I signed up for a class on Mexican history in my junior year of college, I had
no idea that it was going to change my life. But the more I learned about
Mexico, the more attracted I was to this culture. I revelled in the sounds of
the few Spanish words I understood, the unique shouts of the mariachi singers
whose music I bought to practice my Spanish, and the bright yellows, pinks,
oranges, and greens in the Mexican dresses that my history professor wore to
One day, this same professor, dressed in an ankle length, bright yellow
dress and long, cherry-red earrings, presented our class with a photograph of
the Zócalo, Mexico City’s main plaza, taken around the turn of the 20th
The photo was met with a collective gasp from the students who were familiar
with the Zocalo. "I can’t believe it ever looked like that!” commented my
friend, Elaine. I had never actually seen the plaza, so I was more surprised by
how many of the students were familiar with the place than I was by the picture
itself. In that moment, I decided I would be sure to visit the Zócalo if I ever
got to see Mexico City.
Not long afterward, I’d obtained a scholarship to study in Mexico City, and,
at my first opportunity, I took the crowded underground metro to the "Zócalo”
stop. The second I surfaced from the underground metro station, I was overcome by
the feeling of being in the middle of a place with so much history! I had never
seen so many historic buildings in a single space. In my hometown, a
two-hundred year old building could be a historic monument and here I was
surrounded by buildings that the Spanish began to build in the sixteenth
century – on the ruins, and in many cases, with rocks taken from the demolished
constructions of an even older society!
A Mexican flag waved in the center of this great cement square plaza, one of
the largest plazas in the world, surrounded by the National Palace, the seat of
Mexico’s government, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and more. It was quite
different from the picture that my history teacher had shown the class: cable
buses had been replaced by cars circling the plaza and tree-lined pathways were
replaced with cemented-over open spaces.
my semester abroad, when-ever I had free time, I hopped on an old metro train
and headed downtown to explore a little more of the Zócalo and the neighborhood
that surrounds it; the whole area is often referred to as the centro histórico,
or historic center. When I came back to Mexico City, two years later, I decided
to stay. For six years I lived there, and my visits to the Zócalo became even
more regular, but the beauty and the history of this place continue to impress
It seems only natural to me now that the first time I heard about the Zócalo
was in history class. The Zócalo and the whole of the downtown area is one of
the most historically significant places not only of this city, but of Mexico.
Not only is its rich history still apparent in its art and architecture, but it
continues to be a vibrant community center that still makes history. If you
want to get to know Mexico, it is one of the best possible places to start.
In the southwest corner of the Zócalo, there is an unassuming statue that
relates the story of the Aztec founding of their capital city, Tenochtitlan in 1325.
The Aztecs were a wandering group, but according to Aztec legend, one of the
gods foretold the Aztec’s arrival in this place, a place where they would not
only settle but rise to greatness and create an empire. This god instructed
them to settle in the place where they saw an eagle with a snake in its mouth
perched on a cactus. According to Aztec legend, the Aztecs established their
capital city where they saw this foretold sign, and the statue in the Zócalo
depicts the scene: an eagle, holding a snake in its mouth, perched on a cactus
— a reminder that Mexico City is built on the ruins of the ancient Aztec
capital, and that this was its center.
preserved ruins of the Aztec’s Templo Mayor, located on the northwest corner of
the plaza are evidence that the Aztecs not only built their city on the ground
where Mexico City stands today, but that today’s Zócalo was also the area at
the heart of the Aztec’s capital city.
This was the largest and most important building in the Aztec capital. It
was discovered and excavations began in the 1970s. Most of the objects found at
the Templo Mayor were offerings to the gods. A variety of these artifacts are
on display at the Templo Mayor Museum, just next door.
This temple, dedicated to the Aztec gods of rain and war, this was the
center of Aztec religious life – and the site of the famous Aztec human
The National Palace
conquering the Aztecs in 1521, the Spaniards decided to locate the seat of
their government in what had been center of the Aztec’s capital city. The
National Palace, on the west side of the plaza, is the center of national
government, and was built directly on top of the ruins of palace of the Aztec
ruler, Moctezuma. The conqueror Cortés began built this building, although it
has been modified several times.
The liberty bell that hangs from the center of the palace is the bell that
Father Hidalgo rang to call his parishioners to fight for freedom, thus
beginning the Independence movement that ended in 1821.
Diego Rivera’s great mural, Epic of the Mexican People..., painted between
1929 and 1945, runs along the staircase and walls of the palace’s second floor.
It murals tell the story of the political life of the country from the time of
the conquest (which is shown as the destruction of an idealized Aztec way of
life) to the future (here, Marx is shown pointing the way toward a better
future). These murals are a must-see for any visitor to Mexico City.
The Metropolitan Cathedral
Not only did the Spanish set up their government in the middle of their
conquered people’s capital city, but they established religious control here as
well. The churrigueresque cathedral that was built on the northern side of the
Zócalo is the largest in Latin America. While construction began in the 1573,
the building project went on for nearly 300 years, and you can see several
artistic styles represented in its structure, paintings, statues, altars, and
Parties and Protests
year, late in the evening of September 15th, the Zócalo is the place to be for
the most popular celebration of Mexico’s Indepen-dence Day. The plaza fills up
with party seekers who, looking for a good time, toot noise makers, spray silly
string, and randomly smash confetti-filled egg shells on passersby (especially
on those who stand out a little – like tourists!). The government provides
enter-tainment as well, including popular Mexican singers who often show up in
traditional dress to sing time-honored Mexican tunes. The high-light of the
evening comes as the president emerges from inside the palace and stands on a
central balcony overlooking the plaza. He gives a speech about celebrating
independence, national heroes, and the culture and values of the country. While
each president adapts the speech to the concerns of his time and his own
agendas, he weaves through the speech the several national heroes and values.
With the mention of each hero -- ¡Viva Zapata! – or values -- ¡Viva la patria!
¡Viva México! – the president yells and the crowd shouts back ¡Viva! in unison.
At the end of his speech, the president rings the bell that was originally rung
by Father Hidalgo when he incited the movement for Independence, and fireworks
ring out in the plaza as well as other parts of the city.
The Independence Day tradition is a special time to visit the Zócalo, yet
you may find crowds gathered here at other times too. It is a favorite location
for protests and sit-ins. In June of 2004, some 250,000 locals, most dressed in
white, walked silently down the Paseo de la Reforma, one of Mexico City’s
principal thoroughfares, toward the Zócalo, eventually filling the plaza.
The plaza also filled after the 2006 presidential elections. Andrés Manuel
López Obrador, who had lost the election, made the plaza inaccessible for
travellers as his protesters (in the tradition of Mexican politicians, many,
local newspapers reported, were paid for their presence) claimed he was the
legitimate president of Mexico.
Art in the Zócalo
More recently, on el 5 de mayo, 2007 the plaza was again filled, but this
time it was full of volunteers interested in helping to make art. A crowd that
any politician would be proud of assembling – an estimated 20,000 — came out on
a chilly May morning to take off their clothes and pose nude for Stephen
Tunick’s latest photographs. The photos included scenes of the crowd saluting
the great flag in the center of the plaza and laying in fetal positions in
front of the cathedral.
For thousands of years, the Zocalo has been the center of community life in
Mexico City. Holidays, elections, protests, artmaking — this is the place to be
in Mexico City, the place where history continues to be made.
Where to Stay
Ave. Madero 73, Col. Centro,
It doesn’t get any closer to the Zócalo than Hotel Majestic where individual
rooms have balconies overlooking the plaza and the restaurant on the hotel’s
top floor has some of the best views of the plaza you can find. Rates go up for
Independence Day and reservations are booked far in advance. So, if you are
planning to be in town in September, call ahead.
Sheraton Centro Histórico
Av. Juarez 70, Col. Centro,
No hotel in the downtown area offers more luxury than this. There are spas,
gyms, and a pool. Rooms and hallways are decorated with historic images of the