The Tira de la peregrinación or Boturini Codex tells in its delicate glyphs the long journey of townspeople that left from Aztlán – or the place of herons, probably Nayarit – in search for a marvelous sign announced by Huitzilopochtli (Left-handed hummingbird). Their tiresome journey, represented by a pictogram of footprints on amate paper, was an extended wandering that lasted hundreds of years, until their gods – not always benevolent or auspicious – indicated the place where they were to settle. It was revealed in a figure of a rapacious bird that devoured a serpent – a demonic symbol in many mythologies – sitting on a nopal cactus. The promised place was verified on one of the large islands in a vast lake since disappeared, where now the Constitution Plaza in Mexico City is found.
Concerning the settlement, the Mexicas built a resplendent city that became – and continues to be – the most populated of the Americas. In the city there was a bustling market with goods from the four corners of the vast empire that they conquered. Located in “the most transparent region of the air” – according to the formula of Alfonso Reyes -, animals, plants, and crafts from each of the cardinal directions arrived to Anáhuac Valley, as their domain was only limited by the oceans to the east and west, the cold from the north, and the immensity that followed the narrow central part of the continent.
Keeping docility in the towns consisted of a difficult perseverance in fear and silence: of warriors and priests – the combination is constant throughout history – both monsters were nourished with the club and their constant ritual sacrifices to thirsty gods. This demanded a magnificent and bloody architecture, with the epicenter at the Main Temple, whose traces can still be seen next to the main square. The rest of the space that is occupied by the plaza today, also open in pre-Hispanic times to the social and political community, was flanked by the new houses of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin – on top of which would later be built the Vice regal Palace – and by the old houses or Axayácatl Palace.
The ceaseless noise and movement of the great Tenochtitlan were suddenly paralyzed in the year 1521 when, according to the warning from ominous prophecies, men covered in metal and mounted on impossible beasts arrived from beyond the waters. The Conquest was brief and bloody, and their objective was not only to kill and enslave men, but to kill their gods and their culture. Temples and homes were turned into rubble and what remained was used to build another city on its ruins. In what was the Mansion of Moctezuma the Palace of Cortés was built – today the National Palace -, and in part of the land where the proud Main Temple stood construction of the Metropolitan Cathedral began, in order to forever silence the ancient deities under the weight of stone and stucco. On the eastern side of the plaza miscellaneous trading areas were permitted, which was called the Merchants Portal. At the southern side of the plaza, next to the Portal of Flowers, the Palace of City Hall was erected, where the city’s government offices have been ever since.
During the Colonial era, the names and the physiognomy of the place changed with the slow passage of time: it was called Plaza de Armas, Plaza Principal, Plaza Mayor or Plaza del Palacio, and in its esplanade merchants of all kinds were settled in and were removed, much like what happens today. Towards the end of the 18th century the Count of Revillagigedo, viceroy of New Spain, ordered the esplanade to be paved and for other urbanization projects to be done. With such projects, the Sun Stone and a sculpture of Coatlicue were found; two monumental works that the sensible government, unlike its predecessors, used good judgment to conserve as well as to display in situ, where they remained one hundred years until they were taken to the Archeological Museum. In this way, the meek idols temporarily returned to their inheritance.
It was also under the management of Revillagigedo that the current Constitution Plaza was promoted as a public space, as in the plaza 64 lamps and twice as many benches were installed for passersby. The aforementioned name, which is still used today, is not related with the Magna Carta of our country, but with the modern and unfortunate Constitution of Cádiz, signed by the Viceroyalty in 1812, while Napoleon occupied the Peninsular Metropolis.
Whenever mentioning the word Zócalo for the Main Square of Mexico City, it is worth noting that this name was given when, in a moment of inspiration, the ineffable Antonio López de Santa Anna ordered the construction of a monument in the center of the plaza that, according to his peculiar style of governing, was never finished…except for the base of the construction or zócalo, which remained for years in the esplanade as a testimony to the unfinished project.
Of course, there has not been a lack of regrettable and mournful incidents – given their enormous burden on daily life. Shortly after achieving independence, in December of 1826, a certain general José María Lobato attacked El Parián, a commercial center that was property of Spaniards, yelling the intolerant and anachronistic “Death to gachupines!”
In the 20th Century, during the terrible days of the Ten Tragic Days, the National Palace was under cannon and shrapnel fire as part of the coup d’etat perpetrated by the usurper Victoriano Huerta, who not only damaged the building, but also the plaza. The sign of arbitrariness and the use of force over dialogue once again took control.
Close to a year and a half later, in December 1914, the Northern Division and the Liberating Army of the South, lead respectively by Francisco Villa and Emiliano Zapata, entered the capital and infiltrated to the Zócalo. Once inside the National Palace the Centaur of the North and The Leader of the South sat – one proud, the other distrustful – in the presidential chair. The citizenry, generally indifferent and little politicized, maintained – not without reason – a fearful expectation of the more than fifty-thousand men in the group. There was looting, robbery, rape, quarrels between soldiers from both groups and even between members of the same army. Although they were brutal incidents, they were isolated: that was not the general attitude of the stationed hosts in Mexico City. It is more relevant to note that the imposition and contempt for democratic principles translated into, which is often the case, an automatic chain of infamies that occur in rapid succession, much like a row of dominoes.
After the Revolution the country was at peace, and distrustful for the one-million lives it had cost (according to the most conservative figure), and it withdrew with respect to public-political life. The most notable events that Constitution Plaza had during this time were the annual Independence celebrations that the president in turn commemorated – and still does – from the balcony of the National Palace, giving El Grito (the Scream for Independence) in front of the crowded esplanade with popular enthusiasm; the ceremony for November 20th, which remembers the start of the Revolution and which, in order to nullify the bloody civil war, transformed into a parade; and the march for Labor Day, when the unions, and associations of all kinds and bureaucratic groups marched in a parade.
The movement of 1968, with its demands of political liberties, and especially, of freedom of expression, irreversibly changed the peaceful agenda of the Zócalo. On August 27th of that year, thirty-thousand people – university and polytechnic students, workers and citizens – entered Constitution Plaza to reclaim their demands in front of the Presidential Palace. This action constituted a breaking point for freedom of expression in Mexico: it’s lawful to say that after that date the nation was not the same. Days later, although in another part of the city, thousands of young men and women carried out the celebrated March of Silence – named as such because those who participated covered their mouths with handkerchiefs –, which continued to win room for democratic life. Ultimately, the interrupted movement could be considered triumphant – at a high cost and at a very slow pace, which is that of history – at its roots the conquest of human rights and the awakening citizenry to more participation in public life converted into both progressive and inevitable processes.
Since then the Zócalo has increasingly harbored individuals, groups, communities and masses willing to express their points of view and assert their social or political demands as well as demands of any other kind. From electoral conflicts of general importance and topics that involve the entire population – such as gender grievances – even local petition sheets – even though of high relevance, such as the disappearance of a person –, all of the causes, all of the demands and imaginable denouncements have been presented in Constitution Plaza; not only those connected to the capital, but those involving the national territory.
Such plurality also makes it obvious as a stage for artistic and cultural expression, as the Zócalo has been witness to happenings, of massive free concerts – for example one concert offered by Paul McCartney with an attendance for two-hundred fifty-thousand people, – of photographic work such as the work of Spencer Tunick, who in 2007 photographed twenty-thousand nude people, of the annual Book Fair, visited by millions of people, or of the ice rink that is installed during the winter season.
From mythic times the auspicious space that Constitution Plaza occupies, diverse and massive, is the undisputed center of public life in Mexico: it possesses a symbolic quality and a community tradition that – without exaggerating – makes it incomparable to any other esplanade in the world. That is why it is possible to say – as I have indicated in this booklet for the purpose of my interpretation of nature and intentions of Our Silences – that the monumental exhibit of the sculptor Rivelino cannot find a more meaningful context than this, where the mutism of its guardians can be heard in the echoes of an ancient time.