Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Chapultepec Castle: The U.S. Army vs. Santa Anna and The Boy Heroes

My search in Mexico City for physical remnants of the country's 19th century history, particularly the period from the War for Independence to the Porfiriato (1810-1876), led me to a castle on a hill, Chapultepec Castle. I had seen it from below in Chapultepec Park, but a 19th century castle in Mexico didn't initially pique my interest. As a castle evidently built after Mexican Independence, it seemed an historical anomaly. But as I sought answers to the missing pieces of the urban history puzzle, it turned out to be a key.

Chapultepec Castle

In 1775, Viceroy Bernardo de Gálvez ordered the construction of a stately home for himself at the highest point on Chapultepec Hill. Construction began the same year. However, on November 8, 1786, the viceroy died suddenly. The Spanish Crown ordered the building to be auctioned. There were no buyers. In 1806 the building was finally bought by Mexico City's municipal government. It remained empty throughout the War for Independence and the early years of Mexico's new government.

Sometime between 1833 and 1840 (different sources give different dates), the Military Academy, which had been founded in 1823 at the end of the War for Independence, was moved to the Castle. This move sets the stage for the Castle's major role in Mexican history.

In 1833. Antonio López de Santa Anna, originally an officer in the Spanish Army, came out on top of a series of coups d'état among caudillos, military strongmen who had fought in the War for Independence. He was named president by the Congress. Initially, he allowed some liberal reforms; namely, reducing the powers of both the Army and the Catholic Church. When conservatives rose up against these reforms, Santa Ana switched sides (as he did a number of times during his lifetime), disbanded Congress, suspended the Constitution of 1824 and imposed the Seven Laws by which he centralized power in the presidency.

Antonio López de Santa Anna

The Seven Laws included replacing the "sovereign" federal states with centrally controlled "departments" on the French model. Several states and provinces rebelled against this power grab. Among these was the state of Coahuila y Tejas, which Santa Anna had divided into two departments: Coahuila in the south; Tejas in the north. In October 1835, acting under the leadership of Stephen Austin and Sam Houston, settlers in Tejas who had arrived from the United States initiated the Texas Revolution.

Santa Anna vowed personally to retake Texas and led his Army of Operations into Texas in February 1836. After initial victories against the rebels at Goliad and the Alamo, he was defeated on April 21 at the Battle of San Jacinto by troops led by Sam Houston. Captured, Santa Anna was forced to agree to the independence of Texas, which became the Republic of Texas.

However, the Mexican government rejected the "Treaties of Velasco" and threatened to go to war if the United States annexed Texas. After being held captive in Washington, D.C., Santa Anna was returned to Mexico in 1837. By 1839, in a context of internal chaos, Santa Anna again became president. In 1844, a revolt against him led Santa Anna to go into exile in Cuba.

Meanwhile, on the U.S. side there was also resistance to annexing Texas, since it would provoke war with Mexico. But more importantly, it also raised the issue of upsetting the delicate balance between slave and free states achieved with the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Annexation became a central issue in the 1844 presidential election.

When pro-annexation Democrat James Polk won, lame-duck President John Tyler convinced an equally lame-duck Congress to accept the annexation of Texas and make it a state. The legislation was signed by Tyler the day before Polk took office on March 4, 1845.

President James K. Polk

Polk was an aggressive proponent of expanding U.S. territory west, all the way to the Pacific, which meant confronting Mexico, whose territory extended north through California to the Oregon Territory.

The border of Texas as an independent country had not been settled. Based on the Treaties of Velasco, the Republic of Texas claimed land up to the Rio Grande [Rio Bravo], but Mexico claimed the border to be the Nueces River, northeast of the Rio Grande. While the two rivers come close together as they approach the Gulf of Mexico, upstream, it is quite a different matter.

Rio Grande River is southern boundary of territory in green;
Nueces River is southwest boundary of territory in yellow.

President Polk claimed the Rio Grande boundary and in July 1845, he sent General Zachary Taylor with 3,500 U.S. troops to camp on the Nueces River. With that "stick" in hand, Polk then offered Mexico a "carrot". In November he sent a secret mission to Mexico City with an offer to buy Upper California and New Mexico, which included present-day Arizona, for $25 million dollars. Mexican authorities refused.

Mexican-American War: United States Invades Mexico

Polk then ordered Taylor to move his troops across the Nueces River into the disputed territory. Taylor set up a makeshift fort, Ft. Texas, later Ft. Brown, on the banks of the lower Rio Grande River, opposite Matamoros in Tamaulipas, Mexico. On April 25, 1846, Mexican General Mariano Arista led 2,000 Mexican cavalry across the river and attacked a 70-man U.S. patrol under the command of Captain Seth Thornton. In what became known as "The Thornton Affair", sixteen U.S. soldiers were killed.

Claiming that "American blood" had been shed "on American soil," on May 11, President Polk sent a message to Congress asking for a declaration of war against Mexico. On May 25, war was declared.

To try to stop the U.S. invasions, Mexican authorities allowed Santa Anna to return from exile to lead the Mexican Army.

The U.S. forces undertook a three-pronged strategy:
  • First, Taylor crossed the Rio Grande and fought his way south to Monterrey in northeastern Mexico; 
  • Second, troops were sent west from Kansas across New Mexico into California, while at the same time the U.S. Navy took up positions along the Pacific Coast of California in order to seize ports;
  • Third, General Winfield Scott transported troops to the port of Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico, to begin an invasion of the Mexican heartland.
On March 9, 1847, Scott performed the first major amphibious landing in U.S. history. Included in the invading force were Robert E. Lee, George Meade, Ulysses S. Grant, James Longstreet, and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. After twelve days of seige, the port was taken, and Scott began his march toward Mexico City.

General Winfield Scott

On April 18, the opposing forces met at Cerro Gordo near Xalapa, Veracruz. Scott outmaneuvered Santa Anna's defensive positions and defeated his troops. The Mexicans retreated toward Mexico City. On May 1, the city of Puebla surrendered. The way to Mexico City was open.

On August 19 and 20, battles were fought between Scott's and Santa Anna's forces at Contreras and Churubusco, just south of Mexico City. With the Mexicans defeated, the capital city was next.

Churubusco is settlement at bottom of this U.S. Army map of the battle.
Mexico City lies straight north, connected by a roadway that follows the old Aztec causeway,
now the Calzada de Tlalpan.

Photo: JRB

On September 12, 1847, U.S. troops attacked Chapultepec Castle, the last obstacle to their entrance into Mexico City. It stood

Chapultepec Castle, viewed from what is now Colonia Juárez
Photo taken in 1875

The Battle of Chapultepec takes on near mythic proportions in both U.S. and Mexican history. For the U.S., it is enshrined in the words of the Marine Hymn, "From the Halls of Montezuma...". For Mexicans, it is sanctified by the sacrifice of the Niños Heroes, the Boy Heroes.

"Battle of Chapultepec"
by Adolphe Jean-Baptiste Bayot

Chapultepec Castle was defended by Mexican troops under the command of Nicolás Bravo, who had fought in the War for Independence. His forces included cadets from the Military Academy. The number of cadets present has been variously given, from 47 to a few hundred. The greatly outnumbered defenders battled General Scott's troops for about two hours before General Bravo ordered retreat. 

However, as the story goes, six cadets refused to fall back and fought to the death. Legend has it that the last of the six, Juan Escutia, leapt from Chapultepec Castle wrapped in the Mexican flag to prevent the flag from being taken by the enemy. 

Mural on ceiling of entrance to Chapultepec Castle
depicts Cadet Juan Escutia plunging to his death,
holding the Mexican flag
Photo: JRB

The bodies of the six youths were buried on the grounds below the Castle. One hundred years later, in 1947, their remains were exhumed and on September 27, 1952, they were re-interred at the Monument to the Boy Heroes which stands below the Castle of Chapultepec.

Photo: JRB

Monument to the Boy Heroes
Photo: JRB

In any event, the United States had conquered Mexico. On February 2, 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe (named for the Villa of Guadalupe, also the site of the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe) was signed between U.S. and Mexican officials. Mexico accepted the loss of Texas and ceded half its territory to the United States, including what are now the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. The U.S. paid Mexico 15 million dollars and assumed any Mexican debts to U.S. citizens.

U.S. General Winfield Scott (on white horse) enters the Zócalo
and takes control of the government of Mexico.
The U.S. flag flies over the National Palace.

Santa Anna once again went into exile, first to Jamaica and then to Colombia. In 1853, conservatives called him back to be president to oppose liberal, democratic forces. In 1855, he was overthrown by these forces. Santa Anna again fled first to Cuba; later, he lived for awhile on Staten Island in New York.

Upon implementing democratic reforms limiting the powers of the Church and Army, the liberals, who included Benito Juárez, were, in turn, attacked by conservative forces in the so-called War of Reform (1857-61). But that is another chapter, which will lead us back to Chapultepec Castle.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Independence as Counter-Revolution: Agustín Iturbide - The Man Who Would Be King

Walking through the streets of Mexico City's Historic Center, viewing its Spanish colonial palaces, I began to ask myself, "So what happened next in Mexico City? What happened when this Empire came to an end with Mexican Independence?" As it turns out, the answer  is not so simple.

For all intents and purposes, Spanish rule of New Spain came to an end on September 27, 1821, when the self-named Army of the Three Guarantees entered Mexico City under the leadership of Agustín de Iturbide in the wake of the defeat of Spanish royal forces and submission of the viceroy. It happened to be Iturbide's thirty-eighth birthday.

Agustín de Iturbide and other insurgents enter Mexico City in triumph,
September 27, 1821

The next day, Iturbide proclaimed the independence of the Mexican Empire, as New Spain was henceforth to be called, and settled himself in a palatial home, loaned to him by the Count of San Mateo Valparaíso. It still stands on Madero Street, now bearing the nickname Palace of Iturbide.

So called "Palace of Iturbide"
Now the Banamex Cultural Center

Photo: JRB
The Man Who Won Mexico's Independence
Iturbide was not a person one would foresee fighting for and winning Mexican Independence. Until the winter of 1821, some six months before he triumphantly entered Mexico City, Iturbide had been a key player in the royalist opposition to those who had begun the rebellion eleven years earlier, the priest, Miguel Hidalgo, the Spanish Army captain Ignacio Allende, and the priest turned warrior, José María Morelos. He was, in fact, the quintessential wealthy, well-connected Spanish criollo [Spanish born in New Spain] from a noble family, a loyalist and officer in the Royal Spanish Army.

Agustín Cosme Damián de Iturbide y Arámburu was born on September 27, 1783, in what was then Valladolid, now Morelia, the state capital of Michoacán. Iturbide's parents were members of the wealthy criollo class of Valladolid. His father, Joaquín de Iturbide, came from a family of the Basque gentry.

In his teens, being criollo, Iturbide entered the Spanish Royal Army and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the provincial regiment. He was known for his horsemanship.

Agustín de Iturbide
Portrait in "Palacio de Iturbide"
Photo: JRB
In 1805, when he was twenty-two, Iturbide married Ana María Josefa Ramona de Huarte y Muñiz. She was the daughter of a wealthy and powerful Spanish nobleman, Isidro de Huarte, governor of the district and a granddaughter of the Marquis of Altamira. With her dowry of 100,000 pesos, the couple bought a hacienda.

Taking Sides in Phase 1 of the Rebellion
The rebellion that began in September 1810 did not, at first, have the goal of independence from Spain. It was an effort by upper-class liberal criollos [Spanish born in New Spain], including the priest, Miguel Hidalgo, and Spanish Army captain Ignacio Allende, to overthrow the viceroy, who was seen as the source of abuses of criollos, mestizos [mixed Spanish-indigenous] and indios [indigenous], perverting the will of the king

The revolt was triggered by the crisis in legitimacy of the Spanish royalty. Napoleon's seizure, in 1808, of the Spanish King Charles IV and his son, Ferdinand VII, and placing his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne put in serious question the legitimacy of Spanish rule of New Spain. The rebellion was cast in the name of loyalty to the king and the Virgin of Guadalupe, God's special emissary to New Spain. Thus, there was an ambivalence, if not outright contradiction, at the very heart of the rebellion—a combination of liberal, democratic values with conservative, royalist loyalties.

At the outset, Hidalgo offered Iturbide the rank of general in the insurgent forces. Iturbide rejected the offer, since he repudiated the atrocities committed by the largely untrained insurgent army against Spanish civilians, choosing instead to fight for the royalist forces.

Iturbide fought in a number of the early battles against the insurgents. After the executions of Hidalgo and Allende in July 1811, he led a number of battles between 1813 and 1815 against the new leader of the rebellion, Morelos.

His persistence against the rebels was widely known, as well as his views against their liberal ideas. In his diary, he refers to the insurgents as "perverse," "bandits," and "sacrilegious." In a letter to the viceroy in 1814, he wrote of how he had 300 rebels (to whom he referred as excommunicates) executed to celebrate Good Friday. Iturbide was also criticized for his arbitrary treatment of civilians, in particular his jailing of the mothers, wives and children of known insurgents.

The Insurgency Becomes More Republican
Morelos initially won battles in the southwest. In September, 1813, in the city of Chilpancingo, now the capital of the state of Guerrero, he felt secure enough to convene a congress of representatives from provinces under his control. On November 6, the congress met and formally declared the Independendence of North America from Spain.

Nearly a year later, on October 22, 1814, in Apatzingán, Michoacán, Mexico's first constitution, the Constitutional Decree for the Liberty of Mexican America, was promulgated. It established a republican government, with a three-person executive and a representative congress. It was never implemented. Morelos was captured by royal forces in November 1815, imprisoned in the Ciudadela in Mexico City and executed on December 22, 1815.

Reversals of Fortune in New Spain and the Motherland
After Morelos's death, the force of the independence movement declined significantly. Isolated guerrilla bands carried out such fighting as there was. Guadalupe Victoria ended up abandoned by most of his troops and hiding in the jungle of Veracruz. Vicente Guerrero fought on in the southwest, where Morelos had won victories, in what is now the state named after him, and in neighboring regions.

While the insurgents' fortunes had been reversed in 1815, so had Iturbide's the following year. The viceroy relieved him of his command in response to accusations of a number of corrupt and cruel practices, including creating commercial monopolies in areas he controlled militarily, sacking private property and embezzling military funds. However, in 1817, the charges were withdrawn. Iturbide's supporters convinced the viceroy that he was needed to vanquish the last remaining rebel leaders. But Iturbide was not to forget the humiliation of his dismissal.

Meanwhile, in Spain, fortunes also changed. Just as Napoleon's intervention in Spain in 1808 and his taking King Ferdinand VII and his father, King Charles IV, hostage in France had triggered the initial insurgency of Hidalgo and Allende, further power struggles in Spain between royal and republican forces triggered the next stage of the insurgency in New Spain.

The uprising of Spanish regional juntas against Napoleon and his brother, Joseph, whom he placed on the Spanish throne, led to the writing of the republican Constitution of 1812, in Cadiz. When Ferdinand returned to Spain in 1814 following Napoleon´s defeat and exile to the Island of Elba, he was forced to accept a constitutional monarchy, but he then acted to retake power.

In the early months of 1820, however, the Riego Revolt forced Ferdinand to re-institute the constitutional monarchy. As a result, in New Spain there were serious concerns that the monarchy would be forced to abandon Spain once again. This led to the undermining of viceregal authority in Mexico City. Among the Spanish criollo nobility the idea arose that if New Spain became independent or autonomous, and if Ferdinand were deposed, he could become king of New Spain.

At this juncture, in December 1820, Viceroy Juan Ruiz de Apodaca gave Iturbide the task of eliminating Guerrero and his forces. However, Guerrero managed to deliver a number of serious reverses to Iturbide's troops, leading Iturbide to conclude that he might not be able to defeat the rebel forces.

Iturbide Switches Sides, Royalists and Republicans Join Forces Against Spain
While stationed in Iguala, in what is now the state of Guerrero, Iturbide decided to negotiate with Guerrero. He proposed the Plan of Iguala, containing three "guarantees" for Mexican independence from Spain: Mexico would be an independent monarchy governed by King Ferdinand, another Bourbon prince, or some other conservative European prince. If no prince wanted the position, a noble criollo in New Spain could be given the throne; all persons, regardless of race or class, would be citizens enjoying equal rights and privileges, and the Roman Catholic Church would retain its privileges and position as the official and exclusive religion of the land.

The Plan was signed by Iturbide and Guerrero on February 24, 1821. A new army, the Army of the Three Guarantees, composed of their joint forces, was then placed under Iturbide's command. The army was joined both by royalists, including Antonio López de Santa Anna and Anastasio Bustamante and by insurgents such as Victoria Guadalupe and Nicolás Bravo.

When the combined forces surrounded the outskirts of Mexico City and won the Battle of Azcapotzalco, on August 19, in what had been a pre-Hispanic town and is now a delegación of the city, the outcome became certain and the viceroy resigned. On August 24, representatives of the viceroy and Iturbide signed the Treaty of Córdoba, which recognized Mexican independence.

Monument to the last battle, in Azcapotzalco, outside Mexico City,
August 19, 1821
Royalist forces made a last stand in the atrio
of the Church of the Holy Apostles Philip and James
Photo: JRB

Upon the Army's entrance into Mexico City, Iturbide was named President of a Provisional Governing Junta, which selected the five-person regency that would temporarily govern the newly independent Mexico. The Junta had thirty-six members with legislative powers until the convocation of a congress. Iturbide controlled the Junta, which was responsible for negotiating the offer of the throne of Mexico to a suitable European royal. Members of the republican insurgent movement were left out. 

While the Junta convened a constitutional congress to set up the new government with indirect representation, Iturbide declared that he would not be bound by that model. The ensuing divisiveness came to a head in February 1822, when Congress declared sovereignty for itself rather than granting it to a monarch.

In the meantime, Ferdinand VII, who had again regained the upper hand in Spain, rejected the offer of the Mexican throne, forbade any member of his family to accept the position, and the Spanish parliament rejected the Treaty of Córdoba.

On the night of the May 18, 1822, a demonstration led by the Regiment of Celaya, which Iturbide had commanded during the war, marched through the streets, demanding that their commander-in-chief accept the throne. The following day, the Congress conceded and declared Iturbide emperor of Mexico. He was crowned Emperor Agustín I in the Mexico City Cathedral on July 21, 1822.

Coronation of Agustín de Iturbide as
Emperor Agustín I

Iturbide as Emperor Agustín I
Re-created room of Iturbide's stay
in the Palacio
Photo: JRB

The Empire proved to be very short-lived. A number of military and political leaders soon turned against Agustín. A conspiracy developed to remove him from power and eliminate the Constitutional Empire. In response, on October 31, 1822, Iturbide dissolved Congress and arrested many of its former members.

In December, Santa Ana rose against Iturbide, pronouncing the Plan of Veracruz. Bravo and Guerrero joined him. After initial setbacks, the rebels' victory soon became apparent. On March 19, 1823, eight months after his coronation, Iturbide offered his abdication to a reconvened Congress. He and his family went into exile in Europe. In July 1824, he returned, thinking he would be welcomed. Instead, he was arrested, tried by a hastily convened jury and executed.

In 1833, the now President Santa Anna decided to rehabilitate Iturbide's memory, ordering that his remains be transferred to the capital with honors. However, it was not until 1838, during the presidency of Anastasio Bustamante, that this order was carried out. On October 27, 1839, Iturbide's remains were placed in an urn in the Chapel of San Felipe de Jesús in the Cathedral, where they remain. God and King, together.

Iturbide's remains are kept it the small casket
that sits in the nich at upper right

But the overthrow of Iturbide and his subsequent execution did not result in a clear victory for liberal republican forces over conservative authoritarian ones. Instead, over the next hundred years of Mexico's political history, the sequence of conservatives forming alliances with liberals in the struggle to establish a government, then the two splitting and entering into violent conflict was to be repeated numerous times. As we explore Mexico City, we will be keeping our eyes out for artifacts of those various battles. 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

West Centro: The Ciudadela - Through Revolutions to Tranquility

Walking around Mexico City's Historic Center, you see many colonial era buildings, with more modern ones mixed among them. But after awhile, you begin to wonder, where is the rest of the history of this city and this country? In the Balderas neighborhood, we saw colonial buildings, perhaps one or two from the 19th century, such as the old police headquarters, and some from the 20th century.

Outside the Center are a number of colonias, neighborhoods, built during the Porfiriato, the last quarter of the 19th century dominated by the recurring presidency of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911). We will talk about them in later posts. But where, we begin to ask, are remnants of the sixty years from the time of the War for Independence (1810 to 1823) to the Porfiriato? They seem to be missing.

The Ciudadela, The Citadel, is one of the few artifacts of this period. Built in 1807, near the end of Spanish colonial rule, it was meant to be la Real Fábrica de Tabacos, the Royal Tobacco Factory. Tobacco was a very profitable product for export to Europe. However, history was soon to put the building to other uses.

La Ciudadela, The Citadel

The Ciudadela, with its four interior patios, is located at the southwest corner of the Centro Histórico,
at the intersection of Avenidas Balderas (north-south) and Chapultepec
and of Metro Lines 1-Pink, and 3-Olive.

The Mexican War of Independence began as an effort by upper-class liberal criollos [Spanish born in New Spain], including the priest, Miguel Hidalgo, and Spanish Army captain Ignacio Allende, to overthrow the viceroy. The rebellion was triggered by Napoleon's seizure of the Spanish King Charles IV and his son, Ferdinand VII. When Napoleon placed his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the Spanish throne, the legitimacy of Spanish rule in New Spain was put in serious question.

The first phase of the rebellion was brutally short. In September 1810, Hidalgo triggered a peasant and indigenous uprising near the central city of Guanajuato which led to some successes, but he and Allende had disagreements over strategy. This, and lack of resources, contributed to battle losses. The two were captured, executed amd beheaded in July 1811.

Miguel Hidalgo
Ignacio Allende
José María Morelos, a mestizo, of mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage, and a priest in the province of Michoacán, joined Hidalgo in the fall of 1810. Morelos was immediately made a colonel and put in charge of forces to take the port of Acapulco. After the deaths of Hidalgo and Allende, Morelos led the battle for independence, mostly in the western provinces. For four years, he was quite successful. However, he was captured in November 1815 and brought to Mexico City, where he was imprisoned in the Ciudadela. In December 1815 he was executed outside the city, which brought to a close the war's second phase.

José María Morelos
After the Spanish were finally defeated in 1821, the new Mexican government kept the Ciudadela as an Army arsenal.

In February 1913, nearly one hundred years later, the building was to become a critical locus in a major turning point of the Mexican Revolution. In 1910, Francisco Madero, scion of a well-to-do family but a liberal thinker, attempted to run against Porfirio Díaz in the presidential election. When Díaz foiled his attempt, Madero initiated a successful rebellion against Díaz.

Following the defeat of Díaz's federal Army in 1911 by the pragmatic coalition of Madero, Francisco "Pancho" Villa and Emiliano Zapata, Madero was elected president. Conservative opposition to Madero triggered several attempts at coup d'états. Finally, on February 9, 1913, in what was to become known as the 'Decena Trágica' (Ten Tragic Days), a group of Army generals struck against the president.

The Ciudadela became the base of operations for General Félix Díaz, a nephew of Porfirio, and the scene of much fighting. With the intevention of the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson, a pact was formed between Díaz and Madero's leading general, Victoriano Huerta, to overthrow Madero, which led to Madero's arrest and murder on February 21. Huerta became president.

Ciudadela during the Ten Tragic Days.
From Wikipedia
The building continued to be used for military purposes through the first half of the 20th century. In 1944, part of the building was transformed into the Library of México. In the 1980's the entire structure was renovated and solely dedicated to library use. In 2011, it was again extensively and beautifully renovated and now houses the personal libraries of a number of deceased Mexican authors, as well as providing space for cultural events and art exhibits. What could be more tranquil than a library?



Saturday, April 4, 2015

Centro West-Around Balderas: Making Sense of an Urban Batiburrillo

West of Mexico City's Historic Center, south of Avenida Hidalgo, between Lázaro Cárdenas—aka Eje Central (Central Axis)—to the east and Bucareli Street to the west, is a commercial neighborhood. It is anchored by the historic Alameda park on the northeast and the equally historic Ciudadela (Citadel) on the southwest (more about each of them later). Running between the two, more or less down the middle of the colonia, is Avenida Balderas.

San Hipólito, a colonial church,
stands at the north end of Balderas, 

where it intersects with Avenida Hidalgo and Paseo de la Reforma.

Bounded by four Metro linesPink Line 1 on the south, Blue Line 2 on the north, Green Line 8 on the east and Olive Line 3 on the west, West Centro is very accessible, which makes it good for doing business.

Your first experience of the neighborhood, as you amble through it, 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.
Mid-20th century functional

Colonial building occupied by lighting stores
"California" neo-colonial apartment building

Neo-gothic police headquarters, built in 1908,
later, part was made a hospital, Cruz Verde, Green Cross.
Leon Trotsky died there in August 1940,
after being attacked in his home in Coyoacán
the day before.
Now a police museum.

Time-warp of Centuries

The effect of this temporal-spatial desorden can be rather disorienting. You seem to be in no particular place or time, or in several simultaneously. It is as though you have entered a kind of time-warp that the chilangos, city residents, around you seem either not to have noticed or are not disturbed by.

As elsewhere in the city, daily life goes on, with its predictable actions and rhythms.

Comida corrida, lunch on the run

Fortunately, the neighborhood also has another constant urban reference, a tranquil refuge. San Juan Park is a quintessential Mexican plaza, where you can center yourself, collect your mind and try to make some sense of the desorden you are experiencing.

San Juan Plaza

At one side of the plaza is the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe of the Good Tone.  Of the Good Tone? Well, it was the gift of a Frenchman, Ernest Pugibet who, in 1879 at age 24, emigrated to Mexico and established a cigarette factory, El Buen Tono, at one side of the plaza. It was very profitable.

Señor Pugibet became one of Mexico's wealthiest businessmen during the Porfiriato, the era of President Porfirio Díaz from 1876 to 1911. During that era many elegant buildings were built in Mexico City, as we shall see in subsequent posts.

Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe 
of the Good Tone

built 1912

French Second Empire cupola,
its copper recently restored

And in the plaza, another time-warp: monuments to Mexico's first radio announcers. Why here? Because the first radio stations were nearby.

Francisco Rubiales Calvo, 
mid-20th century radio and TV announcer,
used the pseudonym Paco Malgesto
Monument to station KEW

Making Sense of the Batiburrillo

So what to make of this hodgepodge of eras, these fragments of disconnected history, this batiburrillo? We are used to thinking of Mexican history in archeological terms, as a sequence of vertical layers built one atop another, as the Spanish Colonial Historic Center sits atop the remains of Tenochtitlán. 

Aha! Suddenly, the pieces fall in place, like the pieces of colored glass forming a pattern in a kaleidoscope: here, around Balderas, the layers aren't just vertical, one atop another, but side by side. It is a horizontal archeological site. The batiburrillo is the jumble of artifacts that would be found in any "dig", but no physical digging is necessary here. All you have to do is walk around and keep your eyes open. 

The only "digging" comes afterward, the digging for the histories of the various pieces encountered. And for that, there is the Internet! Fun, relaxed armchair exploration after an intriguing perambulation. 

Oaxacan restaurant
occupies colonial building

Art Deco Theater.
Radio City Music Hall, anyone?
Neo-gothic Methodist (!) Church
with modern addition