Friday, November 15, 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, this has led us to 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 ha llevado a centrarnos en 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 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 varios 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 city 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, it's fine. Taxis are also plentiful and safe, and now Uber and other phone-ap car 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, mayoralties.
  • 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, 20th and 21st 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) altepetel (city-state) 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 (US25 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, thunderstorms. 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 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 cities 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, (planned 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

second largest plaza in the world, 
after Red Square in Moscow.
  • 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 in 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

IV. 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, up to the Mexican Revolution (1910-17) and its aftermath. 
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 churches, 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. The first place that the Mexica/Azteca tried to settle down near the end of the 13th century, and later their royal retreat and source of fresh spring water for Tenochtitlan, the Spanish turned it into a park for themselves. Subsequently, a "castle", actually a palace, was built by a viceroy (ruling representative of the king of Spain) at the top of its landmark hill, an ancient ash cone volcano. After Independence was won from Spain in 1821, it served as the Mexican Military Academy and, in 1847, it was the scene of the last battle in the U.S. invasion of Mexico (aka Mexican-American War). In 1864, Emperor Maximilian I, 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 in 1867. 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 (multiple times reelected president and dictator 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 of the war 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: During the Mexican Revolution, a revolution in Mexican Art was triggered. 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.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Mexico City's "Walking Fish", Axolotls

BBC: Megan Frye

For some, axolotls are considered adorable, with the appearance of a perpetual smile (Credit: Credit: Minden Pictures/Alamy)
Photo: BBC
Axolotls (ah-show-LOW-tls) are curious amphibians that offer hope for healing the human body, but face near extinction in the wild. They have remarkable regeneration abilities, being able to regrow lost body parts, including even eyes. Though gaining traction as a symbol of Mexico City, and specifically of the southern borough of Xochimilco, a Unesco World Heritage site, they are nearly extinct in the wild due to increases in invasive fish species and water pollution in the city’s troubled canals.  
MCA Note: We don't usually publish links to otherwised published articles about Mexico City, but this one is both delightful and of serious interest beyond the intriguing nature of the animal. 
There are seventeen species of axolotls, found primarily in the states of Mexico, Puebla and Michoacán, many critically endangered. Some species transform themselves into earth-walking salamanders by losing their tadpole-like tails and gills from their heads. However, this too depends on the environment. Where their waters are devoid of predators, they remain eternal teenagers. Never transforming into salamanders, such axolotls will keep the external gills they developed as a larva and live their entire life underwater. Read full article

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Original Villages | San Bartolo Ameyalco, Álvaro Obregón: Pueblo of the Mule Drivers

Pueblos in the Mountains

In recent months, we have finally been able to get to pueblos some distance from our home Delegación/Alcaldía of Coyoacán in the middle of Mexico City. Three of those pueblos are to the southwest, in the mountain range of the Sierra de las Cruces, which we wrote about in our post on the volcanoes that surround the city. We have made it to Santa María Magdalena Atlitic in Delegación/Alcaldía Magdalena Contreras and to San Lorenzo Acopilco, in Delegación/Alcaldía Cuajimalpa. Most recently, we made it to San Bartolo Ameyalco, in the Delegación/Alcaldía Álvaro Obregón.

Delegaciónes Magdalena Contreras, Álvaro Obregón and Cuajimalpa
all stretch narrowly from north to south on the west side of Mexico City,

reflecting their mountainous terrain.
The southern half of 
Álvaro Obregón, two-thirds of Magdalena Contreras 
and all of Cuajimalpa lie in the Sierra de las Cruces.

La Sierra de las Cruces,
running northwest from Mt. Ajusco (on the right, which lies in Delegación Tlalpan).
The part that is in Magdalena Contreras lies south of the white building in the foreground.
To the north east are Delegaciónes Álvaro Obergón and Cuajimalpa.

Photo taken from our apartment in northern Coyoacán

The northern end of Delegación Cuajimalpa
which has been developed as a postmodern, international style section of the city
known as New Santa Fe.

We have been to other originally indigenous pueblos in Álvaro Obregón: San Sebastián Axotla, which maintains its indigenous roots, and San Ángel and Chimalistac,which were taken over early in the Colonial Period by wealthy Spanish for haciendas (estates) and country homes. However, they lie near the northeastern end of the delegación, literally on the border with Coyoacán and are now immersed in the modern city. In striking contrast, San Bartolo, like the other pueblos in the Sierra de las Cruces, lies well to the south, high in the mountains, surrounded by evergreen forests. 

San Bartolo Ameyalco

Traveling with our faithful taxista, Sr. Sánchez, on the Sunday morning of the Fiesta de San Bartolomé, we quickly leave our familiar Coyoacán and enter Delegación/Alcaldá Álvaro Obregón. For some distance, we are still on the flat Valley floor and in the midst of the urban, working-class, commercial city. Then we start to climb. As we do, the homes become more upscale, surrounded by walls and with gated entrances. There are entire gated communities and luxury sports clubs. Once again, we are amazed at how quickly one can transition from one world to another in the City, but we also wonder what Pueblo San Bartolo Ameyalco will be like, with all this luxury just below it. 

Finally, after about an hour's ride, as we climb further and begin to enter the ancient forest of the mountainside, we see a sign pointing off the main road to the pueblo. As always, as soon as we enter its narrow streets, lined by modest cinderblock homes and stores, we know we are in a pueblo, not the modern city. Inevitably, because it is fiesta time, we come to the point where the street is closed off and, beyond that point, filled with temporary puestos, stalls, whose owners are preparing them to sell food or other items. And there are the carnival rides, sitting still and empty, awaiting the evening party time. So again, we thank Sr. Sánchez for bringing us so far and so reliably to our destination, pay and tip him well, and bid him "hasta luego", "until the next time".

Walking up the puesto-filled street we soon come to the walled entrance to the church atrio (atrium). So far, all is as it virtually always is for a pueblo's patron saint fiesta. 

Entrance to the atrio of the Church of San Bartolo de Ameyalco.
The portada is not the usual flowers, either fresh or plastic, but a design made with beans.
We have seen such portadas in other pueblos.
"Protect us, San Bartoloméa"
On the far side of the atrio is the original 16th or 17th-century chapel.

The original chapel.
We are sorry that it is closed so that we cannot see its interior.

To the left of the original chapel, and down some stairs, is a larger, modern church.
Its facade is also covered with a fiesta portada made with seeds.

The Pueblo of Arrieros, Mule Drivers

Not seeing any schedule of events posted anywhere, we wander back into the street. There we encounter a traditional group of dancers whom, not long ago. we encountered for the first time in the city, while at a fiesta in Santa Ursula Xitla, in the southern Delegación of Tlalpan. They are a cuadrilla de arrieros, a team of mule drivers. We had encountered them again in Pueblo San Pedro Martir, also in Tlalpan, and most recently in San Lorenzo Acopilco in Cuajimalpa. They seem to be a phenomenon of the mountainous pueblos of the south and west of the city, evidently because, for centuries, the commercial trails leading into and out of the city had to cross these mountains.  

Cuadrill de arrieros de San Bartolo Ameyalco.
Their attire is the traditional white manta (muslin) shirts and pants
dictated for peasant workers by the Spanish after the Conquest.
It is a larger group than we have seen before.

Three small boys lead the procession,
demonstrating the ongoing incorporation
of new generations into the tradition.
Their sign says, "Juvenile Dance of Arrieros".

Soon, they file into the atrio to begin their ritual.
It will turn out to be more elaborate than the ones we have encountered before

The inevitable and essential banda follows them.

They file down the stairs to the newer church.

Youth form a significant portion of the group.
This is not the nostalgic act of some old men.

The sanctuary is bedecked with bouquets of flowers, typical of a patron saint fiesta.
The banners say, "Glorious apostle St. Bartholomew, pray for us," and
"Strengthen our faith so that we may follow Christ."

San Bartolomé stands to one side.
St. Bartholomew was one of the lesser-known
apostles of Jesus.

The arrieros offer their veneration of San Bartolomé

They then return to the street beside the atrio to begin their ceremonial dance

"Los peques", the little ones, are instructed in the ritual by some adolescent members
given this responsibility of passing on the tradition.

A horse is brought forward with some supplies. 

A mule is unloaded of supplies
for the next part of the ritual.

Older men begin the preparation of food.
It will be shared with the community
at the end of the Mass.

Several wooden fires are built and the cooking begins.
The men's aprons are quite richly embroidered,
indicating their pride in participating in the arrieros ritual.

Traditional clay ollas, pots of various kinds and sizes are being used. 

Adolescents and younger boys are fully brought
 into the work of cooking. 

We think the yellow mass
is corn masa, dough, mixed with fat,
to be melted down to make atole,
a corn-based drink.

We don't know why carrots,
not an indigenous vegetable,
are included in the meal.

A large cazuela is being used
to prepare chocolate for drinking.  

Arrieros, young and old.
The apron of the man, second from left, top, says,
"Mule Drivers Dancers of San Bartolo Ameyaco,
Hurry on, hurry on, my little burro."

Comparsa de Caporales

While we are watching the arrerios carry out their elaborate preparations to feed the community, we hear another banda begin to play in the atrio in front of the original chapel, so we hurry over to see what is happening. Fiestas are often "three-ring circuses", with multiple events happening simultaneously.

A comparsa (troupe) of caporales (herdsmen, i.e. cowboys and cowgirls) is performing another colorful traditional Mexican folk dance.

El Pueblo

As always, we are as interested in capturing the faces of the people of the community as in the formal ceremonies. 

The Strength of Tradition

What has impressed us the most about the Fiesta del Pueblo San Bartolo Ameyalco, here in the wooded mountains that surround the modern City, is the strength of their tradition of arrieros. As we noted in introducing them, we have recently encountered them in some pueblos in other southern delegaciones/alcaldías, but not in these numbers, nor with such elaborately embroidered trajes traditionales, traditional dress.

Above all, while we saw the ritual of preparation of some food for the community in San Lorenzo Acopilco in Cuajimalpa, we did not realize how central it is to the arrieros tradition, as evidenced by the extensive preparation of food as we have seen today. It was quite a production of multiple foods, obviously well-organized and carried out with deliberation and pride by the members. The group also included a large number of children and youth, incorporating them fully, thus teaching them all the components of the tradition so that they could maintain it intact into the next generation.

All of these qualities bespeak the community's deep commitment to and pride in reenacting and thereby commemorating the significant role that arrieros played for four hundred years after the Conquest in providing the only means of commercial transport into and out of the capital city. Hence, they were essential both to the life of those living in the city and surrounding villages and, on a global scale, to Spain's international commerce between Asia and the mother country via Nueva España.

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