Sunday, November 12, 2017

Tlaxcala Part 3: Palacio Gobierno's gorgeous murals showing the city's prehispanic origins and economy

Mural showing two of Tlaxcala's most important gods. On the right is Camaxtli, the god of war and hunting. He was the chief deity of Tlaxcala and always appears with black paint across his upper face, vertical "candy-stripes" on his body, and carrying a bow and arrows. In the center, dressed in white, is the mother goddess known as Xochiquetzalli. According to some versions of Tlaxcalteca mythology, they were married. In the next two postings, I'll show you the extraordinary murals inside the Palacio Gobierno (Government Palace). These include scenes from archaic times all the way to the colonial period. The artist was Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin, a native of Tlaxcala. He worked on them from 1957 until his death in 1997, incorporating all the newest archeological discoveries to ensure accuracy. The Palacio is located along the north side of Plaza Constitución. To find it, click here.

Palacio Gobierno

Balcony of the Governor's office, above the front entrance of the Palacio. The beautifully carved white plaster nicely compliments the warm reddish glow of the brick facing. The style is very similar to the facade of Parroquia San Jose, (see my last posting). At the time I did that posting, I erroneously identified it as Churrigueresque. Richard Perry is a friend who publishes a blog called the Arts of Colonial Mexico. He tells me that this is Neostyle, a transition between late Baroque and Neo-Classic. The bell above the balcony is a replica of the one at the town of Dolores Hidalgo that Father Miguel Hidalgo rang to summon the people to begin the War of Independence (1810 - 1821). Every September 15, as part of the Fiesta de Independencia, the Governor stands on the balcony, rings the bell, and delivers Hidalgo's speech to the crowd below.

Below the balcony is the Mudéjar-style entrance of the Palacio. The fall of the Emirate of Granada in 1491 ended 700 years of Moorish domination in Spain. Practicing Muslims who remained in Spain were called Mudéjares, in contrast to Moriscos, who converted to Christianity. Eventually Spanish Catholic fanaticism forced both groups to leave the country. Although the Spanish Christians despised Islam, they did admire Muslim architectural styles. Mudéjar-style architecture was eventually brought to the New World. The Palacio was originally constructed  as a home for Hernán Cortez. From the colonial period through modern times, the building has been used for government offices. The Palacio has been destroyed and rebuilt several times due to floods, earthquakes, and fires.

Tlaxcala's origins

Youthful hunters take aim. The first inhabitants of what is now the State of Tlaxcala arrived some 11,000 years ago, during the Paleolithic Era (Old Stone Age). They were nomads who were hunting big game, including camels, mastodons, and horses. All of these animals became extinct in the New World many thousands of years ago. The oldest traces of the hunters' presence include a Clovis point spearhead and the remains of plants and animals that they consumed in the caves where they took shelter. The environment at that time was cold and humid.

Normads discover teocintle, the wild plant from which maiz originated. When the climate became warmer and dryer, the big game began to disappear. Archeologists believe this may have been accelerated by over-hunting. Increasingly, the nomads had to rely on smaller game and plants for their subsistence. Eventually, they discovered how to grow some of these plants themselves. Through experimentation over millennia, maiz (corn) was developed from teocintle. The oldest cobs of maiz yet found were discovered in a cave in Oaxaca. They have been carbon-dated to 5,400 years ago. However, DNA tests indicate that maiz probably originated much earlier in Puebla, south of Tlaxcala. Cultivation of maiz created a surplus of storable food, but it also necessitated significant cultural changes, since agriculture requires a sedentary lifestyle.

Over time, Maiz became central to the pre-hispanic economy and culture. Above, a man examines a newly sprouted maiz plant, while groups of men plant and cultivate their fields. They are using a long-handled tool called a coa, a Neolithic (New Stone Age) invention. I have observed it in use by small farmers in Mexico, as they plant and cultivate maiz in exactly the same way their archaic ancestors did. Over the millennia, the Tlaxcala area experienced waves of migration, and sometimes outright invasions, by new groups moving down from the northern deserts. Some of them built the ancient city of Xochitécatl (800 BC - 300 BC) in southwest Tlaxcala. A couple of centuries later, Teotihuacán (100 BC - 650 AD) arose. Tecoaque was a Teotihuacán military and trading outpost located just inside modern Tlaxcala's western border on an ancient trade route from the Gulf Coast to the Valley of Mexico. After Teotihuacán's demise, a period of turmoil ensued during which a Maya-related group called the Olmeca-Xicalanca arrived from the Gulf Coast. They took over the area and established Cacaxtla (700 AD - 900 AD), as their capital. It was within sight of the ruins of Xochitécatl, already ancient at that time. Cacaxtla fell, in turn, to the expanding empire of the Toltecs (900 AD - 1150 AD). When the Toltec era ended in the 12th century, it was followed by yet another period of instability. Military conflicts flared among rising city states and Chichimec invaders arrived. The name is generic for various northern-desert tribes of fierce nomadic warriors who had been kept in check by the Toltecs and, before them, Teotihuacán. After the Toltec empire collapsed, waves of these invaders swept down, taking advantage of the turmoil.

The Tlaxcaltecas arrived on the scene in the mid-14th century. Above, the Tlaxcalteca war god Camaxtli points the way for the migrants, They were part of the last great wave of Chichimec invaders. Included in this mass migration was another tribe known as the Mexica, commonly called the Aztecs. The two tribes not only arrived in their new homelands at about the same time, but they shared many cultural traits, including Nahuatl, their common language. They worshipped many of the same gods and shared a taste for warfare, conquest, and human sacrifice.

The Tlaxcaltecas conquer the Teo-Chichimecas, part of an earlier wave of migrants to Tlaxcala. The mural above gives a taste of pre-hispanic warfare, a savage and bloody affair. The scene is quite accurate. Not only could the artist draw from the first hand accounts of the Conquistadors, but the great murals of Cacaxtla display just such a titanic battle between the Eagle and Jaguar warrior cults. The combatants above are brandishing a fearsome hand weapon called a maquahuitl. It was a wooden club, the edges of which were lined with razor-sharp obsidian. Other weapons included the bow and arrow, the atlatl (a dart thrower), long spears, and slings that propelled stones with such force that they could endanger even a Spaniard in steel armor. For defense they used quilted armor and round wooden shields decorated with feathers. Warriors often clothed themselves in the skins of jaguars or other totem animals. Strapped to their backs were wood stakes adorned with bright feathers. In the heat of battle, these helped sort out friend from foe. In addition, the emblems enabled commanders to identify the battle lines so they could direct their forces.

Tlaxcalteca chiefs meet to formalize an on-going alliance. Following their successful conquest, the tribe divided up the lands they had captured. Four towns named Tepetícpac, Ocotelulco, Tiztlán, and Quiahuitzlán emerged as the centers of the Tlaxcalteca civilization. Each had its own lord and ruling elite. Over time, the leaders of these independent towns formed an on-going alliance to avoid internal conflict, to assist one another in conquering more territory, and to deal with external threats such as the rising Mexica empire to the west.

Pre-hispanic economy

A Tlaxcalteca noble oversees the harvesting of maiz. He wears a tilma, or cotton cape, knotted at his throat. It is hard to overstate the importance of maiz to pre-hispanic cultures. It was the staff of life and was used to prepare a wide variety of foods. Some of these, including tortillas, tamales, and the drink called atole are still widely consumed today. Abundant crops meant prosperity and security, while crop failures could be disastrous. Thus, maiz figured prominently in myths surrounding gods like Quetzalcoatl, who delivered the secret of maiz cultivation to humankind. Regular human sacrifices to gods like Tlaloc, the rain deity, were thought necessary to ensure adequate precipitation and good harvests.

Methods for processing maiz are unchanged from pre-hispanic times. On the left, a man uses a tumpline across his forehead to carry a basket full of freshly-harvested maiz. It is a very ancient method of transport that is still in use today. In the center, women sit around a pile of cobs, removing the husks. I have observed this same scene near my home. After husking, the maiz kernels are removed, soaked in lime, and boiled in a process called nixtamalization. This process dissolves the hulls around the kernels. Using a stone platter called a metate, the maiz is then ground with a roller called a mano, also made of stone. The resulting masa (dough) is flattened by hand into thin, round cakes called tortillas. These are cooked on a clay griddle called a comal. All these processes and tools are still in use throughout Mexico today, just as they were a thousand or more years ago. In fact, manos and metates are among the most common artifacts unearthed by archeologists in even the most ancient pre-hispanic sites. Today, virtually identical versions are sold in Mexican hardware stores for use as basic kitchen equipment.

Other Tlaxcalteca artisans at work. On the left, merchants examine a folded codex, which was the pre-hispanic version of a book. The paper for the codex was made by pounding the bark from an amate tree with a special stone to separate and flatten the fibres. Because of work necessary to create it, paper was a very valuable commodity. Because it was light and easy for traders to transport, paper became an important trade good. It was used primarily by rulers, priests, and the nobility for records and religious tracts. On the right, workers gather and bundle agave leaves. These were used to produce fibre for sandals and ropes, among other things. The spines from the tips of agave leaves could be used as needles. The agave heart could be cooked and eaten and the juice from the heart could be processed into pulque, a mildly alcoholic drink still consumed in rural Mexico. Today, agave is most famous for the tequila which is made from it.

Weaving and dyeing cloth were other important crafts. In the center, three women weave cotton cloth using backstrap looms. The cotton was imported through the trade networks from the hot coastal areas. Backstrap looms are another very ancient technology that is still in use. Local women in my town can be found under the shade of a lakeside tree, using looms like these to make blankets and shawls for sale to tourists. On the  right, men dye the cloth in a large pot. One of the most favored dyes used crushed cochineal insects gathered from the nopal cactus. It was produced exclusively in Oaxaca and was expensive because a large number of the tiny insects were needed to produce a small amount of dye. Aztec emperors demanded quotas of cochineal dye as tribute from the Zapotecs of Oaxaca. Today, cochineal is still used as a dye in food and lipstick.

A merchant sets out on a trading mission. Men fold and bundle cotton cloth into packets for tlamemeque (porters) to carry. Notice the weary man in the center wiping the sweat from his brow and the two men assisting a tlamemeque who wears a tumpline. The merchant-traders, called pochteca, were not part of the nobility but were still of high status. They had their own powerful organizations and even their own gods. Pochteca sometimes acted as intelligence agents for their rulers when they visited city-states ripe for conquest.

An injured tlamemeque receives medical attention as the pochteca looks on. In the background, the others take a much-needed break. Pre-hispanic people were sophisticated in the use of plants and other natural materials for their medical needs. Pochteca knew that the injuries of a porter must be attended to because, given the absence of any large domesticated animals, human transport was the only kind available. Trade routes in pre-hispanic Mesoamerica were extensive, reaching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coasts and from Honduras to modern New Mexico. There is even evidence of trade between Peru and Western Mexico. Tlaxcala was well-positioned for trade since it lay on a route between the Gulf Coast and the Central Valley of Mexico.

Traders brought their wares to great city markets like this one. The scene above is part of a large mural showing Tlaxcala's tianguis (market). It captures the bustle, the variety of goods, and the myriad transactions that took place. My own pueblo of Ajijic holds what is still called a tianguis every Wednesday. Except for the clothing, and the temple in the background, ours looks pretty much the same as the one in this scene.

Nobles from Tlaxcala's four city-states confer. Commerce wasn't the only function of a tianguis. It was also a great social occasion for all classes. The elites of Tlaxcala could talk politics, make marriage alliances and conduct all sorts of business on these occasions.

Tlaxcala's pantheon of gods

Three priests conduct a key ritual of the Fire Ceremony. Tlaxcala's chief god Camaxtli was said to have invented the fire drill, seen above. To do it, he revolved the heavens around their axes. He was also the first to strike sparks from flint. The worship of the hunter-god Camaxtli, and his relationship to the invention of tools to create fire, harks back to archaic hunter-gatherer times. Fire was extremely important to archaic people. It provided warmth, lit the night, enabled the cooking of food, and could offer protection against predators. The ability to make fire was the first great invention in the long road to civilization. It thus became an important feature in most religious rituals and, in this case, had its own great ceremony, conducted at eight-year intervals.

The Festival of Xochiquetzalli was held each May. Above, a priest chants as the musicians behind him rap out a rhythm on a teponaztli. This was an elaborately carved hollow log drum with slits through the top in the form of an elongated capital H. Often the instrument had a human face on one end, as well as other carvings on its sides. The teponaztli was considered an especially sacred drum. Xochiquetzalli was believed to be the mother of gods and, according to some tales, was the spouse of Camaxtli. She was associated with goodness and flowers and could intercede with more powerful gods to grant the wishes of those who appealed to her.

Quetzalcoatl delivers the great gift of maiz to humankind. Quetzalcoatl, also known as the Plumed Serpent, had been worshipped throughout civilized Mesoamerica as far back as the Olmec times (1500 BC - 400 BC). It is likely that Chichimecs tribes like the Tlaxcalteca adopted Quetzalcoatl as they came into contact with civilized people and began to settle down. In fact, the myth of the Plumed Serpent asserted that he not only delivered maiz to humans, but taught them the arts of civilization, including writing.

Male and female deities dance together. The Tlaxcalteca pantheon was large, with many gods similar to those worshiped by the Mexica, while others were different. Every aspect of life was governed by greater or lesser gods and their festivals were often linked to the sacred 260-day calendar.

This completes my first posting on the murals of the Palacio Gobierno. Next time, we'll look at murals showing the Tlaxcalteca's great rivalry with the Aztec empire and their eventual alliance with the Spanish during the Conquest. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. Please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Saludos, Jim

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Tlaxcala Part 2: Parroquia San José, a splendid mix of Neo-Classic and Baroque

A king dances on a massive retablo in the main nave. He was one of a row of four royal figures, all in similar poses. Close examination has convinced me that he is San Luis, also known as King Louis IX of France. He was a monarch of the Middle Ages who was known for justice, compassion and piety. Louis IX was one of the few rulers ever elevated to sainthood. I have been unable to discover the identities of the other royals, or why all of them appear to be dancing. Parroquia San José is located in the northwest corner of Plaza de la Constitution. The puzzle of the dancing kings is not the only thing that has baffled me about this church. There is a dearth of information about its history, construction and decor. In this posting, I'll provide you with the bits and pieces I have managed to unearth.


The church exterior glows warmly in the afternoon sun. Beginning in the 16th century, a religious hermitage dedicated to San Juan and San José occupied this site. Either in the late 17th or early 18th centuries (depending upon your source) the hermitage was demolished and replaced by the Parroquia (parish church). The new church was dedicated solely to San José (Jesus' father). Construction on various parts of the structure continued into the 19th century, particularly after an earthquake destroyed the roof and one of the domes in 1864.

More recently, on September 20, 2017, Parroquia San José was severely damaged when another earthquake shook central Mexico. This 7.1 temblor left cracks in the facade, tower, and domes, raising fears that the whole structure might collapse. The photo above was taken prior to this disaster. To see a video of the quake rocking the church, click here. In the audio a voice keeps saying "tranquilo, tranquilo" (calm down, calm down) to pedestrians who were weeping as they viewed the destruction.

The domes of the Parroquia are beautifully decorated with talavera tile. This was added during reconstruction after the 1864 quake. Talavera tile originated during the Moorish occupation of Spain (711 AD - 1492 AD). Like many other Moorish styles, the tin-glazed, earthenware was copied by the Christian Spaniards. Production of the earthenware gradually became centered in the town of Talavera de la Reina, hence the name. After the discovery of the New World, Spain exported both the tiles themselves and their method of manufacture. In Nueva España (colonial Mexico) the city of Puebla became the center of talavera production. Since Puebla is located a relatively short distance south of Tlaxcala, it is not surprising that the tiles would be used in rebuilding the Parroquia.

The facade is in the Late Baroque style known as Churrigueresque. This can be seen in the windows, the eight columns, and the statuary, all made of white plaster. The top four columns display the spiraling style called Solomonic, which is a characteristic element of Churrigueresque. Between those columns, in front of the choir window, stands a statue of San José, the Parroquia's namesake.

Main nave

The style of the main nave is Neo-Classic, with elements of Baroque. A number of Baroque retablos line the walls. They are intricately carved, covered with gold leaf, and have niches for statues and paintings. 19th century Chilean artist Manuel Antonio Caro painted several of the large works that hang on the walls. One of those paintings shows the baptism of the four indigenous lords of Tlaxcala in 1520, an event that occurred early in the Conquest, even before the final defeat of the Aztecs.

Greco-Roman columns frame the main altar, which is entirely Neo-Classic. A statue of San José stands in the center niche, with the boy Jesus by his side. What distinguishes Neo-Classic from Baroque is its straight lines and clean appearance with some spaces left without decoration. Baroque (and particularly Churrigueresque) tends to fill up every inch. Typical Neo-Classic features include Greco-Roman columns, usually with Corinthian capitals on their tops, as seen above. The main altar contains twelve of these columns, with eight on the lower level and four on the top.

The dome over the main altar is beautifully crafted, but in need of repair. Salitre is a mineral which leaches into plaster and cement, causing bubbling and flaking. This problem has afflicted Mexican structures from colonial times to the present. The arches surrounding the base of the dome show the intricate floral decorations that are typically Baroque.

The choir loft is on a raised platform over the entrance to the main nave. The ceiling here shows more salitre damage. A choir loft usually contains the church organ, but none is visible in this photo. Typical of most Catholic churches, this choir loft is placed behind and above the congregation, which is seated in the pews below. This is done to avoid distraction from the Mass, which is conducted at the main altar at the other end of the church.

A holy water font near the church entrance contains a startling image. The face carved into the pedestal is that of Camaxtli, war god of the Tlaxcalans. Although it is not unusual to find pre-hispanic religious symbols in colonial churches, they are rarely placed in such a prominent spot. However, as the most important of the Conquistadors' early allies, the Tlaxcalans held a special position. Tlaxcala maintained some degree of political autonomy until the end of the colonial period. The font on the opposite side of the entrance area contains the coat-of-arms of the Spanish Hapsburg Dynasty, a reminder to Tlaxcalans that they were still subject to Nueva España's ultimate authority.

Capilla de la Virgen de Guadalupe

The most important side-chapel is devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe. The chapel's style is wholly Churrigueresque, which I call "Baroque on steroids". It is staggeringly ornate and contains many entertaining features. Churrigueresque mirrored the ornate and tradition-encrusted Spanish Hapsburg Dynasty that ruled Nueva España (Mexico) from the time of the Conquest to the very end of the 17th century. The Neo-Classic style was encouraged by the new, reformist, Bourbon Dynasty that took over Spain and its colonial possessions in 1700. The Bourbons viewed themselves as part of the Enlightenment and pushed for an end to many traditional styles and practices. The Neo-Classic style expresses sober, austere power. Frankly, I find Churrigueresque to be a lot more fun.

The ornate arch over the central image of the Virgin. Every inch is covered with intricate decorations. Churrigueresque developed very late in the Baroque era and was its logical extreme.

The Virgin of Guadalupe and an unidentified Church official occupy prominent niches. The painting shows one of the famous scenes of her legend. According to the story, an Aztec convert to Christianity named Juan Diego accepted a bouquet of Castilian roses from the Virgin. As proof of this extraordinary encounter, Juan Diego presented the roses to Bishop Zumárraga. Part of the miracle was that the roses were out of season and, in any case, were not native to the New World. However, the real proof came when he opened his tilma (Aztec-style cloak) to display the flowers and a clear image of the Virgin appeared on the cloth. The statue on the right is unidentified, but may represent Bishop Zumárraga.

Another painting shows more of the Virgin's legend. The Virgin of Guadalupe was a dark-skinned, Nahuatl-speaking apparition. Juan Diego's encounter with the Virgin was her very first appearance in Mexico. Because of these attributes, and because she first appeared to an indigenous man, she was adopted by the poor and the indigenous people as their patron. The Virgin of Guadalupe is still revered throughout Mexico.

Other chapels within the Parroquia

Another side-chapel, this time in the Neo-Classic style. This one is devoted to another version of the Virgin. Side-chapels like this seem to be popular with those seeking a few moments of quiet contemplation and often contain one or more people even when the main nave is empty.

A shadowy figure stands in a glass case in yet another side-chapel. As near as I can determine, the figure is Jesus. Other statues, including one of the Virgin, stand behind him on the altar. Like the previous chapel, this one is also Neo-Classic.

Retablo de Virgen de Guadalupe

The Parroquia contains several Churrigueresque retablos. A retablo is a carved, wooden altar set against a wall. These structures are often quite large and are another characteristic of the Baroque style. Sometimes a church's main altar will contain a retablo but, in addition, they are often found along the side walls of the main nave. The central figure is the Virgin of Guadalupe, seen in the bottom painting. She is surrounded by nine statues in niches and one standing in front, draped in satin. I have been unable to identify any of these figures. Eight of them appear to be from the 17th or early 18th centuries. The ninth statue, in the lower right, wears vestments that appear to be of a more modern cut.

Three male figures are seated in the top niche of the retablo. The positions of their hands indicate that they are giving a blessing, which suggests that they are religious officials. There is a group of disembodied heads at the feet of the seated figures, another typical Baroque touch. In addition to full-figure statues, retablos tend to be thickly populated with bodiless faces, cherubs, animals, and flowery vegetation.

The headgear of this figure indicates a rank of bishop, cardinal, or even pope. The hat is called a mitre and is generally worn only by church officials of those high ranks. Although the name of the figure is unknown to me, mitres were first worn in Rome approximately 950 AD. Therefore, he is probably not a Church official from an era earlier than that.

Another of the lively dancing kings. I was intrigued by this series of royal figures. I don't believe I've ever seen kings displaying such frivolity in a religious setting. Generally, royalty are depicted as very stiff and regal, or they are shown in heroic, military poses. It is possible that all four of the dancing kings are depictions of San Luis at various stages of his life, but this is only my conjecture.

Other retablos

Six statues fill the niches of a somewhat smaller retablo. The niches are framed by pilasters (false columns) in the shape of long, inverted cones. The style is called estipite, which became a popular element of Spanish Churrigueresque during the period between 1720 and 1760.

This retablo is almost identical to the previous one. Only the statues are different. It is probable that the same artist created both retablos. The central figure here is a nun, while the main statue in the previous retablo is a priest.

Retablo paintings

At the rear of the main nave are still more retablos. In this one, the central element is a painting of a man and woman looking reverently up at the Virgin. The painting is framed by two pilasters containing a total of four statues. At the top is a large figure of a bearded man, possibly a depiction of God.

This retablo stands across the aisle from the one seen previously. The overall structure of the two retablos is almost identical. Only the statues and the central paintings differ. The painting above shows the Virgin Mary carrying the infant Jesus, surrounded by angels. Notice the spiral Solomonic column on the left.

This completes Part 2 of my Tlaxcala series. I hope you have enjoyed visiting this old colonial church with its interesting mixture of Churrigueresque and Neo-Classic styles. If you'd like to comment or ask a question, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

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