Ciudad de Mexico, November 2019
“Revolution today, tomorrow, and always,” proclaims the white hand-scrawl on a black T-shirt at the Monument to the Mexican Revolution.
The shirt’s 235 peso price tag in a country with a 102.68 pesos per day minimum wage (188 pesos in states bordering the USA) is not really proletarian, but nor are any of the other souvenirs in the chic gift shop of this imposing memorial; with its colossal sculptures of liberty, justice and unity.
Yet revolution is not a relic of a bygone age, in North America’s most magnificent city. The spirit is infused into personal and collective memory, woven into the very street names and streetscapes replete with statues, and the animating spirit of people who know that justice is always a work in progress.
Mita and I have taken a short-stay studio flat in the historic centre, just behind the National Museum of Art.
Stepping out on a Tuesday morning, there is a clamour outside the Chamber of Deputies (lower house of parliament) at the other end of the block.
A small but enthusiastic gathering of flag wavers, mostly older, is demanding social justice, and a return to the populist glory of Benito Juarez, the indigenous leader (from the Zapotec nation in Oaxaca), born in 1806 who became a lawyer and eventually president. The first great indigenous president in a country where more than four of five Mexicans are of mixed Indigenous and European ancestry. Legislators address the crowd from the steps, a lawmaker-to-people connection that can and should be part of any vigorous democracy.
There is a relatively small contingent of police looking on. quite the contrast from the previous evening, when a grand march against femicide — hundreds of women carrying lit candles and pink crosses — remembered the murdered and missing girls and women who number in the legions. Indeed, note the rally organisers, nine women a day are murdered by their intimates each day.
The evening parade, on the international day to stop violence against women and girls, is a moving sight indeed, as the marchers call out the names of the dead: “Justice for Marta!” “justice for Epifania!” “justice for Maria!”
The legions of riot police, locked shield to shield, are not there to disrupt the march.
A squad of female police officers, red LED lights sparkling on their shields, leads the marching women.
There is no menace in the overwhelming police presence on the parade route: along Bellas Artes park, past the National Museum of Art, past the Metropolitan Cathedral, and on to the Zocalo, the grand plaza that is the heart of the nation.
Rather, their job is to protect the splendid monuments along the way. Metal barriers block access to Bellas Artes Palace and the Benito Juarez Memorial; the statuary behind the barricades sheathed in plastic. This is an ideal compromise: the graffiti is sprayed on the plastic as the protesters make their point, and a small army of cleaners stands by.
They soon are needed at the Juarez Memorial itself, impossible to fully protect, soon covered with pink spray paint demanding an end to feminine, and green graffiti seeking justice.
By morning, the memorial is once again pristine, expressing the gratitude of the nation to the president who essentially founded the United States of Mexico.
At the Zocalo itself, the odd streak of graffito found its way beneath the plastic wrapping the statues. Yet one was completely untouched: the imposing bust of Cuauhtemoc, the last tlacoatl (supreme leader) of the Aztec nation, defeated by the forces of the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes in 1521.
When Cuauhtemoc ascended to rule, more of his people had died from the smallpox spread by the Spaniards than in battle. A cousin of the slain emperor Montezuma II, Cuauhtemoc was the last hope to save the Aztecs from the Spanish invasion.
In the Spanish conquest, the great Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan became Mexico City. The ruins of the imposing Aztec shrine the Templo Mayor, today remain beside the Metropolitan Cathedral, on the northern edge of the Zocalo.
Cuauhtemoc, aged only 25, handed Cortes a knife upon his capture and asked to be slain on the spot. Cortes refused, and decreed that Cuauhtemoc should continue as tlacoatl, under Spanish rule.
Alas, it was all a ruse. The Spaniards were after Aztec gold. When they found less than they expected, they literally put Cuauhtemoc’s feet to the fire. There is a heart-rending depiction in MUNAL, the National Museum of Art, in Leandro Izaguirre’s 19th century painting The Martyrdom of Cuauhtemoc.
Astonishingly, the deposed emperor survived this torture, only to be hanged by the Spaniards in 1525 when no more treasure was found.
In Izaguirre’s painting, it is no accident that Cuauhtemoc is depicted as a Christ-like figure, with a serene expression as his feet sizzle under the pitiless gaze of his Spanish tormentor.
Izaguirre’s painting is a milestone in the seamless weaving of Catholicism and indigenous Mexican culture.
More than a cultural mingling, indigenous and mestizo (mixed origin) Mexicans share a common history of exploitation, brutality, and misery inflicted by colonial masters. Even after the Spanish empire was comprehensively defeated and ousted in 1869, the lot of peasants, labourers and woke remained mired in cyclical poverty.
The vast scale of Mexican suffering is barely made comprehensible when one follows Diego Rivera’s murals behind the ample colonies of the Ministry of Education. Here are images of a people struggling for everything, from the human right to have footwear in mines, to the human right to actually consume enough of the corn they harvest to stave off starvation.
Through these struggles, faith became a sustaining force, the one repository of hope.
Which is why the people rose as one when the parish priest of the village of Dolores, Miguel Hidalgo y Castillo, ordered the freedom of 80 Mexicans imprisoned for revolting against the Spanish imperial masters. Flanked by Ignacio Allende, Hidalgo took to the steps of the church to ask how long would Mexicans suffer? Surely it is time, he said, to rise up against the hated Spaniards who stole the land from your forefathers three hundred years ago.
Thus was Cuauhtemoc avenged. Within days Hidalgo’s el grito de Dolores (the cry of Dolores) resonated throughout the land. An Insurgent force led by Vicente Guerrero, Ignacio Allende, and the Royalist soldier turned insurgent Agustin de Iturbide launched a war against the Spanish empire. It was to last 11 years, with the independence of Mexico finally confirmed by treaty on 27 September 1821.
Yet independence did not mean a material improvement in the everyday life of Mexicans. For a century after, Mexico remained a dictatorship, with bonded labour, debtor prisons, and scant regard for the well-being of ordinary people.
Even so, the spirit of the people would not be so easily crushed. Diego Rivera’s evocation of the Mexican Everywoman, grinding mozotle for the daily bread, today has a place of pride in the MUNAL.
A century later, Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, and Francisco I. Madero were among those who led revolt in 1910 against the three-decade plus dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, launching the revolution which echoes throughout Mexican public life to this very day.
This too lasted a decade, including a two year civil war which pitted revolutionary factions against one another, abetted by the overt interference of the United States of America, which supported different factions throughout.
When an interim government was formed, with President Francesco I. Madero and his Vice President José Maria Pino Suarez brought a measure of stability until they were assassinated in 1913. this precipitated the 1814-15 civil war in which both Villa and Zapata were assassinated.
When the revolution’s outcome brought a definitive end to dictatorship by 1917, the U.S.A. decided Mexico a “Bolshevik regime” that must be changed.
Years of turbulence followed. Finally, having consolidated the different revolutionary factions, General Lazaro Cardenas del Rio used his presidency from 1934 to 1940 to bring in land reform, lay the foundations of social justice, and to cement the separation of church and state.
Nonetheless, the Cry of Dolores still finds resonance in the life of the people.
At Sunday mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral (as a Hindu, I accept all faith traditions that profess love as their guide, no matter how flawed or fraught their practice) the congregation packs the pews of the enormous church with standing-room crowds spilling into the entry.
Dressed in magnificent gold-threaded raiments, the 48-year-old Auxiliary Bishop of Mexico City, Salvador Gonzalez Morales, projects a tangible sense of compassion as he follows the censer-bearer in a cloud of incense through the congregation, pausing frequently to bless the very young and the very old.
The fine timbre of his voice, the soaring cadence of his liturgy, mark him as a future prince of the church and perhaps more (his superior, the Cardinal Archbishop of Mexico, is in his late sixties). He has a definite presence, one I have sensed in perhaps a dozen political leaders in my lifetime.
Yet it is the quality of Salvador’s sermon that is most compelling. He speaks of the necessity of reconciliation: of all people, of all faiths and none, of all cultures.
It is only through open-hearted acceptance of the Other that humankind can ever find peace, he preaches. It is a flaw of the human ego, he says, to think that any one is superior to another, that narrow nationalism or a narrow adhesion to faith can ever lead us to discover one another’s common humanity.
The message resonates deeply, and there is a palpable warmth in the church as strangers exchange handshakes blessing each other with divine peace.
This sense of easy acceptance is rooted in something deeper. From chic pastry shops to roadside chefs griddling fat gorditas on a portable plancha, this a city where none bows in deference to another. No matter what the economic circumstance, dignity infuses every human interaction.
On our way back from the floating gardens of Xochimilco, Mita and I walk through a working-class neighbourhood where everyone holds their head high, and are all too ready to help strangers asking the way.
(It is amusing to find that as I scrape the rust off my Spanish, our interlocutors start engaging Mita, who looks much more Hispanic than me, looking puzzled when she says she doesn’t understand. She has taken to showing people her Canada cap, which is when the smiles return).
This sense of fellowship transcending the barriers of language and culture is very much the current of civic life in Mexico City.
It is all the more satisfying, because Greater Mexico City is home to 21.9 million people (of whom 8.9 million are in the city proper).
Yet despite the endless stream of people wherever one goes, there is seldom a hint of menace or aggression. Even the sprawling public transit system, remarkably efficient, feels as safe as Shanghai — a similarly populous, but much wealthier, city.
What is truly striking is the integration of heritage into the physical landscape of the city — and not just Mexico’s. The Museum of Memory and Tolerance is a reminder of the higher aspirations of humanity, showcasing the pursuit of non-violence as a means of healing the world.
And reminders of the past can come unexpectedly to life.
On the plaza flanking the ruins of the Templo Mayor and the Metropolitan Cathedral, the sound of a conch shell pierces the evening air. An offering of fruit is artfully arranged amid around braziers of fire and incense in what was once the heart of Tenochtitlan.
Drummers strike up a rhythm, as the heirs of the Aztec tradition begin an exuberant dance. Collective memory comes alive, among the dead stones of the religion they lost and the religion they found.
There is happiness and reverence here, a celebration so infectious that none but the hard-earned can fail to bathe in the energy that is generated by an abundance of joy.
Thus is kept alive the memory of Cuauhtemoc and Moctezuma. Not as statues or museum pieces, but as a living evocation of that bygone age.
Yet another reason Ciudad de Mexico is in my heart, now and forever more.
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