By Tommy Clarkson from the May 2014 Edition
More than 1.6 billion people ride Mexico City’s subway each year making it the world’s eighth largest people mover, just behind New York. While not displaying the mayhem we’ve seen on TV, etc. of India’s public transportation where people cling to the outside of trains and buses, it seems no one in Mexico while waiting to get on accepts that each subway car will not hold a few more people. What makes it work well is that these gentle people are accepting of life as it is and allow those who appear most in need the right of way.
While the official population of the city is something over eight million, the greater metropolitan area population is in excess of 21 million. This metro area includes the population that lives in the ‘Valley of Mexico’ which is really a contiguous area that includes the mostly dry central lake bed and extends into the higher valley sides.
Speaking of elevations, Mexico City’s elevation is listed as 7350 ft. meaning much of the surrounding populated area is higher. Slipping over the rim of the Valley of Mexico heading south on a beautiful four lane toll road requires reaching an altitude of more than 10,000 feet, and to emphasize the population concentration. On this road one quickly arrives at Cuernavaca with a population of more than three million.
The original city of Tenochtitlan (below), estimated to have been 3 – 5 sq. miles in area, was established by the Aztecs in 1325 and constructed on a somewhat elevated area of land in Lake Texcoco. The Aztecs were great engineers and constructed dams on tributaries that flowed into the lake/basin, providing them with clean drinking water as well as some control of flow into the lake. Cortez and the Spanish defeated the Aztec empire in about 1521 and destroyed the dams, after which flooding became a constant problem. Many attempts were made over centuries to control periodic flooding and the current “Sistema de drenaje profundo” was begun in 1967 and completed in 1975. This ultimate solution of modern drainage tunnels through mountains permanently solved the flooding problems, but resulted in a constant shortage of water and contributed to the city sinking a few centimeters each year as water is pumped from non-replenishing aquifers below the surface.
The Spanish, subsequent to their 1521 conquest, simply began building a new city right on top of the Aztec’s leaving nearly 200 yrs. of construction history buried. Our tour guides, Hector & Malena, explained that in most of the ‘Centro Historico’ area ruins can be found just below the existing construction. In fact, we viewed the exposed areas where sewer and other underground services often intersect this buried and sometimes artistically ornate Aztec stone construction. A small central area in ‘Centro Historico’ has been excavated and reclaimed for viewing, together with a beautiful new exhibition center. This allows visitors to see a little of the basic layout and then imagine the grandeur that was once this impressive Aztec center of culture.
A visit to any Cathedral is mandatory in any Mexican city and sometimes even small towns. Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral is of course no exception. Construction of the building began in 1573. It continued for nearly 240 years and was completed 1813. Hector shared that because of the continual sinking of such heavy structures into the now almost dry lakebed.
The government recently commissioned underground work that will require 20 years to stabilize this cathedral’s foundations. One can imagine such an undertaking when floors and columns have already shifted and the digging required means sorting through older Aztec ruins. This cathedral is massive being 360 feet in length and appeared somewhat aged and tired to us. Buildings such as this in all of Latin America are a continual ‘Work in Progress’ so perhaps this cathedral is simply in need of more rejuvenation and maintenance.
On the second day we visited the “Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe,” referred to as just the “Basilica.” We’ve discovered that if you say the word, “Basilica” anywhere in Mexico the Mexican’s know that you are talking about this particular building. This is the story as told to us by our very capable Malena:
On Dec. 9th, 1531, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin was visited by a vision of the Virgin Mary known within the Spanish Culture as ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe.’ (Please understand that we have very elementary knowledge in this area, so we relate this as we understand and in our words.) He was asked to build a church in her honor. He was rebuked and more or less told get lost when he communicated his vision and the Virgin’s request to the priests. The priests wanted proof that what he saw was in fact the Virgin Mary. He was visited again and the Virgin Vision told him to gather flowers at the top of Tepeyac Hill, carry them in his cloak to the priests and throw his cloak (blanket) down in front of them. Castilian Roses were not native to Mexico and certainly not in Dec. but that is what Juan Diego was able to gather and deliver. Then Juan Diego returned to the Archbishop of Mexico City, opened his cloak and threw it down in front of the priests. The unusual roses cascaded onto the floor, and then the image of the Virgin (of Guadalupe) appeared on his blanket. The priests then understood, and immortalized Juan Diego. His plans were made to build the ‘Basilica de Neustra Señora de Guadalupe,’ and his famous cloak (blanket) is framed and exposed for all to see in the new modern Basilica.
All of this dialogue was, by the way, communicated in Nahuatl, the native Aztec language. Interesting that some believe the word ‘Guadalupe’ was transliterated from Nahuatl and from possibly the words, Tecuatlanopeuh’ or ‘Tecuantlaxopeuh.’ Other theories have it that Guadalupe is simply the Spanish version of the Nahuatl word ‘Coātlaxopeuh.’ Makes sense to me!
Like many or maybe most of the substantial structures in Mexico City, the Basilica has unevenly sunk into the lakebed giving the floor an undulating surface akin to swells on the sea. For those of us who live in or on near perfect construction of verticals and horizontals, navigating oneself inside of these imperfect structures requires conscious thought. Floors slope, columns tilt, and walls lean, resulting in a myriad of parallelograms and angles that affect the senses – look carefully at the photo below.
In 1974 – 76 a new modern Basilica was built nearby measuring 330 feet in diameter and capable of holding 50,000 people.