said, with a practiced arm sweep. “You’re standing on it.”

We stood for a while longer, then headed back to the car. We had to wait for another armada of vehicles to pass before crossing the new two-lane road again.


Blythe Intaglios

For information on visiting the geoglyphs outside of Blythe, go to