El Centro, the Center of Mexico City, actually consists of five subdivisions, 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. And flowing among them in the streets is the everday timeless activity of selling and buying.

Centro Histórico: The Zócalo, Symbolic Heart of Mexico City and Mexico: The core of the city, is colonia Centro Histórico and at its core is The Zócalo. Its official name is Plaza de la Constitución. Literally, zócalo means pedestal, as of a statue (a statue celebrating Mexican Independence was initally planned for here), but it has come to mean this space at the center of Mexico.

Templo Mayor: The Buried Heart of Mexico: El Centro of Mexico City was also the center of México-Tenochtitlán, the Mexíca-Azteca city established in the 14th century. When Cortés defeated the Aztecs in 1521, he had the surviving natives expelled, their city razed and the beginnings of a new Mexico City built above the old. So the Spanish city and it contemporary embodiment rest upon the buried indigenous one. In 1978, workmen digging elecrtical lines came across a huge circular disk, a sculpture of the dismembered body of a goddess. The disk lay at the base of the stairs of the Templo Mayor, the Great Temple. This led to the excavation of much of the ancient site.

Centro: Making a Living Amidst Faded Grandeur: The remnants of the long-gone Spanish Empire are spread throughout the Centro Histórico and the adjoining North and East Centro colonias . The National Palace and the Cathedral are the two most monumental examples. Government offices and museums occupy other palaces on the streets in Centro Historico and North Centro. But on these streets, and those in East Centro, behind the National Palace, there are many more smaller colonial buildings, some painted in bright colors, others in varying degrees of disrepair, all filled with shops. And in the streets themselves, omnipresent vendors sell from make-shift puestos, stalls, or, as ambulantes, walk about hawking their wares.

West Centro: Around Balderas: Making Sense of an Urban Batiburrillo: West of Mexico City's Centro Historico, south of Avenida Hidalgo, between Eje Central (Central Axis)—to the east and Bucareli Street to the west, is a commercial neighbohood. Running more or less down the middle of the colonia, is Avenida Balderas. Your first experience of the neighborhood is of an architectural hodge-podge, an incoherent batiburrillo, a jumble of buildings from various eras. Structures from the colonial period, adapted to contemporary uses, are enmeshed with newer neighbors from the 19th and 20th centuries.

West Centro: The Ciudadela, Through Revolutions to Tranquility: The Citadel is one of the few buildings remaining in Centro from the early 19th century. Built in 1807, near the end of Spanish colonial rule, it was meant to be la Real Fábrica de Tabacos, the Royal Tobacco Factory. However, the War of Independence and, a century later, the Mexican Revolution were to put the building to other, more historic uses.

Southeast Centro: Pino Suárez Market, A Living Heart of Mexico: Coming up to street level from the Pino Suarez station of the Metro, one is inundated with puestos, street stalls, under brightly colored lonas de hule, plastic tarps, in a typical improvised tianguis, an open-air market. They huddle around and are dominated by the Plaza Comercial Pino Suárez, a huge structure with a floating roof designed to house hundreds of permanent puestos.

Centro's Four Original Indigenous Quarters - Introduction: After defeating the Mexica/Aztecs Cortés removed all the city's indigenous inhabitants and razed it in order to build a Spanish city on the island. But then he was faced with a question that has echoed ever since throughout Mexican history, "What do we do with los indios, the Indians?" Cortés's answer was, perhaps, an obvious one. He took the Mexica organization of the city and adapted it to Spanish purposes. In traditional Mesoamerican manner, the Mexica had organized their city by dividing it into four campan, quadrants or quarters, associated with the four cardinal directions.

The Spiritual Conquest: The Franciscans - Where It All Began: As we began exploring the four indigenous quarters of El Centroseeking out the churches that remain from the process of the conversion of los indios, we became aware that we needed to trace the path of their construction from the Spanish side as well; that is, the path of the Franciscan monks who were the vanguard of the Spiritual Conquest. This leads us to a Colonial church on Madero Street, in the heart of El Centro and a hidden cloister around the corner on the curiously named Pedro de Gante Street.

Centro's Four Original Indigenous Quarters: San Juan Moyotla: What is now officially West Centro contains most of what was the parcialidad or quarter of San Juan Moyotla. In Nahuatl, moyotla apparently means "place of the mosquitos" because it was swampy. Here, the Franciscans built a church at the north end of the already existing central plaza, which was the quarter's tianguis, open-air market. It is likely that the tianguis had been there for many years. Buildings for the ayuntamiento, government center, were erected nearby.

San Pablo Teopan, also called San Pablo Zoquipan, is the second of the parcialidades, the four quarters of the Indian Repubic of San Juan Tenochtitlan. Now the southern part of East Centro, the core of the area is called Barrio de la Merced. On initial visits, La Merced appears to be another batiburrillo, a hodge-podge of buildings and open spaces of various epochs in various states of repair and disrepair, full of, if not overwhelmed by, merchants selling and customers buying, a kind of marketplace gone viral. There is no single, central plaza, but several smaller ones; no single, main original church, but a number of Colonial churches and convents. Thus, it presents a challenge to uncover any underlying indigenous framework or coherence in its Spanish Colonial transformation.
We wonder why so many churches were built so close together near the crossroads of Pino Suárez and Izazaga/San Pablo Avenues in southeast Centro: 
  • East of the intersection are San Lucas, Santa María Magdelena, then San Pablo Viejo and San Pablo Nuevo, explored in our first post on San Pablo Teopan-Zoquipan.
  • South along or near Pino Suárez/San Antonio Abad are three more churches: Concepción Tlaxcoaque, San Antonio Abad and Santa Cruz Acatlán. 
What might their locations have to do with the boundary between the island of Tenochtitlan and Lake Texcoco, the causeway that crossed it and the web of canals linking the island to the lake? In this post we visit the second set of churches and seek answers to this question.

In our two previous posts on what was the Colonial indigenous quarter of San Pablo Teopan-Zoquipan have led us to some understanding of the importance of this crossroads in the life of Mexica (Me-SHE-ka) Tenochtitlan and to the Spanish transformation of the city. 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.

Centro's Four Indigenous Quarters: Santa María Cuepopan - Battleground and Sacred Ground: Here we investigate the third indigenous quarter, Santa María Cuepopan, in the northwest corner of Centro. In our search for landmark churches erected by the Franciscans and other Catholic religious orders, we enter Cuepopan from the Bellas Artes Metro station at the corner of Hidalgo and the Eje Central. Five blocks up the Eje there is a narrow one-lane street that can be easily overlooked. It is the entrance to the Barrio de Santa María Redondo, the pathway to a world historically and culturally far from the one at the intersection of Hidalgo and the Eje Central.

The Grandeza of Porfirio DíazDuring the era of the Porfiriato (1877-1911), President and dictator, Porfirio Díaz undertook to turn Mexico City into a grand, cosmopolitan European-style capital. As part of this undertaking, he ordered the construction of many major government and civic buildings in the Historic Center and adjacent areas. Often, they were designed to be grand "palaces" that served modern functions.

Inside Porfirio's Palace (Now the National Art Museum): The Palacio de la Secretaria de Comunicacions is one of Porfirio Díaz' major public works in the Centro Histórico. The design is primarily Neo-classical, but mixes elements of other architectural styles. Passing through the lobby of what is now the National Museum of Art, you come to a grand double staircase that fills a semi-circular atrium lit by large windows.

Centro Historico Porfiriato - Late Nineteenth Century Mexico City: In the area west of the Zócalo, in streets such as 16th de Septiembre, Madero, Cinco de Mayo (Fifth of May), Tacuba and Donceles that run to the Eje Central/Lázaro Cárdenas. and the north-south streets that cross them, a number of commercial buildings from the Porfiriato (1877-1911) can be found. They display the ornate late 19th century esthetics of Neo-classicism, French Second Empire and Art Nouveau.

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