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Article By: Jocelynwonders

An armchair traveller's imagination roves between the realms of fact and legend, past and present. 2000 words.

Submitted:Nov 2, 2012    Reads: 103    Comments: 1    Likes: 1   


Just as the city (Tenochtitlan) it replaced did, Mexico City vies, though not intentionally, to be the largest city in the world. By 2010, more than 22 million people lived in more than 1,000 neighbourhoods in the larger metropolitan area, spreading into the nearby states of Mexico and Morelos and filling the basin floor of the Valley of Mexico. The people who live in Mexico City are Mestizos, who descended from Spanish and indigenous parents and who speak Spanish. Few city folk speak Native American languages.

In the early 1500s the Spaniards, aided by their indigenous slaves, built Mexico City upon the site of the ancient city of Tenochtitlan, which the Aztecs had raised on an island in Lake Texcoco, a saltwater lake. Tenochtitlan, populated by 200,000, became the capital of the Aztec Empire, which included large parts of Mexico and Central America. The Aztecs erected their city around a series of temples and pyramids and organized it into a series of capulli (clans). Each capulli was a neighbourhood of the city, served a specific economic role, and acted as an army battalion.


The Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan, led by Hernando Cortes in the early 16th century, is a splendid tale of history and myth. It begins with the Legend of Quetzalcoatl, a white-haired, bearded man-god - of the Toltecs and Aztecs - and ruler of Mexico from its capital, Tula. He was a gentle priest who abhorred human sacrifice. He altered the practice by substituting human sacrifice with offerings of snakes, butterflies, and jade.

His rival god was Tezcatlipoca, lord of night and patron of evildoers, who exacted warfare and human sacrifice. One legend says that Quetzalcoatl's adherents made him drunk, which so humiliated him that he fled in disgrace to the Gulf of Mexico. He sailed eastward, promising to return on the anniversary of his birth to rule again. This myth reminds me of the Christian story of Jesus who died and whose return to rule his followers was prophesied.

Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II must have recalled the Quetzalcoatl prophecy when he heard stories about a white, bearded man who had arrived by sea from the east - and who had fought and won battles with other cities of his empire. To placate the returned god, now surprisingly vengeful, Moctezuma II sent out envoys with wondrous gifts. Gifts of gold ornaments and necklaces, richly colored textiles, and disks of hammered gold and silver the size of cartwheels, however, failed to subdue Hernando Cortes. With conquests in mind, he and his army reached Tenochtitlan and met a submissive, gracious Moctezuma, who welcomed them and provided them with a special palace worthy of a god and his attendants. Despite being treated with such great honour, Cortes took Moctezuma hostage. Later, a revolt in Tenochtitlan led to the death of Moctezuma, who was killed by his own people. Again, I am reminded of the story of Jesus.

Hernan Cortes destroyed Tenochtitlan in 1521, and rebuilt the city to resemble other Spanish colonial cities, in a grid pattern. Around a central plaza, the Spaniards built up the cathedral and administrative buildings. In Aztec times, three large causeways joined here to connect Tenochtitlan to the mainland. Modern engineers have drained Lake Texcoco and similar raised roads are not needed. Today, this area is called The Zocalo, or the Plaza of the Constitution, and is the heart of Mexico City. Archeologists have found lower levels of Aztec pyramids and temples in the Templo Mayor behind The Zocalo and north of the Plaza of the Three Cultures. They uncovered artifacts which tell the stories of Mexico's rich history.

To the Mexica, the indigenous refugees who first settled in and near Tenochtitlan, the location of the city upon a saltwater lake must have posed a huge dilemma with regard to food production. To solve it, they built raised chinampas. Into the lake bed they pounded stakes, which they lashed together with vines. Then they tossed in reeds, layer upon layer, allowing them to decay. They covered these with mud, and so created their raised garden plots in which they grew produce for the huge city. Today, on the few chinampas that exist, farmers raise varieties of flowers for Mexico City.


Being built upon an island in a huge lake has not been a blessing for modern Mexico City, either. In the 20th century, the land sunk in varying amounts up to 12 inches per year due to the drainage of Lake Texcoco and the removal of groundwater. Today the city sits upon spongy soil, which magnifies the strength of periodic earthquakes in the Valley of Mexico.

In the plaza stand the church and the palace that the Spaniards constructed in place of the temple and pyramids they destroyed. The Metropolitan Cathedral, built between 1573 and 1813, replaced the small Spanish church of the Cortes conquest, and the National Palace is the house of the Mexican government today.

In the last years of the 17th century, the Spanish began construction of the palace to replace the residence of their Spanish viceroy built by Cortes, but destroyed by rioters in 1692. Work on the palace continued in the 1900s, and today the structure boasts colourful murals by Diego Rivera, a 20th century painter. The Zocalo now is the arena for public ceremonies and military displays. One can imagine noisy protesters rallying in the plaza, waving their placards, and opposing high unemployment and low wages. With marching bands and much flag waving, citizens celebrate Independence Day here on September 16th.

West of The Zocalo, a tree-lined boulevard, the Paseo de la Reforma, two landmark statues are located. One is a sculpture of former Mexican president Benito Juarez and the other is the "Angel of the Independence", which is a symbol of Mexico's national identity. Passing some of the city's finest shops, offices, and embassies, a tourist can reach Chapultapec Park, which in older times was used by Aztec emperors for hunts and retreats. Today the park, an oasis of grass, trees and lakes, is a haven of nature in the midst of this city of traffic, industry, and smog.

Some of Mexico's most important public buildings are located here. One of these is Chapultepec Castle, which was constructed in the late 16th century. In colonial times, the castle, built on the highest elevation in the park, served as a fortress. One of Mexico's presidents once lived in it, but today it is the home of the National Museum of History, which shows exhibits of Mexican life since the time of the European conquest. The working offices of the president are also on the grounds, but are not open to the public. A stroll through the National Museum of Anthropology makes one feel spellbound by the history of Mexico's indigenous peoples.


The most fascinating display to some is the Museum's Mexica Hall. The Stone of the Fifth Sun, a 26-ton basalt disk, records the Aztec's understanding of the cosmos and predicts their ruin at the time of the waning of the Fifth Sun. This prediction is contradicted by another Aztec artwork, a carved coiled diorite serpent - it keeps alive their might and magnificence. A figure called "She of the Serpent Skirt" dominates the Mexica Hall. A dual serpent head rests on the sculpture's shoulders and a necklace of human hands and hearts adorns its neck. These features represent Aztec notions of procreation and death. This is a figure of Coatlicue who was honoured as Huitzilopochtli's mother in one Aztec myth, so her statue depicts the peoples' strong belief in death as necessary for life. Again, this is reminiscent of Christianity. The blending of the earthly and divine in Aztec sculpture makes plain the peoples' belief in a dual principle - life and death.

A carved stone jaguar with a receptacle that once held the hearts of human sacrifice victims is a sculpture guaranteed to make the viewer shudder. Upon the receptacle (on the jaguar's back) are carvings of Huitzopochtli, patron of warriors of the day, and Tezcatlipoca, patron of warriors at night. The ideals of strength and courage displayed by the jaguar were emulated by the Aztecs. Tula, the coyote, was sculpted in a state of repose with alertness - strengths also taken on by the Aztecs. From these works of art, we can conclude that sacrifice and military strength characterized Aztec society.

Today, more than ninety percent of the modern city's people are Roman Catholic. Some weave old Mexica or Aztec ideas into their Catholic festivals. This occurs in the Festival of the Virgin of Guadelupe, one of the most interesting Mexican holidays. On December 12th, pilgrims head for The Hill of Tepeyac in Gustavo A. Madero to the Shrine of The Lady of Guadelupe. There they commemorate the occasion when Juan Diego, the first Aztec to convert to Christianity (1531), had visions of the Virgin Mary. The believers, some wearing native costumes and displaying Roman Catholic crosses and icons, sing and dance for the entire day.

Mexicans also celebrate Christmas. They decorate their homes and build small manger scenes of Jesus' birth. From December 16th until Christmas Eve, they have Posadas, which are evening processions that re-enact Mary and Joseph's search for an inn. They wear costumes of the two saints or dress like angels. Carrying candles and singing, they go from home to home, while the Mary and Joseph characters knock on doors, asking to stay. Most houses deny them entry, but finally one house invites them in to pray at their altar. After each posada, the believers sing, dance and eat a large meal. Children break pinatas to enjoy the candies and small gifts inside. On Christmas Eve, some children write letters to Baby Jesus, describing the gifts they most want. Children also hope to receive gifts from Santa Clause - and even from Quetzalcoatl!

On November 2nd, at the same time as the Roman Catholic Holiday of All Soul's Day, Mexicans celebrate the Day of the Dead, much like Halloween is celebrated in Canada and the United States. The Catholic holiday commemorates the dead in order that they might "rest in peace". On the Day of the Dead, the spirits of the dead return to commune with the living. Families leave tables of food offerings for the spirits, attend festivals in costumes, and groom the graves of their deceased relatives. Most important on this day are the food offerings: it is believed that if people do not make food offerings, they will suffer bad luck, like illness or death.

While some celebrations include ancient indigenous traditions, some ceremonies are conducted by Roman Catholic priests. The holiday is celebrated differently in different regions. In Mexico City, celebrants make papier mache skulls and skeletons which they arrange in scenes that tell stories. They also make skulls from sugar. In urban areas, offerings comptetions and Day of the Dead Dance Discos are held.

In conclusion, Mexico City resembles the ancient city it replaced - Tenochtitlan - in its great size, if not in power. Like Tenochtitlan was, Mexico City is a hub of human activity, colorful religious ceremonies, and political strife. Every day it pulsates with reminders of its dramatic hisory.


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