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Mexicans who would someday change the Southeast’s history

Mexicans who would someday change the Southeast’s history


A seemingly insignificant act of kindness may have unimaginable repercussions years or decades later.

This elderly indigenous house servant remembered when the army of Emiliano Zapata marched through her village during the Mexican Revolution.

Nowadays, historians in the United States usually wallow in the realm of celebrities, generals, the rich and the famous . . . if they want to make money from publishing a book.   Meanwhile,  most of the archaeologists seem incapable of empathizing with the humans, who built the structures and made the pottery that they are studying.   They seem primarily concerned with impressing or repressing other members of their profession. They view Native American occupation sites as their private domain.  Native Americans are assumed to be of too limited intellect to understand their own heritage.

Far more than I anticipated when first stepping on that Eastern Airlines jet, shortly after completing another year at Georgia Tech,  I became completely immersed into Mexican culture and history during my three month fellowship South of the Border. Eastern had initiated direct flights to and from Atlanta and Mexico City only a short period before the flight down there.  At that point, Atlanta Airport  began calling itself Atlanta International Airport.  No one would have dreamed that in the early 21st century, Atlanta would become the busiest airport in the world or that Georgia with have over a million Latin American residents.   Note:  Some of these slides were severely damaged by the heat while in the storage bin for 8 1/2 years.  I apologize, but they could not be fully restored.



The Soto House was unusual because it was single story and actually had a small grass lawn.  It has been replaced by a much larger building.

Santos and Eufamia – the Soto’s indigenous servants



Even though I was a complete stranger,  José and Lupe Soto invited me to stay at their home in Colonia Nueva Sta. Maria, whenever I was in Mexico City.   Soon after I returned to Atlanta, the younger daughter of Soto family,Ruth,  flew to Atlanta to spend three months with our family.  I was on campus, so she became the big sister for my sister.  Ruth dated my fraternity brothers at Tech. Future trips to Mexico were foremost to visit friends I had made there, but also enabled me to reexamine ancient cities from a more mature perspective.

Human life is a tapestry in which the woof and warp threads are woven by person’s choices and chance events, plus acts of kindness and evil done by other people, for which the individual has no control.  I look back at the Mexican sections of my tapestry and see so many points where a single thread could have radically changed the remainder of the tapestry.

The Great Round Pyramid of Cuicuilco, viewed from a drone. The city was abandoned because of a nearby volcanic eruption. 

Los niños de Cuicuilco

Photo of Alicia taken at Cuicuilco.

The photo at the top of the article was made at the Cuicuilco Archaeological Zone in the Distrito Federal de Mexico.  You can see the stone walls of the round pyramid on the extreme right of the photo.  On July 11, a hazy Sunday afternoon in Mexico City with amazingly . . . no rain . . .  Alicia and I decided to have a picnic at the ruins of Cuicuilco.  The archaeological site was on the list of those be studied given me by Dr. Roman Piña-Chan.   I should add that a primary reason that the Valley de Mexico had such a huge Pre-Hispanic population was that the fertile soils received rainfall almost every day of the growing season, but are very dry during the cool months, enabling dried foods to be maintained for long periods.

Almost immediately after arriving, we noticed the four kids above following us and grinning ear to ear, wherever we went . . . like little ducklings. I assumed that they were trying to sell us Chicklets chewing gum.  During that era,  hundreds of thousands of poor kids roamed the city streets of Mexico, selling Chiclets in order to buy food.   Closer inspection revealed that these kids were carrying nothing in their hands.

Most Upper and Middle Class Mexicans would have long since yelled at the kids to go away, but Alicia felt compassion for them.  She turned around and asked them, if they needed something.  The leader of the gang (on the right) asked us if we were angels!  She told them no, but that I was from faraway in the United States (Estados Unidos).   They didn’t know what the Estados Unidos was, but then asked her if she was Santa Maria, because she was so beautiful and had a halo over her head.  Apparently, they had never been in school or at least had very little schooling.   I pointed slightly upward and to the northeast and told them that I live in the part of the United States named Georgia.  They still looked confused.

Alicia and I then began talking about the kids in English so they would not understand us.  We speculated that these were “street kids” who either had no permanent home or else their mother was gone most of the time . . . perhaps a servant or even in prison.  They quickly freaked out and looked terrified.   Then they  screamed, “Ou . . . Efe . . . O!”    They thought that I was an extraterrestrial, because I spoke a strange language.

Alicia explained that I was a nice man, who would not hurt them.  The little girl (far left), who was so malnurished that she barely came up to Alicia’s mid-thigh, continued to cry in terror.  Alicia hugged her until she stopped crying.  However, as you can see in the photo, she remained afraid of me.   I know it’s hard to believe, but she was about the height of a two year old Gringo kid.

Alicia asked them if they were hungry.  They all nodded yes.   We walked over to a vendor and Alicia bought them each a tamale, a cup of pineapple chunks and a cup of papaya juice drink.  They wolfed the food down almost instantly.  Alicia invited them to join us as we toured the rest of the ruins.  She tried to explain to them the history of Cuicuilco, but the kids seemed to have no concept of ancient time periods.  Eventually,  they asked us if we could be their mother and father.   Alicia explained to them that we were not married and that I would be going back to my homeland in couple of months.  They seemed not to have a concept of marriage or of people living in other countries.

Not too long after that the leader politely asked permission if they could leave.  They walked away toward a cluster of flimsy shacks, built out of sheet metal and pilfered construction materials.   In Mexico, these “squatter” communities are called barrios.  They typically have no plumbing or electricity and their water comes from illegal taps on the city’s water system.

I think that when Alicia was nurturing those four kids, who apparently nobody but God loved . . . was when I fell in love with her.  It set her apart from the vast majority of Gringas and Mexicanas I had known.   It is the soul of a person that will carry a relationship with literally a soulmate in hard times.   Many women can be dazzling on the dance floor or when embraced.  It is a far greater thing to give love to those little niños, who had been deprived of almost everything that Gringo kids take for granted.

Children eating out of a garbage can in Patzcuaro, State of Michoacan

Alicia was a 19 year old rebel in a sweet-natured way.  She really, really wanted to get out of Mexico.  Her family was officially Roman Catholic, but Sephardic Jewish in ethnicity.   Their extended family was governed by the elder men in exactly the authoritarian way one would expect to find in Middle Eastern Muslim families.   Her great-grandparents fled Turkey during Word War I when the Armenians and Jews were being persecuted by the Turkish Muslims.  They settled in France, but many died at the hands of the Nazi’s twenty years later.  Alicia’s grandparents had converted to Catholicism in order to be accepted as political refugees in Mexico.  However, Alicia was born in San Diego, California . . . so at age 21 she had the right to claim United States citizenship, if a permanent resident of the US.

It was a time when the restrictions on young Mexican women, rooted in Spain’s Islamic past were finally beginning to fade away.  Lower class women typically became sexually active soon after puberty and generally married soon after that.   Upper class women had life styles like their Gringa counterparts, other than the fact that they were expected to be extremely discreet so no one would know that they were “modern” women.   Middle class women were the most conservative, since they wanted to  appear to be “proper” like upper class women.  However, most young women 17 and older were not required to have chaperones with them on dates . . . as had been the custom for many centuries.

Until recently,  the ingredients for birth control pills came from the wild Mexican yam.  However, their use by single women had just been legalized before I arrived in Mexico.  Since single women under 21 were required to get permission from their parents to obtain a prescription for birth control pills,  most usage in Mexico was via the black market.

I returned to Mexico to spend two weeks at Christmastime with Alicia and her mother.  I took along my 10 year old sister as a chaperone.  I have the coolest sister, you could imagine. By the end of the holidays,  we both knew that we were deeply in love and completely compatible.  We often communicated telepathically.    Our game plan was for Alicia to spend some time with my family after she finished the school year at the Universidad de Anahuac.   Eastern Airlines had already expressed an extreme interest in hiring her as a tri-lingual  customer service agent.  They didn’t even care, if she hadn’t gotten her degree. They were desperate for employees to handle problems with their new flights to Latin America. 

When it became obvious to her mother that we were deeply in love, she went berserk . . . calling me a diablo protestante when in a good mood.  That was a joke.  Her mother maybe went to mass once a year.  I attended the Methodist campus church at Georgia Tech weekly, but had no problem with attending mass with Alicia too.  Alicia joined me at a Methodist Church in Mexico City and liked it.  The members, both Mexican and from English-speaking countries were extremely friendly to her.  They invited us to “couple” social activities, thinking that we two lovebirds were living together.  The American embassy personnel even discussed hiring her.  No one ever spoke to her at a mass. 

Back now at Georgia Tech,  the professors loved the thesis I wrote for the Barrett Fellowship.  I got an A.  Archaeologist Arthur Kelly and my faculty advisor, Architect Ike Saporta, were pushing me to go after a doctorate in Anthropology after I finished my architectural thesis.   The previous summer, I had made friends with the Tulane University archaeologists, working on a site in Campeche. Apparently, one of them was Robert Wauchope, but I now don’t remember any of their names.  Tulane had the nation’s best Mesoamerican program and was several hundred miles closer to Mexico City.   It would be an ideal situation for us, since Eastern had many international flights to Latin America departing from New Orleans.

International phone calls were extremely costly back then.  A ten minute call to Mexico City could cost as much as $40, which is the equivalence of $200 today.   Air mail postage was ten cents, so we did a lot of mailing back and forth.  The letters became increasingly passionate. Hey, that’s normal.  People fall in love and want to be with each other!

Do you see Alicia’s halo?

What we didn’t know was that her mother was intercepting all my letters and having them translated.  She found out that Alicia planned to interview with Eastern Airlines in Atlanta at the end of the school year then quickly hid her birth certificate and passport.  Like some melodrama in the Middle East,  Alicia was hustled to an aunt’s house in the boonies of Mexico.  Months went by without Alicia answering any of my letters.  Alicia was required to endure an inspection by a doctor to determine is she was a virgin.   She was, but still was forbidden to communicate with me.  Keep in mind that she was by now 20 and I was 21.   In June, a Mexican classmate of mine in architecture agreed to stop by her house and find out what had happened, under the guise of being a potential suitor.  He obtained my Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity pin and learned the horrific details of what Alicia had endured.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, then unknowingly stood near each other in Paris

In early June 1972,  Alicia wrote me a letter, but unfortunately mailed it to my fraternity house rather than my parents home.  You see, I passed my Architectural Thesis first time and graduated on June 3rd.  The next morning I hopped on a British Airways jet and headed to a job in Landskrona, Sweden.  It would be two years before I read her letter.  No one initially knew my Swedish address and then the letter was put in a file, maintained by the house mother.   After returning back to Sweden I immediately took a job with a company based in Columbia, MD.  The job kept me jetting all over the Eastern United States.  It was not until June 1974, that our housemother ran across the letter from Alicia and forwarded it to my parent’s home.   By then, I was engaged to another woman.

The letter began,  “Queridisima Ricardo . . .  “You are an architect now, my architect.  And now I am a woman, who can do anything I want to do.  I have my birth certificate and passport now.  I can legally get birth control pills.  Please come now to Mexico City and take me away!” 

The letter went on to say that if I thought we needed to get to know each other again, since it had been 2 1/2 years, she could fly up to Atlanta or I could fly down to Mexico City.   The aunt in the boonies felt very sorry for her part in tearing us apart.  She said that we could stay together at her hacienda with her blessing.  Alicia was scheduled to attend college in Paris that fall.  She said that if I had to go into the Navy after graduating (I did’t after all)  maybe I could visit her in Paris, France.  She gave me her future address in Paris. 

So I was in Sweden or backpacking around Europe, while Alicia was in Paris.  In fact, I stayed for over two weeks at youth hostel in Paris that was only a couple of blocks from where Alicia was attending college.  It was like the plot of Dr. Zhvago, except neither one of us would have been cheating on a spouse.  We never saw each other again, although I talked to her on my honeymoon, while we were staying with the Soto’s.   Alicia’s house was on Calle Guanabano, two blocks away.  I even saw her driving by in her red Plymouth Baracuda, but my new bride was at my side.

If at any time between 1971 and spring of 1974,  Alicia and I had met up again, I feel sure that we would have married and I would have transferred from my postgraduate planning program to anthropology, so I would have a career that could periodically take her back to Mexico.  It didn’t happen.  

On the other hand, I would have never gone to Sweden without Alicia, if we had stayed in contact.   So I probably would have never seen the petroglyphs in southern Sweden that we now know are identical to the ones in North Georgia.  I would not be able to communicate in Swedish and thus be able to get the gist of Scandinavian archaeological reports.  Yet on the other hand,  we could have had an incredible time, seeing all of Europe together.    It was a road not taken.  That’s how life is.  One never knows what will happen in the future, when two roads diverge in a yellow wood.


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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    What a remarkable experience Richard! Well worth every moment. Thank you for sharing, just beautiful!

    • Thank you! The story continues next with Dr. Roman Pina-Chan – Director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia.


    Thank you, Richard, for sharing this beautifully poignant story so dear to your heart. The love you and Alicia shared, and the experiences you both had, helped to make you the caring and persevering person you are today.

    • If anyone is a caring and persevering person, it is you my dear friend.



    Thanks for taking the road you took even though it caused such a loss for you and also for Alicia now maybe only a little understood. Most of us have had to make decisions like yours then had fate intervene to compound the outcome in many ways.

    After reading a recent posting of yours about your time in Mexico and then learning about your native American connection I got to thinking about you. Really thinking of how to thank you for knowledge.

    The story, love story, you told about Alicia and you goes much deeper than even I think you know. How could you know what influence your presentation of knowledge and research has had on my life and even my family. I am just one person who has followed you starting in about 2006. I have learned, in part, because of you and even Alicia I have learned about my own heritage and the real history of our land. There are many like me I am sure.

    I venture to say that in either a large or small way you and Alicia have changed lives and families in a most positive way. I am sure you will never really know how much value your research has done for others.

    I am sad when I think about the road not taken related to your life and Alicia’s. Still that decision is the plan that has brought so much good in the way of understanding. My guess that there will be other revelations as time goes on.

    I thank you for the sacrifice and for all the hours of study you have invested for all of us. Thank you also for the documentation that adds so much value to your findings.

    Please know that when I next “make smoke” you and Alicia will both be included in the prayers of thanksgiving.

    nvwadohiyada (peace and healing) Jay

    • Would you believe that Alicia was single again and living in Cancun until 2009. The reason I know was that a bank foreclosed on her house there and the loan was in her full maiden name. Unfortunately, I had absolutely no money – couldn’t go down there to find her. Then later in 2009, I was foreclosed on. Life does go in circles. Thank you for your prayers. When I got under a roof again in 2012, she was no longer listed in the Cancun telephone directory, but Gionella Soto was.



        Just caught that. Richard… you really need to call.



    Having had a similar experience in my youth all I can say is that “I feel your pain”. Young love can really leave a lasting impression on us, and from what you’ve told us about Alicia, we can certainly understand why. Perhaps Alicia experienced some ‘closure’ when you told her, You didn’t really get that. Stuff like that can really haunt you… not a good place to be. Maybe we can fix that?

    Type “Richard Thornton” into Google and the number 3 hit is yours. You are after some dead British guy on Wiki and then there is a generic Richard Thornton link on Facebook for what seems like the thousands of them out there. I guess that just comes with being an anthropololgical ‘pariah’ of sorts lol! Add “pineapple” to the first two words and now you are number 1 and 2. Now this is where the fun starts… new search… Google the word “Alekmani”. Right. Google is also the top search engine in Mexico. Get where I’m going with this?

    Everyone (except for me) Googles their own name. My guess is that an extremely ‘small’ percentage women also Google their friend’s names, boyfriend’s names, friends boyfriend’s names etc etc. Now I don’t know if it’s as easy as just titling your next article with her name, former address, perhaps a “sorry” or two? (insert laughing emoji here)… but I would bet that there is someone over here that does. Perhaps a local Mexican reader could knock on a door or two to see if they are still in touch?

    Still, I can’t say that I’m sorry that you didn’t wed Alicia and become a tenured anthropologist, you are doing some great work here. Besides… being wrong, pompous, and insufferable would have been no way to go through life lol!

    • Google Richard Thornton – Native American Architect or Richard Thornton – People of One Fire and you will see several webpages of the right person. It was kind of weird when I was homeless and yet the national architecture columnist for the Examiner. The Examiner had the Google search engine so manipulated that Googling Richard Thornton – would result in dozens of webpages.


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