Friday, May 24, 2019

Welcome to Mexico City Ambles: Navigating the Blog

Welcome to Mexico City Ambles! Here we seek to present el imaginario, a vision of the city as embodied in its cityscape, public art and neighborhoods (coloinas). While we seek to cover the physical and historical breadth and depth of the City, we especially focus on the life of its lesser-known neighborhoods, many of which were indigenous pueblos existing long before the Spanish arrived and took over 500 years ago. We visit these original pueblos when they are celebrating their traditional fiestas, which are lively, colorful celebrations of their centuries-long communal continuity and unique identity.

¡Bienvenido a Paseos por la Ciudad de México! Aquí buscamos presentar el imaginario, una visión de la ciudad como encarnada en su paisaje urbano, arte público, pueblos y colonias. Si bien buscamos cubrir la amplitud y profundidad física e histórica de la ciudad, nos centramos especialmente en la vida de sus pueblos y barrios menos conocidos, muchos de los cuales eran pueblos indígenas que existían mucho antes de que los españoles llegaron y se hicieron cargo desde casi 500 años. Visitamos estos pueblos originales cuando celebran sus fiestas tradicionales, que son celebraciones coloridas y animadas de su continuidad comunal por siglos y su identidad única.

Escribimos en inglés porque somos norteamericanos y para dar a conocer a otros norteamericanos y hablantes de inglés la ciudad más allá de los lugares turisticos típicos. Sin embargo, es fácil traducir una página en español: vaya a la columna a la derecha. En la parte más alta hay una ventana etiquetada "Translate". Desplace la flecha abajo hasta encuentra "Spanish". Click en ese y inmediatamente todo el texto estará traducido en español por Google. Con certeza, habrá errores, pero creemos qué el sentido se quede bastante claro.    

Organization of the Blog

Each post appears in the blog chronologically by publication date. Scrolling down takes you to the most recently published post. Most posts, however, are related thematically or geographically. So, as a navigation aid, we have created individual PAGES (left-hand column) which organize posts according to major aspects of the city or themes in its history. These pages provide short descriptions of and links to posts grouped by theme or geography.

Setting the Stage | Introductory Pages:

I. Making Sense of Mexico City: The first four pages acquaint you with Mexico City's organization (it does have one, despite its parent chaotic appearance).
  1. First, we introduce you to its sixteen delegaciones (boroughs, officially called alcaldías, mayoralties, since 2017) into which it is divided spatially and politically. Each one is distinctive in its physical character and its history.
  2. We address why Mexico City architecture seems to be such a hodgepodge of historical epochs and we present a way to view it as a horizontal archeological site, with one era sitting right next to another.
  3. Then we present the history of how the city grew from a small town on an island in the midst of a huge lake to its present huge size (at 573 sq. miles, slightly smaller than Houston [599] and bigger than Los Angeles [469]. 
  4.  Third, we describe the Metro, the "subway", which is the fastest and cheapest pathway (US25 cents) to get to most of the places we explore. If you avoid morning and late afternoon rush hours, its fine. Taxis are also plentiful and safe, and now Uber and other phone-ap services are here. 
  • Mexico City's Sixteen DelegacionesMexico City is shaped rather like a lumpy pear: skinny at the top—it even has a "stem"—then rounds out to a very fat bottom. Originally called the Federal District, in 1928, it was divided into sixteen delegaciones, or boroughs, of greatly varying sizes, shapes, population densities and histories. (On January 2016: el Distrito Federal, the Federal District, officially became Mexico City and the delegaciones were renamed alcaldías, mayoralities.)
  • Making Sense of Mexico City: Architectural Hodge-podge or Horizontal Archeological Site?Your first experience of Mexico City, especially as you walk through Centro, is of an architectural hodge-podge, an incoherent batiburrillo, a jumble of buildings from various eras. Structures from the colonial period, adapted to contemporary uses, are enmeshed with newer neighbors from the 19th and 20th centuries. So what to make of this hodgepodge of eras, these fragments of disconnected history, this batiburrillo
  • How Mexico City Grew From an Island to a MetropolisHow did Mexico City, which started on an island in Lake Texcoco— replacing the Mexica (aka Aztec) city of Tenochtitlán—grow into the metropolis it is today, incorporating both ancient and new neighborhoods, side by side, all parts of the contemporary batiburrillo (hodgepodge)? Here is the story. 
  • Mexico City Metro: The Mexico City Metro (officially, the Collective Transportation System) is a network of subway and surface electric train lines enabling chilangos (city residents' name for themselves) and visitors to get around the city quickly, cheaply (US30 cents) and safely. The system has 12 lines, each distinguished by a specific color on its signage. There are also multitudes of taxis and yes, they are safe. Now, of course, there is also Uber and other phone ap systems for calling a private chauffeur.

II. Mexico City's Natural Environment: The next set of pages acquaint you with the natural environment: its year-round temperate, sunny climate, its spectacular geographic setting in the midst of large, mostly dormant volcanoes, smaller, but historically important volcanoes within the city, and its history as one of large lakes. 
  • Mexico City Climate: Seasons, Sun, Sky, Clouds and Rain: If you are looking for a place to live year-round, permanently, in Mexico, our advice is to head for the hills. The "hills" are comprised of the high plateau of Central Mexico know as el Bajío and the cross-country mountain chain just to its south, called the Eje Volcánico, the Volcanic Axis or Trans-Mexico Volcanic Belt. This area has year-round moderate temperatures because it is located more or less around 7,000 ft. above sea level, which keeps the climate quite stably moderate and usually sunny. Mexico City sits at 7,000 ft. altitude. Here is our account of the City's mild climate: its seasons (there is no real winter), the sunshine (which occurs most days), the sky (which can be an unbelievable blue), the clouds (which can be dramatic towering cumulus), and the rainy season, more or less from May to October. Don't worry, it doesn't rain every day and usually, it's in late afternoon or after dark and consists of brief, at times intense, thunder storms. They serve as natural airconditioning and air purifiers, keeping the summer air dry, the temperatures moderate during the day and cool at night and, usually, with clearer air. 
  • Encountering Mexico City's Many Volcanoes, Part I: Giants on All Sides: Mexico City, as most everyone knows, sits in and takes up most of a valley, the Valley of Mexico. It is, in fact, a spectacular valley because it is surrounded by tall mountains, all of them volcanoes. Only one, Popocatepetl, (The Smoking Mountain), the tallest at nearly 18,000 ft (more than 10,000 feet above the Valley floor) is active, regularly emitting a plume of steam and sometimes erupting with huge columns of ash and lava. Popo, as he is familiarly called, is joined by his beloved frozen princess, Iztaccihuatl (The White or Sleeping Woman), at 17,000 ft. However, they are only the tallest and most dramatic members of the ring of volcanoes that surround the Valley. Here is an introduction to the many giants that envelop the city and make its geographic setting unique.
  • Encountering Mexico City's Many Volcanoes, Part II: Little Volcanoes With Big Histories: While the huge volcanoes of Popocatéptl, IztaccíhuatlAjusco and the other in the Cordillera de Chichinautzin, the Sierra de las Cruces and the Sierra del Río Frío dominate the Valley of Mexico and the interest of residents and visitors when they are in clear view, there are other volcanoes right within the city´s limits. They are small ash cone volcanoes, but despite their diminutive size, at least four of them have played prominent roles in the development of human settlements in the Valley and thus in the history of Mexico City. Here is our introduction to the four.
Cerro de la Estrella, Hill of the Star
Called Huizachtecatl (in Náhuatl) by the Mexicas.
  • City of Lost Lakes, Islands and VillagesThe Valley of Mexico, now filled by urban sprawl, was originally nearly filled by a chain of five lakes (covering about 580 sq. miles). Lake Texcoco was the largest, most central and lowest of them, thus receiving water from the other four. Because of the surrounding mountains, they had no outlet to the sea, and Texcoco was salty. The original Mexico City and its predecessor, Mexico Tenochtitlán, were on an island in a large bay in the southwest corner of Lake Texcoco. In addition, there were hundreds of villages that occupied the land around the lakes, as well as many on islands in the lakes.
Over the centuries, the lakes have been almost totally erased since the Spanish began draining them in the 17th century to prevent the annual flooding of Mexico City during the summer rainy season, so the islands eventually became part of the mainland. We have been searching out these "lost" islands, which are still-existing pueblo neighborhoods within the city. Here we introduce ones we have visited and the history of the changes they have undergone from islands to urban neighborhoods.
Five original lakes of the Valley
with some of the major ciies and villages
around them and on their islands.
III: Mexico City Architecture: This group of pages focuses on the architectural qualities which predominate, particularly in the Cento Historico of the city, the original Ciudad de México which Hernán Cortés began to build on top of the indigenous altepetl, Tenochtitlan of the Mexica.
  • Grandeza Mexicana: Grandeur of Mexico CityWalking the streets of Mexico City, from its Centro Histórico to various of its late 19th to early 20th century colonias, (neighborhoods) and modern boulevards, acquainting ourselves with their architecture and public art, we have noted the recurrence of what becomes a visual theme: an architectural grandness that relays a message of wealth and power. This city is, or has been, a seat of major political and economic power, expressed through physical grandeza, grandeur. Here we explore the particularly Mexican roots of this impulse to grandeur.
Main Plaza
  • México Barroco | Baroque Art: Representing Divine Ecstasy, Evoking AweIn Mexico, the art of the Baroque epoch (mid 17th to mid 18th centuries) is all around you in Centro and many old churches throughout the city. It is the art of the height of the Spanish Empire and its realized its most elaborate form in Nueva España. An excellent Wikipedia article on the Baroque helped us see its character as centered on grandeur, lavishness, and drama. We also came to realize the goal of its religious forms was to express holy ecstasy (stepping outside the ordinary world) and evoke awe. With that perspective, we explore the central and quintessential expression of Baroque religious architecture in Mexico City, the Metropolitan Cathedral. There are innumerable other examples in churches around the city.
El Sagrario
The Tabernacle portion of
the Metropolitan Cathedral,
in high Baroque style

Thematically or geographically related pages

  • Mexico's History As Embodied In Mexico City: Lists and links to all posts addressing the many stages in Mexico City's history as they are manifested in the cityscape, from the indigenous reign of the Mexica/Azteca through the Spanish colonial period (1521-1821), and the 19th and 20th centuries. 
Chapultepec Castle,
scene of several significant events
of the 19th century.
  • Mexico City's Original Indigenous Villages and Their Spíritual ConquestContemporary Mexico City is an amalgam, not only of the Spanish Colonial Centro and its expansion beginning in the late 19th and across the 20th century, but also of ancient indigenous pueblos, villages, that, beginning some three thousand five hundred years ago, were established on the shores and islands of the five lakes at the center of the Valley of Anahuac. So Cortés and the Spanish not only had to transform Tenochtitlan, they also had to transform a geographically extensive civilization and culture via the "evangelización de los indios," or "los natuturales" what has been called the Spiritual Conquest. This series of posts explores the landmarks, neighborhoods and fiestas that continue to embody the encounter and synthesis of the two civilizations. (This is our current work-in-progress).
Original, 16th century chapel of San Francisco,
in Quadrante (Quarter) of San Francisco,
originally the indigenous village of 
Hueytetitlan, now in Delegación Coyoácan.

  • Centro: El Centro, the Center of Mexico City, actually consists of five colonias, or neighborhoods: Centro Histórico, and East, West, North and South Centro. Spanish colonial palaces and smaller residential and commercial buildings from that period are numerous, but mixed in among them are buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries. Within them, and flowing among them in the streets, is the everyday timeless activity of selling and buying.
Portable shoeshine stand
in Plaza 
de Santo Domingo
  • Chapúltepec Woods and Paseo de la Reforma: Five kilometers, three miles, southwest of Centro, on what used to be the western shore of Lake Texcoco, sits the ancient, sacred site of el Bosque de Chapúltepec, Chapultepec Woods. A royal retreat and source of fresh spring water for the Aztecs, the Spanish turned it into a park for themselves. Subsequently, a "castle", actually a palace, was built at the top of its landmark hill. It served as the Mexican Military Academy and, in 1847, was the scene of a major battle in the U.S. invasion of Mexico  (aka Mexican American War). In the 1860s, Emperor Maximilian, put in place by Napoleon III of France at the request of Mexican conservative forces, decided to make it his palace. To connect it with the City Center, he had a boulevard built and named after his wife the Belgian Princess Carlotta. After his overthrow by liberal reform forces led by Benito Juárez, it became Paseo de la Reforma.
Paseo de la Reforma,
seen from Chapultepec Castle
  • Reign of Porfiro Díaz and Neighborhoods of the Early 20th Century: As the 19th century approached its end, Mexico City's well-to-do, who had increased in numbers under the economic policies of Porfirio Díaz (multiply reelected president from 1876 to 1911), sought new residences outside the old Spanish Colonial Centro Histórico. They began to develop colonias, planned neighborhoods, to the west, along Paseo de la Reforma boulevard and to its north and south. Díaz and the well-to-do had a great admiration for French culture. Hence, these colonias have a French flavor. Posts on six of these neighborhoods, with introductions, are listed.
French Second Empire-style homes,
with characteristic mansard roofs.
  • Mexican Revolution: Overview of Its Actors and Chapters: The Mexican Revolution (1910-1917) was a watershed between traditional and modern Mexico. Actually a series of four civil wars fought between a diverse cast of characters with widely disparate histories and motivations, the war and its aftermath can be divided into five stages or chapters, each consisting of a number of critical episodes. This Page offers an overview and links to Pages with fuller accounts of the personalities and each chapter of the war and its volatile aftermath.
Monument to the Revolution
  • Mexican Muralists: A revolution in Mexican Art was triggered during the Mexican Revolution. After the Revolution, it unfolded in a group of buildings in Centro and expanded across the city throughout the 20th century. This page provides links to posts on the sites and their murals—works by the "Big Three": Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and their successors, who continue to produce works up to the present.
Mural of Cortés and Malinche,
representing the mixing (mestizaje)
of Spanish and indigenous peoples.
by José Clemente Orozco,
in the museum San Ildefonso.

Original Villages: Carnaval in Pueblos of Eastern Iztapalapa

As we wrote in our recently published post, Discovering the Pueblos of Eastern Iztapalapa, we have been intrigued for the past year by a group of originally indigenous pueblos we virtually stumbled across in the eastern portion of that large delegación/alacldía (mayoralty, borough). There are five in the group:
Santa María Aztahuacan;
San Sebastián Tecoloxtitla;
Santa Martha Acatitla; 
Santa Cruz Meyehualco and
Santiago Acahualtepec.
In researching their history, we learned that Santa María Aztahuacan has been a village almost continuously for some 3,000 years, making it one of the oldest in the Valley of Mexico. San Sebastián Tecoloxtitla and Santa Martha Acatitla go back about 2,000 years. We made it first to Santa Martha Acatitla's Carnaval a year ago. It was so grand, colorful and full of ánimo (spirit) that it motivated us all the more to want to visit its sister pueblos. We got to San Sebastián Tecoloxtitla for its patron saint fiesta this past January and also saw a parade of charros, Spanish-style, fancy dressed cowboys. 

Then, this April, we hit the jackpot. We learned that three of the pueblos, Santa María Aztahuacan; San Sebastián Tecoloxtitla and Santa Martha Acatitla were joining together to hold un gran cierre, a grand closing or finale to the Carnaval season in April. We just had to attend. It was to start in Santa María Aztahuacan and march on to San Sebastián Tecoloxtitla and Santa Martha Acatitla. There was no way we could follow it that whole way, but we could witness its start. So on the appointed Sunday morning, we called a taxi and headed off along the Calzada Ermita-Iztapalapa boulevard to the far side of the delegación. Now somewhat familiar with these pueblos, we quite easily found the parade participants gathering on Avenida México in Santa María Aztahuacan. 

Carnaval, in general, is famous for being a grand parade, lavish, full of people in diverse costumes, an almost over-the-top extravaganza. This one fulfilled all such expectations. When we arrive, we find huge carros alegóricos, motorized floats, decorated with all kinds of themes ready to carry elegantly dressed princesses representing the various pueblos and their comparsas (parade marching troupes). 

Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent,
a major indigenous god.

The comparsas consist of two types. Several are composed of Spanish charro cowboys in their elegantly embroidered suits. 

The others are comparsas de disfraces, people in disguises of all kinds (think Halloween).  

A carro de disfraz, Alice in Wonderland,
with the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit and Alice!

And, of course, for each comparsa there is a brass banda to set the tempo and rhythm. 

Una banda

While all the comparsas parade in an orderly manner, each in its place in the line (while there is some beer drinking among spectators, there is no drunken revelry), the sheer number and variety are almost overwhelming to our senses. But then, that's what Carnaval is supposed to be — taking us to the limits of stimulation. We hope the photos that follow convey that. 

The "Pheasant" charros of Santa Martha Acatitla


The designs, embroidered in gold thread on the backs of the charro suits,
are a virtual art gallery, here mostly of mythical themes.
From top left, clockwise: a pheasant, Hercules slaying the Nemean lion (the first of his twelve labors), a royal crest with griffins, a cobra, a fairy creature, a nymph, a geisha, two centaurs battle.


A float....
...and its princess, Vanessa.

Another float...

...and its princess.

Disfraces, disguises
Los Morenos, the dark-skinned ones.

We particularly like this one
for its ingenuity of theme and execution,
and its timeliness:
The Donald carries a Mexican on his back.
A classic of Mexican political cartooning.

Dragon float
Yaneli ("the 1st) is the name of the princess.

Princess Yaneli
with a Chinese theme.

The Sparrow Hawks,
another comparsa of charros

Life and Death together
is a common theme in the Mexican imaginario, world view.
Charro masks are often of skulls (top, second from left), or half skull-half flesh.
Death brings even los de arriba (those above) down;
making them equal to los de abajo (those below).

Another Mexican joining of opposites is portrayed in bottom row, second photo from right:
The left half of the face is a blue-eyed Spanish conquistador;
the right half is that of an Azteca warrior.
Here a hooked chain has been run through the nose and mouth,
sealing the lips of both. 

Float with its princess

Charros, The Eagles

Azteca Sun Stone,
Portraying the Five Suns or Worlds created by the gods.
Four attempts 
(symbols in rectangles around the center)
to create a world that worshiped them failed.

The Fifth Sun, whose Sun God, Tonatiuh is at the center,
was the world of the Mexica/Azteca.

Matador and Bull Float
(We think this is the most amazingly executed float, with thousands of mirrors and

the dynamically sculptured charging bull.)

Karime is the name of the princess.


Disguises of the Barrio

A rather more gruesome group

An American Bald Eagle?
The Mexican Eagle is the Golden Eagle.

Princess Daniela
What "SGM" stands for we don't know.
Our guess is,
"Señorita de la Gran Marcha"

More charros

Even the underside of this sombrero is elaborately embroidered.

More dragons, a popular theme.
(The man with the pole is there to raise overhead electrical wires that could catch on the float.)


The float is a stunner!
So is Princess Thayli!
Although it is a bit anomalous: a Conestoga wagon pulled by a buffalo,
with a Native North American (not an Azteca) at the rear.

And, of course, some onlookers.
The bib on the baby (far right, below) says,
"I am a reduced and authentic copy of papa."

So that´s Carnaval in Iztapalapa, Mexico City. Hope you enjoyed it. 

Iztapalapa is the large, medium green delegación on the mid-east side of the city.

Pueblos and Colonias of Delegación/Alcaldía Iztapalapa

Pueblo Santa Maria Aztahuacan is orange area to upper right of green/yellow star.
Pueblo Santa Martha Acatitla is large, dark blue area to the northeast.
Pueblo San Sebastián Tecoloxtitla is bright green area west of Santa Martha.

Black line is the Calzada Ermita-Iztapalapa