Mexico City, Mexico

Mexico City, a metro area of over 20 million, is one of the largest in the world. Packed to the max with traffic above ground and like sardines down below in the expansive metro (complete with unique identifying icons for each station!), it unexpectedly brings to mind other disparate megapolises: New York population-wise (and the Bronx and Queens demographically speaking), Tehran in density, and even London based on the sheer number of museums and cultural institutions out there.

Just when I thought I was done (which, you may recall, was first December, then February), I had to squeeze another trip in. Upon signing a new job contract, I impulsively booked a flight leaving the next day, scrambling to figure out how to make the most of my remaining sabbatical. This meant the least amount of preparation and planning I’ve ever done for a trip. Usually it’s not much at all, but this time I’m really flying blind. And everything in the first paragraph was literally stuff I just learned and perceived upon landing. It’s about time I found out what I’ve been missing all these years, as our close neighbour!

All (delicious, delicious stereotype) joking aside…

We all know Mexico as the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, and we use the term “Hispanic” (implying Spain/the Iberian Peninsula) when referring to Latin Americans — but how did it get that way? As it seems in the rest of the Americas, we pay little attention to indigenous cultures and pre-colonial history. That’s something that’s hard to ignore in Mexico City, whose Zócalo (city centre plaza) and main cathedral stand next to the ruins of the Templo Mayor, built by the Aztecs in Tenochtitlan — what used to be Mexico City — as a temple dedicated to their gods of war and agriculture. And of course, virtually everyone does a daytrip north of the city to Teotihuacan, a Mesoamerican city with a peak population of 175,000 from the year 100s that predates the Aztecs to such an extent that we still don’t actually know much about who built it. Its pyramids — dedicated to their gods of the sun and the mon — may have lost its carvings of animals and its wild colours, but the sheer size of the city, along with artifacts found from the site now preserved in museums, hints to us just how advanced they really were.

Museums and historical sites are really what dominated my time in the city, with such an overwhelming number of good ones that I chose to see fewer well rather than more in a rush. But even there, despite having shockingly well-preserved Mesoamerican artifacts dating back 3000 years, I found more of a focus on colonial history and the emergence of a post-Hispanic independent nation. All we have now are hints… and the reason why these civilisations have ceased to continue.

From the National Museum of History, housed in a beautiful Spanish-era castle in Chapultepec Park overlooking the city, to the National Palace (along with other museums in the country that I’m just gonna group here), much is said on Nueva España in the 1500s to 1800s. But again, what did they replace, and how did they do it so swiftly?

The long story short is that it used to be a bunch of warring cities and states, through to the 1500s, then mostly dominated by the Aztecs. Since life then revolved around religion and temples, captured prisoners were often used as human sacrifices. Meanwhile, Spain went expanding towards the west, looking to strike it rich in trade and treasure. The Spanish conquistadors surprisingly found allies in locals subject to Aztec rules, and when Aztec religious omens foretold prophecies of a Spanish defeat that never came, it made it all too easy to take over, and even moreso with technology and weaponry not previously seen in the Americas.

Interestingly enough, Catholicism took root for the same reasons, and now Latin America has some of the highest follower numbers in the world, whereas European countries from which the religion came have seen a steady decline. Missionaries and monks did their work, but it was again the fact that the Aztec prophesies were so demonstrably wrong that drove people away into a new faith where they were persuaded to find a new sense of purpose and higher power. And while the Spanish tried to use images of a powerful Jesus to convert the locals, it was his most vulnerable depictions — bloodied, on the cross — that caught on with the populace instead. My visit here to Mexico is timed for Easter (Pascua/Semana Santa), which is taken so seriously that everyone gets one or even two weeks off.

Of course, Spanish rule wasn’t better than Aztec rule, just another cruel one but without the human sacrifices. They plundered all the riches from the Americas and funneled them back to Europe, and of course used slave work. But most crucially, disease introduced from Europe — typhoid, smallpox, measles — ravaged a population of some 25 million to just 2 million in one century. Another long story very short, 300 years fomented enough significant dissent for a revolution, and an independent Mexico was born in the 1800s (…followed by years of industrialisation under a dictatorship and another revolution that lead to the deaths of 1/8 of the entire population, a new constitution which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, and a still-complicated recent history… but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.)

Oh, odd little tidbit, Mexico’s flag has the Tenochtitlan legend of an eagle eating a snake, atop of a cactus. While both eagle and snake each only have one head, it does bring to mind Turkmenistan’s national symbol. Strange coincidence?

Anyway, onto the here and now. Mexico’s history is most reflected in its centro histórico. That includes the previously-mentioned Zócalo and national palace, but it’s also got a whole lot of colonial buildings, along with a pedestrian street, leading to the Torre Latinoamericana, one of the world’s first skyscrapers built in a seismically-active area. And active it is, but not only that, the city’s built on a lake bed that it’s sinking into… just look at all the leaning buildings! Even the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Museum/Opera House) isn’t immune.

Not far away are Paseo de la Reforma, the European-inspired giant avenue of skyscrapers, the aforementioned Chapultepec which is really a giant forest, the hip neighbourhoods of Condesa and Roma full of tree-lined streets shading hip restaurants, and Plaza Garibaldi, which in the evenings turns into a comical sight (but pleasing sound) of roaming mariachi bands serenading anyone who’ll pay them for a song.

More interesting to me were stops a little further afield: way at the southern edge of the city in what used to be its own city, the now-borough of Xochimilco retains a somewhat different character, like a typical Latin American town with its colourful houses, small cathedrals, small square as the center of all activity, and chaotic market. What makes Xochimilco unique however is that it’s full of canals. A remnant of an old agricultural and transportation system, now it’s just used to ferry residents and tourists in large, garishly-decorated boats loaded up with beer. Hehe.

A little closer to the center of the city is Coyoacán, another own-village-turned-borough. It’s got a huge, colourful square prime for people-watching, and some good eats around. (Actually, all of Mexico City does: I did not cease to snack on tacos and churros the entire time.) But of course, it’s the former home of arguably one of the most famous Mexican artists in the world that brings everyone here.

Frida Kahlo’s very, very blue house (La Casa Azul) is in the neighbourhood, and it takes hours of lining up to get a visit. I admittedly knew little to nothing about her before going, but I really can’t help but admire her art and her circumstances: debilitated by pain nearly her entire life due to polio and a car accident, her mixed-media art speaks frankly, unafraid to tackle controversial subjects. In what are mostly self-portraits, her art depicts pain, infertility, and a volatile relationship with artist Diego Rivera in stark, violent imagery, but other works cover subjects likely considered scandalous at the time (1930s-50s), like her bisexuality, support of communism (she and Rivera even hosted Leon Trotsky for years), and melding of indigenous folklore and Catholic themes. But arguably just as famous as her paintings is…well, her herself. Confined to corsets and forced to use a fake leg after an amputation, she embraced Tehuantepec dress, jewellery, headpieces, and other colourful elements emphasizing her mixed ancestry and traditions, in a very successful effort to remove focus from her disabilities yet still be the center of attention.

She’s not the only famous artist, of course. For one, her husband — who began more famous than her — is a prominent muralist, and there are murals in pretty much every prominent historical building in the city that bear his responsibility. Tons of others follow suit as well, and seeing wall-sized depictions of heady concepts like traditions, human rights, and graphic depictions of revolutionary ideals is pretty awe-inspiring. Stylistically, it’s just like the country itself: neither entirely Spanish nor indigenous, but a meld of its own.

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