After I left Adrián at around 5:30PM or so, I went to see the Zócalo. What an amazing space! This was once the center of ancient Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztecs who occupied the Valle de Mexico before Cortés arrived and systematically destroyed the indigenous culture. According to Aztec legend, it was the center of the universe. Now, it was the center of Mexico City. The Spanish destroyed the Aztec temples to construct the cathedral from the already-old stones. And they probably used the other stones to build their palatial government buildings and luxurious residences that surround the Zócalo to this day.
The whole area is quite grand, in a faded kind of way. And it stands as a stark testament to Spain’s once-lofty imperial powers. Everything is on a grand scale. The cathedral is massive, and it’s surrounded by government buildings that can only be described as Imperial.
A few blocks out lie the residences of the grandees, multiple-thousands of square feet, usually three or four stories high, surrounding open atriums, decorated vigorously in the Spanish baroque style. The Zócolo itself is one of the largest public spaces in the world, (#27 according to Wikipedia—surprisingly far down the list given its size) and easily covering a good 30 acres. And to this day, it’s still the heart and soul of Mexico City, the place where everyone congregates, the place where the country’s president still reads the Grito de Independencia every September 16th, the place where disgruntled unions camp out, the place where political protests form, and the place where festivals and fairs of every stripe take place. If nothing else is going on, you can always come to the Zócalo to take in the “scene.”
Compare that with what the English settlers had in Boston. Paul Revere’s house, built in 1680, is one of the few survivors, as nearly all early construction was of wood. Despite being the home of a prosperous silversmith, the house is small with seven foot ceilings, narrow halls, and an overall very utilitarian feel. Most of the later colonial buildings in Boston are of similar ilk—small, utilitarian, and evidence of people who were basically just scraping by. Our largest public squares — City Hall Plaza and Copley Square — came well after the colonial period, in the 20th and 19th centuries respectively.
How things change. Arguably, the British ascendancy that began with the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588) and gained steam with the industrial revolution is still continuing with America now holding the reins. Spain, once the richest nation on earth, has faded to near-irrelevancy, notable now for being home to the tattered remains of one of Europe’s worst real estate bubbles, and a likely epicenter for the next financial crisis. The Zócalo itself, the center of one failed empire, is also the major outpost of yet another failed empire.
As I wandered the old stones of the Zócalo, these and other thoughts flooded my mind.
Would Adrián show up the next day when we were supposed to meet?