With more than 20 million inhabitants in a vast metropolitan area, this megalopolis marks, from its heart of zócalo, the spiritual pulse of a nation that has always been vulnerable and dramatic.
In the middle of a rush hour, taking the metro from the airport to the center quickly proves to be an adventure. The carriages are too crowded and the authorities present in the also overcrowded underground corridors follow to the letter the instruction to separate men for the former and the ladies for the latter, with the purpose of defending them from pickpockets and unwanted contacts. We are unaware of the Mexico City subway and its dangers, but it seems to us that a forced separation can only make us more vulnerable. We remind the police that we have just arrived, we convince them to let us go together to one of the front carriages, and we resist together unharmed the plague of pickpockets which, we realize, however, almost always attack foreigners at central stations like Hidalgo, Cuauhtémoc and Alameda Central.
We are on our knees and night is beginning to fall when we finally pass outside the city through one of the many exits from the Zócalo and we are dazzled by the dimension (240 by 240 meters) and the drama of the huge Plaza de la Constitución. As we look for the place where we are supposed to settle, we feel the historic weight of the long arches as we move. And we began to absorb the leading role of the DF (Federal District) – that's how they prefer to treat the Mexicans – and to understand better why it has become one of the largest and most desirable cities in the world.
After being conquered by the Spaniards, the former Aztec capital Tenochtitlán, at the time with 200.000 inhabitants, was razed to make way for a new city. In just five centuries, Mexico City – as it came to be called – has been transformed into an ever-expanding megalopolis that occupies more than 2000 kilometers of the dry bed of Lake Texcoco.
With 20 million people, it is the third largest city on the face of the Earth – and welcomes 1100 new arrivals every day. You paratroopers, as the residents call them, come from all corners of the country, attracted by the concentration of opportunities that have almost always been taken advantage of, and settle in the suburbs, some located many tens of kilometers from the center. Thanks to this influx, the capital has acquired the attributes of size, poverty and insecurity that we recognize in it, but which in themselves prove to be unfair. The city can be, in general, uncontrolled, violent and polluted, but its prime areas have the power to dazzle.
Of all of them, the one that stands out the most is undoubtedly the Zócalo, a huge square delimited by grandiose buildings: to the north, the Metropolitan Cathedral, the largest on the American continent and one of the largest in the world; to the south and west are small palaces built on arcades that house government offices and hotels and to the east, the National Palace, where the flag-gathering ceremony begins every evening, a militaristic ritual that moves Mexicans to tears. more patriotic.
At around 17:30 pm, the gates open and, from inside, a group of soldiers comes out and forces the traffic to stop. With the path clear, two huge columns of soldiers run parallel to the center of the square and form a square around the mast of the gigantic national flag. Around this human barrier, hundreds of people await the high point of protocol.
At the sound of the anthem, the flag is then lowered, carefully folded and taken by the hands of several officers to the palace.
I wish the authorities everything around here was so orderly. During the day, the walks around the square are full of vendors who install themselves in front of refined establishments, some of them belonging to powerful multinational chains. This fair becomes even denser in the area that extends behind the National Palace, an authentic mobile domain where the population comes to get supplies.
Despite the chaotic landscape, the Zócalo and its surroundings are among the safest areas of the city. Until some time ago, assaults on establishments were frequent, but with the emergence of centers jewelers and other sophisticated stores, in addition to the reinforcement of the public police, several private security companies were created.
All of a sudden, the downtown area was protected by countless Mexican-style Robocops. At the same time, American-made trailers began sweeping the streets. Any improperly stopped car is presented with blaring sirens and orders to proceed sent via megaphone: "Forward🇧🇷 Adelante…! "
We arrived on Saturday afternoon. The Zócalo is teeming with life. A group of Indians dance to the sound of drums, surrounded by a small crowd. They are painted and dressed to the nines, with masks, furs and feathers, jewelry and other gold and silver artifacts. They suddenly interrupt the show. One of them asks the people around him to come closer and starts speaking. These are words of appeal and protest. It speaks of the way of life of the original tribes, so different from what the Mexicans now lead. How they only drank spring water, how, to avoid health problems, they cooked and ate nopal (a kind of cactus) and how they slept on the hard floor to preserve an upright posture. For a while, it describes these and many other lost behaviors. In between, he utters sentences in Nahuatl, a language also doomed to extinction.
The Nahuas – direct descendants of the Aztecs – are not satisfied with the direction the nation has taken: as if the conquest of the Spaniards were not enough, they are increasingly witnessing the “invasion” of the gringos. This is just a manifestation of the internal conflict in which the Mexican soul lives. Five hundred years later, the country is still divided between the past and the present and, if on almost every face a mixture of Indian and European features is detected, in their hearts there is passion for the martyr Emperor Cuauhtémoc and hatred for the villain Hernán Cortés.
In this country too close to its American neighbor, financial, political and cultural independence is always under pressure. And if the indigenous way of life remains oppressed and on the sidelines, mestizo customs are also now under threat. After the US was left, in the XNUMXth century, with several states that made up the original Mexico: California, Texas, Utah, Colorado, most of New Mexico and Arizona, the powerful Yankee culture seems to be ready to conquer the rest.
The former president, Vicente Fox, rancher and former head of operations for Coca-Cola in Mexico, is perhaps the best example of this. Every day he appears under a cowboy hat, on television channels as Americanized as the Fox chain, which he owns, and a large part of the investments made in the country come from his companies. There is no way to escape. Whatever one makes, buys or uses in Mexico City and the country in general, it is directly or indirectly influenced by the United States.
But despite all the odds, the Nahuas don't give up. Next weekend or holiday, as soon as the Zócalo fills with people, they will once again start their little demonstration. Among the public that gathers around and the population in general, there will always be those who are angry, but, as seen during the Spanish conquest, Mexicans are too busy living to resist the loss of their identity.