The fascinating legend behind the Zocalo
Published: 10 February 2015
While it’s formal name is Plaza de la Constitución, and it was often referred to as ‘Main Square’ or ‘Arms Square’, today, the main plaza in Mexico City is known as the Zócalo. It has been the main gathering place of Mexicans for centuries and is used for almost all types of public, military and religious ceremonies and events. It is an absolute must visit if you’re travelling to Mexico.
The legend of the Zócalo began right from Aztec times, when it formed the centre of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. However, it wasn’t the absolute centre of the city, which according to the Aztecs was at the north and north-east of the present day Zócalo and was called teocalli. This teocalli was believed to not only be the centre of the capital, but the entire universe.
It was only later that the Zócalo was placed officially by Alonso Garcia Bravo following the destruction of Tenochtitlan after it was conquered. It then became the historic centre of Mexico City as we know it today. Around the pre-colonial era, the plaza became a bustling marketplace, but was often plagued with flooding and pollution due to human waste.
In 1703, a separate area called the Parian was set aside in the southwest corner of the plaza to store and sell products off trading galleons from Europe and Asia. However, it was criticised for its unsanitary conditions and difficulties in manoeuvring by historian Francisco Sendano.
Finally, in 1789, the Zócalo was cleared and repaved, and all its gutters closed, according to the orders of Charles IV of Spain. This was when the famous Aztec Calendar, believed to predict the end of the world in 2012, was unearthed. The calendar was put on display and the plaza converted into a public space with 64 lamps and 124 stone benches. It even had a fountain constructed in every corner and a statue of Charles IV.
Since then, the Zócalo has witnessed a number of events, from the pledging of allegiance to the Cardiz Constitution, the attack of the Parian in 1826 – followed by its demolition in 1843, the construction of a plinth for a monument dedicated to Mexico’s independence (that never materialised), and the creation of the Paseo del Zócalo – a garden with walking paths, fountains and 72 iron benches.
Today, it is used to host art and cultural events like the Festival de México and the Mexico City Alebrije Parade, highlights of any of the Mexico tours, and is the political centre of the country, making it a popular protest ground, capable of holding more than 100,000 people.
Any Mexico holiday is incomplete without a visit to the Zócalo that has played such an important historic and cultural role for more than 700 years.