As we stepped out of the van and got our first glimpse of the ruins of Tlatelolco, I assumed it was just another archaeological site. But it had a strong aura about it, and there was an unusual juxtaposition of the Aztec ruins, a church, and the more modern architecture nearby. As the day went on, our guide, Alejandro, slowly began to reveal the significance of where we were. The formidable atmosphere I felt when we arrived intensified as I realized that we were standing in a spot where Mexico as it is today began and a place where so much had happened since then. The three cultures that intersect at this plaza are those of the pre-Columbian, the colonial, and the modern.
Tlatelolco was once an important citystate in 13th century Mexico. It was second only to its sister city Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire. The cities shared an island — sometimes peacefully and sometimes in war — in what was then Lake Texcoco.
With a thriving market, Tlatelolco was the largest Aztec commercial center at the time. During its heyday, the height of the main temple at Tlatelolco would’ve rivaled the highrise buildings that now surround the ruins.
Then the Spanish arrived. On August 13, 1521, Tlatelolco fell to the Spanish in the Aztec’s last stand. The Spanish destroyed the Aztec cities and built their own cities on top of them. They eventually drained Lake Texcoco to manage flooding.
I asked Alejandro about the intentions behind the absurd act of building a city on such unstable ground. He explained that the Spanish wanted to establish their city in a spot that was important to the Aztecs. Of course, part of the Spanish conquest was converting people to the Christian faith. The Spanish felt that they would have better success in this if they built their churches in spots that the Aztecs already considered to sacred. Hence the erection of Church of Santiago, built on top of a holy spot for the people of Tlactelolco with stones taken from their temples.
The building that represents the modern period at the plaza is the Department of Foreign Affairs. But there is much more than that to what the plaza symbolizes in modern times.
In the 1960s, when youth around the world were banding together to protest against the injustices of their time, young people in Mexico were also taking part with their own student movements.
In 1968, Mexico was slated to hold the first ever Olympic games in Latin America. On October 2nd, just 10 days before the Olympics, a group of over 10,000 students convened in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas to protest against the repressive administration of the current president, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz.
It was intended to be a peaceful rally, but it quickly descended into violence. The military indiscriminately shot at protesters and bystanders. The conflict left hundreds of people dead and an indelible mark on a generation of Mexicans.
A stone, pictured above, was installed in 1993 in memory of some of the victims of the massacre.
On the day we visited, the plaza was calm and almost empty. On one end, a group of middle aged women were participating in outdoor aerobics, getting in some exercise before the scorch of the afternoon sun. With just one glance, it would’ve been hard to imagine all that had happened there.
There’s a plaque at the plaza that reads (in Spanish), “On August 13, 1521, heroically defended by Cuauhtémoc, Tlatelolco fell to Hernán Cortés. It was neither a triumph nor a defeat, but the painful birth of the mestizo city that is the Mexico of today.”
While the idea of Mexico simply being a mestizo culture has its flaws and warrants critique, those words alone say so much about Mexico. It is not uncommon for foreigners to visit Mexico and places with similar histories and fixate on the Spanish conquest portion of the past. But I get a sense that among Mexicans, there is a different way of viewing things. There seems to be more a culture of acknowledging and understanding the terrible history of how things came to be while recognizing that it’s irreversible and that there is beauty in the mixed culture that was born from it.
Getting to know the Plaza de las Tres Culturas and the Basilica de Guadalupe felt like necessary steps towards truly understanding Mexico City and the rest of the country. At these places I felt not only a strong sense of history, but that a thin layer of mystery had been peeled to reveal the many more unexplored layers of the complex Mexican psyche.