Right at the heart of things, El Centro has always been the city’s core – even from the very beginning… El Centro was formerly the site of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, it was subsequently the colonial capital of New Spain and it remains the center of Mexico’s government today.
El Centro is a concentrated cornucopia of museums, churches and plazas with all of the government and commercial activity that has always gone on here, producing exactly the clamor and chaos one would expect at the heart of a city this size:
In the middle of it all is the Plaza de la Constitucion… The Plaza de la Constitucion or simply Zocalo, as it is almost always called, has been at the heart of life in Mexico City since before the Spanish conquest, when it was also the principal plaza for the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan.
Think of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square or Moscow’s Red Square or the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires and you’ve got the idea. It is a focal point for protest, gatherings or simply hanging out.
The square is flanked on all sides by giants of colonial and Aztec architecture: the Catedral Metropolitana to the north, the Templo Mayor complex to the northeast and the Palacio Nacional (the building in the distant background) to the east.
The Palacio Nacional’s extensive grounds house various government departments as well as the president’s office. And perhaps surprisingly to those of us from authoritarian-leaning countries, one may wander freely through the courtyards and hallways of the Palacio Nacional.
It is worth noting that the Palacio Nacional was built above the ruins of the palace of the last Aztec ruler, Moctezuma II:
Military police keeping an eye on one of the entrances to the Palacio Nacional:
Like so many other sites in Mexico City, the Zocalo is built upon the soft mud of the former Lake Texcoco, into which it is slowly sinking. The Catedral Metropolitana was once raised above street level; visitors must now descend a flight of steps to enter the building (which is also leaning to one side):
The cathedral took 277 years to complete as it was hampered over time by flooding and changes in command. Today, it remains one of the largest cathedrals in the western hemisphere.
A man having his shoes shined next to the Catedral Metropolitana and the Zocola:
Once the ceremonial center of the entire Aztec Empire and the setting for countless human sacrifices, Templo Mayor was destroyed by the soldiers of Hernan Cortes in the 16th century. The remains of the pyramid (below) were rediscovered in 1979 by electricians laying cable behind the cathedral:
Aztec imagery is very much to the fore in the Mexican capital as many find the appeal of a romanticized Aztec stereotype to be quite powerful. Perhaps the most striking embodiment of Mexico’s Aztec fascination are the concheros – Aztec revivalists dressed in loincloths, robes, noisemaking shells and extravagant feathers, who gather in groups comprising dozens of dancers, drummers and conch-blowers to pay homage to their past through song and dance:
The groups attract a diverse set of adherents, from working-class types to latter-day hippies to environmentalists to intellectuals. Most are motivated by a straightforward desire to preserve a vanishing culture, though a small minority has a more pointedly political agenda.
The supposed greatness and splendor of the Aztec era feeds a nostalgia for a time when society was fierce, orderly and technologically superior to its neighbors, and was governed by noble warriors instead of corrupt bureaucrats. One could compare it to modern Italians yearning for the greatness of the Roman Empire:
The Aztec revivalists often choose significant landmarks for backdrops, such as the Plaza Manuel Tolsa:
Here we see a group getting suited up and, uhh, painted up in preparation for a song and dance number:
Things quiet down a little when one moves beyond Templo Mayor, farther north into the city (actually everything quiets down a little when one gets away from the Zocalo). Anyway, just to the north of Templo Mayor one may find Plaza de Santo Domingo…
…and many courtyards and back alleys lacking the frenzied activity of the Zocalo:
To the west of the Zocalo it is more polished and upscale (I confine these observations strictly to the El Centro area of Mexico City).
Here one will discover such highlights as the Palacio Postal… The Palacio Postal was designed by the Italian architect Adamo Boari, while the fine details of the marble and gilded bronze interior were sculpted by dozens of local artisans. It’s a little more extravagant than most local post offices and, yes, it is still a fully functioning post office:
Or one may stumble across the Palacio de Bellas Artes (in the foreground). In the background is the Torre Latinoamericana – the tallest building in Latin America for almost 30 years. There is also a very nice park here:
Given that this area is slightly more calm than the Zocalo, and has many attractive buildings, it is a more natural place for people to relax and/or socialize:
And, of course, settling silently, inexorably and unevenly into the lakebed of what was once Lake Texcoco, the city’s heavy churches and monuments can be found here as well (and are particularly prone to sinking at odd angles). I was not holding the camera at an angle when I took this picture:
These kids are playing soccer in front of another sinking building:
Behind many nondescript doorways in the neighborhood, such as this one below, are often quite impressive homes and courtyards:
It leads one to wonder what is behind a doorway such as this:
Moving on, the area to the east of the Zocalo is generally a bit shabbier and more run down than that to the west and this – combined with crowds, street markets and vendors being everywhere here – means that the area oozes character:
Of course, one can find vibrant street markets and interesting street vendors all around Mexico City and not just in El Centro… And in these settings one can find anything – bags of fruit slices dusted with chili and salt, counterfeit books, radios, fake designer labels, pirated films and music, home-made sweets, auto parts, tortillas, jewelry, cameras… Anything.
However, we’re focused on El Centro, so these are some of the scenes from the eastern edge of El Centro:
This type of corn is one of the staples that can be found along nearly every street in the area:
But, as mentioned above, corn is very far from the only food on offer from the street vendors:
Mexico City is too big to cover in one post, so I broke it up into sections. Next up will be modern Mexico City.
thank you very much for preparing/sharing this post, you depicted very well what I think it’s a very colourful and unique culture that makes Mexico such a special place.
Photos like the shoe-shiners, kids playing soccer on the street remind me a lot of Chile too :)
Great post about el centro del gran DF! I love the place, it’s actually well and truly under my skin and I am having some withdrawal symptoms from not being there anymore after living 12 months + through 2011 and 2012. It has an incredible and incredibly addictive vibe and energy. I spent a lot of my spare time documenting the city far and wide through my Mexico City Metro Project. Looking forward to your next post about Mexico City. Cheers..
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good story – makes me want to visit
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