Mexico' complex history is embodied in the buildings, streets, plazas and parks of Mexico City. Here one can find the indigenous Mesoamerican civilization of the Aztecs and Spanish colonial New Spain. There are also artifacts from the War for Independence, the U.S and French invasions of the 19th century, Benito Juárez' Era of Reform, the Porfiriato, the Mexican Revolution and the developments of the 20th century. Posts addressing these stages in Mexico's history, as represented in the cityscape of Mexico City, are presented here in chronological order, with brief summaries.
How Mexico City Grew From an Island to a Metropolis
Independence as Counter-Revolution: Agustín Iturbide - The Man Who Would Be King
How Mexico City Grew From an Island to a Metropolis
How did Mexico City, which started on an island in Lake Texcoco— replacing the Azteca/Mexica city 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.
The Origins of the Azteca-Mexica | From Their Migration to the Valley of Anahuac/Mexico to Their Founding of Tenochtitlan
Clash and Synthesis of Civilizations
Centro: Making a Living Amidst Faded Grandeur
The simplest depiction of the Azteca/Mexica origins and their migration to the valley of Anahuac is presented in the Codex Boturini, The Pictorial Illustration of the Pilgrimage). It was created shortly after the Spanish Conquest. In simple imagery, it portrays key events of the migration, accompanied by glyphs, symbols that identify place names, and the number-name combinations the Nahua used to designate the year or years during which the Mexica spent time in a place.
The Codex Aubin, bearing a Gregorian date in the 1550s, repeats and expands the pictographic history of the Codex Boturini, but also adds a narrative written in Nahuatl script. To the great fortune of English speakers, a project at Fordham University (New York City) has translated much of the Nahuatl into English, making its narrative available to such persons as us.
According to these two early codices, in the latter half of the 12th century CE, the Azteca migrated from a homeland they called Aztlán (the origin of the name Aztec(a), an island in a lake, or surrounded on three sides by a river, some unknown distance to the northwest of the present Mexico City, likely in what is now northwestern Mexico or the southwestern United States. Along the way, their god Huitzilopochtli renamed them the Mexica.
Sometime between 1220 and 1240, they entered the north end of the Valley of Anahuac. It is important to realize that this entrance was not just a physical transition. It was also the beginning of a transition from a lifestyle of hunter-gatherer nomads into a world that was primarily agricultural, based on corn, and politically organized into hierarchically structured altepetls, city-states, with certain cities controlling various amounts of territory and their subsidiary villages around them. That is, it was civilized. In 1325, the Mexica were finally able to establish their own altepetl, Tenochtitlan, on some islands in Lake Texcoco, granted to them by the Tepaneca people of the altepetl of Azcapotzalco. A hundred years later, in 1428, they were able to defeat their Tepaneca overlords and become the dominate power in the Valley. This marked the beginning of what has become known as the Aztec Empire. It lasted a little less than one hundred years, ending catastrophically with its defeat by the Spanish in 1521.Portraying Mexico City's Azteca-Mexica Origins
In the utilitarian, literally pedestrian space of Tacubaya Station, Guillermo Ceniceros, who had worked with David Siqueiros, chose to paint the indigenous origins of what is now Mexico City; that is, the legend of how some seven hundred years ago the Mexícas came to arrive in what was then the Valley of Anáhuac and found México-Tenochtitlán.Templo Mayor: The Buried Heart of Mexico
El Centro Histórico of Mexico City was also the center of México-Tenochtitlán, the Mexíca-Azteca city. When Cortés, in the name of the Christian god and the Spanish king, 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 its contemporary embodiment, rests upon the buried indigenous one. When various remnants and statuary were uncovered over the centuries, they were hidden away or even reburied because their images were so violent.
Then, in 1978, workmen digging electrical lines came across a huge circular disk, a sculpture of the dismembered body of the goddess Coyolxauhqui, laying at the base of the temple to the warrior god Huitzilopochtli, the chief god of the Aztecs.
In Copilco Station on Line 3, Guillermo Ceniceros used the division of the tracks and the opposition of the parallel walls to present the story of the confrontation, clash and subsequent synthesis of the two civilizations that are the foundation of modern Mexico: the indigenous Mesoamerican and the European Spanish.Mexico City's Original Indigenous Villages and Their Spíritual Conquest
Contemporary Mexico City is an amalgam, not only of the Spanish Colonial Centro Historico and its expansion beginning in the late 19th and across the 20th century, but also of ancient indigenous pueblos, villages, and atepetls, city-states that, beginning some two thousand years ago, were established on the shores of the five lakes at the center of the Valley of Anahuac and on some of their other islands as well.
So Cortés and the Spanish not only had to transform Tenochtitlan, the center of power, they also had to transform a geographically extensive civilization and culture. This meant implementing a program of radical reconstruction of the culture, of the peoples' customary ways of being and their organizing beliefs, what has been called the Spiritual Conquest. Here is our series of posts on these original villages and the still-vital pueblos originarios that remain immersed in the modern city.
The Spanish ruled what is now Mexico for three hundred years. The remnants of this long-gone Spanish Empire are spread throughout the Centro Histórico. The Mexican government occupies the National Palace and many other palaces of the lesser Spanish nobility in North and East Centro, openly adopting for its own the imperial images of power and grandeur. Other palaces, convents and mansions of wealthy Spanish businessmen have been turned into public or private museums. Colonial era churches stand in nearly every block, some still serving as houses of worship, others converted into museums.México Barroco | Baroque Art: Representing Divine Ecstasy, Evoking Awe
- In Mexico, the art of the Baroque epoch (mid 17th to mid 18th centuries) is all around you. It is the art of the height of the Spanish Empire and its realization in Nueva España. A Wikipedia article on the Baroque helps us see its character as centered on grandeur, exuberance or lavishness, and drama. We also come to realize the goal of its religious forms is to express holy ecstasy and evoke awe. With this perspective, we explore the quintessential expression of Baroque religious architecture in Mexico City, the Metropolitan Cathedral.
In 1607, Viceroy Don Luis de Velasco y Castile commissioned engineer Enrico Martínez with the herculean task of draining the Mexico Valley basin. The 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 River watershed (now in the state of Hidalgo and flowing to the Gulf of Mexico) via a tunnel through the mountains. When the drainage system was finally completed, Lake Texcoco and the lakes to its north began to dry up, and the new land became Spanish haciendas, country estates, where livestock were raised. However, what became known as the Acequia Real, the Royal Canal, continued to connect Lakes Xochimilco and Chalco, to the south, with the center of the city. After Independence, it became known officially as the National Canal, but commonly as La Viga, "The Beam". A section of it still exists in Iztapalapa, in the southern part of the city. In the 1950s, the rest became an avenue, La Calzada de la Viga.The Ciudadela - From Revolution to Tranquility
The Ciudadela, The Citadel, is one of the few artifacts of the period of the War of Independence. Built in 1807, near the end of Spanish colonial rule, it was meant to be la Real Fábrica de Tabacos, the Royal Tobacco Factory, because tobacco was a very profitable product for export to Europe. However, history was soon to put the building to other uses.
The Mexican War of Independence began as an effort by upper-class liberal criollos, including the priest Miguel Hidalgo, and Spanish Army captain Ignacio Allende, to overthrow the viceroy. The rebellion was triggered by Napoleon's seizure of the Spanish King Charles IV and his son, Ferdinand VII. But when Napoleon placed his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the Spanish throne, the legitimacy of Spanish rule in New Spain was put in serious question. In September 1810, Hidalgo triggered a peasant and indigenous uprising near the central city of Guanajuato. Later, the revolutionary hero, José María Morelos was held captive by Spanish royalists in the Ciudadela before his execution.
About one hundred years later, in 1913, it became the fortification from which generals revolting against the democratic government of Francisco Madero based their attack on the National Palace, where Madero was holed up. (See our link below to posts on the Mexican Revolution.)
For all intents and purposes, Spanish rule of New Spain came to an end on September 27, 1821, when the self-named Army of the Three Guarantees entered Mexico City under the leadership of Agustín de Iturbide in the wake of the defeat of Spanish royal forces and submission of the viceroy. It happened to be Iturbide's thirty-eighth birthday.
Iturbide was not a person one would foresee fighting for and winning Mexican Independence. Up until the winter of 1821, some six months before he triumphantly entered Mexico City, Iturbide had been a key player in the royalist opposition to those who had begun the rebellion eleven years earlier, He was, in fact, the quintessential wealthy, well-connected Spanish criollo [Spanish born in New Spain] from a noble family, a loyalist and officer in the Royal Spanish Army.Chapultepec Castle Chapter: The U.S. Army vs. Santa Ana and The Boy Heroes
In 1775, Viceroy Bernardo de Gálvez ordered the construction of a stately home for himself at the highest point on Chapultepec Hill. However, on November 8, 1786, the viceroy died suddenly. The Spanish Crown ordered the building to be auctioned. There were no buyers, In 1806 the building was bought by Mexico City's municipal government. It remained empty throughout the War for Independence and the early years of Mexico's new government.
Sometime between 1833 and 1840 (various sources give different dates), the Military Academy, which had been founded in 1823 at the end of the War for Independence, was moved to the Castle. This set the stage for the Castle's major role in Mexican history.Paseo de la Reforma: Symbol of Mexico's Struggle Between Autocrats and Democrats
The Paseo de la Reforma, a wide, tree-lined boulevard, is Mexico City's emblematic avenue. Although today it is lined with the postmodern skyscrapers of global corporations, its wide, park-like, shaded walks bounded by long stone benches that invite resting, its many fountains and statues convey a grand, even imperial, 19th century European ambience, rather like Napoleon the Third's Paris.
For all its urban civility, the Paseo is actually a physical artifact of Mexico's turbulent 19th century. It was built in the 1860's, in the middle of the War of the French Intervention on the orders of Emperor Maximilian I, who wanted to connect his residence, the Castle of Chapultepec, with the City's Historic Center. Maximilian named the avenue Paseo de la Emperatriz ("Promenade or Boulevard of the Empress"), in honor of his wife, Empress Carlota. After Napoleon III withdrew French forces and Maximillian and loyalist Mexican were defeated in 1867 by the Reform forces led by Benito Juárez, it was given its present name.The Porfiriato: French Culture Conquers Mexico City
After the Spanish Colonial period—and until the current era of global-style, post-modern construction—the architectural heritage of the Porfiriato, the thirty-five year period encompassing the dictatorial presidency of Porfiro Díaz, (1877-1911), is the second most important era for shaping the look and ambience of the center of Mexico City.
Díaz undertook to turn the City into one modeled after Paris. It is yet another of those curious, seemingly paradoxical Mexican stories of how European esthetics, and particularly that of the French Second Empire under Napoleon III (1852-1870), came to be recreated in Mexico under Díaz' leadership.The Grandeza of Porfirio Díaz
During 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.Colonias of the Porfiriato: Neighborhoods of the Early 20th Century
As the 19th century approached its end, the well-to-do of Mexico City, who had increased in numbers under the economic policies of Porfirio Díaz, sought new residences to express and enjoy their wealth with modern comforts. They desired to leave behind the old Spanish Colonial buildings of the Centro Histórico, with all their limitations. So, with the encouragement of the government, they began to develop colonias, planned neighborhoods to the west, along Paseo de la Reforma and to its north and south. This page provides introductions to each of those neighborhoods, with links leading to illustrated posts on each one.Mexican Revolution:
The Mexican Revolution (1910-1917) was actually a series of civil wars fought between a diverse cast of characters, with widely disparate histories and motivations. Apart from the sad role played by the Ciudadela in the Revolution, we have not encountered buildings that are direct expressions of that era of upheaval and its aftermath of political and governmental changes. One doesn't build during a civil war or in the post-war effort to establish a a functioning government.
However, to understand those places where reflections of the war do appear in the city, it is necessary to understand something of the complexities of the war. So we have written a series of pages on it.
Several blocks west of the Centro Histórico rises the one edifice that specifically embodies the Mexican Revolution. Curiously, in that very Mexican way, it embraces a set of paradoxes. The transformed and repurposed shell of President and dictator Porfirio Díaz' grandest project, the Palacio Legislativo Federal, the Monument to the Revolution is a symbol seeking to give coherent representation to a series of very fragmented conflicts. It does this by enshrining together the remains of several of the Revolution's diverse and often opposing heros.