A fertile volcanic valley with abundant resources, a long growing season, and pleasant climate gave rise to the sophisticated culture that built Teotihuacán, once the largest metropolis in the Western Hemisphere. Teotihuacán was a planned city with straight roads, plazas, government buildings, and spectacular ceremonial pyramids. The city reached the height of its powers in AD 550, but was abandoned in around AD 750. The Aztecs arrived from the north, initially as mercenaries and workers. Around 1325 their god Huitzilopochtli advised them to settle where they found an eagle on a cactus devouring a snake. This they observed in Tenochtitlán. The Aztecs were ruthless fighters and by the 1420s controlled the beautiful and extensive city. They developed a firm hierarchy with an emperor, and their conquests spread to the east and south. Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador, landed with his troops near Veracruz in 1519. As he marched toward Tenochtitlán, then ruled by Moctezuma II, he joined forces with the Tlaxcalans, a strong tribe that resisted Aztec dominance. After a bloody and destructive siege in 1521, Cortés was able to defeat the Aztecs. The Spanish built Mexico City on top of the ruins of Tenochtitlán. Silver mined all over Mexico fueled the city’s expansion and the building of large palaces. When the silver industry declined, the city stagnated for much of the 17th and early 18th century.
“La Ciudad de Mexico,” preserves the name the city’s indigenous founders gave to the island that they created, the founders who also took that place-name to identify themselves (the Mexica, or “people of Mexico”). The origin and etymology of this Nahuatl name, “Mexico,” is poorly understood; the Codex Aubin of 1576–1608 says that the Mexica had taken the name of their deity Mexitli, while more recently the linguist Gordon Whittaker has argued that it is a place-name contracted from words meaning “the center of the moon,” with the “moon” referring to the surrounding lake. Its pre-Hispanic adoption may date to after 1473, when Tenochtitlan’s conquest of its northern neighbor on the island, Tlatelolco, called for a name to describe the entire island; or it may have been the name that the immigrants, once united in their era of peregrination before 1325, used from the outset to name the island that Huitzilopochtli chose for them to settle.
On September 16, 1810, Padre Miguel Hidalgo famously called for independence from Spain. But the city remained a royalist holdout until 1824 when a federal republic, the United States of Mexico, was formed. Turbulent years followed and from 1833 to 1855 Santa Anna became president 11 times. The USA invaded Mexico in 1847 and occupied Mexico City for ten months. During the battles in Bosque de Chapultepec, six young cadets, the Niños Héroes, leapt to their death rather than be captured. Mexico’s most loved leader, Benito Juárez, came to power in 1855. He enacted laws that restricted the power of the Church. A bitter war ensued, and finally in 1861 the liberals won and Juárez was elected President. In 1863, a French army invaded Mexico and the brief rule of Austrian Emperor Maximilian I began before he was deposed and executed in 1867. In those four years he remodelled the Castillo de Chapultepec and built the boulevard, today called Paseo de la Reforma. After the Republic was restored, Juárez returned to power until his death in 1872. Dictator Porfirio Díaz came to power in 1872. Authoritarian yet visionary, he modernized the education and transportation systems. But the divide between rich and poor increased, and when the Díaz government annulled the 1910 victory by opponent Francisco I. Madero, the Mexican Revolution began. The Revolution ended with Álvaro Obregón taking control in 1920. Under the ensuing stable government, Mexico flourished and its capital grew exponentially, and it continues to grow today.
The history of accounts of life in Mexico’s capital stretches back to pre-Columbian times, when the poet-king Nezahualcóyotl devoted dozens of poems to celebrating the natural beauties of the valley of Mexico. As the conquest unfolded, Spanish conquistadors often digressed from their bureaucratic dispatches to the king of Spain to extol the marvels of the Aztec city, which Cortés compared to Venice. Once Mexico City had become the capital of New Spain, Bernardo de Balbuena composed Grandeza mexicana (1627), the continent’s first epic poem, hailing the grandness of the Spanish city that had risen over the ruins of the Aztec capital. And throughout the nineteenth century, illustrious travelers from Fanny Calderón de la Barca to Alexander von Humboldt chronicled the splendors and incipient urban problems of a city that had become the capital of independent Mexico. The literary corpus about the city grew steadily in the twentieth century, as figures like Artemio de Valle-Arizpe and Salvador Novo became official “chroniclers of Mexico City,” and wrote thousands of pages depicting the colorful streets of a sleepy town that had not yet awakened to the crude reality of life in the twentieth century. In the 1950s modernity struck the city like a speeding train, a collision Carlos Fuentes narrated in his 1958 novel, Where the Air Is Clear. Since the 1950s, Carlos Monsiváis has emerged as the undisputed chronicler of the city, and his texts examine an aspect of the city that had been ignored by his predecessors: the popular culture—from songs to sayings to the texts on T-shirts— flourishing on city streets.
Nonetheless, the city described by Humboldt or Novo has very little in common with the megalopolis of today. Aside from a few buildings in the Centro, there is almost nothing left of the wonders described by generations of awe-struck writers: gone are the Aztec water canals that Spanish conquistadors described as a “Venice of the new world”; gone are the majestic baroque buildings that graced the eighteenth-century capital; gone are the unobstructed views, the fresh mountain air celebrated by Humboldt; gone are the tranquil streets and the small-town atmosphere chronicled by Valle Arizpe; and gone is the orderly, modernist city of the 1940s that made Salvador Novo proud of living in one of the world’s metropolises.
Palacio Nacional was originally the site of Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II’s palace, but Cortés built his own palace there after his victory. In 1562 it became the residence of Mexico’s viceroys and the headquarters for all of Spain’s colonial government in Mexico.
The boulevard Paseo de la Reforma was built in the 1860s by Emperor Maximilian I to connect Castillo de Chapultepec, his official residence, with the Palacio Nacional. First known as the Causeway of the Empress, it was inspired by the Champs-Elyseés in Paris. It was renamed after the restoration of the Republic in 1867.
Zócalo, also known as the Plaza de la Constitución, is the cultural, political, and historical center of the city. It was called Zócalo after only the plinth (zócalo) was laid of an independence monument commissioned by President Santa Anna in 1843, but never completed.
Parque Alameda Central is the city’s oldest park with elegant fountains and shady paths. It was once reserved for the exclusive use of the aristocracy. That practice ended after the War of Mexican Independence in 1821
Plaza Santo Domingo, one of the oldest colonial plazas, is best known today for the Portal de los Evangelistas, where public scribes still write business and love letters for the city’s poor and illiterate. In the colonial era the plaza was surrounded by the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo, the Palace of Inquisition, and Customs Tax Collectors.
Just outside of Mexico City, the Pyramid of the Sun, in Teotihuacán, the greatest city in Mesoamerica, with its ancient ruins forms one of the world’s biggest and most impressive archeological zones. Visitors can climb the third largest pyramid in the world, stroll through ancient palaces, and see fabulous ancient murals. Another locale for excursions into remote past, Tula, the capital of the Toltec nation, rose to power in the 10th century, after the fall of Teotihuacán. The most important ruin here is the Pyramid of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (Pyramid of the Morning Star). Four towering Atlanteans, the famous monumental carved stone warriors, crown the pyramid. Other ruins include the Wall of Serpents, ball courts, and the columns of the Burnt Palace.
These architectural gems that enshrine Mexico City’s thrillingly interwoven history are peculiarly reflected in the flavors and textures of Central Mexican cuisine. With intense colors and spices, Mexican cuisine blends flavors from Aztec, Spanish, African, and European heritage. Corn is the cuisine’s foundation and is ground to make flour for tamales and tortillas. Antojitos is a broad category of small dishes served as appetizers or snacks, a typical antojito could be created atop small tortillas or pan fried flatbreads and might include layers of spiced bean paste, sautéed herbs or chopped vegetables, cheese, and small bits of meat. Most Mexican soups, sopas, have a chicken or tomato base. Rich herbs and spices create flavors that are uniquely Mexican. Tortilla soup, albóndigas (meatball) soup, and Mexican lime soup, are favorites. Some of the most characteristic drinks include pulque, made from fermented cactus juices that can be traced back to Aztec times, and horchata, a traditional iced drink, reputed to be a cure for hangovers, and made from almonds, powdered rice, cinnamon, cane sugar, and limes.
Urban life in Mexico City is cyclically invigorated by festivals and processions that celebrate communality and mythic dimensions of the nation’s history. Feria de la Flor más Bella del Ejido
Xochimilco celebrates the arrival of spring, its floriculture, and the ancient Aztec goddess of flowers with a week of festivities in late March or early April. Music in the streets, an abundance of colorful flowers, and family events typify this small-town style festival. One of the highlights is a competition for the most beautifully decorated trajinera, or flat boat. Another set of significant festivities commemorate the valiant defense of Tenochtitlán by the Aztecs, led by Cuauhtémoc, against the Spaniards. Brilliantly costumed concheros perform ritual pre-Hispanic dances on August 13 at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas.
Finally, las Posadas are Christmas processions and plays re-enacting the story of Mary and Joseph seeking lodging, as well as the nativity scene and nightly events throughout the city in the days leading up to Christmas, December 16–24. Candle- and lantern-lit processions fill the streets heading to churches for mass. The Zócalo is decorated with lights and major performance venues hold special events.
Mexico City is one of Latin America’s cultural capitals, home to one of the most influential publishing houses in the Spanish speaking world (Fondo de Cultura Económica), a booming film industry, a lively music scene, an irreverent political cabaret, spectacular museums displaying a cultural heritage ranging from pre-Columbian sculpture to revolutionary murals, and the world’s largest university, the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM), with a student enrollment of over two hundred fifty thousand taught by almost thirty thousand faculty members. And above all, the city is one of the most vibrant urban spaces in the world. One has only to walk through the Centro Histórico to find streets brimming with life and crowded with flâneurs, flirtatious students, Indian dancers, food vendors, fortune tellers, political activists, and peasant protesters. Together they form an unlikely cast of characters that turn the city into a vast stage for unpredictable everyday dramas: a chaotic, vibrant, delirious city.
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