On November 20, Mexicans commemorate the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. Like few other places, there’s no notice of the Armistice celebrated in Europe, but Mexicans recount that their own revolution changed the very perception of justice, the names of hundreds of streets and universal suffrage that couldn’t have been dreamed of before. The Mexican Revolution wasn’t merely the opening of the great social revolts that would soon overcome the world of the 20th-century, but it was the painful awakening of an entirely new era.
From the first, very civil overtures for reform from Francisco I Madero until the years of the Maximato (1928-1934), Mexico City was the epicenter of the conflict. All of the great revolutionary fighters converged here, some of the most important violent acts were committed here, several bloody battles were fought, and ultimately, even President Alvaro Obregon’s hand was, for a time, preserved in a mausoleum built on the site of his assassination. The president had himself lost the limb in the war and had kept it soaking in formaldehyde. His other remains were returned to his native Sonora.
As so much of the war took place within the city, a few of the most important sites can still be visited even today. These are just some of them.
In the city’s northeast, in the delegation of Venustiano Carranza, today it’s the home to the National Archives of Mexico. But the palace was built and served as an ostentatious penitentiary of some 804 cells housing the hundreds of famous people at odds with the revolutionary government. In this dark palace, Victoriano Huerta assassinated President Francisco I. Madero and his Vice-President, Pino Suarez, ushering in one of the most violent periods of the Mexican Revolution.
On the site of the old Cafe La Bombilla in which Obregon was killed, today’s Parque La Bombilla also occupies most of what had been the Chimalistac orchards. On Insurgentes Sur, today, the monument houses a bronze statue honoring Obregon and a room once dedicated to the display of the president’s severed hand. The park was renovated in 2015.
Today one of the most heavily traveled traffic arteries in the city, the name of the avenue is for that most seasoned and widely acclaimed of divisions of the revolutionary army. Led by the famous Pancho Villa, the division was manned by peasants, rancheros and cowboys and fought many of the war’s most decisive battles. Unstoppable for a time, the Division changed the social and political lives of all of the northern Mexican states.
Remarkably well preserved, La Opera opened its doors at this location (Calle 5 de Mayo #10) in 1895, just in time for the spectacular closing of the Porfirato. Most certainly visited by Porfirio Diaz himself, the cafe later became a convenient site for Zapata and others to plan strategies. Alway emblematic, a bullet fired by Pancho Villa is believed still embedded in the ceiling, and the menu, even today, remains macho, and fit for history fanatics as well as more humble diners.
In 1876, Porfirio Díaz announced plans to build a new legislative hall for representatives and senators within Mexico City. Construction was begun, and on September 23, 1910, the tyrannical Diaz ironically laid the cornerstone for the building and construction continued even after Diaz’s 1911 ouster. The legislative palace then sat unfinished for almost 30 years as the Mexican Revolution and its long aftermath slowly came to a resolution. When architect Carlos Obregon was finally given authority (and funds) in the mid-1930s, the projected was converted to a combination museum, mausoleum, and a monument, to the revolution, to the past and to that particular moment in history. Indeed, the unique combination of Art Deco, Mexican Socialist Realism, and all over a Neo-Classical frame, is still rare, if not totally unique, in the world.
Though the internet makes lots more information available to lots more people, Mexico City libraries have simply not been supplanted. Charged with continually re-inventing themselves, and their places in the public imagination, one can still encounter eras gone by and great historical minds in a library as in few other places.
Knowledge, after all, belongs to everyone. Opening a book, reading it at a study, or just meeting in the silence of one these Mexico City libraries enhances concentration, and provides a welcome respite from everything going on out there in the world.
Of all Mexico City libraries, the oldest were part of the church and one or another of its offshoot organizations. Among these was the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, founded in the 1530s and surviving today as the Biblioteca José María Lafragua. Most of these ecclesiastical libraries were not truly open to the public, and Mexico had to wait for the National Library of Mexico, inaugurated by Benito Juárez in 1867 to enjoy the benefits of a truly public library system.
The list below is intended to let you enjoy some of that system, too.
Opened just ten years ago, in 2006, the Vasconcelos is visited by thousands for the sheer spectacle of its innovative design. Graced by the iconic whale from artist, Gabriel Orozco, it’s always a good library for art and visual spectacle. The facade retains something of a colonial appearance, but for sheer scale, and jaw-dropping space, the interior must be experienced.
We’ve written a lot about it in these pages, but the UNAM library with the Juan O’Gorman murals remains one of the most outstanding of all Mexico City libraries. As a UNESCO site with some 428,000 volumes in the collection, it’s the biggest in Mexico, but lots of folks visit just to see the facade and the surrounding grounds.
Opened by Benito Juárez in 1867, there’s still a good one million books inside, today administered by the folks from UNAM. Originally located in the San Agustín church in the city center, the current building was opened in 1979. Geometric, and massive, it’s an extraordinary place to visit.
Specializing in economic materials, this collection of some 86,350 books and 114,852 journals is administered by the Secretary of Finance and Public Credit. Founded in 1928, it’s one of the cities true public art spectacles. Inside the main nave of the old Oratory of San Felipe Neri “El Nuevo,” the baroque façade outside is just the beginning. Inside, the murals are futuristic, and not to be missed.
One of Centro’s truly outstanding historical buildings, for centuries it was the convent of the Clarisas from the 16th century. Today it’s something like a “Library of Congress” with a stunning collection of publications and artifacts, but also with a lush, deep, dark intellectual interior, that beckons from centuries past.
Address: Tacuba 29, Centro Histórico
Photographs this page: Flickr – Creative Commons
Mexico City’s Tepito neighborhood has for a millennia history offered resistance, rebellion, and hope. Tenochtitlan relegated dissidents to Tepito’s crooked alleys. The “brave neighborhood,” even hundreds of years later, is still marginalized and bent on survival. Somehow residents seem to bear that history in the very DNA.
With a reputation for violence, deprivation, and overcrowding, some of the great characters of Mexican history have come from Tepito. The cradle of Mexican boxing, in the 1970s an important literary movement emerged in Tepito, and the neighborhood has contributed as much to the culture of the city and country as have many, much wealthier places.
Among all the stories of people whose hard work is performed with an enviable dignity, there are thousands of women who carry out similar work for their families. Resident Mayra Valenzuela Rojas remarked, “In Tepito there’s a matriarchy (…) Every woman has her own story. Each of us is a spark, but together we are lighting a candle for Tepito.”
German photographer, Anja Jensen, is currently exhibiting her work in a show called “Ciudadanas-Caminamos a oscuras” (Citizens-We Walk in the Dark). Having spent months in Tepito, she’s documented the women challenging the stereotypes of the neighborhood.
Jensen was assaulted and threatened, but she was also clothed and cared for by the women who opened their stories and lives to her. The result is a series photographs, “Las Cabronas de Tepito,” (Bad Girls of Tepito) a collective portrait of the matriarchy whose fervor makes the neighborhood better and regularly improves the lives of the people living there.
The photographs will be exhibited through February 12, 2017, as part of the Mexico-Germany Dual Year, at the German Pavilion on the Plaza Rio de Janeiro, in Roma Norte.