Book examines Mexico City’s public history

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image: Architecture professor and urban historian Benjamin Bross has written a cultural history of Mexico City’s Zócalo, using the public plaza and the historical events that took place there to explain the emergence and evolution of Mexican identities in the over time.
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Credit: Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — For 700 years, Mexico City’s public square, known as the Zócalo, has been the site of many of the country’s most important events.

Benjamin Bross, professor of architecture and urban historian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, wrote a cultural history of the Zócalo based on urban planning, using the public square and the historical events that took place there. to explain the emergence and evolution of Mexican identities over the years. time. Her recently published book, “Mexico City’s Zócalo: A History of a Constructed Spatial Identity,” explores how spaces embody socio-cultural identity and how identity is shaped by those spaces.

“Our attachment to spaces produces a feeling of belonging. In many ways, we generate a sense of who we are by where we live and how we live them. I believe that environments shape, to some degree, how we see the world,” Bross said.

The Zócalo is a public space that all Mexicans can share, and the square and its activities are the product of social, cultural, economic and political values ​​found in the different components of Mexican society – the state, the the powerful and the elite, the working class and the marginalized, Bross said.

“In a nation as regionally diverse as Mexico, with hundreds of ethnicities, cultures, and living languages ​​and dialects, few things or places are seen as common to all Mexicans like the shared embrace of the Zócalo as the symbolic heart of the country,” he wrote.

Throughout Mexico’s history, its different national identities have played out there, beginning with the migration of the Mexicas (Aztecs) to the Valley of Mexico. Surrounded by other indigenous groups who arrived earlier, the Mexica claimed an unoccupied island in the middle of a lake, where they built their capital, Tenochtitlan. The sacred precincts of the city contained palaces, temples and other ceremonial buildings, with a market next to it – the first incarnation of what was to become the Zócalo.

After the Spanish conquest of the region, the invaders demolished the sacred enclosure and built their new capital in the same place, using the stone from the Mexican structures to build churches, palaces and administrative buildings for the Spaniards, said Brush. Originally named Plaza Mayor by the Spaniards, the space was renamed Plaza de la Constitución in honor of the Spanish Constitution of Cadiz of 1812, which remains the official name of the public square.

In 1624, citizens revolted after the Spanish viceroy launched harsh political and commercial reforms that included the arrest and expulsion of the archbishop from Mexico. Bross said the event changed the nature of the space from a passive market to a contested political space.

The Zócalo was also the backdrop for a major moment in Mexico’s independence from Spain. Mexican Independence General Augustín de Iturbide marched through the square in 1821 with the Army of the Three Guarantees behind him, “reaffirming the square’s central role as a major civic space,” Bross said. “He stepped into the square to show that the Mexicans were in control now. An agreement with the Spanish crown for independence had already been signed. It was really a question of staging and imagery.

The Zócalo events also changed the way Mexicans perceive their national identity. For example, Bross said, photographs of civilian victims of the 1913 coup during the Mexican Revolution, known as the Tragic Ten Days, galvanized citizens across the country and sparked the bloodiest part of the conflict.

“It’s the heart of the nation, and here are these young people, not just soldiers loyal to a democratically elected government who were shot in defense of a democratically elected president, but also innocent bystanders who were in the wrong place at the wrong moment. It was a wake-up call,” Bross said.

So did the brutal crackdown on student protests leading up to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The protests began in the Zócalo and ended days later in a nearby neighborhood, Tlatelolco, where the government violently dispersed protesters, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of students.

“It made many Mexicans realize that the state was not democratic. It started a real pushback against one-party rule since the 1920s,” Bross said.

At the same time, the Zócalo retained its symbolic importance as the starting point for the 1968 Olympic marathon. It was “a clear indication of how the organizers of the Mexican Games felt that the crowning moment of the Olympic Games should Zócalo,” he said.

Another major transformation occurred in 1997, when the city established a policy allowing the square to become a place of peaceful protest.

“It’s a very big moment. It is the mark of a truly democratic society to have places where people can demonstrate without fear of state repression,” Bross said.

“With each transformation, its spatial identity has been enriched,” he said of the Zócalo. “Spaces matter. They inform and shape our attitudes and our relationships in the public realm, and therefore towards each other when we form a community.

Editor’s note: To contact Benjamin Bross, send an e-mail to bbross@illinois.edu.


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