Centro Historico

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Mexico Series: Part 7

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Now to the Cento Historico . . .

The best place to observe the Zocolo, the Palacio Nacional, and the Metropolitian Cathedral is from the roof terrace of the old Majestic Hotel. It’s a bit down on its heels these days, which makes it all the more bohemian. When the Mexican writer and former ambassador to the US Carlos Fuentes was asked to write about the Palacio Nacional for the Mexico’s bi-centenial, he choose this terrace as the place to take notes for his article.

Here, high above the noise and hustle and bustle, you can begin to image life in the zocolo during the Viceregal Period in Mexico — that 300 year period from the conquest to the War of Independence.

Within 100 years after the conquest, Mexico would go from being a Spanish outpost in the new world to one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world. The conquistadores’ search for precious metals finally hit the motherlode, so to speak, in the silver mines of Mexico during the mid-1600s. By then the power and prestige of the conquistadores had waned — in fact Cortez himself was reduced to re-enacting the conquest once a year in an annual pageant in the zocolo much like Buffalo Bill and his Wild West shows — and a new merchant class had arisen.

The utopian vision of the early clergy, which had seen that the first printing press in the new world was established and the first university, which had tried to mitigate some of the harsh realities of the Indians lives if only to still have souls to save had been overlaid by a huge group of Spanish immigrants who filled the government offices with letrados, or government bureaucrats, and the courts with judges, lawyers, the church with increasingly misogynistic clergy and of course the Inquisition.

Into all this poured the lower echelons of the Spanish ruling class, those with titles but no money who could marry well and confer status to a wealthy creole daughter and any one with a get-rich-quick scheme. Really, the characters in this period could populate volumes of historical romance novels with villains and beautiful maidens and thieves and poor but noble heroes, Dickensian pickpockets and Margaret Mitchell Rhett Butlers.

In a certain way, the story of Mexico in the 17th and 18th centuries is a story of silk and silver. The silver mines in Zacatecas and Taxco yielded unbelievable amounts of ore. In fact, the total amount of silver in the world at that time — the mid 1600s — doubled within a few years because of Mexican silver production.

The ports of Acapulco and Veracruz opened up the New World to trade with Europe and the east and silver bullion was the currency. Through the port of Veracruz came wine, olive oil, olives, — why we have the famous dish huachinango Veracruzana made with those ingredients from the old world — Venetian glassware, furniture from Europe and so on. Through the port of Acapulco aboard the Manila Galleon came the riches of the east: silk, pearls, Chinese porcelain, teas and spices, mahogany wood, and if I were writing the novel there would be opium, of course!

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