From Mexico

Pete Hamill praises "Mexico," an extraordinary -- and out of print -- travel book by Erico Verissimo.

Published January 26, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

We are in the Zscalo. In this plaza of monumental dimensions that was in times past the heart of Tenochtitlan and later of the Spanish colonial city, is found the great cathedral the Conquistadores built with the very stones of the Great Temple of the Aztecs. In its fagade are combined varied architectural elements, and even a layman like me can see in it vestiges of the Corinthian, the Ionic and the Doric. The result of this mixture is something that could be called neo-classic. This great cathedral has a sombre, imposing quality, as if it had retained in its stones not only the mark of age and weather but also the accumulated memory and matured patina of all the suffering and violence it has witnessed. At its side rises the Metropolitan Sagrario, a beautiful example of the Churrigueresque, which an earth tremor shook out of plumb, adding to its aspect, already severe in itself, one more element of drama. Constructed in the form of a Greek cross, it consists of two naves crossing each other, with a cupola in the centre.

Other historic piles surround the great square, such as the Palacio Nacional, erected on the site where originally stood the residence of Montezuma and later the house of Cortis, which a fire destroyed; the Ayuntamiento or Palace of the City Hall on the south side of the Zscalo, and the Palacio de Justicia, of much more recent construction, on the south-east corner.

All these buildings have a massive look, a broad, low solidity, but they cannot be denied a certain respectable grandiosity. Many of them were made of tezontle, a pink stone of volcanic origin, taken also from the demolished Aztec monuments.

We stroll under the arcaded galleries covering the sidewalk on the west side of the Zscalo. As was the case in the days of Cortis, these portales shelter a series of tiny shops, or stalls.

It is strange to think that under our feet, a few yards beneath the asphalt, the Aztec metropolis lies buried. If I am not mistaken it was in this vicinity that they dug up the great Calendar Stone, which is now in the National Museum of Anthropology. It is said that early in this century the workers who were demolishing a business building on the corner of Guatemala and Seminario streets uncovered the foundations of an edifice believed to have been part of the Great Pyramid of the God of War.

We have, then, in this square -- which continues to be the historic centre, at least, if no longer the social and commercial, of Mexico -- vestiges of two civilizations, the Aztec and the Spanish colonial. But to what extent is the colonial purely Spanish? I have the impression -- and so think many who know the subject better -- that at the very moment the Conquistadores were putting up their houses and palaces in the image and likeness of those they had left in their fatherland across the sea, they were already beginning to undergo the influence of the people they had subjugated. It was not merely the fact that they were using the material and to some extent the construction technique of the natives. It was more than that, mysteriously and imponderably more than that.

We see also in the Zscalo something that is neither Indian nor Spanish. It is the automobiles circulating or standing parked here. And the billboards and posters advertising commercial products "made in U.S.A." One who contemplates part of the ruins of the Great Temple, visible only a few steps from the cathedral, then looks at the Catholic temple and then at the advertisements of Pepsi-Cola, may actually feel dizzy. The leaps in time are too vertiginous. And when I say "time" I am not thinking just of the chronological but also of the psychological.

If a great earthquake should some day knock down this church and these palaces, turning up the ground, possibly we should see emerging from the womb of the earth the corpse of Tenochtitlan, with which would be mingled the remains of colonial Mexico and those of the twentieth-century metropolis with its skyscrapers, cinemas, night clubs and soda fountains. And our eyes would witness frightful scenes, as for example the head of an Aztec idol -- Tezcatlipoca or Quetzalcoatl -- crowned with one of those red Coca-Cola discs we can see sacrilegiously nailed to the faces of these old arcades.

By Erico Verissimo

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