Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Original Villages | Santiago Ahuitzotla, Azcapotzalco: Pueblo of Mythological Monsters, Friendly People

The Challenge of Getting to Azcapotzalco

Particularly because of the major historical importance underlying the Delegación/Alcaldía Azcapotzalco, as well as our desire to get to all sixteen delegaciones/alcaldias that comprise Mexico City (just a couple of weeks ago we made it to the fourteenth!), we have been wanting to get there for some time. However, the distance from our base in Coyoacán, which is in the geographic center of the City, to Azcapotzalco in the northwest of the City, plus the complexity of the public transportation route to get there (three Metro train lines to reach its historic center) resulting in at least an hour of travel time, kept us from achieving our goal.

Then recently, by sheer good fortune, a guided excursion led by Arqueologia viva México to the archeological site of Tenayuca, just north of Azcapotzalco in the State of Mexico, showed us that getting to Azcapotzalco wasn't as difficult as we had thought. A Metrobus to Tenayuca goes from a Metro train stop just west of Centro straight through Azcapotzalco.

Delegación Azcapotzalco
is the deep purple area in the northwest
of Mexico City.

Delegación Coyoacán is the dark magenta 
in the center of the City.

So we kept our eyes open for the announcement on Facebook of a fiesta in the delegación. It would be our fifteenth delegación — the next-to-last — to make an initial visit.

We did not have to wait long, just two weeks, when the fiesta of Santiago (St. James the Apostle) was to be held. Many pueblos in Mexico City — and across the country — are dedicated to Santiago, the patron saint of Spain. One of those pueblos turned out to be in Azcapotzalco, Pueblo Santiago Ahuitzoltla. Seeking it out on a set of Google Maps, which show all the pueblos and colonias of each of the delegaciones, we found it located in the delegación's southwest corner. It was also not far from a Metro train station on Line 7 that would require only one change of trains from Line 2, which runs north from Coyoacán through Delegacion Benito Juárez, then east through Delegaciones Cuauhtémoc and Miguel Hidalgo, just south of Azcapotzalco. Santiago Ahuitzoltla was within our reach. 

History of Azcapotzalco

Around 200 BCE, the Teotihuacan civilization arose in a side valley in the northeast corner of the valley now called the Valley of Mexico. By 100 CE it had come to exercise political and cultural control of the entire Valley and beyond. This included the west side of the lake — later to be called Texcoco — which was already settled, likely by Otomí. Over one thousand years later, the settlement  was to become Atzcapotzalco. When Teotihuacan waned between 500 to 800 CE, the area continued to remain an important center of that culture.

When the Toltec city-state of Tula rose, about 800 CE, to the northwest of the Valley, it, in turn, came to dominate the entire Valley. Then when Tula fell, around 1150 CE, the political instability created an opening for new migrations into the Valley. Among the groups moving in were a number of Nahuatl speaking, nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes coming from what is now the northwest of Mexico or the southwest of the United States. The Nahuatl language belongs to the Uto-Azteca language family of tribes in that area, including Ute, Shoshoni, Comanche and Hopi.

One of these tribes was the Tepaneca people, led, according to their oral history, by a chieftain called Matlacoatl. Their history, written down for the Spanish after 1521, states that, in 1152 CE, Matlacoatl established a village he named Atzcapotzaltongo. Remains related to that culture have been found in the area and dated between 1200 and 1230 CE. During the 13th century, the village grew into an altepetl, city-state, and gradually expanded its control over the southwest side of the Valley of Mexico.

Atzcapotzalco, a Tepaneca altepetl, lay on the west shore of Lake Texcoco.
Tenochtitlan was orginally one of its tributary cities from 1325 to 1438.

A tlatoani, "speaker", named Acolhuatzin ruled for sixty years, from 1283 to 1343. He married a daughter of Xolotl of Tenayuca, an atepetl just north of Atzcapotzaltongo. He also moved the city to what is now the historic center of present-day Atzcapotzalco, on the edge of what was Lake Texcoco.

In 1325, Acolhuatzin allowed the Mexica —  who had been expelled from land controlled by Culhuacan on the west end of the Iztapalapa Peninsula at the south end of Lake Texcoco — to settle on a set of Tepaneca-controlled islands in the lake, where they founded Tenochtitlan. In exchange, they owed Atzcapotzalco tribute and military service.

Later in the fourteenth century, the Tepaneca, with the aid of their Mexica subordinates, conquered Culhuacán and Xochimilco, thus gaining control of the south-central part of the Valley. In the early fifteenth century, the Tepaneca defeated the Alcolhua who ruled the east side of Lake Texcoco and thus became the major power in the Valley.

Atzcapotzalco continued to control much of the Valley of Mexico and over the mountains as far south as Cuernavaca (currently the capital of the state of Morelos) until the death of tlatoani Tezozomoc, who ruled for sixty years, during Tepaneca supremacy, from 1367 to 1427. Upon his death, a struggle among his sons over his succession gave tributary atepetls a chance to rebel.

The tlatoanis Nezahualcoyotl of the Alcolhuas, based in Texcoco, on the east side of the lake, Izcoatl of Tenochtitlan and Totoquihuaztli of Tlacopan, a Tepaneca village just to the south of Atzcapotzalco, formed the Triple Alliance and defeated the powerful altepetl in 1428. The former Tepaneca lands were divided among the three altepetls. The center of Atzcapotzalco was destroyed and turned into a slave market. Tlacopan (now modern Tacuba, in Delegación/Alcaldía Miguel Hidalgo) became the center of the reduced Tepaneca territory on the west side of Lake Texcoco. (Wikipedia, with additional information on Tepaneca expansion from The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule by Charles Gibson, Stanford University Press, 1964, Also, see our post: Portraying Mexico City's Azteca-Mexica Origins.)

The Fiesta of Santiago Ahuitzotla

So on the Sunday after July 25, Santiago's feast day, we head off via the Metro for Santiago Ahuitzotla, with no information as to the schedule of events, but guessing they would begin around 10 AM. It takes close to an hour, including a short cab ride from the Metro station, to arrive at the pueblo.

When we arrive at the church, we learn that a mass for children is about to begin.
Those who have just completed their catechism training wait outside 

in order to enter last and take front pews, where they will be specially honored.

The priest, dressed in the green robes of
of the post-Easter Trinity Season,
meets with the youth who have completed
their catechism training.

A gentleman rings the church bell announcing "tercera llamada",
third and final call that Mass is about to begin.

A simple portada of fresh flowers adorns the church's triple entrance.
  The sign reads, "Bless us, Lord Santiago."

We notice that the dome of the church is a well-preserved, elaborate mudéjar,
i.e., Islamic/Moorish design brought from Spain.
It contains what we know as the Jewish star
The Mass begins in the simple, flower-filled sanctuary.

The retablo (reredos) is Neoclassical in design, with its Roman Corinthian columns,
likely added in the late 17th or early 18th century, 
when Neoclassical architecture was replacing the ornate Baroque.

To the left is Santiago Matamoros, St. James the Moor killer, 
mounted on the horse on which he is reputed to have arrived miraculously 
in 9th-century Spain to help defeat the Moors.
To the right, he stands as an apostle and shepherd of his people. 

Santiago Matamoros

Outside, all is quiet.
Papel picado, paper cut in designs, announce the fiesta.

In one corner of the atrio, men are beginning construction of the castillo (castle)
of fireworks which will be set off after dark to culminate the fiesta.

The Procession

As the Mass is coming to a close, we hear the sound of cohetes, rocket-style firecrackers approaching from a distance. It is the procession of Santiago through the streets, which, we learn, began at nine AM. It is returning to the church in time for the main Mass to honor Santiago. Soon, it enters through a gate at the side of the church.

The procession enters, led by chinelos, dancers "disguised" in Moorish-style costumes
and masks "burlando", mocking, Spanish gentry.

The central figure wears a traditional chinelo mask imitating a bearded Spanish gentleman.
The pig faces are something we have never seen before on chinelos.
It seems a rather more blatant burla, mockery of the Spanish.

We are particularly taken by the elaborate shawl on the chinelo
to the right. It, too, is unusual.

Next comes the patron saint, Santiago.

Santiago is followed by an advocación, manifestation, of the Virgin Mary
that we have not seen before.
We ask a watching parishioner who she is. We are told she is the Virgen de los Remedios,
the Virgin of the Remedies.

We are somewhat taken aback. We have heard and read of la Virgen de los Remedios, but never seen her, as her basilica is outside the City. She is one of the most famous and important advocaciones. i.e., manifestations of the Virgin Mary as an advocate, a protector of the people, in the Valley of Mexico. Studies have shown she was sculpted in Spain. She was reputedly brought from there by Juan Rodríguez de Villafuerte, a captain in Hernán Cortés' army of conquistadors.

On the night of June 30-July 1, 1520, after the Spanish massacre of indigenous priests and nobles during an indigenous fiesta and the subsequent death of Moctezuma, the Spanish were forced to flee Tenochtitlan during the Night of Sorrows. After the surviving Spanish forces had crossed the causeway to Tlalcopan and were fleeing northRodríguez de Villafuerte ostensibly buried the Virgin beneath a maguey plant (a large succulent), hoping she would be safe there and that he might return someday to retrieve her.

She was discovered twenty years later by an indigenous peasant and became a highly revered version of St. Mary. In 1575, her own shrine was built where she was found, in Naucalpan, a city in the State of Mexico bordering on Azcapotzalco. It is now officially designated a basilica, a special church, by the Pope. With the Virgen de Guadalupe, in Tepeac to the north, the Virgen de la Bala (Virgin of the Bullet, in Iztapalapa) to the east and el Niño Pa (The Child [Jesus] of This Place, i.e., Xochimilco) to the south, she is considered one of the guardians of the four cardinal directions (an archetypical, indigenous symbolism) around the City of Mexico. During Colonial times, when there were major floods in the island City of Mexico, she—not the Virgin of Guadalupe—was brought to the Cathedral for the faithful to beseech her aid in stopping the flooding. As many as ten thousand faithful attend her feast day. Thus, it is a great honor for Santiago Ahuitzotla that she has been brought to participate in their fiesta.

A banda, as is traditional, follows at the rear.

The Mass honoring Santiago begins.
La Virgen de los Remedios is at the left,
together with a smaller version called a demandita (little prayer).

La Gente del Pueblo de Santiago Ahuitzotla, the People of the Village of St. James Ahuitzotla

While we were hanging out in the atrio between masses and awaiting the arrival of the procession, as usual, we introduced ourselves to a number of people who were also waiting. 

The man on the left approached us
(we always stand out as the only güero extranjero, pale-faced foreigner, at a fiesta)
and introduced himself as a member of the fiesta organizing committee
(note the figure of Santiago Matamoros on his shirt).
He then introduced us to the committee president (on the right)
and the pueblo's historian (center).
We gave them our card and told them we would be sharing our photos and story 

of their fiesta via Facebook.

Familia mexicana.

Familia mexicana.

Couple upper right are brother and sister.
Couple lower left are mother and son. 

"What's in a name?" The Meaning of Ahuitzotla (Ahuizotlan)

The indigenous names of pueblos in the Valley of Mexico always have a meaning in Nahuatl, usually related to some identifying characteristic of its location or primary occupation (such as Iztacalco, House of Salt, as salt production was its major industry). So, of course, we wonder what Ahuitzotla means.

In ambling around the atrio, we discover a plaque of tiles embedded in the wall, almost hidden by a hanging plant.  We ask the young man pictured lower left above if he would hold aside the plant so that we may photograph the plaque. He is muy amable (very considerate) and readily assists us.

Plaque with glyph of Ahuitzotla,
or Ahuizotlan as it is spelled here,
indicating it was founded in the year 750 CE,
during the time when Teotihuacan dominated the Valley. 

We wonder what this strange creature is.

Once we are back home we search online for the possible meaning of Ahuitzotla  or Ahuizotlan as it is spelled on the plaque. We know that the prefix -tla or -tlan means place or territory, but what is an ahuexote or ahuizote ('x' and 'z' are both pronounced as 's' or 'sh'), evidently the curious creature displayed on the plaque. 

We quickly find a source in Spanish that tells us that in indigenous times, ahuexote / ahuizote were mythical, monstrous animals. Built like coyotes, they had spines on their backs, rather like a fish, and paws like a monkey´s so they could grasp objects. They also had a claw at the end of their tail. They lived in caves underwater and would lure human victims by making calls like a crying baby. When the victim came close to the water, they would leap out, grab them with their paws and claws and drag them underwater where they would be drowned and eaten. Why a pueblo, originally near the edge of Lake Texcoco, would be identified as the place where such monsters lived is a mystery. It would seem to have been a place to be avoided.

But we are most happy that we have come to Santiago Ahuitzotla in Delegación/Alcaldía Azcapotzalco. The people, as in all the pueblos we have visited, are most welcoming and open in talking with us. They express surprise and a sense of honor that an extranjero has come to their fiesta and will show and tell of it via Facebook and a web blog.

As for us, we have finally succeeded in getting to a place of great historical importance in the indigenous history of the Valley of Mexico, Azcapotzalco, the home base of the Tepanecas, the dominant power prior to the Mexica/AztecaAhuitzotla is just one barrio of the original city. We hope very much to get to others, over time. Meanwhile, we have also succeeded in getting to the fifteenth of the sixteen delegaciones/alcaldias of Mexico City.  

Delegación/Alacaldía Atzcapotzalco
with its pueblos and colonias.

Pueblo Santiago Ahuitzotla
is red area marked by mustard/yellow star.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Welcome to Mexico City Ambles: Navigating the Blog

Welcome to Mexico City Ambles! Here we seek to present el imaginario, a vision of the city as embodied in its cityscape, public art and neighborhoods (coloinas). While we seek to cover the physical and historical breadth and depth of the City, this has led us to focus on the life of its lesser-known neighborhoods, many of which were indigenous pueblos existing long before the Spanish arrived and took over 500 years ago. We visit these original pueblos when they are celebrating their traditional fiestas, which are lively, colorful celebrations of their centuries-long communal continuity and unique identity.

¡Bienvenido a Paseos por la Ciudad de México! Aquí buscamos presentar el imaginario, una visión de la ciudad como encarnada en su paisaje urbano, arte público, pueblos y colonias. Si bien buscamos cubrir la amplitud y profundidad física e histórica de la ciudad, nos ha llevado a centrarnos en en la vida de sus pueblos y barrios menos conocidos, muchos de los cuales eran pueblos indígenas que existían mucho antes de que los españoles llegaron y se hicieron cargo desde 500 años. Visitamos estos pueblos originales cuando celebran sus fiestas tradicionales, que son celebraciones coloridas y animadas de su continuidad comunal por siglos y su identidad única.

Escribimos en inglés porque somos norteamericanos y para dar a conocer a otros norteamericanos y hablantes de inglés la ciudad más allá de los lugares turisticos típicos. Sin embargo, es fácil traducir una página en español: vaya a la columna a la derecha. En la parte más alta hay una ventana etiquetada "Translate". Desplace la flecha abajo hasta encuentra "Spanish". Click en ese y inmediatamente todo el texto estará traducido en español por Google. Con certeza, habrá varios errores, pero creemos qué el sentido se quede bastante claro.    

Organization of the Blog

Each post appears in the blog chronologically by publication date. Scrolling down takes you to the most recently published post. Most posts, however, are related thematically or geographically. So, as a navigation aid, we have created individual PAGES (left-hand column) which organize posts according to major aspects of the city or themes in its history. These pages provide short descriptions of and links to posts grouped by theme or geography.

Setting the Stage | Introductory Pages:

I. Making Sense of Mexico City: The first four pages acquaint you with Mexico City's organization (it does have one, despite its parent chaotic appearance).
  1. First, we introduce you to its sixteen delegaciones (boroughs, officially called alcaldías, mayoralties, since 2017) into which it is divided spatially and politically. Each one is distinctive in its physical character and its history.
  2. We address why Mexico City architecture seems to be such a hodgepodge of historical epochs and we present a way to view it as a horizontal archeological site, with one era sitting right next to another.
  3. Then we present the history of how the city grew from a small city on an island in the midst of a huge lake to its present huge size (at 573 sq. miles, slightly smaller than Houston [599] and bigger than Los Angeles [469]). 
  4.  Third, we describe the Metro, the "subway", which is the fastest and cheapest pathway (US25 cents) to get to most of the places we explore. If you avoid morning and late afternoon rush hours, it's fine. Taxis are also plentiful and safe, and now Uber and other phone-ap car services are here. 
  • Mexico City's Sixteen DelegacionesMexico City is shaped rather like a lumpy pear: skinny at the top—it even has a "stem"—then rounds out to a very fat bottom. Originally called the Federal District, in 1928, it was divided into sixteen delegaciones, or boroughs, of greatly varying sizes, shapes, population densities and histories. On January 2016: el Distrito Federal, the Federal District, officially became Mexico City and the delegaciones were renamed alcaldías, mayoralties.
  • Making Sense of Mexico City: Architectural Hodge-podge or Horizontal Archeological Site?Your first experience of Mexico City, especially as you walk through Centro, 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, 20th and 21st centuries. So what to make of this hodgepodge of eras, these fragments of disconnected history, this batiburrillo
  • How Mexico City Grew From an Island to a MetropolisHow did Mexico City, which started on an island in Lake Texcoco— replacing the Mexica (aka Aztec) altepetel (city-state) of Tenochtitlán—grow into the metropolis it is today, incorporating both ancient and new neighborhoods, side by side, all parts of the contemporary batiburrillo (hodgepodge)? Here is the story. 
  • Mexico City Metro: The Mexico City Metro (officially, the Collective Transportation System) is a network of subway and surface electric train lines enabling chilangos (city residents' name for themselves) and visitors to get around the city quickly, cheaply (US25 cents) and safely. The system has 12 lines, each distinguished by a specific color on its signage. There are also multitudes of taxis and yes, they are safe. Now, of course, there is also Uber and other phone ap systems for calling a private chauffeur.

II. Mexico City's Natural Environment: The next set of pages acquaint you with the natural environment: its year-round temperate, sunny climate, its spectacular geographic setting in the midst of large, mostly dormant volcanoes, smaller, but historically important volcanoes within the city, and its history as one of large lakes. 
  • Mexico City Climate: Seasons, Sun, Sky, Clouds and Rain: If you are looking for a place to live year-round, permanently, in Mexico, our advice is to head for the hills. The "hills" are comprised of the high plateau of Central Mexico know as el Bajío and the cross-country mountain chain just to its south, called the Eje Volcánico, the Volcanic Axis or Trans-Mexico Volcanic Belt. This area has year-round moderate temperatures because it is located more or less around 7,000 ft. above sea level, which keeps the climate quite stably moderate and usually sunny. Mexico City sits at 7,000 ft. altitude. Here is our account of the City's mild climate: its seasons (there is no real winter), the sunshine (which occurs most days), the sky (which can be an unbelievable blue), the clouds (which can be dramatic towering cumulus), and the rainy season, more or less from May to October. Don't worry, it doesn't rain every day and usually, it's in late afternoon or after dark and consists of brief, at times intense, thunderstorms. They serve as natural airconditioning and air purifiers, keeping the summer air dry, the temperatures moderate during the day and cool at night and, usually, with clearer air. 
  • Encountering Mexico City's Many Volcanoes, Part I: Giants on All Sides: Mexico City, as most everyone knows, sits in and takes up most of the Valley of Mexico. It is, in fact, a spectacular valley because it is surrounded by tall mountains, all of them volcanoes. Only one, Popocatepetl, (The Smoking Mountain), the tallest at nearly 18,000 ft (more than 10,000 feet above the Valley floor) is active, regularly emitting a plume of steam and sometimes erupting with huge columns of ash and lava. Popo, as he is familiarly called, is joined by his beloved frozen princess, Iztaccihuatl (The White or Sleeping Woman), at 17,000 ft. However, they are only the tallest and most dramatic members of the ring of volcanoes that surround the Valley. Here is an introduction to the many giants that envelop the city and make its geographic setting unique.
  • Encountering Mexico City's Many Volcanoes, Part II: Little Volcanoes With Big Histories: While the huge volcanoes of Popocatéptl, IztaccíhuatlAjusco and the other in the Cordillera de Chichinautzin, the Sierra de las Cruces and the Sierra del Río Frío dominate the Valley of Mexico and the interest of residents and visitors when they are in clear view, there are other volcanoes right within the city´s limits. They are small ash cone volcanoes, but despite their diminutive size, at least four of them have played prominent roles in the development of human settlements in the Valley and thus in the history of Mexico City. Here is our introduction to the four.
Cerro de la Estrella, Hill of the Star
Called Huizachtecatl (in Náhuatl) by the Mexicas.
  • City of Lost Lakes, Islands and VillagesThe Valley of Mexico, now filled by urban sprawl, was originally nearly filled by a chain of five lakes (covering about 580 sq. miles). Lake Texcoco was the largest, most central and lowest of them, thus receiving water from the other four. Because of the surrounding mountains, they had no outlet to the sea, and Texcoco was salty. The original Mexico City and its predecessor, Mexico Tenochtitlán, were on an island in a large bay in the southwest corner of Lake Texcoco. In addition, there were hundreds of villages that occupied the land around the lakes, as well as many on islands in the lakes.
Over the centuries, the lakes have been almost totally erased since the Spanish began draining them in the 17th century to prevent the annual flooding of Mexico City during the summer rainy season, so the islands eventually became part of the mainland. We have been searching out these "lost" islands, which are still-existing pueblo neighborhoods within the city. Here we introduce ones we have visited and the history of the changes they have undergone from islands to urban neighborhoods.
Five original lakes of the Valley
with some of the major cities and villages
around them and on their islands.
III: Mexico City Architecture: This group of pages focuses on the architectural qualities which predominate, particularly in the Cento Historico of the city, the original Ciudad de México which Hernán Cortés began to build on top of the indigenous altepetl, Tenochtitlan of the Mexica.
  • Grandeza Mexicana: Grandeur of Mexico CityWalking the streets of Mexico City, from its Centro Histórico to various of its late 19th to early 20th century colonias, (planned neighborhoods) and modern boulevards, acquainting ourselves with their architecture and public art, we have noted the recurrence of what becomes a visual theme: an architectural grandness that relays a message of wealth and power. This city is, or has been, a seat of major political and economic power, expressed through physical grandeza, grandeur. Here we explore the particularly Mexican roots of this impulse to grandeur.
Main Plaza

second largest plaza in the world, 
after Red Square in Moscow.
  • México Barroco | Baroque Art: Representing Divine Ecstasy, Evoking AweIn Mexico, the art of the Baroque epoch (mid 17th to mid 18th centuries) is all around you in Centro and many in old churches throughout the city. It is the art of the height of the Spanish Empire and its realized its most elaborate form in Nueva España. An excellent Wikipedia article on the Baroque helped us see its character as centered on grandeur, lavishness, and drama. We also came to realize the goal of its religious forms was to express holy ecstasy (stepping outside the ordinary world) and evoke awe. With that perspective, we explore the central and quintessential expression of Baroque religious architecture in Mexico City, the Metropolitan Cathedral. There are innumerable other examples in churches around the city.
El Sagrario
The Tabernacle portion of
the Metropolitan Cathedral,
in high Baroque style

Thematically or geographically related pages

  • Mexico's History As Embodied In Mexico City: Lists and links to all posts addressing the many stages in Mexico City's history as they are manifested in the cityscape, from the indigenous reign of the Mexica/Azteca through the Spanish colonial period (1521-1821), and the 19th and 20th centuries, up to the Mexican Revolution (1910-17) and its aftermath. 
Chapultepec Castle,
scene of several significant events
of the 19th century.
  • Mexico City's Original Indigenous Villages and Their Spíritual ConquestContemporary Mexico City is an amalgam, not only of the Spanish Colonial Centro and its expansion beginning in the late 19th and across the 20th century, but also of ancient indigenous pueblos, villages, that, beginning some three thousand five hundred years ago, were established on the shores and islands of the five lakes at the center of the Valley of Anahuac. So Cortés and the Spanish not only had to transform Tenochtitlan, they also had to transform a geographically extensive civilization and culture via the "evangelización de los indios," or "los natuturales", what has been called the Spiritual Conquest. This series of posts explores the churches, neighborhoods and fiestas that continue to embody the encounter and synthesis of the two civilizations. (This is our current work-in-progress).
Original, 16th century chapel of San Francisco,
in Quadrante (Quarter) of San Francisco,
originally the indigenous village of 
Hueytetitlan, now in Delegación Coyoácan.

  • Centro: El Centro, the Center of Mexico City, actually consists of five colonias, or neighborhoods: Centro Histórico, and East, West, North and South Centro. Spanish colonial palaces and smaller residential and commercial buildings from that period are numerous, but mixed in among them are buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries. Within them, and flowing among them in the streets, is the everyday, timeless activity of selling and buying.
Portable shoeshine stand
in Plaza 
de Santo Domingo
  • Chapúltepec Woods and Paseo de la Reforma: Five kilometers, three miles, southwest of Centro, on what used to be the western shore of Lake Texcoco, sits the ancient, sacred site of el Bosque de Chapúltepec, Chapultepec Woods. The first place that the Mexica/Azteca tried to settle down near the end of the 13th century, and later their royal retreat and source of fresh spring water for Tenochtitlan, the Spanish turned it into a park for themselves. Subsequently, a "castle", actually a palace, was built by a viceroy (ruling representative of the king of Spain) at the top of its landmark hill, an ancient ash cone volcano. After Independence was won from Spain in 1821, it served as the Mexican Military Academy and, in 1847, it was the scene of the last battle in the U.S. invasion of Mexico (aka Mexican-American War). In 1864, Emperor Maximilian I, put in place by Napoleon III of France at the request of Mexican conservative forces, decided to make it his palace. To connect it with the City Center, he had a boulevard built and named after his wife the Belgian Princess Carlotta. After his overthrow by liberal reform forces led by Benito Juárez in 1867. it became Paseo de la Reforma.
Paseo de la Reforma,
seen from Chapultepec Castle
  • Reign of Porfiro Díaz and Neighborhoods of the Early 20th Century: As the 19th century approached its end, Mexico City's well-to-do, who had increased in numbers under the economic policies of Porfirio Díaz (multiple times reelected president and dictator from 1876 to 1911), sought new residences outside the old Spanish Colonial Centro Histórico. They began to develop colonias, planned neighborhoods, to the west, along Paseo de la Reforma boulevard and to its north and south. Díaz and the well-to-do had a great admiration for French culture. Hence, these colonias have a French flavor. Posts on six of these neighborhoods, with introductions, are listed.
French Second Empire-style homes,
with characteristic mansard roofs.
  • Mexican Revolution: Overview of Its Actors and Chapters: The Mexican Revolution (1910-1917) was a watershed between traditional and modern Mexico. Actually a series of four civil wars fought between a diverse cast of characters with widely disparate histories and motivations, the war and its aftermath can be divided into five stages or chapters, each consisting of a number of critical episodes. This Page offers an overview of the war and links to Pages with fuller accounts of the personalities and each chapter of the war and its volatile aftermath.
Monument to the Revolution
  • Mexican Muralists: During the Mexican Revolution, a revolution in Mexican Art was triggered. After the Revolution, it unfolded in a group of buildings in Centro and expanded across the city throughout the 20th century. This page provides links to posts on the sites and their murals—works by the "Big Three": Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and their successors, who continue to produce works up to the present.
Mural of Cortés and Malinche,
representing the mixing (mestizaje)
of Spanish and indigenous peoples.
by José Clemente Orozco,
in the museum San Ildefonso.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Original Villages | Santa María Magdalena Atlitic, Magdalena Contreras:

We have said previously that one of our goals in exploring Mexico City was to get to every one of its sixteen delegaciones, now called alcaldías (mayoralties, i.e. boroughs). Before this current amble, we had made it to thirteen. With this one, we get to the fourteenth, Magdalena Contreras, which lies on the southwestern side of the City, mostly on the slopes of the Sierra de las Cruces. (See our post: Mexico City's Many Volcanoes: Giants on All Sides.)

It has been a challenge to get to Magdalena Contreras, as no Metro train lines or Metrobuses go there. Public travel is via small jitney buses or "combis", vans holding a dozen people (or more). A taxi was the only way for us to get there, but drivers in our Coyoacán are not familiar with the distant delegación, so we were stumped.

Delegación La Magdalena Contreras
is the blue-green area in the southwest
of Mexico City

Then one day, some time ago, chatting as usual with a taxi driver, we asked where he lived, hoping as always when we ask that it would be somewhere we hadn't been and wanted to go. "Magdalena Contreras," he replied. Excitedly, we told him of our desire to visit one or another pueblo there during a fiesta. He said he would be happy to come to Coyoacán, at least a half-hour drive from the entrance to his delegación, pick us up and take us wherever we wanted to go in the borough, then return us home. His first name was unusual, Venacio.

Not long after, an announcement of a fiesta in the delegación appeared on Facebook and we made the arrangements to go with him. It worked in so far as Venacio got us to the site of the fiesta, a small one. However, the banda didn't show up, so the chinelos who had come to dance couldn´t dance and there wasn't much else to witness or photograph. We called Venacio and he came and took us back to Coyoacán.

This July, our luck changed. One of the patron saint days of the month is for Santa María Magdalena, the supposed prostitute who repented her sins to Jesus and became a loyal follower. There are several pueblos in Mexico City dedicated to her. One happens to be Santa María Magdalena Atlitic in Magdalena Contreras, called simply Pueblo La Magdalena for short. (Curiously, the delegación/alcaldía is named in part after this pueblo and part after a 19th-century cloth factory that used the Río Magdalena that comes tumbling down the mountainside and passes through the pueblo to create electric power with its generators, called dínamos in Spanish.)

So, we made arrangements with Venacio and early on the designated Sunday morning, he arrived as scheduled at our building and we set off to his home territory.

The entrance to the delegación is marked by an arch, as many original pueblos are. Shortly after entering, we begin a gradual climb up the lower slopes of the Sierra de las Cruces. A wide main street runs pretty much straight through various colonias and pueblos. María Magdalena Atlitic lies at the far southern end of the inhabited northern half of the delegación. Just beyond, the mountains rise up steeply, covered with an evergreen forest. They take up the other half of the delegación. As we get closer, we enter typically narrow barrio streets, where two cars can barely squeak by one another.

We come to an intersection where the street ahead is closed for a road race, so we take a roundabout way toward the center of La Magdalena. We are even more glad Venacio knows his way around the area. Soon, he stops his car and points to a stairway going down the side of the hill. He tells us that if we go down these steps, we will find the church at the bottom. He arranges to meet us a few hours later on a street at the far side of the church, which he points out on the map we have brought with us.

We have each other's cell numbers in case we need to change plans. So with his assurance, we get out and start down the stairs, which continue for the length of at least a city block.

Pueblo in the Hills

Stairway leading down to the center of La Magdalena

Arriving at the bottom, we see an archway announcing that we are entering the pueblo. Not far beyond, we can see the creamy yellow spire of the church. Beyond that rises another steep hillside. The center of La Magdalena lies in a narrow ravine, very different from the flat valley floor we are used to in the majority of the City.

As we near the church we find the street full of people. Looking south we see more evergreen-covered hills. We are truly in a town in the midst of the mountains.

The bright sign above the street points the way to Parque de los Dinamos,
Dynamo or Generator Park.
We have read about this park and its wild beauty, which exists within the City's boundaries.
We would very much like to see it.

The Plaza

We discover that the people crowding the small plaza have just watched the end of a road race. Under a tarp covering most of the plaza, prizes are being given out. 

First and third prize winners in the teenage girls group are sisters,
perhaps even identical twins.

Proud older brother


The plaza is surrounded on two sides by a very attractive mercado (indoor market), built of brick and having a portal (por-TAHL) running in front where people can sit and eat meals purchased in the mercado.

Portal in front of the mercado.

Dramatic Mural

Across the plaza from the mercado is a wall bearing a surprise, a very striking mural.

Mural of masks

The mural portrays many figures wearing masks, as well as masks displayed alone. Some are ancient indigenous ones, such as the one at the top, left of center, with large, circular eyes. He is Tlaloc, the god of all waters. The very top, center figure is Huehueteotl, the old god of fire. All are set in and around a lucha libre, free-style wrestling ring, a highly popular professional sport in Mexico. The wrestlers always wear masks in aggressive, devilish styles.

Lucha also means struggle, which is a keyword in all Mexican protests against injustice. The woman dominating the top, center, is gritando, shouting, most likely, "la lucha sigue", "the struggle continues."

At the bottom left, a figure in a suit and tie, wearing a dog mask, holds a banner that says:
"A mask is a bridge that stretches between the spiritual world and the natural world of our daily life. The man who puts on a mask transforms himself, even though it may be temporarily."
This is a succinct description of the archetypical spiritual or religious function of masks in indigenous Mesoamerican culture and many other primal cultures in the world. A tarp covers up the lower right side, so we cannot see if the name or names of the creator of the mural are given. In any case, it is a quintessential combination of the Mexican tradition of mural painting and a primal theme of how humans, through the ritual use of masks, may communicate, or even "temporarily" become one with the gods.

It is so very Mexican to find such a remarkable work, blending the ancient, indigenous world with the modern, via the theme of masks, in a small, working-class pueblo on the fringes of the huge City.

Church of Santa María Magdelena of Atlitic

On the fourth, northern side of the plaza is the Church of Santa María Magdalena of Atlitic, with its walled atrio (atrium) in front. 

Entrance to the church atrio, with a fiesta portada decorating the archway.
It is made with fresh flowers.

Church of Santa María Magdalena of Atlitic.
The diamond pattern on the facade is
mudéjar, Moorish Islamic.

The portada around the church door
is unusual, as it is not made of flowers.
The inscription u
sually thanks
 or asks for the blessing
of the patron saint being honored.

But this one reads,
"The Civic Association of Merchants
of Los Dínamos gives thanks."

The design of the portada is made of seeds, primarily beans of various colors.
Much labor is required to make it, but unlike flowers, it is reusable for many years.

The inside of the church is simple (with some ornate Baroque touches),
reflecting its 16th-century origins.
Bountiful arrangements of flowers, typical of a patron saint fiesta,
cover the side pillars and the altar

Santa María Magdalena sits in the center of the retablo (reredos),
which is a combination of Baroque (wavy columns, cherubs, ornate surfaces)
and Neoclassic (pediment) styles,
indicating it is likely from the mid-18th century
when the transition from one style to the other was occurring. 

We are always awed by the abundance and beauty of the flowers decorating a fiesta, a tradition that goes back to indigenous times, but we are struck here by two unusual arrangements:

A pavo real (literally, royal turkey), i.e., a peacock
whose tail is made of gorgeous 
There is one on each side of the stairs to the altar.

Perhaps, the Tree of Life, from the Garden of Eden?
Inventive and dramatic,
we have never seen anything like it at a fiesta in any
of the many Catholic churches we have visited.

Leaving the church, we notice the patio of the convent next to it.

The convent or monastery, all of stone,
has a simple, solid, somewhat somber but tranquil, meditative feel.

Parque de los Dínamos

While the announcement of the fiesta schedule, which we found on Facebook, says there are to be Azteca dancers at this hour, none are in sight. As nothing else seems to be happening, we decide to walk up the hill leading south toward the Parque de los Dínamos. We don't know how far away it is or how far our old legs will carry us up a moderate incline, but we would love to see the park, so off we go.

About a quarter-mile uphill, we arrive at the end of town. Getting there, we see a large sign, like the one over the street in town, announcing that we are at the entrance to the park.

Welcome to the Park of the Dynamos

At the entrance, the Río Magdalena runs under a bridge on its way downhill and into the City. It is the only remaining river out of many in the Valley of Mexico with portions still open to the sky and undisturbed. In Coyoacán, at its western boundary, there is an open section of the river in a small, street-side park. It continues into los Viveros de Coyoacán, the Coyoacán Nurseries (actually an arboretum). After that, it is entubed, taken underground to join the Río Mixcoac, coming from the west and from Río Churubusco, both rivers now beneath highways bearing their names. 

el Río Magdalena

Walking into the park, we see a large, open, grass-covered field where families are picnicking and kids are kicking soccer balls around. We head across the field in order to see more of the river in the woods on the other side. Partway across the field, we are stopped in our tracks by the view to the south.

Cliffs rise at the top of forested mountains.
And this is in Mexico City!

Awed by what is a wild, hidden valley at the outskirts of the City, we wish we were younger and could go hiking further into the park. But we are the age we are, and we are here for the fiesta, so we continue walking across the field and enter the woods.

el Río Magdalena

el Río Magdalena

Most happy that, by pure chance, we have been able to experience a bit of Parque de los Dínamos, we head back downhill toward the plaza. On the way, we encounter another mural:

The mural summarizes the unique identity of Pueblo Santa María Magdalena Atlitic,
the church and the Río also named after the saint.

¡La Fiesta!

Azteca Danzantes

Arriving back at the plaza, we find that the Azteca danzantes (dancers) have arrived. One group is already dancing in the plaza, but they can't be photographed as they are dancing in relative darkness underneath the tarp. However, entering the atrio, we see that another group has entered the church to venerate the patron saint, a traditional ritual of such groups performed either before or after they dance.

The dancers have brought with them a large cross decorated with a 'V' shaped cloth.

Outside, in the atrio, they begin their dance, circling around the cross.

This centering of their dance around a cross is also a tradition of some other conchero or Azteca dance groups. We witnessed an elaborate and dramatic enactment of this ritual, centered on three such crosses, last fall at the fiesta for San Francisco in the Quadrante de San Francisco in Coyoacán.

It is called La Danza de la Conquista. Its meaning is expressed in a saying, often displayed on the groups' standards, "Conquista, Conformidad y Unión, (Conquest, Concord, Union).

This motto and the dance embody the means by which some groups of indigenous people came to terms with the Spanish Conquest and their required conversion to Catholic Christianity. They embraced the new faith as their own on the condition that their indigenous traditions, specifically their dances, be incorporated into the rituals of that faith.

The Franciscan monks and those of other orders saw the wisdom of permitting and supporting such syncretism. La Danza de la Conquista is the result. The tradition began in the 1530s in outlying provinces of Nueva España. It did not become present in the capital City of Mexico until after the Mexican Revolution (1910-17) when government efforts to forge a national Mexican identity turned to recognizing the people's indigenous heritage as a foundation for that identity. (See our post: Traditional Indigenous Dancers: Concheros y Danzantes Azteca.)

La Danza de la Conquista
These dancers are known as concheros because of the stringed instruments,
introduced by European monks, that they play.
They have a concho, skin of an armadillo, on the back, marking their indigenous adoption.
(See the instrument on the right.)

This group is from
the Corporation of Concheros of Mexico,
Founded Feb. 25, 1922,
in the decade
when other "corporations of concheros"
were also founded in the City.

Their symbol is
the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The top left and top right dancers are Eagle Warriors.
The second from right is a Jaguar Warrior.
These were the two elite groups of Mexica/Azteca warriors.

Outside the atrio, in the street, another group of dancers is engaged in their ritual dance. They are not concheros, but Azteca dancers, for they do not play any European-derivative stringed instruments, using only indigenous drums and rattles. 

The Danza Azteca
of Magdalena Contreras.
Founded by Juan and Gregorio
This is a replacement standard,
inaugurated Apr. 9, 2009,
donated by the Mandujano Family.

The standard of this group reminds us that Conchero and Azteca dance "corporations" are traditionally composed of a number of families from the same pueblo who pass their heritage and leadership structure down through successive generations. This was confirmed for us by the answer one dancer gives us today when, during a break, we asked him, "Why do you dance?" "It is the tradition of my family," he replied. 

At another fiesta, an elder conchero told us, with obvious pride, that he was the fifth generation of his family to dance (thus encompassing one hundred years) and that his son and grandson were also dancers. This also explains the presence of all generations in the dance, from seniors, through middle-aged and young adults to adolescents and children. All tradition lives via this continuity across generations.

This one has lived for a century in Mexico City, nearly five centuries in the country and still going strong. Either time span is only a small portion of the forty or more centuries of civilized indigenous culture in this land, but they are nonetheless significant spans.

The Procession of Visiting Pueblos

At nine AM this morning, the time that we arrived, a procession was forming on a street corner a few  blocks north of the church. It was a coming together of representatives of various other pueblos, each with a statue of their patron saint or a standard with the saint's representation, to be greeted by representatives of La Magdalena. Such attendance by other pueblos and their procession to the host church is another strong tradition of patron saint fiestas. We thought of going to find it, but arriving at the top of the staircase and seeing that the street to the north went uphill, we decided against that and headed south, down the stairs to the church. 

The procession wound its way through the streets of the pueblo for three hours and was scheduled to arrive at the church in time for the main celebratory Mass scheduled for 12:15. So we figured we would meet it on the street leading to the church. Thus, shortly before noon, we leave the danzantes and head back up the southbound street we had taken earlier to Parque de los Dínamos

We have a while to wait, but find a shady spot next to a typical tiendita, a little shop open to the street as an extension of its operator's house. A middle-aged woman and her middle-school-aged son are selling simple jewelry and related items for women to passersby. We introduce ourselves and our purpose in being here. We tell her we need to sit down to rest and start to sit on the curb. She immediately takes out from under her table the standard plastic stool and muy amablemente (very considerately) offers it to us. We thank her in full Mexican style for her generosity and sit down to wait for the procession.

Chinelos lead

After some minutes pass, we hear the sound of cohetes (rocket-style firecrackers) that always announce the approach of a procession getting closer and closer. Soon, around a corner come the leaders of the procession. They are, as is typically the case, a comparsa (troupe) of chinelos, dancers "disguised" (as their name means in Nahuatl) in elaborate Moorish-style headdresses and long, usually velvet robes. 

They are the Group of Wolves
of  San Francisco.
(St. Francis is reputed to have tamed a
marauding wolf into a protective canine.)

The chinelos jump and twirl.

The wolves of San Francisco

Pueblos and Their Saints

Then comes the procession of the saints.
The hostess, Santa María Magdalena, leads

Santa María Magdalena

San Pedro, St. Peter, the first pope, follows.
He is likely from a Colonia named after him in
Delegación/Alcaldía Tlalpan.

The standards of many other pueblos and their saints follow.
They are from Magdalena Contreras, Tlalpan and Álvaro Obregón.

Here two Virgins of Guadalupe,
which every pueblo has and honors.

The all-essential banda follows the pueblos,
keeping the rhythm of the procession moving.


Bringing up the rear of the procession, still lively after three hours of marching, is a comparsa of caporales, cowboys and girls, in their "Western" dress. 

Comparsa of the Friends

They have the moves,
even the littlest guy.


It has been quite a day, quite a fiesta. We are pleased with ourselves that we have finally made it to Magdalena Contreras, our fourteenth delegación/alcaldía. It has taken us three years, but now we have only two more to attain, Azcapotzalco and Cuahjimalpa.

For today we visited a pueblo in the far reaches of the city, huddled at the entrance to a spectacular valley surrounded by forest-covered hills, seemingly impossible to believe it is part of the city. We have visited the Parque de los Dínamos and seen the Río Magdalena flowing freely through the forests that cover the mountainsides. And we have enjoyed a fiesta full of Conchero and Azteca dancers with their brilliant headdresses, chinelos in their colorful robes, the banners of numerous pueblos and cowboy and cowgirl caporales. Oh, and we caught the end of a road race. Yes, it has been quite a day. 

We meet up with Venacio at our agreed upon place behind the church and he carries us, tired but happy, back to Coyoacán, chatting with us all the way and offering to bring us back to Magdalena Contreras anytime we may wish. Arriving home, we thank him profusely for making this trip possible and bid him hasta luego, until the next time.

Northen end of Delegación/Alcaldía Magdalena Contreras
with its Pueblos and Colonias.

Pueblo Santa María Magdalena Atlitic
aka "La Magdalena"
is marked by red/yellow star
Parque de los Dínamos
is immediately southwest of it.