Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Centro's Four Indigenous Quarters: San Sebastian Atzacoalco—Martyrs, Death, Community and Hope

We come to the last of the four original indigenous quarters of the Indian Republic of San Juan Tenochtitlan established by the Spanish, San Sebastián Atazacoalco, in the northeast corner of Centro.

In the 16th century, San Juan Moyotla was the most densely populated and so was made the ayuntamiento, government headquarters. San Pablo Teopan-Zoquipan was the largest in territory and strategically important as the southern gateway. Santa Maria Cuepopan was the site of significant battles between the Mexica and their neighbors and with the Spanish.

San Sebastián Atzacoalco was the smallest. It is also, perhaps, the least remembered, as it apparently retains the fewest significant landmarks from the period of the transformation of Tenochtitlan into Mexico City. The former Spanish parcialidad is now part of Centro North and Centro East.

Four Ancient Barrios of Tenochtitlan
Located on Map of Present-day Mexico City
Small Black Square: Templo Mayor
San Sebastián is upper right.

Boundaries are:
North: North Axis 1 (Granaditas/Jardineros)
West: Argentina/Jesús Carranza Street
East: Axis 1 East or Congreso de la Unión
South: Corregidora 

San Sebastián: Venerating Martyrs 

Using the original churches, plazas and markets as reference points for orienting our search, we head first for the Church of San Sebastián Martir Atzacoalco, about five blocks northeast of the Zócalo.

Church of San Sebastián Martir Atzacoalco

A simple building of tezontle, red volcanic stone, much like Santa María la Redonda in Cuepopan, the orginal church was built by the Franciscans under the direction of Fray Pedro de Gante, Friar Peter of Ghent in the early 16th century. In 1568, when pressures from other religious orders led the Pope to reassign some of the original four parcialdades, San Sebastián was given to the Carmelites. About forty years later, it was transferred to the Augustinians. Like other churches managed by the orders, in the 1770s, it was taken under the control of the Archbishop of Mexico City who assigned "secular", i.e., diocesan clergy.

Plaza in front of San Sebastián Martir 

The church faces a plaza surrounded by colorfully painted Colonial era buildings and full of trees, neatly trimmed boxwood hedges (adopted from the Moorish gardens of Spain), benches and a bit too much refuse.

Inside, the church retains the simplicity of other early Franciscan churches.

Simple interior

Why Martyrs?

We wonder about the Franciscan choice of San Sebastián as the patron saint for this church and this parcialidad. The choices for the other three sectors seem obvious: St. John the Baptist, St. Paul, the Virgin Mary. But why St. Sebastian, one of hundreds of other possible saints? We recall that three old churches in or near Coyoacán, where we live, are dedicated to this saint. 

San Sebastián Martir

Saint Sebastián (died c. 288) was an early Christian saint and martyr. According to Christian belief, he was killed during the Roman Emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians. He is commonly depicted in art and literature tied to a post or tree and shot with arrows. Despite this being the most common artistic depiction of Sebastian, he was, according to legend, rescued and healed by Irene of Rome. Shortly afterward, he publicly confronted Diocletian to warn him about his sins and, as a result, was clubbed to death. Wikipedia

Crucified Christ

Above the altar hangs a cross with the crucified Christ, the martyr on whom the Christian faith is founded. Other images of suffering or dead martrys populate the sanctuary, as they do in virtually every Catholic Church in Mexico.

Christ enterrado, interred, buried

We have to admit upfront that, having been raised as a Protestant with Puritan roots, we find it very hard to relate to these images of suffering and dead martyrs. Our childhhood church had a cross behind the Communion Table. It was empty, a rather abstract symbol of the death of Jesus. But the focus was always on the living Christ and how we should imitate him in our lives.

In Catholicism and in Mexico, it is different. The Mexican worldview is a dramatic one, full of protagonists and antagonists, heroes and villains, the forces of good versus the forces of evil, entangled in a lucha, a struggle for victory one over the other. An archetypical expression of this drama is its Catholic faith, with its martyrs.

Symbols of Death in Mexico

Chilean-born, Mexican-educated anthropologist and naturalized Mexican citizen, Claudio Lomnitz, maintains that a particular view and representation of death is a central “totem,” or symbol, that holds Mexican identity together. In his book, Death and the Idea of Mexico, he reviews the long history of Mexican representations and beliefs about death as central to how life is to be understood and lived.

While in life, the world may be divided between los de arriba and los de abajo, those above versus those below, the wealthy versus the working class and poor, when Death arrives, she makes all humans equals. Death, or at least the images of death—the calaveras (skulls) and Catrinas (skeletal figures dressed as elegant ladies or other characters)—is played with sardonically. Life is a Dance with Death, which she leads and brings to an end.

Catrina, Lady Death, and calaveras, skulls
Day of the Dead celebration,

As Lomnitz points out, this focus on death goes back to prehispanic indigenous cultures. Aztec culture was centered on waging wars of conquests and taking captives for sacrifice to its gods in order to maintain their favor.

In the Mesoamerican creation myths, the world we humans inhabit had been brought into existence by means of the sacrificial death of a god. Hence, sacrificial deaths of humans were necessary to keep the world going on. Blood fed the sun so that it had the energy to rise each new day from the world of darkness and travel across the sky, lighting and warming the human world. Dying as a warrior in battle or by sacrifice to the gods was life's highest attainment.

The Aztecs' answer to the human dilemma of mortality was to embrace death. Thus, representations of death, and of the gods who required it, were central to its symbolic creations. The museum of the Templo Mayor, just a few short blocks south of San Sebastián Martir, is full of such symbols, unearthed from around and within the many-layered pyramid.

Tonatiuh, Sun God
His tongue is a sacrificial knife, 

as he required daily blood sacrifice to rise and cross the sky.

Mictlantecuhtli, God of the Underworld, Realm of the Dead

So, when the Franciscans came to Nueva España to convert the Mexica and the many other indigenous peoples of what we now refer to as Mesoamerica, their faith, centered on sacrifice, martydom, death and resurrection, was sown in a fertile field. Actual blood sacrifice was no longer allowed, but it also was unnecessary in the new belief system of the Gospel, the Good News.

Christ, the very Son of God himself, had sacrificed himself once, for all humankind. Participation in that sacrifice became symbolic, in the Mass and the consuming of the Host, the Body of Christ. And it became symbolically represented in the many images of the persecuted and crucified Christ and martyrs such as San Sebastián.

Our Lady of Solitude

So we leave San Sebastián Martir, wondering where all this suffering and death might lead. The faith says it leads to Resurrection, a new, eternal life in a Heaven beyond this world. But, we ask, how does that manifest itself in the everyday life of Catholic Mexicans here on Earth, even more specifically, here in the barrios of Mexico City?

Our next stop is a church on the east side of the Anillo, the Ringroad that marks the eastern boundary of Centro and the Delegación, Borough, of Cuauhtémoc, but which apparently wasn't quite the eastern boundary of Atzacoalco.

Church of Santa Cruz y La Virgen de Soledad
Seen from across the Anillo, the Ringroad,
a one-way avenue built in the 1950s.

La Iglesia de Santa Cruz y la Virgen de Soledad, the Church of the Holy Cross and the Virgin of Solitude, better known simply as La Soledad, is, like virtually all the other churches visited in our search, the second one built on the site. The original church was dedicated to Santa Cruz, the Holy Cross. It was under the tenure of the Augustinians from 1633 to 1750, serving indigenous residents of the southern part of Atzacoalco.

As with all the other churches of the religious orders, the Agustinians were removed in the mid-1700s and replaced by diocesan clergy. The church was then rebuilt in Neo-classical style and finished in 1787. It was dedicated to la Virgen de la Soledad, the Virgin of Solitude. Wikipedia

Church of Santa Cruz y La Soledad
A Neo-classic version of a Roman basilica.
The Virgin of Solitude stands above the center door.
Note the traditional indigenous-inspired floral arc over the doorway.

There is a plaza in front of the church, but it is mostly a paved, barren space, with some benches occupied on the day of our visit by men who seemed to have nothing else to do, a rare thing in Mexico, where every able-bodied adult engages in some form of work, even if it means selling something on the streets or washing car windshields at intersections. The buildings around the plaza seem equally devoid of usefulness.

However, in the center of the plaza there is a free-standing arch of black steel, evidently a fairly recent addition.

Door to Life

The Door to Life is a striking artistic statement. When you stand in front of it, it frames La Soledad. as if to say, "This is the Way," but the symbols on its underside imply something different. Two large rabbits seem to be leaping towards the moon, set in the night sky. In Mesoamerican mythology, the face of the full moon was seen as a rabbit. The Milky Way was the path to Heaven. So is this a case of "religious syncretism", the blending of indigenous and Christian beliefs? Or is it a message of an alternative path? There is no signage to answer our question or tell us who placed the arch in the Plaza of Solitude.

We are also struck by how crossing the Anillo from the west side to the east has brought us from one world to another, from a bustling neighborhood of working class shops and street puestos virtually identical to La Merced neighborhood just a few blocks to the south, to an apparently poorer barrio, with few open shops and few people on the streets, except for the unoccupied men on the plaza's benches.

Looking West from the Ringroad, 
along Calle Soledad toward the National Palace;
Torre Latinoamerica rises beyond the Zócalo

As we know from having lived in New York City, crossing a street can take you from one world to another, from one full of life to one barely hanging on. 

San Antonio de Padua Tomatlán: Provincial Village in the City

Our next stop is also east of the Ringroad, three short blocks north. Because of lack of time and energy, we postpone our visit to another day. When we go, it is a Sunday. Calle San Antonio Tomatlán is also virtually empty, the shops shuttered behind their solid steel gates. We wonder if they are abandoned or simply closed for the day. One shop is open, a panadería, a bread shop. We wait while the woman owner takes care of a customer before asking about the closed shops. "Oh," she replies, "they're always closed on Sunday." 

Initially, this makes sense to us. It is el domingo, the Lord's Day. but we know that just a few blocks south, most every shop is open and the streets are full of vendors hawking their wares in full voice. We wonder why the difference from one barrio to the next. Is this a more traditional one?

San Antonio de Padua Tomatlán,
faces a small plaza

San Antonio de Padua Tomatlán, St. Anthony of Padua, Tomatlán, is notably different in architectural style from both San Sebastián Atzacoalco´s almost severe stone and white plaster simplicity and La Soledad's Neo-classic grandeza, grandeur. Its facade is a simple rectangle, with a Neo-classic arch and columns framing the door. Its plastered walls are painted a soft orange, typical of Mexican colonial buildings in las provincias, the provinces, i.e., cities and towns outside Mexcio City. Two large folk-style "flowers", surrounding small windows high above, add to the povincial flavor. 

Carrying this folk aesthetic even further is the "portada", the display above the portal, the entrance. 

San Antonio de Padua,
holding el Niño Jesús, the Child Jesus

The portada portrays St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) in his most common pose, holding the Child Jesus. Anthony was originally a Portugese Augustinian monk who became a Franciscan shortly after that order was founded in 1209 by Francis of Assisi. He became known for his powerful preaching and for his compassion for the poor. He is also a saint for lost people and things. We learned later that June 13, the week following our visit, was his saint's day. Hence, the retablo.

Traditionally, such portadas created for saint's days are made of real flowers. In recent times, these are often replaced by ones made of plastic flowers, like the one we saw at nearby La Soledad. Like artificial Christmas trees, they have longevity and are far cheaper. This one is made, instead, of natural plant materials, including bark, woven palm fronds, cane and other fibers, so it is both "real" and long-lasting. We have seen similar constructions in provincial pueblos. It is artesenal, handcrafted. Much labor and much care were invested to construct it. So, all in all, the ambience is one of a village church somewhere in the hinterlands of Mexico, not the capital city with its millions.  

Inside, the sancturary is full. It is Sunday one o'clock Mass. The congregation appears to be composed of "ordinary" working class Mexicans of all ages. The structure, itself, is a mixture of simple stone Romanesque arches, the unadorned white plaster of Franciscan chapels and 18th century guilded Baroque side-altars. The retablo behind the altar is a simpler version of the natural one outside, just polished wooden strips. The overall sense is of a cross-section of the three centuries of Colonial Spanish rule, mixed with the Mexican countryside, all in a contemporary inner-city barrio.

The Church of San Antonio Tomatlán is of indefinite age. The indigenous "apellido", last name, indicates its origins serving an indigenous barrio. One source we found lists it among the original churches built by the Franciscans in the 16th century. Another source said there is no record of it until two hudred years later, in the 18th century. The Baroque side altars and the Neoclassic entrance speak of 18th century modifications to its otherwise simple aesthetic. We also learn that the plaster surface of the exterior is a recent restoration. Previously, the facade was bare tezontle stone, like San Sebastián Martir.

Mi Pueblo: Family and Community, Life and Hope

In any case, the parish of San Antonio Tomatlán appears to be alive and well. Many Catholic church Masses are not heavily attended. A 2013 survey found that 85% of Mexicans identify as Catholics but half said they attend Mass less than once a month. Forty percent have not gone to Confession in five years. Only 28% are of the opinion that the teachings of the Church should be believed word for word. Just 15% say their family life involves a high level of religious commitment. A majority say family is most important. All of this, except perhaps the commitment to family, sounds like global post-modern culture.

Whatever may be the percentage of residents of the barrio of Tomatlán attending Mass at San Antonio, at least a fair number still participate in the rituals of the Church, whether out of religious belief or, as implied in the statistics, primarily to maintain a family and community cultural tradition.

Mexicans are a culture traditionally based in extended family and commuity relationships. Mi pueblo, means both "my village" and "my people". In cities, barrios, small neighborhoods such as Tomatlán, are the equivalent of mi pueblo. As we have learned in our research of the four parcialidades of the Indian Republic of San Juan Tenochtitlan, they were continuations of the Mexica campan, quadrants or quarters, with their subdivisions into calpultin, barrios, composed of clans, i.e., extended family groups.

We recall how a Purépecha artisan we came to know in the pueblo of Tócuaro on Lake Pátzcuaro, when graciously hosting us in her home for the village patron saint fiesta, told us that the pueblo was divided into four quarters and how those living in her quarter were familiares, relatives. Our Spanish teacher in Pátzucaro, a small city of about 50,000, walking through the plaza where her family ran a puesto in the mercado, would point out all her "tias y primos", aunts and cousins (including what we would call second and third cousins, if we were ever to keep track of them the way our grandparents did). She also commented that she never felt alone; she always had her family and the patron saint of her birthday with her. She and her family are Catholic, but don't go to Mass.

So Mexicans "belong" to their family and community before all else. While that family culture may be less and less overtly Catholic, it is still implicitly so. Community life, at least in small pueblos and towns, is pervaded with Catholic religious imagery and rituals. San Antonio Tomatlán gives us a glimpse that this is also true in the original barrios of Mexico City.

It is in these barrios populares that "el pueblo", the ordinary, working class people, live. And it is through continuation of the Catholic rituals established in each one of them by the friars some five hundred years ago that they maintain a continuity in their sense of ethnic identity. While the Spanish Conquest attacked them physically and overthrew them politically, the "Spiritual Conquest" provided a way to survive as a people psychologically and culturally.

Begun by the Franciscans here, in the barrios of San Juan Tenochtitlan, that second conquest removed temples, priests, images of gods and the rituals attached to them, but it also provided replacements for each of those components of religion and culture. Thus, while transforming communal and, within that, individual identity, it also made possible the continuation of both, and of the intimate bonds between them.

Fiesta in Pueblo Candelaria, Coyoacán
Virgen de Candelaria, with additional saints
We will get there in the near future.

The identity of each barrio and its pobladores, residents, like all human identities, consists of two complementary dimensions. On one side, there is an individual distinctiveness marked in each barrio, now a parish, by its patron saint and his or her annual fiesta. On the other side, there are bonds with the larger culture through a common system of meaning embodied in shared symbols and rituals.

With that identity, the members of el barrio, el pueblo, can go on living their "ordinary" lives, with all the struggles entailed. They can go on living, nurtured by their communal experience and, therefore, by the hope that, while their individual fate is always the same—Death will come and take them away—their family and communal life will go on.

It is these barrios, these pueblos originarios, and their individual and shared identities, that we will continue to explore.

Series on Mexico City's Original Indigenous Villages:

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Centro's Four Indigenous Quarters: Santa María Cuepopan; Part I - Battleground and Sacred Ground

Northwest Quarter of San Juan Tenochtitlan

We've already explored the southern part of Centro and tracked down key remnants of San Juan Moyotla and San Pablo Teopan-Zoquipan, two of the four parcialidades or indigenous quarters comprising the Indian Republic of San Juan Tenochtitlan. Now we're ready to investigate the third, Santa María Cuepopan, in the northwest corner of Centro.

Four Ancient Barrios of Tenochtitlan
Located on Map of Present-day Mexico City

Santa María Cuepopan: Upper Left
Small Black Square: Templo Mayor

Old Boundaries That Survive

Cuepopan lay north of San Juan Moyotla, separated from it by what is now Avenida Hidalgo, the former cuepotli (Nahuatl) or calzada (Spanish), the main avenue leading to the causeway to Tacuba, on the west shore of Lake Texcoco. Its eastern half was in what is now Centro North and its western half in present-day Colonia Guerrero.
As we have learned in our exploration of the quarters, the correspondence of their ancient boundaries with contemporary streets, especially major avenues and Ejes, is not coincidental. We know that the Calzada west to Tacuba and the roadway north from the Templo Mayor were two of the four cardinal axes of Tenochtitlan.

We wonder about the other two, the original western and northern boundaries. To the west was the western "bay" of Lake Texcoco, which the Mexicas (Me-SHE-kahs) called Lake Mexico after they came to dominate it. To the north of Colonia Guerrro lies Colonia Tlatelolco, what remains of that other major Mexica atepetl, the city-state that shared the island or, rather, what were originally two adjoining islands in the lake, as we learned in our study of San Pablo Teopan-Zoquipan.

Location of the Barrio Cuepopan-Tlaquechiuhca
The Reassignment of Meaning to a Sacred Space in New Spain:

Cuepopan's boundaries are:

West: More or less at what is now Eje 1 Poniente, West Axis 1, aka Avenida Guerrero;
East: Republica de Argentina Street, which runs north from Templo Mayor;
North: What is now Eje 1 Norte, North Axis 1, aka Calle Mosqueta/López Rayón.

Eje Central, Central Axis, aka Lázaro Cárdenas, divides the former quarter in half;
Paseo de la Reforma cuts diagonally across the quarter's western half.

Santa Maria la Redonda

We begin our exploration of Cuepopan by continuing our search for the landmark churches erected by the Franciscans and other Catholic religious orders to undertake the evangelization or Spiritual Conquest of the indigenous residents of the Republic of the Indians.

So we enter Cuepopan from the Bellas Artes Metro station at the corner of Hidalgo and the Eje Central. We are little more than a block north of the Franciscans' home base, the Church of San Francisco, just east of the Eje Central on Madero Street. On the southwest corner of Hidalgo and the Ejein late 19th century splendor sit the Palacio de Bellas Artes and, to its west, the Alameda Central park.

Five blocks up the Eje Central from the intersection with Hidalgo, on the west side of the noisy commercial thoroughfare, there is a narrow one-lane street that can be easily overlooked. It doesn't even seem to have a name. It is the entrance to the Barrio de Santa María Redondo, and it is the pathway to a world historically and culturally far from the one at the intersection of Hidalgo and the Eje Central.

Santa María la Redonda
St. Mary the Round  

The laneway leads past modest, nondescript residential buildings to a wider, circular street encompassing a small, but delightfully shaded traditional plaza. On the far side rises the simple tezontle, red volcanic stone, facade of an evidently old church. It is Santa María la Redonda, St. Mary the Round. We wonder about the qualifier "The Round".

The simple interior is from before the ornate Baroque period dating to the first half of the 18th century. The present church was built in 1677, replacing the original church built in 1524 by Franciscan Brother Pedro de Gante, Peter of Ghent, and named Asunción de María Santísima, the Assumption of the Most Holy Mary, that is, her bodily assumption into heaven upon her earthly death, whereupon she became Queen of Heaven. It is believed that it was built atop a destoyed Mexica teocalli, house of god, i.e., temple.

"In the year 1524, Friar Pedro de Gante (Peter of Ghent)
began this work.
Peace and Good

The Neoclassic-style round apse or rotunda was added in the 1730s, evidently leading to the attachment of la Redonda, the Round, to the church's name.

St. Mary of the Assumption

The statue's head and hands are said to have been brought from Spain by
Friar Rodgrigo de Sequera,
Commissioner General of the Franciscans,
in the mid-16th century.

So this is where the Franciscans and Catholic Spanish culture established themselves in indigenous, "pagan" Cuepopan.

Cuepopan/Colonia Guerrero: Ground of Many Battles

It turns out that Cuepopan, the neighborhood that is now the lower half of Colonia Guerrero, "Warrior", was the scene of some important battles in the development of Mexica/Azteca power. Mexican historians, Clementina Battcock and Claudia Andrea Gotta have documented that Cuepopan, and particularly one of its barrios, neighborhoods, Colpoco, was the site of two major conflicts. 

Location of the Minor Barrios
That Make up the Barrio of Cuepopan-

La resemantización de un espacio sagrado en la Nueva España:
Cuepopan, de mojonera y escenario ritual a Santa María la Redonda.

The Reassignment of Meaning to a Sacred Space in New Spain:
Cuepopan, from Battleground and Sacred Space to Saint Mary the Round,

by Clementina Battcock and Claudia Andrea Gotta
Cuicuilco vol.18 no.51 México may./ago. 2011,
Journal of the National School of Anthropology and History of Mexico

Tenochtitlan Replaces Azcapotzalco

In 1427, war broke out between the Mexica of Tenochtitlan and the Tenocha of Azcapotzalco, the dominant altepetl, city-state on the western shore of Lake Texcoco, north of Tacuba to which Tenochtitlan was a tributary. The occasion was the death of the ruler of Azcapotzalco and an internal power struggle between potential replacements.The key battle occurred in the northern part of Cuepopoan called Copolco. The Mexica victory over the Tenocha led them to become the dominant power in the Valley of Anahuac, now the Valley of Mexico. During the next one hundred years, they expanded their rule over most of the center of what is now Mexico.

Tenochtitlan Subsumes Tlatelolco

In 1469 a series of battles erupted between the Mexica of Tenochtitlan and their Mexica cousins who had separated from them in the mid-1300s and established the separate altepetl of Tlateloloco just to the north. The decisive battle in 1473 took place in Copolco, located on the border between the two atepetls, separated by a canal, now Calle Mosqueta. Subsequently, Tlatelolco was incorporated into Tenochtitlan. What is today the Eje Central was orginally a canal and/or aqueduct carrying drinking water to Tlatelolco.

Evidently, Cuepopan was also a major Mexica religious site. Its priest was in charge of the Nuevo Fuego, New Fire ritual. Every fifty-two years, the beginning of the two calendars common to all Mesoamerican cultures—the 365-day solar calendar and the 260-day divinatory calendar—coincided. This was believed to be an especially vulnerable point of transition in time, when the sun might not rise and the present world could come to an end. Hence, special rituals were carried out at the top of a small, extinct volcano on the peninsula of Iztapalapa at the southeast end of Lake Texcoco. It was called Huixachtécatl. It is now Cerro de la Estrella, Hill of the Star. We will get to it at a later time.

As a major religious site, Cuepopan was also where Moctuzuma's body was taken to be cremated just before the Night of Sorrows. That was the last battle the Mexica were to win and leads us to Part II of our post on Cuepopan.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Centro's Four Indigenous Quarters: San Pablo Teopan-Zoquipan, Part III - La Merced

In our two most recent posts on what was the Colonial indigenous quarter of San Pablo Teopan-Zoquipan, we explored the southeast Centro crossroads of Izazaga/San Pablo Avenue and Pino Suárez Avenue, and Pino Suárez's southern extension, San Antonio Abad. These ambles have led us to some understanding of the importance of this crossroads in the life of Mexica (Me-SHE-ka) Tenochtitlan and, hence, to the Spanish transformation of the city. So now we are ready to proceed north into the heart of San Pablo Teopan-Zoquipan, today called La Merced.

We start at the Church of San Pablo Nuevo, at the corner of San Pablo Avenue and Topacio Street. As it happens, this now apparently nondescript side street played a major role in the history and development of Mexico City.

From a Land of Lakes to the Royal Canal

When the Spanish took over, Tenochtitlan was surrounded by Lake Texcoco, one of five inter-connected lakes without an outlet. With the heavy rains of summer, flooding of the city was frequent; devastating floods took place an average of every twenty-five years. Although in 1555 the Spanish undertook to reconstruct the prehispanic Ahuitzotl dike, in 1579 the water again covered much of the east and center of the capital, causing great loss of life and property.

In 1607, Viceroy Don Luis de Velasco y Castile commissioned engineer Enrico Martínez with the herculean task of draining the Mexico Valley basin.  The ambitious project contemplated reversing the flow of the Cuautitlan River (main tributary feeding Xaltocan and Zumpango lakes to the north of Lake Texcoco) and connecting it to the Tula watershed (now in the state of Hidalgo) via a tunnel through the mountains.

The stoppage of the work in the 1620s by order of the viceroy was one of the factors that contributed to creating one of the greatest disasters suffered by Mexico City in the seventeenth century: the great flood of 1629. Subsequently, the Huehuetoca Royal Drainage project was resumed. (Translated from: "San Pablo Teopan: Survival and Metamorphosis of an Indigenous Quarter of Mexico City During the Viceroy Period", in Spanish, by Rossend Rovira Morgado)

With the drainage system completed, Lake Texcoco and the other lakes began to dry up and the new land became farm land. However, some canals from the time of the Mexica were retained and became major routes for goods to arrive in the city. What became known as the Acequia Real, the Royal Canal, continued to connect Lake Xochimilco with the center of the city. After Independence, it became known as La Viga, "The Beam".

The Viga (former Royal) Canal in 1850
superimposed on a map of Mexico City of 1970.
Heavy red line up the center is modern outer-ring expressway.
Thin red line up left side is Calzada de Tlalpan, 

the former Mexica cuepotli.
Inicio del Paseo, Beginning of the Promenade, (upper left)
is just south of San Pablo Nuevo Church.

The Paseo ended at Santa Anita.

La Garita, Tollbooth, of la Viga was actually just south of 
Santa Anita where the Royal Canal divided, 
with an eastern branch going up what is now
Congreso de la Unión.

From the blog: Historia: Geografía y Rarezas

La Viga Canal, early 20th century. 
From the blog: Historia: Geografía y Rarezas

Branch of La Viga at the Garita de la Viga, Viga Tollbooth, 1885.
Boat is a small trajinera
The garita, tollbooth, was near where Rio Piedad (River of Pity or Piety)
flowed into the canal. 

Rio Piedad is now covered by the Viaducto highway.

From the blog: Historia: Geografía y Rarezas

In 1789, at a point just below where San Pablo Nuevo church was under construction, a Paseo de la Viga, a promenade, was created by Viceroy Conde de Revillagigedo. It ran south for a mile to the point called Santa Anita. Here, throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, city residents could take a Sunday paseo, walk, or a boat ride, much as they do now in Xochimilco or Chapultepec Woods.

Viernes de Dolores en el Canal de Santa Ana
Friday of Sorrows (before Palm Sunday)
on the Santa Ana Canal
Diego Rivera, Secretariat of Public Education

At the garita de la Viga, the canal divided into two channels going north. The western branch, still called la Viga, followed what is now the street, Calzada de la Viga, north to San Pablo Teopan, passing by where San Pablo Nuevo Church was erected. In fact, the church's construction was delayed, in part, because of the need to build a more substantial foundation to fend off waters from the canal.

Where San Pablo Avenue crossed the canal, the channel continued up either Topacio or Roldán Street. In either case, la Viga was the central axis, the "Beam" of San Pablo Teopan, now known as La Merced. 

Paseo por La Merced

So we for our paseo, stoll, through la Merced, we will follow the route of La Viga. We start next to San Pablo Nuevo, at the corner of San Pablo Avenue and Calle Topacio. Crossing San Pablo Avenue, we enter Topacio, which a few years ago was turned into a pedestrian walkway by the City of Mexico in an effort to attract tourists to the historic neighborhood, now an official Barrio Mágico, Magic Neighborhood. 

Calle Topacio

Plaza Juan José Baz: Where the Eagle Landed

A short block north, at Calle Misioneros, Missionaries Street, we enter Plaza Juan José Baz, which is essentially a widening of Topacio. Baz was a member of the Reform Movement of the 1850s and 60s, fought in the War of Reform and against the French Intervention. He was Head of the Government of the Federal District (Mexico City) at various times when the Reformists controlled the city.

On the south and east sides of the plaza stand nicely restored Colonial period buildings. Newer commerical buildings are on the west side. 

Plaza Juan José Baz
Statue commemorates the founding of Tenochtitlan

The plaza holds a significant symbolic place in Mexican history. According to tradition, it is the spot where the nomadic Mexica encountered the sign promised by their god, Huitzilopochtli: an águila real, royal or golden eagle, perched on a nopal cactus and holding a rattlesnake. The eagle represented the Sun god and powers of light. He has captured the rattlesnake, representing the Underworld and the powers of night and darkness. Thus, this revelation marked the spot where, in 1325, the Mexica were to settle and create their own atepetl, city-state, Tenochtitlan.

From the plaza we take a detour from our paseo up Topacio to go east on Misionerios to the Anillo de Circunvalación, Ringroad, one of those wide, one-way ejes, axis roads, built in the mid-20th century to facilitate auto traffic through the city. Across the Anillo is the huge modern Mercado de la Merced. 

But given our search for landmarks of the transformation of Tenochtitlan into the Spanish Ciudad de México, and how that was manifested in San Pablo Teopan, we have our eyes out for another objective. 

Iglesia de San Tomás Apóstol, la Palma: Church Fends Off Market

Given the continuous street-side wall of puestos selling, in this section, dulces, sweets, i.e., candies, it is a challenge to find the entrance we are looking for. But, with help, we wend our way through the stalls.

La Merced Mercado de Dulces, Candy Market

Passing through a traditional-style adobe archway, we enter the atrio, forecourt of an obviously old church.

Iglesia de San Tomás Apóstol y la Palma
Church of St. Thomas the Apostle and the Palm
(My visit here was as part of my photograhy club,
Club Fotográfico X Amor al Centro Historico)

Sometime after the Augustinian religious order was given control of the church of San Pablo Viejo in 1575, replacing the Franciscans, they built a chapel at this spot at the end of what is now Missionary Street and dedicated it to Santo Cristo de la Palma, Holy Christ of the Palm (Sunday). 

In 1772, when the Archbishop of Mexico, implementing the centralization reforms of the French Bourbon kings who now ruled Spain, took over the churches of the religious orders and placed them under "secular", i.e., diocesan priests, Santo Cristo was merged with another church in the area, San Tomás Apóstol. A new parish church was built on the site of the chapel. It was given the combined name, San Tomás Apóstol, La Palma. (From: Síntesis Histórica la Parroquia Santo Tomás Apóstol, La Palma, by Candy Ornelas y Clara Rodríguez)

Inside: spiritual tranquility
Outside: commercial bustle 
Leaving the tranquility of San Tomás, we find our way back out to the hectic Anillo, cross and return along Misionerios to Plaza Juan José Baz.

Street of Inns, Street of Pleasure

The north end of the plaza is bounded by Calle de Mesones, Street of Inns. It was where farmers and artesans, bringing their goods into the city by trajineras on the Canal or by donkey up the Calzada de Tlapan, stayed for the night. It was also where they found some evening entertainment.

Casa de tolerancia, House of tolerance,
Established in the 16th century

The presence of the chapel of Santa María Magdelena on Plaza San Lucas now makes more sense. If the butchers and tanners who worked in the neighborhood had their chapel, why not one for the ladies of the night?

Disguised Plaza, Hidden Answers

North of Calle de Mesones, Calle Topacio becomes Talavera, but its character remains the same. Locales, small shops, and puestos predominate. Two blocks up, we come to the corner with República de Uruguay. After the Mexican Revolution, many streets in Centro were given the names of Latin American countries. We notice on a wall an old street sign that tells us it used to be Calle de Consuelo, Street of Consolation, a clearly religious designation.

On the northwest corner is a large, soft-yellow Colonial building that appears to fill the block all the way to the next street, Calle Manzanares, Street of Apple Orchards, a name that is neither pre-revolutionary religious nor post-revolutionary political. Apple orchards in the middle of a market district. Hmm?

Calle Talavera at República de Uruguay

As we approach Manzanares, we come into the full bullicio, hubbub, of a sizeable street market. The space in front of the yellow building is shaded by big trees, indicating that it is, or was, some kind of plaza. But it is full of puestos, with their temporary roofs of hule, oilcloth or plastic. The history detective in us is intrigued by the archetypical combination: plaza, large old Colonial building and mercado, or actually, tianguis (Nahuatl for street market).

Plaza de la Belleza
Colonial building, with modern metal framework on top, sits to the rear, behind trees 

The tianguis is entirely devoted to beauty products. The sign on a building at one street corner tells us it is the Plaza de la Belleza, the Plaza of Beauty.

Getting your uñas done

Not being the type who gets our nails done—intrigued by the key combination of plaza, mercado and large Colonial building—we plunge ahead through the maze of puestos to see if we can uncover more clues about what this place is, or was. 

At the back, we come up against a wall of plywood, closing off the Colonial building. We are frustrated, but then, in front of the wall we spy a waterless fountain with a statue in the middle. It appears to be some men in a canoe. It is surrounded by chicken wire.

Trying to get a closer look we go round to the other end of the market. We can glimpse the fountain and the front of the statue behind one of the puestos. The merchant, a man in his 30s—noticing both our straining to see and our camera—invites us into his space. The lower half of the wire fence is covered with cloth. He offers us a stool to climb on. 

Alonso García Bravo 
carrying out his survey of the island of Tenochtitlan, 1521-22
He rides in a canoe propelled by Mexicas.

It is Alonso García Bravo carrying out his survey of the island of Tenochtitlan in 1521-22, from which he made a traza, outline, of what would be the Spanish quarters in the center and the four indigenous quarters around the outside. A plaque at the base tells us the story and that the statue was erected in 1976. The plaza was then named Alonso García Bravo Plaza. Virturally no one would know that now. 

In fact, it was originally La Plaza de la Merced and the mysterious, barricaded building is the cloister of the monastery or convent of the Order of the Blessed Virgin of Mercy for the Redemption of Captives, called Mercedarians, an order founded in Barcelona in 1218 to ransom Christians captured by the Moors (Muslims). They came to Mexico in 1593 and began construction of what was to become a major monastic complex here in San Pablo Teopan.

During the Reform Period (1857-76), the government took over the buildings and much of it was destroyed. The cloister is all that remains. My guide of the moment says the space in front of the cloister is now used as a parking lot and if I go to the driveway entrance and offer the guard 50 pesos (US$3.00), he may let me in to see the building. I only find the unmarked opening in the plywood wall because a car happens to be leaving. I make my request and offer to the guard, but he will have none of it and shuts the plywood panel firmly in my face.

So, later, when we return home, we have to resort to the Internet and Wikipedia once again to give us virtual access.

La Merced cloister
Lower level was built in early 1600s.
The ornate, Baroque second floor was added in the early 1700s.

It is a gem. We are saddened that we couldn't gain entrance. Ojalá, algun día, God willing, some day.

In our Wikipedia exploration we learn that the emptied space created by the destruction of much of the convent was used to create the first Merced Mercado, an enclosed market built to bring vendors in off the streets, just as the San Pablo market was constructed in San Pablo Plaza at the same time. This evolved into the much larger Merced Market, the city's largest retail market, that today takes up several blocks east of the Anillo. 

It is an evident ritual in Mexico that, when indoor markets are built to get vendors off the streets, more street vendors simply appear to take their place. Witness the Plaza of Merced, aka Plaza de la Belleza! Oh, and la Calle Manzanares, the Apple Orchard. The convent had one, of course!

We also learn that cloister is now the property of the National Institute for Anthropology and History. It is closed and barricaded because a new glass roof, suspended from metal beams, has proved too heavy for the building. What is to be done about it seems unresolved. 

Tiniest Chapel

Leaving the unseen grandness of the Convent of La Merced, we walk east on Manzanares, again toward the Anillo, to what has to be the smallest, most charming and notorious chapel in Mexico City.

Capilla del señor de la humildad,
Chapel of the Lord of Humility
aka, Capilla de Manzanares

The tiny Chapel of the Lord of Humility sits right in the middle of narrow Manzanares Street. It seats perhaps twenty people. It was ostensibly founded on the orders of Hernán Cortés himself. The current structure—from the Baroque period of the late 17th or early 18th century—is tended by Sisters of the Trinitarian Carmelites, related to the Franciscans. They live in a small house attached to the rear of the chapel. 

The chapel is famous/notorious for serving prostitutes who work in and around the Merced Market. Mostly serving truck drivers delivering goods, it is the contemporary version of the business that used to be on Calle Mesones. It thus seems that the Chapel of the Lord of Humility has taken up the mission of the closed Santa María Magdelena. 

Carmelite sister praying to the Lord of Humility

Arriving at the Embarcadero: End of a Voyage Through Time

Returning to Calle Talavera, we continue our amble north. In one more block, we come to Calle Corregidora, the northern boundary of San Pablo Teopan-Zoquipan. Here La Viga canal turned west to reach the Zócalo, little more than two blocks farther on.

Near the intersection, at the edge of what is now another pedestrian plaza, is the Alhóndiga, a Colonial period building for storing grain bought in on the canal. The name comes from an Arabic word the Moors brought to Spain.

The Bishop's mitre apparently comes from a time
when the building became a bishop's residence
The plaza was the site of an embarcadero, a landing for unloading grain and other goods. 

Looking west on Corregidora, we can see across five hundred years—all the way from this old and crucial quarter of the Colonial city, with its indigenous Mexica foundations, to the Mexico City of modern times.

Corregidora Street, looking toward the Zócalo
and the Torre Latinoamericana,
which sits next to the Church of San Francisco,
from which the Franciscans set forth to convert los indios
of San Juan Tenochtitlan and its four quarters.

Zócalo in the 18th Century
El Parián market, in the center, built in 1703,
the first covered market in Mexico City

The termination of the Royal Canal is to the right.
Painting in the Museum of Mexico City.

Barrio La Merced
San Pablo Teopan-Zoquipan