The Five Cities.
Reflections upon Mexico City.
Sunday morning I woke to the sound of bells. My window overlooks the homes and buildings of Roma Norte — if you’ve seen Cuaron’s 2018 Roma, that’s the neighborhood, and its rooftops look quite the same, laundering basins and all. At first the bells were a murmur against the noise of Ciudad México, whose twenty-one millions are never silent, but they ascended, sharpening in their peals until they were distinct and insistent. The bells rang out in a rolling clang across the Valley of México.
The churches of the ancient city summoned their people to Mass.
1) City of Glory.
I rose with the bells, and the summertime morning was cool and crisp. In Texas, we are plunged into the sun’s furnace even in June: temperatures of 100, 110 Fahrenheit are commonplaces and we keep the children mostly indoors unless a pool is involved. It is very much like Andalusia, an unusually significant source of conquistadors and the colonizers who followed them — Latin American and especially Mexican Spanish is linguistically close to Andalusian dialect even today — in its combination of punishing heat, barren aridity, and the inheritance of violence that marks nearly any contested cultural intersection. The lofty Valley of Mexico is by contrast cool and green in the summer: the high today will be perhaps seventy-five degrees. It is no wonder that the first conquistadors to arrive here, Cortés’s men, thought they had discovered a paradise.
One of those men was a captain by the name of Juan Pedro Navarro. He had come with Narvaez, on the orders of the Cuban governor, to crush Hernan Cortés and his expedition — and like most of Narvaez’s men, he defected to Cortés upon witnessing the conquistador’s superior leadership, and learning of the riches of Tenochtitlan. Navarro’s reward was to endure the horrors of La Noche Triste barely a month later. But the desperate and bloody Spanish expulsion from Tenochtitlan was only an interlude. Just over one year later, Tenochtitlan was in ruins, and Spain began its three hundred years of rule here. Juan Pedro Navarro, like many of that intrepid company of conquerers, stayed on in Nueva España. Fifteen generations later, his unnumbered descendants include me.
Navarro’s Ciudad Mexico was nothing like the modern megalopolis, of course. It was a war-ruined city in his day, with human-sacrifice temples pulled down in favor of churches and the mimicry of a contemporaneous European city. There is grandeur in Mexico City now, real equivalents of the sorts of things you’d find in the Old World: baroque architecture, bronze equestrians, and Renaissance altars. But they did not emerge in numbers until the latter half of the sixteenth century. Still, there are traces of Navarro’s city here, if you know where to look. I walk in the leafy splendor of the Alameda Central, and I am on paths that stretch back half a millennium. It is the oldest public park in the Western Hemisphere. Navarro would have known it as a communal space where subjugated Aztecs brought their wares — just a short walk from the Zocalo where his captain Cortés was having his palace built. I walk in his footsteps, literally so, in the city he conquered for us — his posterity.
How do we remain indifferent in the face of our ancestors’ suffering — and their grandeur?
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