The main square in the heart of the historic centre of Mexico City. It used to be known as the ‘Main Square’ or ‘Arms Square,’ and today its formal name is Plaza de la Constitución (Constitution Square). The name doesn’t come from any of the Mexican constitutions but rather from the Cádiz Constitution which was signed in Spain in 1812.
However, the square is almost always called the Zócalo today. Plans were made to erect a column as a monument to Independence, but only the base, or zócalo, was ever built. The plinth was destroyed long ago but the name has lived on. Many other Mexican towns and cities, such as Oaxaca and Guadalajara, have adopted the word zócalo to refer to their main plazas.
Zócalo’s 57,600 square metres make it one of the largest city squares in the world. It is bordered by the Cathedral to the north, the National Palace to the east, the Federal District buildings to the south and the Old Portal de Mercaderes to the west, the Nacional Monte de Piedad building at the north-west corner, with the Templo Mayor site to the north-east.
In its centre is a flagpole with an enormous Mexican flag ceremoniously raised and lowered each day and carried into the National Palace. There is an entrance to the Metro station Zócalo located at the northeast corner of the square but no sign above ground indicates its presence.
Zócalo has been a gathering place for Mexicans since Aztec times, having been the site of Mexica ceremonies, the swearing in of viceroys, royal proclamations, military parades, Independence ceremonies and modern religious events. It has received foreign heads of state and is the main venue for both national celebration and national protest.
Prior to the conquest, the area that the Zócalo occupies was an open space in the centre of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan.
It was bordered to the east by Moctezuma II’s ‘New Houses’ or Palace (which would become the National Palace) and to the west by the ‘Old Houses’, the palace of Axayácatl (1469-1481) where the Emperor Ahuitzotl, Moctezuma’s uncle and immediate predecessor also lived.
The modern plaza of Mexico City was placed by Alonso Garcia Bravo shortly after the invasion when he laid out what is now the historic centre. After the destruction of Tenochtitlan, Cortés had the city redesigned for symbolic purposes. He kept the four major neighbourhoods or ‘capullis’ but he had a church, now the Cathedral of Mexico City built at the place the four adjoined. He had the Templo Mayor razed to the ground, using the stones from it to pave the new plaza.
The new layout kept the north-south and west-east avenues and the open space but this space was cut in half by the building of the new Spanish church (later to become the Cathedral). The southern half was called the ‘Plaza Mayor’ (Main Square) and the northern one was called the ‘Plaza Chica’ (Small Square). Fairly early into the colonial period, the Plaza Chica would be swallowed up by the growing city. During early colonial times, the Plaza was bordered to the north by the new church, and to the east by Cortés new palace, built over and with the ruins of Moctezuma’s palace.
Flooding was always an issue for the Plaza and the city in general. The Plaza was flooded in 1629 with water 2 metres deep, ruining many of the merchants located there and requiring many of the portals to be rebuilt.
After the Cathedral was constructed in the second half of the 16th century, the physiognomy of the Plaza changed. The old church faced east and not to the square itself. The new Cathedral’s three portals towered south over the plaza and gave the area a north-south orientation, which exists to this day.
Over much of the 17th century, the Plaza became overrun with market stalls. After a mob burned the Viceregal Palace in the 1690s, the Plaza was completely cleared to make way for the ‘Parian’, a set of shops set in the south-west corner of the Plaza used to warehouse and sell products brought by galleons from Europe and Asia. This was opened in 1703.
The Plaza was cleared by proclamation of Charles IV of Spain in December 1789. Viceroy Juan Vicente Güemes Pacheco had the Plaza repaved and the open gutters covered with stone blocks. He also had a fountain installed in each corner. The former merchants of the Plaza were moved primarily to a new building called the Mercado de Volador (Market of the Flyer), located south-east of the Plaza where the Supreme Court building stands today.
The Plaza was converted into public space with 64 lamps. The Cathedral was separated from the Plaza by iron grating; 124 stone benches were placed and the Plaza was marked off by low iron poles connected by an iron chain. The main feature of the redesigned plaza was an equestrian statue of Charles IV by Manuel Tolsá. It was first placed in the south-east corner of the Plaza, first on a gilded wood base to inaugurate it in December 1803. However, when the monument was completely finished, the wooden base was replaced by an oval stone one, with its own balustrade and fountains in the corners.
This was the backdrop when Viceroy Felix Maria Calleja, other authorities and assembled people swore allegiance to the Constitution of Cadiz, and fealty to the Spanish Crown on 22 May 1813 as the Mexican War of Independence raged. This event also resulted in renaming the square as the ‘Plaza of the Constitution.’
Upon Independence, the monument to Charles IV was disassembled and taken away. The equestrian statue itself can still be seen in front of the National Art Museum where its current, and much smaller, base states that it is preserved solely for its artistic value.
President Santa Anna finally had the Parian demolished in 1843. He wanted to build a monument to Mexican Independence in the centre of the Plaza but his project got only as far as the base (zócalo), which stayed there for decades and gave the Plaza its current popular name. It stayed this way until 1866 when the Paseo (path) del Zócalo was created in response to the numbers of people who were using the plaza to take walks. A garden with footpaths was created; fountains were placed in each corner; 72 iron benches were installed and the area was lighted by hydrogen gas lamps. Santa Anna’s base, however, was not removed.
In 1878, Antonio Escandon donated a kiosk to the city which was set over and on top of Santa Anna’s base. It was lit with four large iron candelabras and designed to be similar to the one in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. Soon afterward, the company Ferrocarriles del Distrito Federal (‘Trains of the Federal District’) converted part of the Zócalo into a streetcar station with a ticket kiosk and a stand. The streetcars and lighting were converted to electric power in 1894, and the Zócalo’s paths were paved with asphalt in 1891.
From the second half of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th, the Zócalo again filled with market stalls, including the ‘Centro Mercantil’ which sold fabric, clothing, and Art Nouveau stonework. The other stalls concentrated on more mundane merchandise. This caused pedestrians to take their walks on Alameda Central or on San Francisco and Madero streets, to the west of the Zócalo.
During the Decena Trágica (the ten days from February 9th to 19, 1913), the National Palace was bombarded from the nearby military fort, incidentally damaging the Zócalo. In 1914, the ash trees planted in the previous century (which meanwhile had grown considerably) were taken out; new footpaths, grassy areas, and garden space were created; and palm trees were planted in each corner of the plaza.
The Zócalo was a meeting place for protests for May 1st. In 1968, students protested against the authoritarian measures taken by then president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. It was also the starting point of the marathon run in the 1968 Summer Olympics. But the Plaza deteriorated until, by the 1970s, all that was left were light poles and a large flagpole in the middle.
Then the ground was levelled again, the train tracks taken out, and the whole plaza cemented over. However, automobile parking was prohibited and the plaza’s shape was squared to 200 metres on each side. Later in the 1970s, the Zócalo was repaved with pink cobblestones; small trees protected by metal grates were planted, and small areas of grass were seeded around the flagpole.
As the end of the 20th century neared, the Zócalo, along with most of the city centre was in massive disrepair. In the late 1990s, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, then mayor of Mexico City, and Dr. Rene Coulomb, director general of the Historic Centre Trust, launched a $300,000,000 renovation of the Zócalo and the surrounding city centre, with the aim of attracting businesses and residents back to the area. There were plans to remove the iron grating separating the Cathedral from the Zócalo, but there was so much public opposition to the idea that it was eventually scrapped.
Since 1982, due to efforts to revitalise the city centre, the Zócalo has become the scene of a number of artistic and cultural events. There are daily improvised shows of Aztec dancers dancing to drums, wearing feathered headdresses and anklets made of concha shells. In 2008, a skateboarding/BMX event drew 50,000 young people on a Sunday afternoon.
The Festival de México is an annual event with programmes dedicated to art (popular and fine) and academia held in the Zócalo and some other venues in the historic centre. In 2008, the 24th Festival had 254 performances and shows from over 20 countries in 65 squares and other locations near the Plaza.
Concerts by popular singers and groups have also been held here. Shakira drew a crowd of about 210,000 according to Mexico’s Civil Protection. Paul McCartney gave a free concert here on May 10, 2012 in front of 200,000 people as part of his On The Run Tour. Justin Bieber gave a free show here on July 11, 2012 in front of 250,000 people as a promotion for his new album “Believe”
Since 1982, due to efforts to revitalize the city centre, Zócalo has become the scene of a number of artistic and cultural events. There are daily impromptu shows of Aztec dancers dancing to drums, wearing feathered headdresses and anklets made of concha shells.
On a grander scale, some examples of events held here recently are Spencer Tunick’s photo shoot where nearly 18,000 Mexicans bared all for the artist, surpassing the record set earlier in Barcelona.