Xochimilco is one of the sixteen boroughs (delegaciones) within Mexican Federal District. It is best known for its canals, which are left from what was an extensive lake and canal system that connected most of the settlements of the Valley of Mexico. As a vestige of the area’s pre-Hispanic past, Xochimilco was made a World Heritage Site.
The borough is centred on the formerly independent city of Xochimilco, which was established on what was the southern shore of Lake Xochimilco in the pre-Hispanic period. Today, the borough consists of the eighteen “barrios” or neighbourhoods of this city along with fourteen “pueblos” or villages that surround it, covering an area of 125 square kilometres.
The canals, along with artificial islands called chinampas attract tourists and other city residents to ride on colourful gondola-like boats called “trajineras” around the 170 kilometres of the canal system. Unfortunately, environmental degradation of both the canals and the chinampas is severe and ongoing, putting its heritage status in question for the future.
As much of the borough is still classified as an ecological reserve, there are a number of green areas open to the public. These include several “forests” such as the Bosque de Nativitas, the Xochimilco Ecological Reserve, the Centro Acuexcomatl, and Michmani Ecotourism Park. There are several parks designated as forests such as the Bosque de San Luis Tlaxialtemaco. These are considered “areas of environmental value” by the city and established to counter some of the damage caused by urban sprawl in Xochimilco. These areas are open to the public but with minimal services such as picnic tables and horseback riding.
The largest ecological area is the Xochimilco Ecological Reserve, inaugurated in 1993. It covers over 200 hectares and is filled with numerous plant and animal species that live or migrate here. The park also contains a bike path, thirty five athletic fields, a flower market and a visitor centre. It is second in size only to Chapultepec Park.
The borough of Xochimilco was created in 1928, when the federal government reorganised the Federal District of Mexico City into sixteen boroughs. The name “Xochimilco” comes from Nahuatl and means “flower field.” This referred to the many flowers and other crops that were grown here on chinampas since the pre-Hispanic period.
The first human presence in the area was of hunter-gatherers, who eventually settled into farming communities. The first settlements in the Xochimilco area were associated with the Cuicuilco, Copilco and Tlatilco settlements during the Classic periodof the Mesoamerican history (years 200-1000). The Xochimilca people, considered one of the seven Nahua tribes that migrated into the Valley of Mexico, first settled around 900 CD in Cuahilama, near what is now Santa Cruz Acalpixca. They worshipped sixteen deities, with Chantico, goddess of the hearth, Cihuacoatl, an earth goddess and Amimitl, god of chinampas the most important.
Pre-Hispanic Xochimilco was an island connected to the mainland by three causeways. One of these still exists in the form of Avenida Guadalupe I. Ramirez, one of the city’s main streets. This causeway led to the main ceremonial centre of the town, which was called the Quilaztli. The Spanish destroyed the Quilaztli during the Conquest, and replaced it with the San Bernardino de Siena Church, which would become the social and political centre of the colonial city. The city in turn was the most important settlement to the south of the Valley of Mexico in the colonial era. It became a settlement of the Spanish, criollos and mestizos, with the indigenous living in rural communities outside of the city proper.
After Independence, Xochimilco became a municipality in what was then the State of Mexico. It would later become a part of the Federal District of Mexico City after the Mexican American War, when this district was expanded.
During the Mexican Revolution, the first Zapatistas came into the borough through Milpa Alta. They burned areas in Nativitas and San Lucas in 1911 and then stayed without further attacks. They then took the city of Xochimilco in 1912, burning the southern part. In that time, the Zapatistas controlled most of what is now the borough.
On 23 April 1913, 39 youths were shot to death in a small alley in San Lucas Xochimanca. A plaque commemorates their deaths. When the Zapatistas were confronted by troops loyal to Venustiano Carranza in Cuemanco, they damaged pumps and set the centre of Xochimilco and the original municipal palace on fire. In 1914, Francisco Villa and Emiliano Zapata met in San Gregorio and signed an alliance called the Pact of Xochimilco.
After the war, Xochimilco became a borough when the Federal District was reorganised, including the communities of Mixquic, San Juan Ixtayopan and Tetelco. These and other territories would be lost and its final dimensions attained in 1931.
There are 49 important, mostly secular festivals throughout the year, with the most important being the Feria de la Nieve, Feria de la Alegría y el Olivo, and the Flor más Bellas del Ejido. The “Flor más Bella del Ejido” (Most Beautiful Flower of the Ejido or Field) pageant is a borough-wide event devoted to the beauty of Mexican indigenous women.
The origins of this event are traced back over 220 years with symbolism that is based on the pre-Hispanic notion of a “flower-woman” representative of Mother Earth and fertility. This flower-woman is based on the goddess Xochiquetzal, the goddess of flowers and love, kidnapped from her husband Tlaloc by Tezcatlipoca. After the Conquest, the “flower-woman” symbol survived and would appear at certain Catholic festivals such as the Viernes de Dolores, or the Friday before Palm Sunday. An official pageant dedicated to this was established in 1786. Originally, its purpose was religious but it eventually became secularized. The event existed in this form for 170 years. In 1902, the tradition diminished.
In 1921, the El Universal newspaper held a beauty pageant for the 100th anniversary of the end of the Mexican War of Independence, calling it “La India Bonita” dedicated to indigenous women. In 1936, another pageant, called “la Flor Más Bella del Ejido” or the Most Beautiful Flower of the Ejido, was created and occurred each year on the Viernes de Dolores in the Santa Anita area. This event was moved to San Andres Mixquic in the 1950s, but the lack of crowds had it move again in 1955 to Xochimilco, where it remains.
The Feria de Nieve (Ices and Ice cream Fair) takes place in Santiago Tulyehualco each April. Flavoured snow was consumed in the pre-Hispanic period, eaten by the rich and made from snow from the nearby mountains and transported through this area. The consumption of this flavoured snow continued into the colonial era and the first fair dedicated to it was established in 1529 by Martín de Valencia. The fair was celebrated sporadically until 1885 when there was renewed interest in it, making it an annual event. In 2009, the event had its 124th anniversary. During this time, new flavours and types of frozen confections have been invented. Some of the flavours are uncommon, such as rose petal, pulque, mole, spearmint, lettuce, shrimp and tequila.
The Feria de la Alegría y el Olivo (“Alegria” and Olive Fair) has been an annual event since the 1970s in Santiago Tulyehualco. It is mostly based on a grain native to Mexico called amaranth. An “alegria” is a sweet made with this grain, sometimes with the addition of honey with dried fruits and nuts. However, the term is also used to refer to the plant that produces amaranth. An “olivo” is an olive tree. This annual fair is dedicated to elaboration of this sweet along with olive products from the area. Over 250 producers of the grain offer their products in various preparations. There are also cultural events such as concerts.