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Mexico City Zócalo

The Zócalo is the common name of the main square located in the Historic Center of Mexico City. Zocalo and surrounding blocks have played a central role in the city’s planning and geography for almost 700 years.

Before the colonial period, it was the main ceremonial center of Tenochtitlan. The square was formerly known as Main Square or Arms Square. Today its official name is Plaza de la Constitución (Constitution Square).

This name does not come from any Mexican constitution in force in the country, but from the Constitution of Cadiz, signed in Spain in 1812. Today, the Constitution Square is almost always simply called the Zocalo.

It was planned to erect a column in this city square as a monument to Independence, but only the base or “zócalo” (“pedestal”) was built. The pedestal was buried long ago, but the name “Zócalo” (“pedestal”) remained.

Many other Mexican cities, such as Oaxaca, Merida, and Guadalajara, used the word “zocalo” to refer to their main plazas, but not all.

Since 1982, due to efforts to revitalize the city center, the Zócalo has become the scene of many artistic and cultural events. There are daily impromptu shows of Aztec dancers dancing to drums, wearing feathered headdresses and anklets made of concha shells.

Zócalo is the center of government of both the country and the capital, where the powers that be are. This makes it a popular place for protests, and it is often dotted with protesters in makeshift camps and banners.

Over the years this place hosted swearing-in of viceroys, royal proclamations, military parades, and religious and cultural events. Zocalo also has hosted foreign heads of state and is a major venue for both national celebrations and national protests.

The plaza can hold more than 100,000 people.

One curious event was the building of a temporary ice-skating rink in the middle of the Zócalo, for use by the city’s residents for free in the winter of 2007. Since then, the rink has been repeatedly built up for several winter seasons.

Zócalo is bordered by:

  • Metropolitan Cathedral in the north
  • National Palace in the east
  • Federal District buildings in the south
  • Old Portal de Mercaderes in the west
  • Nacional Monte de Piedad building in the north-west
  • Templo Mayor site in the northeast, just outside view

In the center of the Zocalo, a flagpole with a huge Mexican flag. The flag rises every morning, and every evening at 18:30, during a special but short ceremony, the flag is lowered and carried into the National Palace

The metro station “Zocalo” is located in the square’s northeast corner.

History & Timeline

Prior to the conquest, the area that the Zócalo occupied was open space, in the center of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan.

It was bordered:

  • The “New Houses” or Palace of Moctezuma II in the east
  • The “Old Houses”, the palace of Axayácatl, in the west

From 1469 to 1481, the Axayacatl Palace was the residence of Emperor Ahuizotl, Moctezuma’s uncle and immediate predecessor.

The European-style plaza was not part of the Aztec Empire’s capital. Tenochtitlan had a sacred area or “teocalli” that was the absolute center of the city, but it was located north and northeast of the modern Zócalo.

Post-conquest (1519–1821)

The modern Zócalo was founded by Alonso García Bravo shortly after the invasion and destruction of Tenochtitlan. Cortés redesigned the city for symbolic purposes, maintaining four main neighborhoods called “Capullis”.

The Cathedral of Mexico City was erected at the intersection of these neighborhoods.

The Plaza was divided into the “Plaza Mayor” (Main Square) in the southern half and the “Plaza Chica” (Small Square) in the northern half. Over time, the growing city absorbed the Plaza Chica.

The Plaza was bordered by the Cathedral to the north, Cortés’s new palace to the east, Portales de Mercaderes (Merchants’ Portals) on the west, and the Portal of the Flowers and the House of the Ayuntamiento on the south.

During early colonial times, the Plaza faced challenges like flooding. In 1629, the Plaza was flooded with water two meters deep, causing damage to merchants and requiring reconstruction.

The construction of the Cathedral in the latter half of the 16th century altered the Plaza’s appearance. The Plaza became crowded with market stalls in the 17th century. Attempts to clear the Plaza for the Parian, a set of shops, were made but were only partially successful.

In 1789, Charles IV of Spain proclaimed the clearing of the Plaza, and Viceroy Juan Vicente Güemes Pacheco undertook renovations.

The Plaza was repaved, gutters covered with stone blocks, and fountains installed. The Aztec Calendar was unearthed during this work. The Plaza was converted into a public space with benches, lamps, and iron grating separating it from the Cathedral.

The Plaza underwent significant changes in the early 19th century, with the addition of an equestrian statue of Charles IV by Manuel Tolsá.

It was inaugurated in 1803 and became the backdrop for events during the Mexican War of Independence. The Plaza was renamed the “Plaza of the Constitution,” marking its role in the historical context.

The last changes before Independence in 1821 included the placement of the Cross of Mañozca and another cross by Manuel Tolsá at different corners of the Plaza. These were set on Neoclassical pedestals.

Independence and the 1828 Parián Riot

A symbolic move upon Independence was the dismantling and removal of the equestrian monument to Charles IV from Plaza. The statue itself can still be seen in front of the National Art Museum where its current, and much smaller, base states that it is preserved solely for its artistic value. The statue’s former oval base was moved to what was then the University building and the balustrade was moved to the Alameda Central. This left the Plaza bare except for the Parian.

On 4 and 5 December 1828, the Parián market, the most active of Mexico City’s markets, was looted and damaged by a popular uprising. A number of merchants died and most were ruined.

President Santa Anna finally had the Parián demolished in 1843. This left the Plaza bare again, except for some ash trees and flower gardens that were planted and protected by stone borders.

Santa Anna wanted to build a monument to Mexican Independence in the center of the Plaza but his project got only as far as the base (zócalo), which stayed there for decades and gave the Plaza its current popular name.

It stayed this way until 1866 when the Paseo (path) del Zócalo was created in response to the number of people who were using the plaza to take walks. A garden with footpaths was created; fountains were placed at each corner; 72 iron benches were installed and the area was lighted by hydrogen gas lamps. Santa Anna’s base, however, was not removed.

Era of the Porfiriato

In 1878, Antonio Escandon donated a kiosk to the city which was set over and on top of Santa Anna’s base. It was lit with four large iron candelabras and designed to be similar to one in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.

Soon afterward, the part of the Zócalo was converted into a streetcar station with a ticket kiosk and stand. The streetcars and lighting were converted to electric power in 1894, and the Zócalo’s paths were paved with asphalt in 1891.

From the latter half of the 19th century to the beginning of the twentieth, the Zócalo was again filled with market stalls, including the “Centro Mercantil” which sold fabric, clothing, and Art Nouveau stonework.

The other stalls concentrated on more mundane merchandise. This caused pedestrians to take their walks on Alameda Central or on San Francisco and Madero streets, to the west of the Zócalo.

20 and 21 century

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Zocalo in 1951

20th century

During the Decena Trágica (the ten days from 9 to 19 February 1913), the National Palace was bombarded from the nearby military fort, incidentally damaging the Zócalo.

In 1914, the ash trees planted in the previous century (which meanwhile had grown considerably) were taken out; new footpaths, grassy areas, and garden space were created; and palm trees were planted in each corner of the plaza.

The Zócalo was a meeting place for protests on 1 May. In 1968, students protested against the authoritarian measures taken by then-president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. It was also the starting point of the marathon run in the 1968 Summer Olympics.

But the plaza deteriorated until, by the 1970s, all that was left were light poles and a large flagpole in the middle. Then the ground was leveled again, the train tracks taken out, and the whole plaza cemented over.

However, automobile parking was prohibited and the plaza’s shape was squared to 200 meters on each side. Later in the 1970s, the Zócalo was repaved with pink cobblestones; small trees protected by metal grates were planted, and small areas of grass were seeded around the flagpole.

As the end of the twentieth century neared, the Zócalo, along with most of the city center (called the Colonia Centro) was in massive disrepair. This caused The Economist magazine to remark that the Zócalo and the area surrounding it “… should be one of the most compelling architectural destinations in the Americas. Instead, much of it is a slum of gutted buildings, dark and dirty streets blocked by milling vendors, and garbage-strewn vacant lots”.

In the late 1990s, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, then mayor of Mexico City, and Dr. Rene Coulomb, general director of the Historic Center Trust, launched a $300,000,000 renovation of the Zócalo and the surrounding city center, with the aim of attracting businesses and residents back to the area. There were plans to remove the iron grating separating the Cathedral from the Zócalo, but there was so much public opposition to the idea that it was eventually scrapped.

21st century

Recently, former mayor Marcelo Ebrard launched a campaign to perform maintenance works in the Historic Center (which, because of the Congressional reduction of the annual budget of the local government, was largely supported with the money collected in the streets for that purpose by government officials). The campaign had satisfactory results.

In 2010, a replica of the Angel de la Independencia was brought to Zócalo as a way of spreading out the protesters from the original Angel site. This is because the original site of the Angel is located in a financial area, with a high traffic flow, making policing more difficult than the Zócalo.

Live Webcam: CDMX Zócalo

Explore Mexico City’s iconic square in real time.

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