Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Mexico's Main Square

Mexico City's main plaza is center stage for today’s commemoration of the start of the Mexican Revolution.  Although last year on this date there was a military parade, traditionally the 20th of November's event is a parade with an athletic focus.  Many events crucial to Mexico’s history and character have happened in the plaza, known as the zócalo. 

In other Spanish-speaking countries zócalo is an architectural term referring to the base of a monument or column. The most frequently heard explanation for calling Mexico City’s central plaza the zócalo is that a pedestal was built there for a statue of the king of Spain. The statue took so long to arrive that people started referring to the pedestal itself as a meeting point or landmark, as in "I'll meet you at the pedestal," or "my house is three blocks north of the pedestal."  The name zócalo caught on and spread to every Mexican town and village square. 

Mexico's famous novelist Carlos Fuentes came up with another explanation for the name. He calculated that 25% of our modern Spanish vocabulary is of Arabic origin.  He theorized that the root of the word zócalo is zuc, the Arabic word for market.  Mexico City's market was in the southwest corner of the city square.  Fuentes pointed out that in New Spain there was even a title of nobility for the Señor del Zuc, the Lord of the Market.

To get to the heart of the matter I spoke to Mexico’s zocólogo, Obed Arango Hisijara. He got that moniker as a student at the National School of Anthropology where he extensively studied the zócalo. Obed says that the zócalo is the place that gives significance to the nation's historical events.  He says “there is no other plaza in the world that has such strength of significance in which the important and historical events of a country need to take place.  Red Square in Moscow and Revolution Plaza in Havana may be thought of has having similar importance but they lack the zócalo's ancient history.  The zócalo goes back to Aztec times.  For Grand Tenochtitlan it was the center of the universe."  

However he added that it could hardly have been in a worse location, located in the middle of a lake on a swampy island. But the regime named it the center of its world.  Sometimes the significance of social spaces is based on the importance we give them, in spite of their geographic location. 

Obed speaks about a many-faceted zócalo -- as the symbol that gives structure and strength to ritual. It can be the stage for governmental and non-governmental events of all kinds.  During Christmas and New Years' holidays it hosts an ice-skating rink.  Last Friday it hosted a fashion show complete with a runway.  It literally hosts stages for concerts. It is the parade ground for the annual military parade and sports parade.  Photographer Spencer Tunick even used it for his most massive photo shoot of 20,000 carefully arranged nude people. 

The zócalo is the setting that does, and must, witness all the relevant and important events of the nation.  Obed asks "If Villa and Zapata hadn't taken the zócalo and entered the palace would the Revolution have triumphed?  Of course not.  If Iturbide hadn't been crowned emperor in front of the Altar of the Kings in the Cathedral, would it have been an official event?  If Benito Juarez had not entered the zócalo he wouldn't have defeated the Imperial forces.  If Victoriano Huerta hadn't taken the zócalo during the 'ten tragic days' he wouldn't have been able to overthrow Madero and Pino Suarez.  If every first of May the president hadn't greeted the workers under the PRI administrations they would have been weak regimes.  If the Zapatistas (from Chiapas) hadn't entered the zócalo on their march to Mexico City, they wouldn’t have concluded their march. Even though congress has moved to other locations, and the president prefers his office in Los Pinos, where else can the military parade be held?  Or the sports parade?" 

The various powers are all represented on the zócalo.  The federal government is on the east, the city government on the south, the church on the north side, and although the main market is no longer there, the arched portals on the west side represent the commercial force. 

Author and social critic Carlos Mosivais said the zócalo has been the center of power generation after generation.  But not only that, it fills with the people who live on the fringes of power. It is a place of daily protests -- some small, some fill it up completely.  Some protestors come in for the day, some camp out and stay for weeks. However it is no longer a place where they are listened to.  Perhaps it would behoove the government to dialog with the protesters since without this release they take their protest elsewhere to places that are more disruptive to city life.

Regardless of today's events:  military parade, sports parade, or something low key, Obed Arango, Mexico's zocólogo, invites us to think of the zócalo as a museum of living and vibrant Mexico.  The museum's rooms are the buildings surrounding it, each with their own fascinating displays.

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