Revisiting Mexico

  • The Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral, built in sections from 1573 to 1813, is on the northern side of the Plaza de la Constitución, also known as the Zócalo, in downtown Mexico City.  STAFF PHOTO/LUIS FIELDMAN

  • The municipal building in Axapusco, a small rural town at the edge of the state of Mexico about an hour and a half outside of the city. STAFF PHOTO/LUIS FIELDMAN

  • Escuela Nacional de Ingenieros is in the historic district in downtown Mexico City.  STAFF PHOTO/LUIS FIELDMAN

  • A church in the center of Axapusco, a town in Mexico with a population of 20,000.  STAFF PHOTO/LUIS FIELDMAN

  •  One of several murals by Diego Rivera depicting Mexican history found in the halls of the Palacio Nacional in downtown Mexico City, a building where the federal executive branch of government operates.

  • The Palacio National in downtown Mexico City.  Antoine Hubert/via Flickr

  • Detail from the Diego Rivera mural The History of Mexico, in the Palacio Nacional. Steve Silverman/via Flickr

  • Luis Fieldman Luis Fieldman

Staff Writer
Published: 1/18/2020 5:15:19 PM

Even from 30,000 feet in the air, Mexico City appears vast and undefinable. Millions upon millions of lights came into view as my plane began its nighttime descent on a recent trip to the largest city on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

During the first week of December, I flew down to visit family ahead of the holiday rush, for a little sightseeing, and to celebrate my uncle’s 50th birthday. Some of my earliest memories trace back to my days visiting my Grandmother (Abuelita) Chelo’s house in a bustling corner of Tlalnepantla, a municipality north of Mexico City and part of Greater Mexico City, which has a population of more than 20 million.

As I approached the immigration desk once I got off the plane, the customs agent asked me the reason for my visit. I told her to visit family and for some tourism.

Que feo ciudad para hacer el tourismo,” she replied. What an ugly city for tourism, she told me dryly, and I could not help but laugh. Escaping snowstorms and landing in sunny weather in the 70s seemed like paradise to me, even if it were in a concrete jungle.

On the first two days of the trip, I visited the main square of Mexico City called the Plaza de la Constitución, also referred to as El Zócalo. In the pre-colonial period of the Aztec Empire, the area had been a gathering place and the site of ceremonies. Today the square is surrounded by the Palacio Nacional, where the country’s federal branch of government operates, along with other municipal buildings and the Metropolitan Cathedral, a church that took 250 years to build beginning in 1573.

The streets surrounding the Zócalo are crowded with stores and restaurants on ancient colonial streets and cobblestone roads. The sounds of police blowing whistles to direct traffic, merchants rapidly yelling about their products, and buskers playing organ grinders filled the air.

A Rivera masterpiece

Within the Palacio Nacional is one of Mexico’s most famous murals called “The History of Mexico,” painted by Diego Rivera between 1929 and 1935. The mural has three parts and is painted in a large stairwell of the government building. In captivating detail and vivid colors, Rivera depicts Mexico’s history from the early Aztec Empire to the time of Rivera’s work. The mural also includes Rivera’s vision for a communist future in Mexico.

On the right panel, representing the country’s past, are depictions of Mexico’s indigenous people mixed with the mythology of the city’s origins. There are brown-skinned people in white robes, who are slaves, forced to construct pyramids. Others are cooking food while other indigenous people from rival tribes are dressed for war in a chaotic battle taking place in a corner of the mural.

At the center, there is Quetzalcóatl dressed elaborately and surrounded by indigenous people. Quetzalcóatl represents the creator of this pre-colonial society. In the upper left corner of this panel, he is seen riding a dragon out of the mural’s frame, marking the end of the pre-colonial era.

The middle panel, consisting of innumerable characters and faces, is Rivera’s attempt to unfold Mexico’s complex history in a mural as he paints some of the nation’s most prominent figures gathering together. Rivera illustrates class struggle, Spanish conquest and revolutionary ideals in a busy yet mesmerizing artwork.

Spanish cavalry clad in battle armor clash with indigenous peoples. The nation’s emblem, an eagle, is at the very center of the mural. Around the emblem are Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador who led the destruction of the Aztec Empire, on horseback; a priest named Hidalgo carrying grapevines; and farther above appears Emilia Zapata, who led peasant revolutions against the government, with the slogan, “Land and Liberty.”

The final section of the mural includes the quote: “The entire history of human society to the present is the history of class struggle,” by Karl Marx, who is depicted speaking with armed revolutionaries pointing to a vision of utopia. A utopia of Rivera’s imagination, in which the workers own the means of production and which artistically functions as the answer to all the violence depicted by Rivera throughout Mexico’s ages, violence created by class struggles.

From the early enslavement of indigenous peoples to farmworkers revolting against the government, the mural is Rivera’s attempt to merge the past, present and future of a country that struggles to find a singular identity. By drawing on Mexican history, folk art and sciences, his mural paints a portrait of Mexico with all its complexities into a grand work that unifies art, colonialism, racism, religion, and politics all in one.

Family time

To celebrate my uncle Hugo’s birthday, my family took a trip out to Axapusco, a small rural town at the edge of the state of Mexico about an hour and a half outside of the city. Sandstone colored buildings, streets with gated homes, and a few shops greeted us as we rolled into the town with a population of 20,000.

The last time I visited Axapusco was about 20 years ago. My grandfather lived in Axapusco, and after he passed away last March, my uncles and mother inherited his house, which has a few bedrooms and a small courtyard.

The guest list included my parents, my cousins, my grandmother, my two other uncles, Hugo’s co-workers and childhood friends from the Scouts of Mexico, who have all remained very close with him and all his siblings.

Throughout a warm sunny evening, there were plates of tlacoyos, rice, tortillas, pork carnitas, and salsa passed around long tables set up in the courtyard. After the ceremonial feliz cumpleaños and the cutting of the birthday cake, a DJ started playing music for people to dance.

In a few week’s time, a weeklong holiday festival would take over the small town, with fireworks cracking at all hours of the day and night and music played all over. On this night, a few weeks out from the festival, our family’s celebrations could be heard down the block.

I shuffled about, swaying and swinging my hands and hips, and danced a little bit of salsa, a little bit of merengue. “Arriba, abajo, al centro, adentro” rang out a few times as the stars started to blink in the twilight sky. By 9 p.m. the DJ started packing up his equipment and I got ready to head back to Mexico City.

A few days later, I boarded a plane back to Massachusetts. I had gotten more than my fill of Mexican food and felt happy that I got to spend time with family I only get to see about every other year. I missed out on the holiday piñata this year — next time, Mexico.

Luis Fieldman can be reached at


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