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Monuments in Mexico City: Ideology Wrought in Stone

The ideologies held by powerful elites in Mexico City have had profound effects on Mexico’s development as a country and the lives of Mexicans all across the country. During our four days in the city we visited many sites that powerfully demonstrated different eras in Mexico's history and the ideologies held by the elites of each period.

The first place several class members visited after dropping bags at the hotel was the enormous central plaza of Mexico City, called the Zócalo. This 57,600 square meter plaza was once the center of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. To the north lies the Metropolitan Cathedral, the largest in the western hemisphere, and to the east is the national palace, the seat of the Mexican presidency. The Metropolitan Cathedral was built over the course of nearly 250 years, from 1573 to 1813, on the site of the Aztec Templo Mayor, the religious center of Tenochtitlan. Part of the National Palace was originally constructed as the Palace of Hernan Cortes, who conquered the city in 1521, out of stone from Moctezuma's palace, on the site of what was the center of power of the Aztec empire for generations. In these overwhelming buildings and square we can see the naked imperial ambition of the Spanish conquistadors. They erased the military theocracy of the Aztecs with a military theocracy of their own, based in the Catholic church and semi-feudal military domination.

The next historic period begins with the Mexican war for independence, which ran from 1810-1821. This war was instigated by criollos of Mexico, the Mexican-born descendants of Spanish colonizers. Though they were Europeans by blood, their rights and privileges were much more limited than their European-born contemporaries. Although they sought independence from a european empire, the criollos still looked to Europe as the source of civilization and advancement, while the many indigenous cultures and epic history of Mexico's pre-contact civilizations were repressed. Throughout the 19th Century the European “Enlightenment”, Romanticism and economic liberalism were deeply in vogue among the elites in Mexico City, their enthusiasm for which would be most fully realized during the thirty year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.​

During our time in Mexico City the influence of this time period was obvious. Parisian style boulevards. sumptuous palaces, classical statues and monuments adorn the downtown. Their luxuriousness contrasts with the heavily used, utilitarian infrastructure of the city and the legions of police we saw. Perhaps the clearest example of the 19th century's obsession with Europe is La Reforma, a wide boulevard in the business center of the city decorated with statues and leading up to a giant roundabout surrounding the monument to Mexican independence, a tomb of war heros decorated with statues of feminine classical representations of Peace, Law, Justice, and War and friezes of Greek and Roman themes. Above the tomb rises a marble grecian column topped with a giant golden statue of an angel. The only vaguely indigenous theme represented on the monument is the image of the eagle clutching a serpent on one of the friezes. This symbol is based on the Mexica legend of the founding of Tenochtitlan, later Mexico City, on the site where an eagle ate a snake while perched on a nopal cactus.

After thirty years of dictatorship and economic growth for the wealthy at the expense of the poor, Mexico erupted in the Revolution of 1911, which wore on for most of a decade. Once the dust settled, a new constitution had been adopted, and the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, established its hold on power which would last 80 years. The PRI pursued a nationalistic ideology which lead to redistribution of privately held land to form communal ejidos, the nationalization of foreign oil companies to create PEMEX, and a bold style of government works intended to create a unifying Mexican identity incorporating the country's mestizo population.

This change in ideology was clearly visible when our class visited the enormous art deco Monument to the Revolution and the National Museum of Anthropology. Both sites are truly immense and reflect the aggregated strength of Mexico as realized by the Nationalist government. The Monument to the Revolution utilizes statues of bold, round, human figures that are a distinct departure from the pompous neoclassical statues of the Porfiriato. The monument looks out over the entire city, which stretches past where smog and mountains define the horizon.

The National Museum of Anthropology represents a later period of the Revolutionary/Nationalist government. It is sprawling, filled with exhibits charting the prehispanic history of all regions of the country, from early agricultural villages to the climax of the Aztec/Mexica empire. It is a beautiful example of the celebration of the Mexican nation and the millenia of history that underlie it.

A darker monument to the Nationalist period is at the “Plaza of the Three Cultures”, where Mexica ruins, a colonial church, and a 1960’s government housing complex share a single site. Here in 1968 the government massacred students protesting of the summer Olympics to be hosted in Mexico City, leaving scores dead and 1,300 arrested. At this plaza we see the authoritarian side of the Nationalist government. This anti-democratic streak weakened the PRI’s popularity. During the 1980’s and 1990’s the government began to allow gradually more open elections, culminating with the election of Vicente Fox of the PAN party in 2000.

With the rise of Vicente Fox a neoliberal ideology, which had begun to dominate among the ruling elites of Mexico since the 1980’s, became entrenched. In practice neoliberalism meant the privatization of state-owned monopolies and the welcoming of foreign products and corporations by reducing tariffs and other restrictions. The monuments to this ideology are not as obviously demarcated and definitely receive fewer tourists than those of other eras. We could probably count among them the rows of skyscrapers that house the headquarters of Coca-Cola and Monsanto as well as those of the now privatized BBVA Bancomer and Telcel, the largest bank and telephone companies in Mexico respectively.

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