Mexico City: History, Art, Culture and Politics

It turned out to be quite an adventure in traveling to Mexico City from Dulles Airport.  Our flight was delayed by five and a half hours since the original plane was out of commission and United had to find a new plane for the flight to Mexico City.  We arrived at 2:30 AM on Monday morning rather than 10 PM Sunday evening and found that the driver we had booked had abandoned us so we found a taxi to take us to our hotel.  Fortunately, the hotel was pretty nice and we did get some sleep before venturing out the next morning.  We stay at NH Collection Mexico City Centro Histórico, Palma 42, Centro, 06000, Mexico City.  I would recommend this hotel since it was conveniently located close to the central historical part of Mexico City, the staff was very friendly and the restaurant was very good.

On our first day, we walked to the central square of the city, the Plaza de la Constitucion, commonly known as “Zocalo”, which is the second-largest square in the world and the first among Spanish-speaking countries.  The plaza is 46,800 square meters.  We went into and walked around the Cathedral Metropolitana and walked around the Templo Mayor before heading back to the hotel.

Mexico City was founded in 1325 and is the oldest city in the Americas. Its original name in the local indigenous language (nahuatl) was Tenochtitlan or Mexico-Tenochtitlan, and it was recognized and preserved by the Spanish Crown in the 16th century.  According to Mexica mythology, they were signaled by their principal god Huitzilopochtli to build their home where they saw an eagle resting on a cactus with a snake in its beak.  It was the capital of the Aztec Empire which had approximately 300 thousand people, a larger population than any European city at that time when it was conquered by Spain. Subsequently, it was the capital city of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, the two Mexican Empires (in the 19th Century), the Mexican Republic, and the current nation of Mexico.

The next day, the group walked back to the Zocalo to the Templo Mayor, which was the site of the main temple of Tenochtitlan and regarded as the center of the world by the Aztecs. It was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, and Tlaloc, the god of rain and agriculture.

The Templo Mayor Museum was inaugurated in 1987. This building was designed to exhibit the archaeological findings of the zone that used to be the Main Temple of the Mexica people. The collection shows the political, military, and aesthetic relevance of the city that dominated Mesoamerica before the Spaniards arrived. The Coyolxauhqui monolith discovery in 1978, enabled the archaeologists to find the exact place where the pyramid stood since the Huitzilopochtli myth tells that he threw his sister down from Coatepec mount.

In the afternoon, we walked to the Federal Secretary of Public Education. Built as a convent in 1594, The Incarnation Convent was one of the greatest convents in Colonial Mexico. Today, it’s the headquarters of the Federal Secretary of Public Education with a magnificent display of work done by the master Diego Rivera, having more than three thousand square meters of mural paintings. In his murals he depicted various work activities, paying homage to the arts, to national heroes and ideals, as well as fertility. He developed his own concept of the transformation of the human being, recreated various Mexican celebrations, and elaborate on scenes related to revolutionary social struggles.

Unfortunately, I was ill the next day and missed the visit to the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, or the National Museum of Anthropology. Built-in the 1960s, this large and prestigious museum houses over 52,000 pieces in 23 exhibition rooms. Among its collections are pieces from the Teotihuacan, Toltecs Mexicas, Mayans, and other cultures. One of the most important items we will see is the Aztec Calendar carved in stone.  Clare reported that it was a very good experience, giving high marks to go and see the museum.

In the morning, the bus took us to La Villa de Guadalupe, where there are two Basilicas, an old and new Basilica, as well as the Capuchinas Convent, and stand on the Antrio of the Americas. The basilica is the most visited sanctuary in Latin America housing the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. On the way, our guide told us the story of St. Juan Diego and the apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1531. Originally the site of a shrine to a mother goddess, the conquistadors destroyed the chapel and adapted the location into the parish, eventually building the Old Basilica which was completed in 1709. Due to a sinking foundation, the New Basilica was constructed next to it from 1974 to 1976, creating a dichotomy of old and new.

Later that day, the Road Scholar team took us by bus on a field trip to visit the Teotihuacan Pyramids and its archaeological site where the Road Scholar expert provided a history of Teotihuacan and how it became the sixth largest city in the world between 150 BCE and 450 CE. Teotihuacan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the pyramids are the centerpiece of the holy city that once hosted a population of at least 125,000 people. Some of the most famous temples include the Temple of the Plumed Serpent and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon.  To me, this was one of the highlights of the trip to Mexico.

The next morning, we went to the Coyoacán neighborhood. Once an independent village on the shore of Lake Texcoco, Coyoacán welcomed the Spanish and served as the headquarters of Hernan Cortes and the conquistadors. Its name comes from a Nahuatl word of which the exact meaning is unknown but most likely means “place of coyotes.”  We visited a church before walking to visit the Frida Kahlo Museum, also known as Casa Azul. The museum is housed in the building where Kahlo spent most of her life and was donated, along with its contents, to be a museum in her memory by her husband Diego Rivera. The museum displays several works of art by the couple and other artists, in addition to displaying the lifestyle of Mexican artisans and bohemians in the first half of the 20th century.

From the Frida Kahlo Museum, we took a bus to Lake Xochimilco has actually been a part of 5 historically significant lakes for a long time. Lake Xochimilco was created by the global melting of glaciers after the ice age. Heat has become an obstacle to filling the lakes with new waters from melting snow. As a result, the water level in the lake system began to decline sharply. In the 14th century, the Aztec tribes who settled on the shore of the lake began building new dams to was created Lake Xochimilco. We boarded trajineras for our lunch time tour of the canals where we learned why that the area had been designated as a World Heritage Site. Established on the shores of Lake Xochimilco, the borough of Mexico City has retained its own identity from the capital just to the north. Xochimilco was built on artificial islands called chinampas that created more than 100 miles of canals and connected many settlements in the Valley of Mexico – what is roughly comparable to the modern day Federal District.

We were further entertained by a group of minstrels who were brought on board to celebrate one of our groups birthday. This certainly added to the color of the trip down the canal.

The next day we went to the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM), known is the Maximum House of Studies. UNAM was founded, in its modern form, on 22 September 1910. It is consistently ranked as one of the best universities in Latin America. A portion of UNAM’s main campus in Mexico City, known as Ciudad Universitaria (University City), is a UNESCO World Heritage site that was designed by some of Mexico’s best-known architects of the 20th century and hosted the 1968 Summer Olympic Games. Murals in the main campus were painted by some of the most recognized artists in Mexican history, such as Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. With acceptance rates usually below 10%, UNAM is also known for its competitive admission process.

On our final day together, we went to the Palace of Fine Arts to be mesmerized by a presentation of the famous Ballet Folklorico de Amalia Hernadez. I, for one, was dazzled by this display of dance and music that reflects the various genres and art forms from across the country.

Afterwards we were accompanied by our local expert in continuing to explore the Palace of Fine Arts (Palacio de Bellas Artes) that was built in the place of the first National Theater of México in the early 1930’s. We had an opportunity to explore the marvelous interior which is primarily a combination of Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles, the grand building is divided into the main hall with smaller exhibition rooms, the theater and the institute’s offices.

As we made our way back to the hotel, we met a very large demonstration, estimated to be 100,000, for voting rights in Mexico. The demonstration was very peaceful and we made our way back without a problem.

Later, Clare and I walked back to the Palace of Fine Arts and walked to go to the Museo Mural Diego Rivera to see the famous mural Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central, meaning “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central” Painted from 1946 to 1947, the 51-foot-long mural depicts famous individuals and events in Mexican history.

2 thoughts on “Mexico City: History, Art, Culture and Politics

  1. Marc, thank you for sharing this marvelous blog with us. This is like taking our wonderful trip all over again! You certainly absorbed an amazing amount of information, and your photos are lovely. I’m now planning to read some of your other blogs. Thanks for preserving and presenting these wonderful memories! Frank Segall


  2. Hi Marc,
    This is a wonderful blog, full of such interesting facts! Your pictures are outstanding! I’m glad you and Clare had such a good experience.


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