The Historic Center of Mexico City

The Historic Center of Mexico City


Howard Adelman

Yesterday, we began by taking a taxi to the historic center of Mexico City (Centro Histórico de la Ciudad de México). We decided to reserve our energy, cut out the visits to the antique market and the designers collective, and also not walk the ten blocks to the subway stop. A man around the corner from our apartment standing in front of a local hotel asked if we needed a taxi. We said yes and asked how much it would be to go to Zócalo. He replied: 110 pesos. As a taxi driving by was stopped by the traffic, we asked him how much he would charge. 60 pesos was the answer. We went in his cab.

Though twice before I had been in Mexico City at conferences, I had never before visited the historic center. The plaza was huge. It could hold one hundred thousand protesters easily – if it were not filled with temporary stands and other items. We first went to visit the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary on the north end of the plaza. The largest cathedral in the Americas is indeed an imposing structure. However, we soon noticed the floor slanted towards the centre and speculated that the heavy weight of the columns and the enormous organ at the centre and/or perhaps earthquakes had resulted in the centre sinking relative to the rest of the structure. I had also once read that Mexico City was sinking because of the draining of the aquifers beneath the city.

I do not like cathedrals in general, but some have a powerful architectural appeal. This did not, or, at least, the central places of worship did not. The smaller Metropolitan Tabernacle immediately adjacent to the east was far more pristine with graceful columns and aesthetically pleasing proportions. There seemed to be many separate chapels in the main Cathedral though we only visited two. There were a number of altars and I wondered if services were conducted in several at the same time. The overall structure was a Gothic seventeenth century version of brutalist modernism with a great many baroque facades. The columns in the central core were heavy and graceless. Further, they seemed not to have the fine finished stonework of the equivalents in Europe. Perhaps this was a result of a more porous rock used for construction in Mexico City. The two naves were closed to tourists. The vaults, with two exceptions, were also closed off. I could not find the entry to the crypt, usually below the floor in most cathedrals.

The statues of saints and apostles, biblical scenes and servants of the church were just too much of too many. There were also murals that I did not study closely. One statue of Jesus – right at the front – caught our attention. Jesus on the cross was portrayed in black ebony. There seemed to be relatively few tourists there, and very many worshippers in the two chapels where we spent most of our time. Perhaps we should have hired a guide and we might have learned more. On the other hand, past experience has taught me that guides are often more interested in telling a good story than in sorting out history from myth. Further, they are usually not very helpful with respect to my idiosyncratic interests. Anyway, who wants to hear that this is a statue of an apostle, that of another named saint and the third of a church notable. Guides overwhelm you without any vocal reinforcement.

I had read that the church had been built on the sacred central site of the old Aztec empire and its capital, Tenochtitlan. There had evidently been a temple on the same site dedicated to the Aztec god of war. Unfortunately, I could find no entrance or guide to excavations exploring the pre-history of Catholicism in Mexico. They must be there somewhere, but, unlike Jerusalem, where excavations are used to prove contemporary Israel’s connection with its ancient past, the absence of access to excavations may indicate that Mexico is very ambivalent about its past, particularly its pre-Catholic past. The church itself was a monument to the superiority of Spanish power over the Aztec empire.

There was one odd feature that I could not understand. The upper windows of lead and glass panes looked like abstract works with the glass panes separated by lead at odd angles to one another. I speculated that perhaps these windows were once stained glass but the heat of the 1967 fire blew out the windows. They were then replaced by windows with a more contemporary design that would also allow much more light into the cathedral.
We then went from the supposedly spiritual, but really a monument to power, to the material everyday life on display by the vendors in the huge market east of the cathedral that ran for blocks and blocks. There had to be at least three and perhaps up to ten thousand vendors. And the streets were packed. I splurged. I had forgotten to pack socks for Mexico or, because when we left Toronto our Mexican trip only included the hot coast, I planned to wear only sandals. In the market I bought two pairs of socks for 20 pesos, about $1.80. Then I found another vendor later that sold me three more pairs of the same make for 25 pesos. I had enough socks now for the rest of my Mexico City stay.

We then became very adventurous. Off to one side in one block, there were a series of food stands. We at first went for something we considered safe – freshly made fruit juices. I had a mixture of orange juice and pineapple. Nancy had a green concoction that, when I tasted it, was delicious. When we saw the vendor adding water from a tank, we decided to go for broke and asked him to add ice. We thought we were sure to get Montezuma’s revenge. We would be punished for the two large drinks cost only 24 pesos, $1 each. The vendor spent at least five minutes preparing each, cutting the fruit, mixing it, draining off pulp and pouring the concoction into large plastic glasses. How could he make a living?

Since we were surely destined for intestinal hell, we decided to up the ante. We ordered a deep fried pita with very elastic white cheese at the centre. The two were served on plastic plates with condiments available. They were delicious. They cost 25 pesos for two. But the most extraordinary Mexican made them. His hands literally moved at a mile a minute, pounding out the dough into a flat pancake, compounding various interior ingredients – chicken, meat, cheese, etc, – into a ball for insertion into the flat cakes, and then throwing each into a deep vat of boiling oil. I counted. He made a crescent shaped 4” delicacy every 2 seconds. I had never seen hands move so fast. Someone should make a video of this extraordinary performance.

In any case, I am pleased to report that we came through the night without any stomach problems.
We then walked up the avenue of 16 de Septiembre (Independence Day in Mexico as established by President Diaz, though it had previously been celebrated on 15 September). After walking west for eight blocks in the direction of the Palace of Fine Arts (Palacio de Bellas Artes), we turned north one block on Lázáro Cardenas to the Palace where we purchased tickets to the Wednesday evening performance of the Ballet Folklórico de México. We had been spoiled by the low cost of everything thus far, so we were taken aback by the relatively – to Mexico – high price of the tickets.

Funeral services for Frida Kahlo, Octavio Paz, Gabriel García Márquez as well as other cultural stars of Mexico, have been held there.

When we were in front of the Palace, there was a protest out front with about 30-40 protesters with canvases painted with slogans across the walkway. They recited the names of the 43 victims of the massacre, shouted slogans, sang songs interrupted with only a few intermittent speeches. Most people seemed to go about their business, offering only a passing glance at the protest, though there was one verbal altercation with an older man while we looked on.

We took advantage of our presence at the Palace of Fine Arts to see the exhibit of Octavio Paz, Mexico’s 1990 literature Nobel Prize winner in 1990. It was the centennial of his birth and vendors were even hustling lottery tickets with his picture on them on the street as we approached the Palace as their way of respecting both money and culture. Paz is, of course, a cultural god in a Mexico that worships many gods. We watched and listened to a grainy almost inaudible BBC interview with him in 1968.

Paz is, of course, as much of a cosmopolitan philosopher and intellectual as well as a writer of Mexican poetry. He seemed to be an early precursor of postmodernism – art is what you decide is art – yet one deeply immersed in the life and culture of Mexico. The protesters outside chose that location, I surmise, because they revered him for his liberal views and his contempt and criticism of corruption, cronyism and the authoritarian tendencies of Mexican politics, past and during his lifetime. (He died in 1998.) He was also a thorn in the side of America because of his criticisms of its treatment of poor Mexicans in that country, whether they were legal or illegal immigrants.

I confess I never read any of his poetry, but I did read some of his essays and a brilliant essay on him by Carlos Fuentes. When I was a research professor at Princeton University, I learned that the thousand or so letters the two men exchanged were archived there, but I would need my son Jeremy alongside to read them. In any case, I had another better excuse for not reading them. The files were still closed. The one book I remember a bit of is his collection of essays in The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico. I read it when I was writing about the Canadian psyche. Though the major thrust of many of the essays was the characterization of the Mexican psyche in terms of “solitude” rooted in both resentment and resignation, as a product of a sense of defeat, my take was different, perhaps because of the selection of essays I chose to read.

Though Octavio Paz had characterized the Mexican mentalité in terms of an Aztec authoritarianism and then defeat, a Spanish conquest subsequently in turn overthrown, only to be replaced by authoritarian rulers and oligarchs who were in turn subsumed in the Americanization of both North and South America, and then defeat, he insisted that you can combine a deep absorption in nationalism, without making it irredentist or chauvinistic, and combine that with an inclusive universalism. That message has stayed with me as an intellectual guide. We were both strongly influenced by Hegelian dialectics, in his case, an idea of solitude as the path of reconciliation on a higher level versus my focus on co-operation and care for the Other.
As for the Mexican character, how else do you explain the mask of passivity (see Paz’s essay, “Mexican Masks”) punctuated by episodes of outrageous periodic violence? How else can you explain how Mexicans can be such hard and efficient workers yet, when working together, often appear totally disorganized. They are a people for whom the term “alienation” was created – given my limited understanding of Paz. Like Canadians, they see themselves (or, at least, used to see themselves) as “born losers”, in part a reaction to a radically different but nevertheless similar inhospitable and harsh environment. Whereas Mexicans may oscillate between reticence and machismo, Canadians are reputably polite, except when on the battlefield or on an ice hockey rink.

Accompanying the acknowledgement of Octavio Paz was an art exhibit of some of the most famous abstract and surrealist painters of the twentieth century. Since that art is familiar to virtually all of my readers, I will spend the balance of the blog commenting on the mural by Diego Rivera at the other side of the Alameda Park which we spent a considerable time in front of after I fell asleep on a bench in the park for half an hour.

Diego Rivera painted a great many murals, as well as many other works of art, many on subjects of Mexican history but also on Detroit workers and other subjects. The Alameda Park 1947-48 Fresco in the Museo Mural Diego Rivera in Mexico City is perhaps his most famous. Rivera’s mother was a Converso who traced her heritage back to her ancestors forcibly converted from Judaism to Catholicism. Though Rivera was both an atheist and a communist (his “anti-Soviet” activities led him to being expelled from the party in 1929), he has said that his Jewishness, not his Mexican or political heritage, was the dominant element in his life.

In the fresco, “Sueňo de una Tarde Domincal en la Alameda Central” with its large simplified figures and crowd scenes that criss-cross both Mexican history and the personal and political, all painted in bold colours mixed with a post-expressionist sensibility with Aztec influences, on the upper left, there is a bent over half naked woman with her back to the viewer who is wearing a dunce cap. This was a representation of a Jew, doña Mariana de Carabajal, wrongfully convicted and executed. It is an odd note within the mural because it is the only figure that is partially naked and she is one of the few figures in the mural who does not face the viewer. One other is also a woman in a yellow dress with long black tresses down her back dominating the centre bottom of the mural. She has a confrontational pose as she seems to be directing her vitriol at some well-dressed figure of authority. She was evidently a very popular singer and entertainer who did challenge authority but I cannot recall her name.

The mural itself is dominated by the heroes and villains of Mexican history, at the centre of which we find the dictator José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz. Previously a liberal ally of Benito Juárez, he was a military hero for resisting the American invasion in the American-Mexico War. He seized power in an 1876 coup and ruled Mexico off and on for 32 years. To Díaz’ right is Benito Juárez. Of Amerindian origin, Juárez was the president of Mexico five times in the nineteenth century who resisted the French occupation, overthrew the second Mexican Empire and was the father of Mexican liberal constitutionalism. On Díaz’ left is Emiliano Zapata, a hero of Mexico’s 1910 revolution. The fourth figure to the viewer’s right is a composite of all the corrupt presidents who have ruled Mexico.

The mural includes about 80 figures, including two of Rivera himself, one when he was a boy, next to the dream of his life, Frida Kahlo, who became both his third and fourth wife, and another of himself as an adult with his second wife. His daughter with her child is in the painting, as are a plethora of other historical figures as well as ordinary vendors, such as the young fruit seller in the lower right of the mural. The iconography of a police band in a bandstand at the top and back centre of the mural while in the centre foreground there is a policeman throwing an Indian peasant out of the Alameda lest he disturb the place then reserved for the refined people of Mexico, offers Rivera’s clear message.

Rivera was a political painter who could not separate the personal and the political, the aesthetic and the historical. He was a message painter and made agitprop into great art.

In the taxi on the way back to our apartment, we passed many protesters holding signs, but we were traveling too fast for even Nancy to read and translate them.

After another long nap, last night we had excellent steak at an Argentinian restaurant around the corner.

In Mexico, it may appear that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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