The curious story of why the main squares of cities and towns in Mexico are called Zócalo

In Mexico that word, "zócalo", is such an exact noun that it even forms part of the meanings of the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (RAE) due to its common use in the country.

If you say to a Mexican, "See you in the zócalo," he or she will surely have no doubt where to find you. Photo: Wikipedia
If you say to a Mexican, "See you in the zócalo," he or she will surely have no doubt where to find you. Photo: Wikipedia

"The main square of a city, especially that of the Federal District", says the RAE with a certain decontextualization, because a few years ago the Mexican capital stopped being called that way and became Mexico City (CDMX).

Its Constitution Square is considered the political and cultural heart of the country since pre-Hispanic times and has been the epicenter of key moments. Many call it simply El Zócalo, a colloquial name that arose from an unfinished architectural project. The nickname later became commonplace beyond the capital.

The Three Guarantees Army triumphantly entered Mexico City and celebrated Mexico's Independence in the Zócalo in 1821. Image: INAH
The Three Guarantees Army triumphantly entered Mexico City and celebrated Mexico's Independence in the Zócalo in 1821. Image: INAH

An inconclusive idea

A zocalo in architecture is a foundation, a structure that serves as a body or lower edge of work or as a pedestal to erect a construction.

In one of the presidencies of Antonio López de Santa Anna, who served as Mexico's elected or de facto government between 1833 and 1855, the president ordered in 1843 the construction of a monument to Independence in the heart of the capital.

The El Parián market, which was located in what is now the plaza and whose origins went back to a market of the Mexica Indians, was demolished so that the work of the architect Lorenzo de Hidalga could be built there.

The archaeologist Alejandro Meraz, from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), explains: "From a meter high base, he was going to plant a column that was going to have an angel in the upper part".

The project of the architect Hidalga was to erect a column as a monument to the Independence of Mexico. Image: INAH
The project of the architect Hidalga was to erect a column as a monument to the Independence of Mexico. Image: INAH

But the economic and political problems and the U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1845 led to the abandonment of the work. Only the circular base, the plinth, eight meters in diameter and almost 30 cm high, could be built. The project remained buried and this large space became the square of great dimensions, with designs from different periods that exist today. 

The square was popularly renamed Zócalo because the site exposed the base for several years. The idea of erecting a column with an octagon base, with the sculpture of an Independence hero in each corner and their bodies inside the structure was never produced, but it inherited the name of zócalo.

In 2017, after 174 years, Meraz and a group of INAH colleagues found that basis. Image: INAH
In 2017, after 174 years, Meraz and a group of INAH colleagues found that basis. Image: INAH

Square of which Constitution?

It is no coincidence that the urban layout of many cities and towns in Mexico starts from a central plaza flanked by a government palace and a church.

It was so ordered in the Laws of the Indies promulgated in the decade of 1570 under the reign of Philip II, which gave a legal order to the viceroyalties and Spanish territories in America.

Mexico City's main square respects that ancient urban design until today, with the National Palace (1522) as the seat of the federal executive power, the City Hall (1532) of the local government, and the Metropolitan Cathedral (1571).

The Zócalo is the meeting point for massive events in Mexico City, such as demonstrations and political acts, concerts that bring together more than 100,000 people or to enjoy exhibitions or temporary cultural events.

The official name of Plaza de la Constitución also comes from the Spanish heritage and does not refer to any of the magna cards that Mexico has had. It was so named when the Spanish Constitution of Cadiz, enacted in 1812, was ratified in the capital of the then New Spain a year later.

The other zócalos

Many cities and towns in Mexico designed under the colonial urban layout also have a central plaza, sometimes called "plaza de armas," or also "zócalo. This is due to the influence that Mexico City has had as a model to follow.

The zócalo of the city of Oaxaca, that of the port of Acapulco, or of the colonial city of Querétaro, are some examples of how that term remained in the Mexican vocabulary as a synonym of the plaza.

Oaxaca, capital of the state of the same name, has a kiosk in the center of its zócalo. In the northern state of Zacatecas, a mining city since colonial times, it also has a zócalo. Querétaro, one of the first cities founded by Spaniards, has a plaza de armas or zócalo.

Source: BBC Mundo

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