Alameda Park, Casa de Azulejos

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Mexico Series: Part 10Mexican Flag

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We’ll turn around now and head toward Alameda Park on the Western side of the Centro Historico, looking at two important buildings — Palace of Iturbide and Casa de Azulejos-before crossing Alameda Park and heading to the Franz Meyer Museum to see the collection of Viceregal art. That cup I showed you is from that collection.

Palace of Iturbide

The Palace of Iturbide, built in the 18th century ,belonged first to the Count of San Mateo Valpariso, an incredibly wealthy silver mine and cattle baron. Story goes the count gave this palace as his daughter’s dowry. She was marrying a spendthrift son of the Sicilian nobility — the Marquise of Moncada. In order to protect his money, the Count of Valparaiso sank 100,000 pesos (sort of like building a 15-20 million dollar home now) into this piece of real estate. On the request of his future son-in-law, the most famous architect at the time — Francisco Guerro y Torres — was hired and instructed to build the future home as a replica of the Palace of Palermo in Sicily. The interior courtyards are Renaissance with Tuscan columns, and it was the first four- story building in the New World.

You know you’re in trouble when your son in law requests a replica of a famous palace for a home. After the Count of Valparaiso died, the Sicilian son-in-law entered into countless legal battles with his mother-in-law over money and finally fled Mexico for Sicily under mysterious circumstances. He was never seen again the New World.

In 1820, Agustin Iturbide, emperor of the brief First Mexican Empire after the War of Independence, claimed this building as his palace. Hence the name Palace of Iturbide. There is a fascinating story of Iturbide’s son who married an American diplomat’s daughter, which is the subject of a wonderful novel — the “Last Prince of Mexico”, by C.M Mayo. I’ll tell you more of the story in the next part of our tour. But just to finish up, the Palace of Iturbide is now owned by our own version of nobility –the bank. In this case, Banamex, where they hold fabulous art exhibits.

And last, The Casa de Azulejos.

Casa de Azulejos

Built by the Count of Orizaba in 1737 and completely covered on three sides with tiles, it shows again the wealth of the Mexican upper classes, the blending of architectural styles, the Moorish from the mudejar — the tiles themselves are from the moors through Spain and were made in Puebla, a town an hour or so southeast of Mexico City. You can also see the Baroque decorative elements around the doors and windows.

In this building what you are also witnessing is the rise of the Creole class’s identity as Mexican as opposed to Spanish, a rising awareness of their own power and wealth. This awareness combined with legal discrimination against the Creole class erupts in the War of Independence in 1810.

Casa de Azulejos Restaurant

Anyway, this is where my mother and I would often have lunch, and I still love it to this day. So we’ll stop here for a limonada just to imagine all the history of the building.

The street at the time the Casa de Azulejos was built was called Calle Plateada because of all the silversmiths and silver merchants on the street. Later during the late 19th century the building was the location of the most exclusive men’s club in the capital—the Jockey Club. If Mexican television ever made its own version of Dawnton Abbey, scenes would have to be shot here. We’ll also look at a famous Orozco mural in the patio dining area.

We’ll leave the Casa de Azulejos, now owed by the fourth richest man in the world — Carlos Slim of TelMex. How he became so wealthy could be the subject of yet another novel, this time by Carlos Fuentes or even Roberto Bolano. We’ll wander through Alameda Park to the Franz Meyer Museum to look at the household furnishings and get a sense of the lifestyle of the rich and famous in 17th 18th century Mexico.

Alameda Park Fountain

A bit about Franz Meyer and his collection. Franz Meyer was a wealthy Jewish financier who came to Mexico in 1920. At that time no art collectors were interested in art of Colonial Mexico, so he picked up all these remnants of the Viceregal Period and donated them and the Colonial building to the City of Mexico.

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Palacio Nacional in Mexico City

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Mexico Series: Part 9Mexican Flag

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Palacio Nacional Mexico City

We can look in front of us now at the Palacio Nacional, built by Cortes as his personal palace and government offices in the fifteen hundreds.The red stones used to build the Palacio Nacional are called tezontle, and they came from the buildings of Moctezuma—the private dwellings and pyramids of the Aztecs. Tezontle is a light weight volcanic rock and rather easy to chisel into bricks. The sober structure is embellished with Baroque touches in the Churrigueresque style, a particular kind of Baroque façade developed in Spain that reached its height in Mexico. Inside the Palace itself you will find yourself skipping ahead to the 20th century the magnificent murals of Diego Rivera depicting the history of Mexico. Just one thing, notice the window in front of the Palacio. The trim is Baroque, the bell is from the war of Independence and the little face above the awning — the face of the Aztec god Tlaloc — layers of Mexican history.

Cathedral Mexico CityWe’re going to leave the Majestic and walk around, over to the Cathedral, where we’ll notice the types of architectural styles employed during the 200 years it took to complete this cathedral — Gothic, Baroque, And Neo-Classical. We’ll look at two particularly exhuberant Baroque elements — the front of the Tabernacle and the Altar of the kings. This is what the wealthy merchant class spent money on — massive amounts of gold leaf.

As we walk, you’ll notice how uneven the stairs and so on are, that’s because the whole city is built on what was formerly a lake. After a big flood in 1630, the Spaniards had the whole lake drained, but needless to say the 17th century engineering feat was less than successful, which is why Mexico city to this day deals with sinking and flooding.

Sor Juana Inez de la CruzAfter that we’ll wander down a side street to the former 16th palace of one of Cortez right hand men, now the Museum of the City of Mexico. We’ll pass the giant serpent head used as a cornerstone of the building that came from the great pyramid itself, and then we’ll head down another street to the Cloister of Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz. No trip to Mexico City with a writer would be complete without a pilgrimage to her study.

So who was Sor Juana? Only one of the most important poets in the western hemisphere. She lived in the mid-16 century, achieved great heights of learning at a time when even well born women could barely read. She was the very beautiful illegitimate daughter of a wealthy creole woman. At age 13 or so she was sent to live in the court of the Viceroy in Mexico where she became the Vicereine’s favorite companion.

At 16 she entered a convent, where, because of her close relationship with the Vicereine, she was granted incredible privileges. Her study walls were lined with hundreds of books and she spent her time studying and writing poetry — many of them it is believed — were love poems to the vicereine herself veiled in formal verse and with religious allusions. The brooch at Sor Juana’s neck carried an image of the Vicereine and when the viceroy was commanded back to Spain, Sor Juana lost her protection was forced to confess her sins and to give away her books and live in a simple cell until she died a few years later.

Building where Sor Juana Lived till her Death

Books, plays movies etc. have been made of her story, whole university departments are devoted to the study of her life and work. Perhaps the best way to get a feel for viceregal Mexico is to read some of these accounts.

Or you could do what I’m doing and read a trashy romance published last year by a California writer, a Harvard grad no less and another student of Sor Juana. The book is called the “Sins of Josefina.”

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Manila Acapulco Galleon Trade Route

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Mexico Series: Part 8Mexican Flag

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Manila Acapulco Galleon Trade RouteThe accounts of travels on the Chinese Galleon, the Manila Galleon, the Nao de China — the ships were called many things — were harrowing. It was a six month journey to cross over from the Phillipines to the coast of southern California always with the threat of running out of water or being caught in a typhoon. From California, the vessels sailed down the coast of Mexico to Acapulco where they stayed for many months until the winds were right for the three month voyage back.

Once anchored in Acapulco bay, the trading companies set up markets, and all the wealthy merchants from Mexico City descended on Acapulco to barter and haggle for goods to fill their shops.

And those shops were right here below us in the first floors of all the buildings you see here in the Zocolo in this painting of the Zocolo in the 1600s.

Marquesas and CondesasJust imagine wealthy silver mine barons and merchants and Spanish Lords wandering in and out of these arcades on their way to the Palacio Nacional of us, past all the overflowing shops. Imagine Marquesas, and Condesas — because royal titles were also something that could be bought by pure Spanish blood creoles — dressed in gowns made of these opulent silk brocades purchased in the Port of Acapulco. Here’s a a description from a visitor to Mexico in 1625.

“I am astounded by the thousands of horse drawn carriages that do exceed in cost the best of the Court of Madrid, for they spare no silver of gold, nor the best silks of China to enrich them. Both men and women are excessive in their apparel, using more silk than stuffs and cloth. A hat band of pearls is ordinary in a tradesman. And in the hat of a merchant you will find rosettes of diamonds.”

Remember this was at a time in our own country when the pilgrims were stomping around in the mud of Plymouth Colony.

Daughter of a CaciqueThe women would be wearing collars of convent-made lace from France purchased in Veracruz, their hair studded with pearls and quetzal feathers, as they were carried by liveried Indian servants on silk canopied sedans. Here’s one such young woman — Daughter of a Cacique. In their hands they would hold a coconut shell chocolate cup like this. These cups were part of every well-established household, a sign of status, and even bringing them to mass was such a common practice that the bishops complained about it to Rome! What I love about this little household object is that it is absolutely Mexican — the silver, the coconut and the chocolate. It is little details like that which begin to show a rising sense of a national identity apart from Spain. This would, of course, erupt later.

These ladies would have left homes that cost 300,000 pesos to build — at a time when a good living in Mexico could be had for 300 pesos a year — homes where each family member had between 2-4 servants to attend to their every need. Is it any wonder as Spain mired itself more deeply in debt that industrious young Spaniards found their way to the New world?

Many came as newly graduated law students and government bureaucrats. Along with the elegant ladies, these young men would be seen rushing across the plaza on their way to the Palacio Nacional, hurrying to court or to attend to the endless duties of running the Spanish empire in the new world.

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Centro Historico

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Mexico Series: Part 7Mexican Flag

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Now to the Cento Historico . . .

Palacio Nacional

The best place to observe the Zocolo, the Palacio Nacional, and the Metropolitian Cathedral is from the roof terrace of the old Majestic Hotel. It’s a bit down on its heels these days, which makes it all the more bohemian. When the Mexican writer and former ambassador to the US Carlos Fuentes was asked to write about the Palacio Nacional for the Mexico’s bi-centenial, he choose this terrace as the place to take notes for his article.

Majestic Hotel

Here, high above the noise and hustle and bustle, you can begin to image life in the zocolo during the Viceregal Period in Mexico — that 300 year period from the conquest to the War of Independence.

ZocoloWithin 100 years after the conquest, Mexico would go from being a Spanish outpost in the new world to one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world. The conquistadores’ search for precious metals finally hit the motherlode, so to speak, in the silver mines of Mexico during the mid-1600s. By then the power and prestige of the conquistadores had waned — in fact Cortez himself was reduced to re-enacting the conquest once a year in an annual pageant in the zocolo much like Buffalo Bill and his Wild West shows — and a new merchant class had arisen.

The utopian vision of the early clergy, which had seen that the first printing press in the new world was established and the first university, which had tried to mitigate some of the harsh realities of the Indians lives if only to still have souls to save had been overlaid by a huge group of Spanish immigrants who filled the government offices with letrados, or government bureaucrats, and the courts with judges, lawyers, the church with increasingly misogynistic clergy and of course the Inquisition.

Manila GalleonInto all this poured the lower echelons of the Spanish ruling class, those with titles but no money who could marry well and confer status to a wealthy creole daughter and any one with a get-rich-quick scheme. Really, the characters in this period could populate volumes of historical romance novels with villains and beautiful maidens and thieves and poor but noble heroes, Dickensian pickpockets and Margaret Mitchell Rhett Butlers.

In a certain way, the story of Mexico in the 17th and 18th centuries is a story of silk and silver. The silver mines in Zacatecas and Taxco yielded unbelievable amounts of ore. In fact, the total amount of silver in the world at that time — the mid 1600s — doubled within a few years because of Mexican silver production.

The ports of Acapulco and Veracruz opened up the New World to trade with Europe and the east and silver bullion was the currency. Through the port of Veracruz came wine, olive oil, olives, — why we have the famous dish huachinango Veracruzana made with those ingredients from the old world — Venetian glassware, furniture from Europe and so on. Through the port of Acapulco aboard the Manila Galleon came the riches of the east: silk, pearls, Chinese porcelain, teas and spices, mahogany wood, and if I were writing the novel there would be opium, of course!

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Tenochitlan and Coyoacan

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Mexico Series: Part 6Mexican Flag

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La MalincheAbout the sacrificial platform — The Aztecs believed the gods were weak and required human blood, especially blood of the human heart to succeed in the battle over the forces of night. I’m not going to dwell on this. It really requires a more complete understanding of the Aztec worldview and religion than I have time for here. I think it is important to understand ALL of Mexico’s history to understand Mexico City not just focus on its pre-Columbian past, so I have to edit this talk or we’ll be here for days!

We don’t really know how Aztec society would have developed, whether human sacrifice would have been abandoned and the emphasis on art and poetry, technology, and craft would have won the day. One thing we can be fairly certain of is that there would have, at some point, been a rebellion against Mexica tyranny. In fact, there was. When the Tlaxcalans formed an alliance with Cortez and when La Malinche, the slave girl given to Cortez, acted as a spy enabling the Spaniards to escape slaughter at the hands of the Cholulans, these acts were manifestations of that rebellion.

But at any rate with the aid of La Malinche — pictured here in Diego Rivera’s mural — Cortez marched into Tenochtitlan in 1519 and within two years had completely vanquished the Aztecs.

Bar OperaI am not going to go into all the battles, Moctezuma’s weaknesses, capture and death, the Noche Triste when the Spaniards were defeated and had to escape with their lives, smallpox during the Spanish siege of Tenochitlan, the capture and torture of Cuahtemoc, the last emperor of the Aztecs. Only to say that by 1521, the Aztecs were defeated, the city of Tenochitlan razed and Cortez began to establish the first Spanish capital in Mexico. For that, he settled in a Tepanac stronghold called Coyoacan.

We”ll now spend some time in the impressive Museum of the Templo Mayor to take a look at the Aztec art and then wander over to the Bar Opera, into which Pancho Villa once rode his horse and shot a hole through the wall, where we can knock back a few tequilas to celebrate our first day in Mexico and also the end of longest section of my talk.

Day Two Coyoacan:

When the Tepanacs, enemies of the Mexicas, invited Cortez to build his capital in Coyoacan, the city was separated from Tenochitlan by rivers and forests. Today the sprawl of Mexico City has reached Coyoacan, but still it is a wonderful place to spend the day, full of parks, charming side streets and lovely little plazas, like the one surrounding the first church built in the new world — Capilla de la Santa Maria de la Concepcion Imaculata, or La Conchita as it is called.

La ConchitaIn this church, we see the blending of the old and new worlds, the mudejar arch of the moors, the early Baroque and so on, the indigenous religion — the sun and the moon and the floral pattern in the reliefs on the church facade. We see the artistic manifestation of the social experiment, if you will, of mestizaje, a mixing of the races that took hold in Mexico as in no other country in the western hemisphere and shaped its art, architecture, government, economy and even its national psyche.

This simple church, the first one built in Mesoamerica, would be followed by another small church for the Indians called Santa Caterina and finally, once Tenochitlan was habitable again, by a small church in the Zocolo, or Plaza Mayor, of what was now the new Mexico City. It would take two hundred years to become the magnificent, baroque Metropolitan Cathedral that it is today.

However right now before we leave Coyacan, we’ll have to psychologically propel ourselves out of the 16th century and into the 20th century for a stop at Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul just a few blocks away.

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