Magical Mexico City

May 31, 2024
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AFTER OAXACA, I flew to Mexico City (no more bus rides!) I had a good view of the tall towers of the inner city from my window, at a hostel called Viajero.

This skyline looked more modern than anything I’d seen in the provinces. Is this part of Mexico going like China, I wonder?

A tower under construction in Mexico City

As in other cities that I’d visited on this trip, I joined a free tour of the historic downtown area. This was one that the hostel provided.

The ‘Historic Centre of Mexico City and Xochimilcho’ is a World Heritage site, one of the 35 World Heritage sites in Mexico.

A highlight of the tour was the Palacio de Bellas Artes, shown in the next photograph. The word ‘Patrimonio’ on the banner refers to the fact that the Palacio is part of the World Heritage Site.

Construction of the Palacio de Bellas Artes began in 1904 but took another thirty years due to soft lake soil underneath and the Mexican Revolution, which ironically broke out in the year the Palacio was supposed to have been completed.

Here is a view of the entrance to the Palacio, which wouldn’t have looked out of place in nineteenth-century Paris: though it was a bit old-fashioned by the time it was completed in 1934.

Along with the marble statues under its walls, the Palacio is also accompanied by four different representations of the famous winged horse of Greek mythology, Pegasus.

In one that I took a picture of, Pegasus appears as the mount of the god Apollo, captured in the moment of Apollo’s attempted abduction of the nymph Daphne, who resists by changing into a laurel tree.

It’s rather good, actually, even if Bernini’s representation of the same incident is the one by which all others are measured.

Another important monument is Mexico City’s Angel of Independence, erected in 1910, a year before San Salvador’s Angel of Liberty: the one that holds a garland in each hand.

Mexico’s Angel is stepping forward with her right foot, the left one dynamically backward and in mid-air, almost as if she is running.

Here is a close-up of Mexico’s Angel — who is, strictly speaking, Nike, the Greek goddess of victory — atop the column. Indeed, this photo, which looks like a drone shot, was taken the very month I was there.

Nike/Angel of Independence, Mexico City. Photo by ProtoplasmaKid, 28 April 2024, CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed via Wikimedia Commons.

At the base of the column, there is a group called ‘Apotheosis of the Father of the Nation’. It celebrates a wonderfully named priest named Don Miguel Gregorio Antonio Ignacio Hidalgo y Costilla Gallaga Mandarte y Villaseñor, known as Don Hidalgo for short, who in 1810 issued the Grito de Dolores, the Cry of Dolores (nowadays Dolores Hidalgo, a town in Mexico where it was delivered).

In the Cry of Dolores, Don Hidalgo urged the inhabitants of New Spain, as the Spanish-ruled part of North America was still known, to rebel against the rulers of Spain, who were allied to Napoleon at the time.

It seems that what Don Hidalgo was seeking was a restoration of the old regime. But in practice what happened was that Mexico and Central America became independent instead.

Apotheosis of the Father of the Nation (1905), photo taken on 28 April 2024 by ProtoplasmaKid, CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed via Wikimedia Commons.

Under Spanish rule, the indigenous people had been allowed to keep much of their communal lands. But after independence, many Mexicans and Central Americans ended up landless.

The landless, held to number nearly half the population of Mexico by 1910, became the foot-soldiers of revolution.

After the Revolution, Mexico would come to symbolise itself, more and more, with indigenous images and less and less with European-style statuary.

Above all, there was a sudden explosion of an entirely new art form that drew heavily on indigenous pride. This was the mural painting, which often harked back to the supposed glory days of the Mayans, Aztecs, and kindred peoples, and at the same time, forward to a Utopian technological future.

Despite its conservative exterior, the Palacio de Bellas Artes was fated to become Mexico’s main museum of post-revolutionary murals.

The following is a scene from a grisly one by David Alfaro Siqueiros called ‘The Torment of Cuauhtémoc’, inside the Palacio, which depicts the conquistadors torturing Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor, laying there stoically in a metal helmet, and a less-brave companion, under the gaze of a rabid-looking dog.

The memory of Cuauhtémoc lives on in the first name of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the first elected mayor of Mexico City, and in the name of the downtown borough of Mexico City.

Cuauhtémoc is also commemorated by a late nineteenth-century monument in downtown Mexico City.

The monument to Cuauhtémoc. The monument bears the names of four other Aztec commanders who fought the Spanish on its sides: this side honours a general named Cacama.

Perhaps the most famous of all Diego Rivera’s murals, and indeed of all the murals, is in the Palacio. It is called Man, Controller of the Universe, a complicated allegory about progress and the wise use of technology.

Man, Controller of the Universe, as seen from the left side: Charles Darwin seems to be staring back at me!

Here’s a video that explains what that mural means, in detail:

(I’ve reproduced another of Rivera’s murals, about the Guatemalan coup of 1954, in one of my Guatemala posts already. And I have a couple more photos of his ‘industry murals’ in a post about Detroit.)

Near the Palacio, there is the former College of San Ildefonso, which is called by some the very birthplace of Mexican muralism, as it was decorated with murals shortly after the revolution had run its course, in the early 1920s.

Here is a mural in the Simón Bolívar Amphitheatre in San Ildefonso: Bolivar was the leader of the independence of the northern part of Spanish-speaking South America.

And here are a couple of other murals that I photographed in San Ildefonso.

One of the most recognisable Mexican murals in the outdoor setting, as opposed to being inside a building, is the following work by Siqueiros, called El pueblo a la universidad, la Universidad al pueblo (‘The people to the university, the university to the people’), located on the side of the administration building of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. It is not a flat mural but has raised elements, like a painted sculpture.

‘Administrative building of the National Autonomous University of Mexico on the campus of Mexico City.’ Public domain photograph by Régis Lachaume, 21 November 2006, via Wikimedia Commons. Siqueiros’s ‘El pueblo a la universidad, la universidad al pueblo’ is the mural art in the foreground.

Here are some video scenes I filmed, of a tap dancer in the streets, lots of people riding bicycles — that caught my eye — and my own encounter with Man, Controller of the Universe.

We would have visited the Palacio Nacional (National Palace), which has another amazing Diego Rivera mural inside, but it was closed because of protestors who had driven a pickup truck through the front doors early in March.

Palacio Nacional, Mexico City. Photo by Dirk Ingo Franke, 20 July 2015, CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed via Wikimedia Commons.

They had done so in protest against the slow pace of official investigations of the disappearance of the Ayotzinapa 43, forty-three student teachers who were part of an earlier protest convoy in September 2014.

The Ayotzinapa 43 were arrested by rural police on their way to Mexico City. After that, they were quite simply never seen again, save for three whose fragmentary skeletal remains eventually turned up in lonesome places.

There is a lot of violence and crime in Mexico, and it pays to stick to the touristy areas.

Even in Mexico City, there are no-go areas for foreigners, such as the barrio or neighbourhood of Tepito, which is only about four kilometres northeast of the Angel of Independence.

Incredibly, Tepito has been known for banditry since Aztec times. These days, it has markets where all kinds of counterfeit and quite possibly stolen goods are sold.

As is sometimes the case with bandit areas, the people in Tepito have a strong sense of belonging and looking out for one another, captured in the saying that to be Mexican is a privilege but to be from Tepito is a gift from God.

All the same, the tourist is advised to stay well clear. In fact, there are several other rough neighbourhoods in the inner city, such as Colonia Doctores, even closer to the Angel than Tepito. And the outskirts are also quite lawless as well.

Next week, I will explore the downtown area further, including a trip to the National Anthropological Museum.


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