Sunday, March 29, 2015

Centro: Making a Living Amidst Faded Grandeur

Portable shoeshine stand in Plaza de Santo Domingo

Nature of the Spanish Empire

The Spanish ruled what is now Mexico for three hundred years—twice as long as the British governed the thirteen colonies in North America. The two colonial empires were ruled in quite different manners.

The British, while setting the rules from London and sending governors and some soldiers to each province, did not build a replica of their capital in North America. They gave immigrants to the New World quite a bit of freedom to develop a vibrant domestic economy, practice freedom of religion and establish some self-governance, all of which actually became fuel for eventual rebellion.

Under Spanish law, Nueva España wasn't a colony but an extension of the metrópoli, the mother country, and was governed by a virreya viceroy, the king's direct representative. It was designed to reproduce and strengthen the political, economic and social structures of the homeland and royalty's rule thereof. Instead of building a local economy, the natural resources of the conquered land were carried to Spain to enrich the ruling class and pay for their wars in Europe.

Only peninsulares, members of upperclass Spanish society who migrated, often temporarily, could hold positions of political, economic and religious power. Their children, criollos, could serve in the Spanish Army, oversee their haciendas (huge tracts of land granted by the king and worked by los indios) or go into the export-import business.

Creating a Replica of Spain

In the northern land, after winning independence, few artifacts remain from the colonial period. Independence Hall, originally the colonial legislature for the Province of Pennsylvania, is perhaps the most prominent monument. An entire new capital city, Washinton, D.C., was built on empty land, its buildings modeled on an idealized, Greco-Roman democratic past, and its broad avenues following a Napoleonic French design.

In contrast, the transplanted peninsulares engaged in a massive enterprise of constructing a replica of their old world and its culture in the midst of another, even more ancient one. Thus, they leveled the Aztec city of Mexico-Tenochtitlán and built a Spanish city atop it.

So what is now called el Centro Histórico, the Historic Center, contains many buildings remaining from that endeavor. The Palace (first of the Viceroy, then after Independence, the National Palace) and the Cathedral, framing the Zócalo, are the two most monumental examples, embodying in their grandeur the power of the State and the Catholic Church.

Cathedral rests atop site of former temples to the Sun (Sol) and Wind (Ehecatl)
and a Ball Court (Juego de Pelota)
Based on archeological soundings taken under the Cathedral, marked by the tubes

Symbol of the Sun,
found below the National Cathedral

These archetypes of power were built over their respective political and religious predecessors, the "New Houses", the palaces of Moctezuma II, and the Temple or Pyramid of the Sun. In the Spanish Empire, the State and the Church were wedded: King Charles I was also Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and thus God's secular representative on Earth. After conquering the Papal States in 1527, he won from the Pope the power to designate bishops of the Spanish Church.

King Charles IV of Spain, in idealized portrayal as a Roman Emperor,
erected in Mexico City in 1802, six years before Napoleon deposed him,
which led, in Mexico, to its War of Independence 

Massive Cathedral doors bespeak power of the Church
Inside, grand spaces, 
modeled on those of the Roman Empire, 
with a Spanish Baroque overlay.

The remnants of this long-gone Spanish Empire are spread throughout Mexico City's Centro Histórico. The Mexican government occupies the National Palace and many other palaces of the lesser Spanish nobility in North and East Centro, openly adopting for its own the imperial images of power and grandeur.

President Enrique Peña Nieto,
Seated on the Presidential "Silla" Chair and
wearing the Presidential Sash,
both European symbols of royalty

The Palacefirst of Cortés, then the Spanish Viceroy,
then of the Mexican governmenthas been 
rebuilt and expanded many times over nearly 500 years

Other palaces, convents and palacetes, mansions of wealthy Spanish businessmen, have been turned into public or private museums. Colonial era churches stand on nearly every block, some still serving as houses of worship, others converted into museums.

Museum of the City of Mexico
Former palace of the Count of Santiago de Calimaya,
one of the conquistadores, whose descendants owned it until 1960

Church of St. Peter and Paul,
now the Museum of the Constitutions

in North Centro

Making a Living Amidst Faded Grandeur

But on the streets behind and around these grand buildings are many more smaller colonial buildings, some painted in bright colors, others in varying degrees of disrepair, all filled with shops on their ground floors and, sometimes, upstairs.

The Castle of Fantasy:
necklaces, earrings, rings,...wigs

Note statue of saint in corner niche

Market on Republica de Venezuela St.
North Centro

And in the streets themselves, omnipresent vendors sell from make-shift puestos, stalls, or as ambulantes who walk about hawking their wares. Their commercial endeavor is timeless, having gone on in the same neighborhoods of the Aztec city before the Spanish arrived. They survived the demise of both of those States and will probably outlast the current one.

Used book market

All business
Sidewalk sewing

Elote, roasted corn on the cob

Commerce fills every available nook and cranny.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

México Agridulce, Bittersweet Mexico

We could stay in our upscale, up-to-date, tranquil neighborhood, Colonia Parque San Andrés, shop for fresh fruits and vegetables at Mercado Churubusco in the neighboring traditional barrio of San Mateo, go to the nearby, picturesque Spanish colonial Centro de Coyoacán for a nouvelle cuisine dinner or a Sunday brunch of smoked salmon and cream cheese on a bagel, shop for goat cheese, Greek yogurt and humus at Superama and go to our doctors at the world-class Medica Sur. In our day-to-day life, we do. It is a modern urban lifestyle which we enjoy, with which we are familiar and comfortable. We are transplanted neoyorkinos, New Yorkers, Upper-Westsiders to be specific.

Our apartment,
fourth small balcony up, on Calle Dakota
Around the corner, shady, quiet Calle Irlanda, Ireland Street
But we are constitutionally unable to stay in a bubble. We want to get to know the world around us. Hence, our perambulations through various delegaciones and colonias of the city. Which leads us to encounter, at least see the cotidianidadthe everyday life, of today's average chilangos, city residents, and of the city's past.

Actually, from the enclave of Parque San Andrés, all one has to do to begin to experience this other side of life in Mexico City is walk west two long blocks to the commercial boulevard, División del Norte, Division of the North (named after the army led by Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution), with its hodgepodge mix of upscale home furnishing stores, McDonalds, Oxxo convenience stores, taco stands and, at main intersections, street vendors and entertainers.

Street vendor selling to driver of one of the city's new pink and white taxis.
Sixty percent of Mexicans work "informally", for cash 

Or walk just one short block east to Calzada de Tlalpan, the eight-lane highway to the Centro Historico of the city. Turning the corner from our street onto Tlalpan, to walk north to Metro estación General Anaya, is to cross an umbral, a threshold between two very different worlds. You leave the pleasantness of an upper-middle class neighborhood and enter the bullicio, the hustle and bustle, the hubbub of what is predominantly a working-class city.

Here one encounters a mixture of the bitter and the sweet, la agridulce, the happy and the sad, the lively and the lost. And what is being born again. This is México claroscuro, chiaroscuro, with its contrasts of light and dark, so appropriately lit by the intense Mexican sun and the deep shadows it casts.

Shoe shine

Laundry business goes on in partially abandoned building
Typical post WW II building
Note the near lack of shadows, 
as the sun is vitually directly overhead from mid-May to late July.
Kitchen help
Street vendor

Child vendors
Neighborhood ladies
Street vendor

Street cleaner
Middle school buddies

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Centro Histórico: Pino Suárez Market, A Living Heart of Mexico

Lo recorrí por años enteros, de mercado a mercado, porque México está en los mercados. (I went for years from market to market, because Mexico is in its markets.) Pablo Neruda
Pino Suárez is a main commercial boulevard that runs south from the Zócalo and eventually becomes the Calzada de Tlalpan.

Like many streets throughout Mexico City and all of Mexico, it is named after a martyred hero, José María Pino Suárez. He was Vice President under President Francisco Madero, after the defeat and ouster of the dictator President Porfirio Díaz, at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution in 1911.

Click on any photo to enlarge it.

The Pino Suárez Metro station sits at the intersection of Pino Suárez and a main cross boulevard. It is the correspondencia or transfer station between Line 2 and Line 1, the Pink Line, which runs east-west across the center of the city. It also lies at an intersection of the many layers of Mexican history and culture.

In the underground passageway of the modern Metro one runs into a compelling statement from the first Mexico. When the station was being constructed in 1967, workers uncovered a circular Aztec altar, indicating by its shape that it honored the Wind God, Ehécatl, who announces the arrival of Tláloc, the Rain God. Still, today, in the rainy summer season, in the afternoon, Ehécatl sweeps down from the mountains into the Valley of Mexico ahead of Tláloc.

The altar, appropriately, rests in a sunken patio, open to the sky. But looking up, one doesn't see the heavens. Instead, one sees la cotidianidad, everyday life. The street level is inundated with puestos, street stalls, under brightly colored lonas de hule, plastic tarps, in a typical improvised tianguis, Nahuatl for street market.

The area has known such markets since Aztec times. The coverings and the products have changed, but the culture of compra-venta, buying and selling is timeless.

To one side of the plaza containing the puestos is a gracious structure from another historic epoch, the Spanish Colonial Period. It was a chapel dedicated to Santa María Magdelena, St. Mary Magdalene. It now serves as the Agrarian Museum.

And next to the museum is a capilla, a chapel, dedicated to the Apostle San Lucas, St. Luke, that could be most anywhere in provincial Mexico. It was constructed during the colonial period by the guild of workers in the city slaughterhouse, which stood across the plaza. St. Luke is their patron saint, as he is represented by a bull.

All of this, the colonial structures with their tranquil atrios, courtyards, and the bustling, improvised puestos, huddle around and are dominated by the Plaza Comercial Pino Suárez, a huge, modern structure which stands where the former slaughterhouse stooo. It houses hundreds of permanent puestos or locales, as permanent stands in indoor mercados, markets, are called.

The building is actually a landmark of modern Mexican architecture. Designed by Felix Sánchez in 1992, "the large, undulating roof visually floats above the market space" (The New Architecture of Mexico, Image Publishing, 2005). 

Underneath this avant-garde roof is a quintessential Mexican mercado!

Aisles about a yard-wide are lined with puestos or locales, perhaps four square yards in size, each walled-in by merchandise, virtually all kinds of clothing--shirts, pants, dresses, shoes--each one tended by its owner. A true bazaar.

And, as exists in every Mexican mercado, stalls--some almost full restaurants--serve hot meals.


Watching over all this ajetreo, hustle and bustle, from a shrine at the top of a stairway, is the ever-present Virgen de Guadalupe, the Mother of Mexico.

So, here in Pino Suárez, all of the core elements of Mexico meet: the indigenous Mesoamerican, the Spanish colonial, the cutting edge modern, and the eternal everyday mercado of selling and bying.