Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Mexico City's Original Villages | Delegación Benito Juárez: Mixcoac, Place of the Milky Way

Vestigial Pueblos of Southwest Lake Texcoco

When we visited el Pueblo Xoco, we found a small barrio that—although it is hemmed in and nearly overwhelmed by several large structures of modern, globalized Mexico—remains determined to maintain its indigenous roots, transformed by the Spanish Spiritual Conquest into Catholic rituals. Xoco, it turns out, was only one of several indigenous pueblos, villages, and atepetls, city-states near the southwest shore of Lake Texcoco that existed before the arrival of the Spanish. Their vestiges now sit in what is Delegación Benito Juárez.

Their remnants have undergone varying degrees of transformation resulting from the development of the area that began during the Porfiriato—the period of the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship at the end of the 19th century—and continued through its modernization in the late 20th century, when Benito Juárez became a largely middle and upper-middle class borough.

River towns

Mixcoac (MEESH-quack) is the most visible of these remaining villages. When the Spanish arrived, it sat along side a small river originating in the mountains rimming the Valley of Anahuac to the west (now called la Sierra de las Cruces) and flowing eastward into Lake Texcoco. The Spanish named it Río Mixcoac.

About a mile "down river", Río Mixcoac joins another small river, Río Magdalena, flowing from the southern end of las Cruces mountains, to form Río Churubusco. Xoco sits at that junction. The pueblo of Axotla (now San Sebastián Axotla) sits just southwest of Xoco, near the west bank of la Magdalena.

One mile further "downriver" from Xoco, southeast, where Río Churubusco flowed into Lake Texcoco, was Huitzilopochco (a name which the Spanish transformed to Churubusco), where the Mexicas anchored their causeway running north to Tenochtitlan.

Mixcoac sat on a river, near the southwest shore of Lake Texcoco,
just north of the village of Coyoacán.

So in our ambles from San Mateo Churubusco and San Diego Churubusco to Xoco and on to Mixcoac, we have actually been moving "upstream." Today the rivers that tied these villages together still exist but are mostly invisible, as they are contained underground and serve as part of Mexico City's drainage system. Atop Río Mixcoac is Avenida Río Mixcoac, a multi-lane highway, which becomes the Río Churbusco expressway, with their flow (or not) of traffic.

Aerial map of the area around Pueblo Xoxo, looking south, likely taken in the early 1950s.
Pueblo Xoco is out of the photo to the left of the fields.

Pueblo Mixcoac is out of the photo to the botttom (northwest)
Puelbo Axotla is out of the photo to the right (southwest)

Just below the center is the intersection of the Río Mixoac (from bottom center/northwest)
with the Río Magdalena (coming from the right/southwest),
to form the Río Churubusco (running to the left/east, in a trench).
 All, except a part of La Magdalena running through the Viveros, an arboretum, are now covered with roadways.

Ave. Universidad appears to be under construction,
as the University City campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico
was built in the early 1950s. 

Intersection of Avenida Río Mixcoac (left to right, west to east)
and Avenida Insurgentes (top to bottom, north to south)
In addition to new rascacielos, skyscrapers,
at the time of this photo, a tunnel was
 being built for Río Mixcoac traffic
to pass under Insurgentes. It was completed in early 2018.

A little further east, Ave. Río Mixcoac crosses Ave. Universidad,
site of the old juncture with Río Magdelena. Pueblo Xoco sits at the northeast corner 
and Axotla at its southwest corner. 

Place of the Milky Way

But modernity has not totally wiped out these vestiges of Mexico City's indigenous foundations. One has to search for them, but they still exist. In the northwest corner of Benito Juárez Delegación, in Colonia San Pedro de los Pinos, in an almost hidden corner below the intersection of two elevated expressways stands the Temple of Mixcoatl, which is the only remnant of these foundations in the Delegación.

The name "Mixcoac" comes from the Nahuatl mixtli (cloud) and coatl (serpent); hence it means "Place of the Serpent Cloud." For Mesoamericans the Milky Way was perceived as a great serpent spreading across the night sky, rather like a super-constellation. Hence, we could "translate" Mixcoac as "Place of the Milky Way." The god Mixcóatl was god of the hunt (think Orion).

Temple of Mixcoatl

Materials from excavations indicate that the place was inhabited from the beginning of the Middle Preclassic period (1000 BCE). Objects with a Teotihuacan (500 BCE-500 CE) influence have also been found. The site reached its zenith n the Post Classic Period (900-1521 CE) with the construction of the temple to the god Mixcóatl.

The Franciscan brother, Bernadino de Sahagún, in his General History of the Things of New Spain (written between 1558 and 1575), describes Mixcoatl as a deity revered by musicians, singers and dancers. He was also a god of the hunt. Sahagún says his fiesta was held during the month of quechulli, "Precious Feather", (end of October-early November), the fourteenth of the eighteen months of Nauhua (Aztec) calendar. During the first five days of the month, the men of Tenochtitlan, Tlatelolco and other nearby towns made arrows and darts that would be used in a sacred hunt, which was carried out at the end of the month. Before the hunt, they would gather at the Temple of Mixcoatl to celebrate a ritual seeking the god's blessing.

Landmarks of the Spiritual Conquest

As throughout all of the Valley and all of Mexico, the Spanish destroyed the indigenous temples in the Mixcoac region. The Franciscans and other religious orders replaced them with Catholic churches to convert los naturales to Spanish Christian culture. The research of Fray Sahagún into the Nahuatl language and indigenous beliefs and practices was a major component of this undertaking, seeking to understand the culture they aimed to transform and to be able to present "Western" beliefs in the native language.

In Colonia Insurgentes Mixcoac, just northwest of the intersection of Avenida Mixcoac and Avenida Insurgentes—hidden behind the modern office towers on the main avenues—is one of those landmarks of the Spirtual Conquest, another Franciscan church and convent. 

Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán,
original church built by the Franciscans in 1585.
In 1608 it was transferred to the Dominicans.
Like all churches of the religious orders, in the mid-1700s, it was taken over by
the Archibishop of Mexico and became a parish church.

Convent adjoins the church

Inner patio of Convent
(water play is universal and timeless)

Atrio, Atrium,
one of the prettiest in all Mexico City,
viewed from portal of convent.

Tranquil refuge

Development of Mixcoac

During the Colonial period, the area around the church and convent was mostly rural, one of haciendas, large estates, owned by wealthy Spaniards and worked by indigeouns serfs. In the 18th century, a silk factory was built across the plaza from the church.

Former silk factory,
now part of the Panamerican University

During the 19th century, through the Porfiriato and into the early 20th century, wealthy residents of Mexico City—which was still pretty much confined to the limits of the original indigenous Teotihuacan—built country homes in Mixcoac, as they also did farther south in Coyoacán, San Ángel and the center of Tlapan. These homes and related structures in neo-colonial style, continue to define the esthetic of the neighborhood. In the mid-19th century the Municipality of Mixcoac was absorbed into the Federal District and, in 1928, after the Revolution, it was made part of the new Delegación Benito Juárez. (Wikipedia)

Plaza kiosk
from the French-inspired Porfiriato period,
stands in front of a municipal (town) hall built at the direction of Porfirio Díaz

Town Hall is now the Juan Rulfo Cultural Center
named aftet the Mexican author of short stories and novels

Mural in entrance of the Juan Rulfo Center
depicts the evolution of Mexico
from indigenous to modern times.
By muralist Francisco Eppens (1913-1990),
whose work we have seen at the National University.

At left: Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent.
His body arches over the entrance door.
At right: Mexican eagle with serpent.

A Panamerican University building,
formerly the 19th century home of the Banderas family,

stands at the foot of Calle Augusto Rodín, August Rodin Street.

Leaving the plaza and walking north, past the Panamerican University, three short blocks up Calle Augusto Rodín, we come to Avenida Extremadura (named after a region in northwest Spain). Crossing the wide eje, axis road, Augusto Rodín becomes the boundary between Colonia Extremadura to the right/east and Colonia San Juan, to the left/west.

Three blocks farther on, we come to another pleasant colonial plaza, named after President Valentín Gómez Farías, who held the office on and off five times during the period of Santa Anna's dominance (1830s to 1850s) and who attempted liberal reforms, which Santa Anna overthrew. The Mora Institute for studies in history and social sciences now occupies Gómez Farías' former home on the west side of the plaza. 

The Mora Institute
occupies the former home of President Valentín Gómez Farías

Pleasant place to platicar, chat

On the east side of the plaza is Iglesia San Juan Evangelista, the Church of St. John the Evangelist. Built by Franciscans in 1675, it became a parish church in the mid-1700s and was dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. At that time, a Baroque portal bearing an image of Our Lady was added over the center door.

Church of San Juan, St. John, the Evangelist
and Our Lady of Guadalupe
Built 1675

Sunken Park

Continuing north on Augusto Rodín, one block above Plaza Gómez Farías, we come to Avenida Porfirio Díaz, which runs diagonally northeast along the northern boundary of Colonia Insurgentes Extremadura. Walking towards Avenida Insurgentes, we come to a ramp running down into a park that is, curiously, perhaps twenty feet or more below street level. 

Parque Hundido,
Sunken Park.

Its informal name is Parque Hundido, Sunken Park. It is the result of the transformation of a site that was occupied by the Nochebuena brick company from the mid-19th century until the beginning of the Porfiriato (1876-1911), when the company moved away, likely because it had dug out all the clay from the former lake bed. It left an empty depression. 

During the Porfiriato, up until 1910, several species of trees were planted, creating the Bosque de la Nochebuena, Nochebuena Forest. (Nochebuena, the Good Night, is the Spanish name for Christmas Eve and, hence, of the poinsettia shrub, native to Mexico, which flowers at Christmas time. The poinsettia derives its common English name from Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. Minister to Mexico, who introduced the plant to the United States in 1825.)

In the late 1930s, having paved and widened Avenida de los Insurgentes, the city government decided to turn the forest into a park. In 1972, the space was redesigned. It is now a wonderful, jungle-like, quiet escape from the City around and above it. (See our more in.-depth post on Parque Hundido.)

San Lorenzo Xochimanca

Crossing Avenida Insurgentes, we enter Colonia Tlacoquemécatl. Once again, immediately behind the wall of high-rise offices and apartment buildings that line modern Insurgentes, we come upon a vestige of the Spiritual Conquest.

Chapel of San Lorenzo Martir Xochimanca

The Chapel of San Lorenzo Martir Xochimanca sits in one corner of what was once a large plaza and is now a city park. It was built between the latter part of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th by Franciscans. Xochimanca, the Place Where They Offer Flowers, i.e., Flower Market, was another indigenous pueblo, distinct from Mixcoac, but interconnected with it and Xoco.

The annual fiesta patronal is still held the week of August 6-10. A recent newspaper article by a colonia resident and journalist recounts how only a few of the families organizing the fiesta still live in the neighborhood, which has been taken over by apartment buildings and condominiums. Such is the struggle between modernity and tradition. 

Across the park from the colonial-era San Lorenzo chapel sits a dramatically modern structure that manifests the changes in Colonia Tlacoquemécatl—changes that are typical of those in Delegación Benito Juárez and other parts of Mexico City. Yet this modern edifice is also a living continuation of the Spiritual Conquest that began five hundred years ago in the Valley of Anahuac.

Temple of Santa Mónica,
built by the Augustinians,
the second religious order to arrive in Nueva España in the 16th century.
Clearly, the order is still going strong in modern Mexico City and upscale Benito Juárez.

'Mixcoac' consists of a group of colonias on the west side of Delegación Benito Juárez.

The Mexico City Government has designated three colonias as a "Barrio Mágico"
(marked by the yellow star with green border):
Insurgentes Mixcoac (orange);
San Juan (light blue); and
Extremadura Insurgentes (corn yellow).

(red square marked by orange star with red border),
is site of Chapel of San Lorenzo Xochimanca

San Pedro de los Pinos,
(green colonia, upper left, marked by darker yellow star with purple border,)
is site of Temple of Mixcoatl.

Delegación Benito Juárez
is bright yellow in north-center of Mexico City,
just south of Delegación Cuauhtémoc (taupe),

the location of Centro Histórico. 
It is north of Delegación Coyoacán (purple).

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