Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A new face of Mexico's Palace

There are still a few more days left of a special treat in the National Palace.  The Salones Presidenciales, surrounding the Patio de Honor, on the second floor of the southwesternmost part of the Palace will be open to visitors until the end of this month.   
Interestingly the Gate of Honor is not the central gate, it is the southern entrance facing the Zocalo.   That southern end of the Palace is the presidential portion of the building, built on the location of Emperor Moctezuma's Palace.

Television cameras have given us glimpses of the Salones Presidenciales when special ceremonies are held but rarely have the rooms been open to the public.  The furnishings and decoration are truly palatial and maintained in tiptop condition.  On one of my recent visits I watched a staff person dusting, using a fine-arts paintbrush.  The chandeliers are resplendent and the carpeting, upholstry, wall coverings, mirrors, paintings all in excellent condition. 

As an interesting architectural design, the presidential reception room's northernmost window is also the access to the presidential balcony over the central, main doorway to the Palace.  This is the balcony from which the president gives the shout of Independence on the night of the 15th of September recalling Father Hidalgo's Grito de la Independencia in 1810, and where the president reviews the military parade the following morning; famously the balcony from which Rigoberta Menchú greeted the crowd shortly after being notified she had been awarded the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize.   

The plaza overlooked from the presidential balcony is officially designated Plaza de la Constitución though universally known as the Zocalo -- a strange name for a plaza.   In proper Spanish zocalo refers to a pedestal for a statue.  One explanation for the use of the word to refer to a plaza is that a viceroy ordered a statue of the King of Spain erected in the plaza (or a president ordered a column erected honoring independence from Spain) and only the pedestal was built.  The statue or column was lost in transit.  People started using the pedestal as a point of reference.  "I'll meet you at the pedestal", or "my house is four blocks north of the pedestal."  Soon the whole plaza was referred to as the pedestal; resulting in plazas all over Mexico being called pedestals.  There is another explanation for the word zocalo, and the one I prefer.  Mexico’s great author, Carlos Fuentes, has a hobby of documenting words used in Spanish which are of Arabic origin.  He maintains that 25% of Spanish vocabulary comes from Arabic and theorizes that the Arabic word zuc, market, is the root of zocalo.  Fuentes points out that Mexico City's market was located in the southwestern quadrant of the plaza, and that there was a title awarded to the person in charge of the market:  Señor del Zuc.

The Constitution of 1917, which rules Mexico today, guarantees the right of the people to demonstrate in a public place without the need for any type of permit -- making the Zocalo is a frequent location for a Mexican innovation in demonstrations:  the plantón.  A round-the-clock demonstration which may go on for weeks or months, usually in front of a government building.  In the case of the Zocalo, if the tents, banners, and demonstrators face the National Palace, their demands are addressed to the federal government.  If facing south, to the Federal District (Mexico City) government.  

I had often wondered if demonstrators' demands could be heard inside the Palace, and their banners noticed.  From outside, looking up through the second floor windows where only ceilings are visible, the Palace seems worlds away.  From the inside, however, despite the beauty of the rooms and furnishings, the windows attract the insider like a magnet and leave no way to ignore what is going on in the Zocalo.  This feeling can only be experienced by actually being in those rooms. 

Through the centuries many powerful, important, and famous people have walked through the Presidential Reception Room.  One of the captions describing the room speaks of the ceiling beams and says they date back to the viceroyalty period of Mexico's history.  Though there was serious damage to the Palace in 1692, I like to think that looking up at the polished beams gives me the same view that Juana Ramírez de Asbaje (1648-1695) enjoyed when as a young woman she glanced up while serving on the staff of the vicereine as a lady-in-waiting.  Little did she know that many of us visiting the room today would carry her portrait in our pockets, on the 200 peso bill.  

As a dessert to this wonderful visual banquet, upon exiting the Palace, you'll walk through the botanical garden.  

Access to the National Palace is along the north side of the building.  There are two strict security checks.  Lockers are available for rent.  The Salones Presidenciales are the last part of an extensive exhibit.  If you don't have time for the whole exhibit, tell the security guard at the bottom of the main stairway -- just after entering the National Palace, that you want to go directly to the Diego Rivera murals.  Follow the murals up the stairway and along the hallways.  When you get to the last one keep on walking straight ahead -- that will take you into the Salones Presidenciales.  Be sure to be there before 4:00 p.m. -- start the entrance process by 3:30. 

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