Devoid of trees, sculptures, walkways, or even park benches, Mexico City’s Zócalo is adorned only with an enormous flagpole. The space itself is referred to as “la plancha del Zócalo” (the slab of the Zocalo) — as in a slab of stone, but in this case concrete designed to look like square-meter tiles.
However, it is not a bleak and empty space. The Zócalo keeps a very busy schedule. Literally and figuratively, it is Mexico City’s center stage. Throughout the year, erector set-type structures are put up and taken down with surprising speed for concerts, exhibits, book fairs, museums and even for an ice-skating rink. Depending on the event, the audience sits in chairs and bleachers or stands and walks.
Four “powers” surround Mexico City’s Zócalo, each represented by buildings. The National Palace is on the east and is the seat of the executive branch of the federal government. The Cathedral is on the north and is the seat of the archdiocese of México Tenochtitlan. This is the only place the Aztec capital’s name survives in an official way. Federal District buildings line the south side of the plaza. Commerce anchors the west side.
Though it appears to be totally open, the space is jealously guarded by these various powers. The “plancha” of the Zócalo is under the jurisdiction of the city government. The federal government’s jurisdiction is limited to the sidewalk in front of the National Palace. A few years ago the city discussed remodeling the Zócalo and removing the fence in front of the Cathedral. The archdiocese’s spokesman reminded the city that the atrium — though outdoors — is an integral part of the Cathedral.
But all that was ignored last Saturday. The Army took over all those spaces as it does every year in preparation for the grandest of Mexico’s civic events.
Independence Day is tomorrow, with the celebration beginning tonight. It’s a particularly Mexican event held in a place with a Mexican name.
Only Mexico calls its plazas zócalos. Only Mexico’s president leads a celebration that mixes military pomp and formality inside the National Palace that morphs into a rowdy and celebratory event when the President steps onto the Palace’s central balcony and delivers the Grito (Shout).
He’s emulating Father Miguel Hidalgo’s ‘Shout of Independence’. He even rings the same bell Father Hidalgo rang on the 16th of September in 1810. That act, with different players, is reenacted in zócalos all over the nation and in Mexican diplomatic posts throughout the world.
Tomorrow the Palace balconies become viewing stands for one of the world’s grand military parades. It is well rehearsed with few changes from one year to the next. A recent change was the inclusion of foreign armed forces in the parade.
The most surprising is that of the United States, a country whose soldiers invaded Mexico in 1846 and raised their own flag over the National Palace.
Another change is that previous administrations’ military commentators emphasized Mexico’s military preparedness. This administration’s commentators stress military assistance to the citizenry.
A commemorative mass honoring Father Miguel Hidalgo is traditionally celebrated at the Cathedral on Independence Day. This also may be unique in the world. The highest clergy honors a priest the church had excommunicated. Hidalgo even had his hands scraped to be sure there were no holy oils on them before his execution by firing squad.
This dark side of Mexican church history was talked about sotto voce until 2010 when the Luz del Mundo (Light of the Word) Church, a Mexican Pentecostal church, brought it to the forefront in paid insertions in newspapers. Catholic hierarchy replied that Father Hidalgo indeed had been excommunicated but was readmitted to communion before his execution. The Luz del Mundo Church published copies of Catholic documents certifying the contrary.
The Zócalo is also a favorite place for political demonstrations and is frequently the destination for protest marches. This a right protected in the Constitution.
Most demonstrations are of short duration. A plantón is a demonstration of longer duration. Plantón demonstrators “plant themselves” on the “plancha” of the Zocalo, promising to stay — in tents — until their demands are met.
A plantón starting in late August will quickly draw attention from authorities; they need a clear Zócalo for the Grito on the 15th and the parade on the 16th of September.
In 2006, a massive plantón covered the whole plaza. At a press conference, Federal District Chief of Government Alejandro Encinas said both the Grito and the parade would be held. A reporter’s rejoinder was, “The law of physics maintains only one body can occupy a space at any given time.”
Encinas replied, “There’s a law of physics, and there’s a law of politics. I can have the Zócalo ready six hours after the plantón is dismantled.” Indeed, Encinas turned it over to the Army, swept, clean, and empty of all but its flagpole in time for the 2006 Grito. Just another Mexican Miracle.