Saturday, September 30, 2017

Tlaxcala Part 1: Small, beautiful, and full of history

This is one of several whimsical sculptures in Plaza de la Constitución.  After our visit to the ancient ruins of Teotihuacán, we headed to Tlaxcala de Xicoténcatl, the capital of the State of Tlaxcala. It is the smallest of Mexico's 31 states, covering an area of only 4016 sq km (1551 sq mi). Its population of 1,272,847 makes it one Mexico's smallest states, ranking 28th of 31. The city of Tlaxcala is also relatively small, containing less than 90,000 inhabitants within its municipio (equivalent to a US county). For a Google map of the state of Tlaxcala, click here.

For centuries prior to the arrival of the Spanish, Tlaxcalans had been fierce enemies of the Aztecs. During the Conquest, they became important allies of Hernán Cortéz and his Conquistadores. As a result, the Tlaxcalans were able to maintain their autonomy for a considerable portion of the colonial era. This early alliance enabled Spanish friars to evangelize and conduct mass baptisms here even before the final defeat of the Aztecs in 1521. As a result, some of the churches and other colonial-era structures in the city of Tlaxcala are among the oldest in Mexico. In this first posting of my series, we'll start with Plaza de la Constitución, which is surrounded by many beautifully restored colonial-era buildings.


Plaza de la Constitución

A beautiful ochavada fountain provides a cool space for plaza visitors to linger. "Ochavada" refers to the octagon shape of the fountain. Named La Fuente de Santa Cruz, it was a gift to the city from Spain's King Philip IV in 1646. The plaza itself was laid out in 1524, as the first step to building the town. The Aztecs had been defeated only two years previously, making this one of the first Spanish plazas in the continental Americas. The measurements of the plaza follow the standard set for plazas in medieval Spain. The original name of the square was Plaza de Armas (Plaza of Guns, i.e. the parade ground).  In 1813, the name was changed to Plaza de la Constitución in honor of the Constitution of Cadiz, a document drawn up by Spanish reformers as part of their resistance to the French occupation of Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. For a Google map of the Plaza and surrounding area, click here.


Ornate cast-iron benches line the shady walkways of the plaza. The kiosco (bandstand) in the background was a gift from President Porfirio Diaz, who ruled Mexico with an iron hand between 1876 and 1911. During the Porfiriato, as this period was called, French styles of architecture were copied throughout Mexico. The kiosco and the park benches followed this pattern.

Agapanthus, a member of the Amaryllis family. Lush gardens grow around the fountain and kiosco, and under the shade of the plaza's trees. Agapanthus is not native to Mexico, but originates from South Africa. (Photo i.d. courtesy of my friend Ron Parsons, who publishes Wild Flowers and Plants of Central Mexico).


A young woman cleans the walkways. The plaza was immaculate, as was true of the rest of Tlaxcala. Mexicans take great pride in their plazas. Usually, even the poorest pueblos keep them carefully swept and free of trash. Notice the old-style broom. It consists of twigs and small branches bunched together and attached with twine to a pole. This inexpensive method, using locally obtained natural products, creates a remarkably effective tool for cleaning large areas.


Portales de Hidalgo

View of the Portal Hidalgo from Plaza de la Constitución. The whole east side of the plaza is occupied by a long arcade with arched portales separating it from the street. The arcade shelters a string of sidewalk restaurants where we ate many of our meals. There are also a variety of stores, as well as the offices of the city government. In the foreground, a shoeshine man prepares his stand for business. A good shoeshine can nearly always be obtained in a Mexican plaza. In 1549, the city council of Tlaxcala hired 300 workers to build nine stores along this side of the plaza. The move was inspired by Corregidor (chief magistrate) Don Diego Ramirez. In 1550, the completed stores were rented to merchants so that they could sell the wares they imported from Spain and the Philippines. The city council then used the income from the rentals to pay city government workers.


View of the Portal Hidalgo from the southeast corner of the plaza. The portales face directly west and several of the restaurants have pulled down shades to shield diners from the afternoon sun. In 1687, without bothering to consult with the city council, Tlaxcala's Spanish governor Francisco Antonio Picazo sold the stores to a royal notary (a high-level Spanish lawyer). The sign at the Portal Hidalgo doesn't say, but it would not surprise me in the least if there was a family connection between the two. That's the way things were done in those days (and often in modern times too).


One of the Portal Hidalgo's many restaurants. Some are full-service, while others specialize in coffee, pastries, or ice cream. The prices are reasonable and the food is good. The Portal has been modified numerous times over the centuries. The original pillars were made of wood set in stone bases. Those were replaced in the 17th century by the current pillars. The original name of the arcade was Portal de Parian, but it was changed after 1821 to honor Father Miguel Hidalgo, hero of the War of Independence.


This sidewalk buffet specializes in local dishes.  Further down the arcade is the main office of the city government. The stone walkway has been worn smooth by the feet of centuries of shoppers.


Three young women enjoy a quiet meal above the arcade. Many of the restaurants along the arcade also have space on the second floor. Windows with wrought-iron balconies line the front of the upper floor, forming a excellent places for tables overlooking the plaza.


Palacio Gobierno

Palacio Gobierno is the seat of the state government of Tlaxcala. The Palacio occupies the whole northern side of the Plaza de la Constitución. The area along its front is for pedestrians only. The building dates to 1545, but has been modified numerous times since then. Originally it was the local headquarters of the Spanish colonial government. The original building had three sections. On the west end (left side) was the alhóndiga, a public granary. The center section was occupied by the Casas de Consistorial  (council hall and mayor's office). The east end (right side) consisted of apartments set aside for the Viceroy when he passed through the area. Today, the walls of the east end are filled with stunning murals detailing the history of Tlaxcala from Paleolithic times to the modern day. I will do a separate posting on the murals later in this series.


East corner of the Palacio. The white plaster decorations are in French Rococo style and were added in 1929. The interesting zig-zag pattern of brickwork is replicated in several other structures in Tlaxcala, including the Parroquia San José.


The Casas de Consistorial entrance was built in the Plateresque style. Plateresque means "in the manner of a silversmith". The style appeared in 15th century Spain during the late Gothic and early Renaissance periods. The three upper arches also show some Moorish influence.


Demonstration in front of the Palacio. During our visit there seemed to be a non-stop rally going on here. Some folks even put up tents and spent the night in front of the Palacio. It appeared to be about education reform, although I was never quite clear on the specifics. As a former union and community organizer, I always appreciate the level of activism in Mexico's civil society. Everywhere I go, I run into this sort of thing. It speaks well of democracy in Mexico that so many ordinary people get out and make their voices heard.

Parroquia San José

The 18th century Baroque exterior of Parroquia San José is a fine example of that style. The original name of the church was Parroquia San Juan y José. At one time it was a cathedral (administrative seat of a diocese). However, the Spanish founded the city of Puebla in 1532 and it soon grew to a level of such importance that the cathedral was shifted there. Parroquia San José, which sits on the northwest corner of the Plaza, was built on the site of a 16th century hermitage. In 1864, an earthquake demolished the dome and vault. When they were reconstructed, a beautiful tile covering was added. In a future posting, I will take a closer look at the church and its interior decorations.


Church fountain, looking east. Colonial fountains are lovely, but they once served a very practical function. Almost no colonial structures had internal running water, so fountains became the prime source for public water. They served the human inhabitants, as well as horses and other animals. The red brick building in the upper left is the west side of the Palacio Gobierno, which once contained the alhóndiga.


Capilla Real de Indias

The Capilla Real de Indias was built between 1659 and 1688. The Royal Chapel of the Indians was intended as a place for the indigenous people to worship, to keep them separate from the Spaniards. The builders used a system of state-controlled forced labor of native people to construct it. Church and civil authorities of the colonial society were apparently oblivious to the irony, given the purpose of the structure.


Baroque pilasters frame the main entrance. The title of Royal Chapel was granted by Spanish King Carlos III in 1770. In honor of his decree, the town council placed a life-sized stone statue of King Carlos in the atrium. It was adorned with military insignia, although Carlos had little or no military experience, seldom wore uniforms, and could barely be persuaded to witness a military review. However, he was a reformer who was strongly influenced by the Enlightenment. Historians view King Carlos III as one of the best European rulers of his era. His statue now resides in Tlaxcala's Regional Museum.


One of two plaques on the Capilla's exterior displaying the Hapsburg Royal coat-of-arms. The plaques were carved from volcanic stone. They represent the Hapsburg dynasty which ruled colonial Nueva España (New Spain) from the time of the Conquest until 1700. The plaques may have been part of an earlier structure that was replaced by the Capilla. At the end of the 18th century, a fire destroyed the nave. Much of the rest of the church collapsed in a later earthquake. The ruins were abandoned until 1984, when the structure was restored, but for another purpose.


The atrium of the Capilla contains two quotes from Benito Juarez. The building is no longer a church, but now houses Tlaxcala's state judicial branch. Benito Juarez was the Chief Justice of the Mexican Supreme Court during the mid-19th century. The upper quote means "The nation comes first" while the lower says "Peace is respect for the rights of others." Juarez, a full-blooded Zapotec Indian, is one of the most honored and respected figures in Mexico's history. It would be another 150 years before the US elected a person of color as president.


Oficina de Turismo

The offices of the Secretary of Tourism formerly housed the State Legislature. This attractive corner building is one block north of the Plaza, just behind the Palacio Gobierno. Tourist offices are always among my first stops when I visit a new place. They can often provide excellent maps and other brochures, usually free of charge. The building was constructed in Neo-Classical style under the direction of Governor Prospero Cahuantzi at the end of the 19th century. It was inaugurated in 1901 and in use until 1987.


A grand staircase leads to a landing with an impressive statue. The dome at the top of the stairs was done in French Nouveau style. Since 1987, the building has been occupied by the Tlaxcala State Secretary of Tourism.


Bronze statue of Benito Juarez, pointing to his famous Reform Laws. Juarez became President of Mexico after his stint as Chief Justice. He led the effort to reform Mexico's Constitution and its society. One of his chief objectives was to curb the economic and political power of the Church which, at the time, controlled as much as 40% of Mexico's arable land. Juarez' reforms led to a revolt by conservatives and Church leaders. After they lost the Reform War (1858-1860), the conservatives urged France to invade Mexico and install a monarchy. As President, Juarez led the successful resistance to the French occupation (1862-1867). Abraham Lincoln and Juarez, who were contemporaries, admired and respected each other greatly.


Touribus waits for customers. These buses give guided tours around the city, visiting spectacular churches and lookout points with grand vistas. They are a fun and inexpensive way to get an overview of the available sights.

This concludes Part 1 of my Tlaxcala series. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim





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