Mexico City’s Zócalo

Part I: Notes on its Origins and Contemporary Use

José Esparza (MAUD  ’20)

Photojournalist Andrea Dicenzo

Photojournalist Andrea Dicenzo

The Zocalo is Mexico City’s main plaza.  Though it was conceptualized as an open, unprogrammed space, this has been disrupted in recent years by a constant stream of events.  These events are both private and public, and severely limit the ability for people to appropriate and use the space. 

This text emphasizes the value of the plaza as a free public space for the city and its citizens. It explores the greatness of an empty plaza, a democratic place where all kinds of social interactions can happen.

Zócalo has been seen as the space of Mexico City’s origin since its founding. The plaza has gone through several modifications throughout history but has always managed to keep its identity. Physically, it is a well-defined and demarcated central square, but conceptually its limits are much more expansive. Starting with the edge of the esplanade, the plaza reaches the surrounding buildings, covers the entire Historical Center, and finally expands throughout the city. 

To better understand the meaning of the plaza to its people, it is crucial to look at the historical processes of organization and configuration. Even prior to the conquest, the area that the modern Zócalo occupies was open space. This space represented the center of the Mexica capital Tenochtitlan, an ideal city type with a sacred space oriented around a sacred center and a replica of cosmological space (Carrasco 1990). [1] The plaza was seen as the absolute center of the universe and was bordered by palaces, including Moctezuma’s Palace which occupied the same space that the National Palace stands on today.

When Tenochtitlán was encountered by Cortés, it was likely the largest city in the world. “Some of our soldiers, who have been in many parts of the world, in Constantinople, in Rome, and all over Italy, said that they have never seen a market (plaza) so well laid out, so large, so orderly, and so filled with people” (Díaz del Castillo 1963). [2]

Mexico City’s plan, designed by Hernán Cortés and executed by Alonso Garcia Bravo, was derived from the structure and foundations of this ancient city. The central plaza and Great Temple of Tenochtitlan were the sacred spaces of the Mexica world, and so that sacredness was retained even when Cortés replaced them with a colonial plaza and a cathedral. Since space is produced by social relationships, each time an indigenous plaza was rebuilt while retaining aspects of its original spatial form and integrity, the new form retained much of its historical and cultural meanings (Low 2000). [3]

During the last few centuries, the plaza has had different configurations. The transformation to today’s contemporary plaza began with a wave of modernization projects initiated by the Mexican government in the 1950’s. From 1953 to 1958, the government removed all the trees, flowers, and other amenities on the plaza, leaving only 415,000 square feet of pavement.  This created a monumentally scaled public space; indigenous in its proportions, modernist in its materials (Herzog 2006). [4]

It appears that the plaza has returned to its earliest condition, a fascinating place where people harmoniously walk, chat, stare, and sell while making their way through the giant paved square. This begs the question: is it possible to retain an un-programmed plaza as free space for the city with no physical barriers?  What are the negative effects of constant spatial occupation?

Part two of this text will explore these questions through a short ethnographic exercise that documents the occupied and un-occupied plaza, its social organization, and the effects of spatial configurations on public space. 

[1] Carrasco, David. The Aztecs : A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions ; 296. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

[2] Cortínez, Verónica. Memoria Original De Bernal Díaz Del Castillo. Estudios De Cultura Iberoamericana Colonial. Huixquilucan, Mexico: Oak Editorial.

[3] Low, Setha M. On the Plaza: The Politics of Public Space and Culture. 1st ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

[4] Herzog, Lawrence A. Return to the Center: Culture, Public Space, and City Building in a Global Era. 1st ed. Roger Fullington Series in Architecture. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

Arieff, Allison, and Amy Gill. The Future of Public Space. SOM Thinkers Series. New York, NY: Metropolis Books, 2017.