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

1 comment:

  1. The AMBLES Series is wonderful! I can't wait to get back to CDMX to follow in your footsteps. Thanks for all your ambling and research.