Saturday, September 10, 2011

Puebla Part 2: What to do at the Zócalo

The fountain in the center of Puebla's Zócalo is a work of art in itself. It is also a convenient bench, and a handy vantage point when there are crowds.  The fountain is at the center of the plaza, with pathways radiating out to every corner of the park. Although beautiful, such fountains were not constructed simply as artistic flourishes, but had practical uses. This fountain was Puebla's main source of water from the 16th Century until the late 18th. The current fountain, built in 1777, replaced an earlier one built in the mid-16th Century.

In Part 1 of my Puebla series, I presented an overview of the Zócalo, particularly the wonderful architecture around its perimeter, including the Cathedral and the Palacio Municipal. In Part 2, I will focus on the fun and colorful activities that go on here almost non-stop. So, what's to do in the Zócalo?

A sculpture walk

A set of water-splashed cupids supports the bowl of the fountain. A statue of San Miguel (St. Michael, the warrior archangel) stands on a shaft, or plinth that rises from the center of the bowl. The cool mist from the fountain makes it a comfortable spot to hang out during the heat of the day. The name zócalo arises from the Italian word zoccolo, meaning plinth or pedestal. In the 1800s, a large pedestal was set up in the center of the main plaza in Mexico City, intended for a statue that never materialized. People began to use the name for the empty pedestal as slang for the whole plaza. Gradually, zócalo became the term used to describe the main plaza in any Mexican city. The Zócalo is also known as Plaza de la Constitución, but I rarely heard it described that way.

The city's original name was "Puebla de los Angeles." The statue above was unveiled in 1999 to help celebrate Puebla's designation as a World Heritage Site. Like many locations in Mexico, Puebla has a wonderful founding story. In 1530 Julián Garcés, bishop of Tlaxcala, contacted the Queen of Spain about the need for a city to act as a way station between the port of Vera Cruz on the Gulf Coast and Mexico City in the interior. The bishop told of a dream where he saw a group of angels descend to a green valley full of fertile land dotted with springs. There, the angels traced out the plan of a city for him. Bishop Garcés recruited a group of monks to help him look for the site of his vision and found it in the Valley of Cuetlaxcoapan. When the Queen agreed to his request, the City of the Angels, or Puebla de los Angeles was founded. The city retained its traditional name until the 1860s when it was renamed Heroica Puebla de Zaragoza in honor of the general who defeated the French invaders at Puebla in 1862 on May 5 (Cinco de Mayo).

Light and lacy, this is one of the more unusual pieces of art I have encountered in Mexico. Located at the eastern end of the Zócalo, the metal structure honors Ángeles Espinosa Yglesias Rugarcía (1942-2007). A Poblana (woman of Puebla), she was a great patron of the arts and sponsored  efforts to conserve Puebla's historic patrimony. The work above is called "La Senda de Angeles" (The Path of Angels).

La Senda de Angeles is large but ethereal, like a wispy cloud of smoke. The curved, white-painted, metal walls are cut into intricate tracery, seeming to leave more open space than metal work. Above, the sculpture rises against the sky with the clock tower of the Palacio Municipal in the background.

La Senda is irresistible to kids. Whenever we walked by there were always children climbing on it like some sort of fantastic jungle gym. When not climbing, the kids loved to race around and through its passageways.

A statue donated by the foreign residents. There were several of these nymphs scattered around the perimeter of the zocalo in various states of undress. This one was donated by members of Puebla's British community.

Watching the tireless Aztec dancers

Aztec dancers perform a traditional ceremony. One dancer fans the embers of incense while another kneels and blows into a large conch shell. There are troupes of these dancers all over Mexico who perform in zócalos, at events, and during fiesta parades. At least 2 separate troupes were performing in Puebla when we were there. The existence of these dance troupes is part of a movement in Mexico to revive ancient traditions and connect people with the greatness of their past.

A sample of implements used in traditional ceremonies. The conch is similar to ancient ones I have seen in pre-hispanic museum displays. Likewise, the incense burner (standing up in the center) resembles many that have been unearthed in ruins all over Mexico. I am not sure what the incense in the basket might be, except that it was not copal, which has a distinctive smell. The device with the feathered handle was used to fan the smoke in the censer and to distribute it over the people performing the ceremony as part of a cleansing process.

Aztec drummer seems entranced. The drumming, as well as the dancing, takes enormous energy since it goes on almost non-stop for hours and sometimes draws performers into a trancelike state. The drummer is using is a hand-carved, hollow log. While they are called "Aztec," in fact that term was invented by European explorer Alexander Humboldt in 1810. It refers to the legendary origin of the Mexica people in a place called Aztlan. These are the people who built an empire around their capital city of Tenochtitlan (modern Mexico City). The name is pronounced May-sheeka. They were part of the wave of primitive but fierce Chichimeca tribes from the northern deserts who moved down into the civilized parts of Mesoamerica after the fall of the Toltec Empire in the 12th Century.

A mask-wearing Aztec blows a long wooden trumpet--into a modern microphone. Notice the cluster of rattles around his lower leg, another form of musical instrument. The rattles are made from nut shells with small rocks or dried peas inside. The dancers and musicians take great pains to achieve authenticity in their costumes and instruments, even if they are occasionally assisted by a bit of electronic amplification. On their way to the Valley of Mexico, the Mexica had passed by the ruins of the Toltec capital of Tollan (modern Tula, 55 miles north of Mexico City). They were captivated by the symbols and imagery they found, particularly the warrior societies, the cult of death, and the worship of the Feathered Serpent god Quetzalcoatl. The Mexica adopted these and melded them into their own culture. For a while after they arrived in the Valley of Mexico, the Mexica lived on the outskirts of the cities they found there. Because of their primitive origins, they were despised by the sophisticated city people. Eventually, the newcomers settled on a marshy island on the central eastern part of the great lake that covered much of the Valley of Mexico at the time. There, in 1325, they founded Tenochtitlan, their capital. One part of civilized culture they had learned well was organized warfare and this matched well with their fierce nature and recently-adopted Toltec warrior traditions. By 1428, the Mexica had conquered a huge empire, but its glory lasted only about a century, and it fell to the Spanish conquistadores in 1521.

A young performer watches the ceremony intently as he prepares to join the dance. The Mexicas were like sponges as they encountered various cultures on their way from the northern deserts. While they brought with them their old desert gods, they also adopted the deities of those they conquered, somewhat like the Romans adopted Greek gods, giving them new names. There were scores of these gods, all with their own attributes and requirements for worship. However, there were three of particular importance: Huitzilopochitli (Left Handed Hummingbird) who was the God of War, Quezalcoatl (the  Feathered Serpent) who was The Creator God, and Tlaloc (He Who Makes Things Grow) who was the God of Rain. Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc were clearly borrowed from the Toltecs, who had in turn borrowed them from Teotihuacan, their predecessor empire.

Artists at work

A graffiti artist sprays his way to fame. It was fascinating to watch these artists rapidly make intricate paintings with nothing but cans of spraypaint. Better here, on canvas, than on city walls or other surfaces so often marred.

Anti-smoking message. The artist has portrayed the tobacco industry as a hideous monster leaning over a parapet of upright cigarettes and trying to sink his claws into an innocent child playing with a ball. Not much of an exaggeration, in my opinion.

Bring on the clowns

Clowns appear every Sunday on the west side of the Zócalo. They cavorted, interacted with the crowd, and put on impromptu skits. Their antics have become a regular, accepted, and expected part of the weekend scene at Puebla's Zócalo.

"Well, I never...!" A female clown in a monkey mask assumes a posture of exasperation. For a price, children up to the age of 60+ could have their faces decorated in clown makeup. It appeared to be a popular activity, from all the painted people I saw wandering the park.

Random encounters

Young Chilean musicians added rock music to the cacaphony surrounding us. The Chileans were part of a protest against the cost of higher education in Latin America. At any one time the sounds around us might simultaneously include rock music, bells from the church, the Aztec drumming, marimba duos, and strolling individual musicians on a variety of instruments. Add to this the sound of the crowd and city traffic, and you have some idea of the auditory feel of the Zócalo.

As foreigners, we attracted the attention of young students. Twice we were politely approached by pairs of students requesting interviews. They were from a local university linguistics program, and asked simple questions about our backgrounds and our experience in Puebla. While one interviewed, the other would take pictures. They were so cute and earnest that we couldn't say no. This pair were astonished and pleased when we told them that we live full-time in Mexico and love it.

"Now where did I leave that crashed car?" This fellow, dressed as a crash-test dummy, was handing out literature about safe driving. A good project, given that sometimes the environment on Mexican highways resembles a "bumper-car" game at a carnival.

The joy of life. This little guy was bursting with the simple joy of running through the plaza. Mexico is a young society and children are everywhere. The extended family structure has not broken down yet, as it has in the US where the majority of households are single adults. Of course, as Mexico modernizes, the same atomization and alienation may set in, but perhaps not. Mexico seems to have its own way of doing things, and family is still very important.

This completes Part 2 of my series on Puebla. Next time, we'll take a walk around the streets of the Centro Historico to see some of the wonderful architecture and street art. I always welcome feedback. If you would like to comment, you can do so either by using the Comments section below, or emailing me directly.

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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