Chinampas, gardens that once fed Aztec Empire
Five hundred years on, it still takes a canoe to reach the fields that fed this city when it ruled a great empire.
On the map, Xochimilco’s gardens are a tiny wedge of green in the southern reach of the Mexican capital’s expanding urban sprawl. Along the area’s maze of canals, the raised farming beds are the last living vestige of the city’s Aztec past.
Anastasio Santana still farms here, growing herbs and vegetables on five acres surrounded by water. Tall willow trees abut the canal that flows past his house and fields. Instead of the city’s sounds, he hears bird calls.
But he is 50 years old and fears that his is the last generation to grow food here. “People used to plant, but now they get a hold of a job with the government and they leave,” he said.
Though the Spanish conquered the Aztecs and set about draining the vast lake basin at the center of the vanquished empire, the canals and their raised farming beds, called chinampas, have managed to survive.
To produce enough food to support their population, the Aztec constructed chinampas, or raised garden beds, in swampland and shallow water. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán was built on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco (which later dried up and is now the site of Mexico City), limiting the amount of available dry farmland. This 16th-century painting depicts farmers making a chinampa by laying cut sod on top of a frame of wood and reeds.