Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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"Thrilling" Mexico

by Shannon K. O'Neil
August 31, 2009

Mexico City’s Zocalo, its main square, is the center of its history, its commerce, and its politics. Encompassing one side is Mexico’s largest Catholic cathedral, built on the ruins of an Aztec temple. On another stands its National Palace, once home to Spanish viceroys, to French-designated Emporer Maximilian I, and to dozens of Mexican presidents. This majestic building boasts the famous 1930s Diego Rivera mural “Epic of the Mexican People – Mexico Today and Tomorrow,” which depicts the sweep of Mexican history from the Aztecs through the Spanish conquest, from independence to the Mexican Revolution, and Rivera’s future aspirations for a workers’ utopia. Decades later, across the courtyard, lies Mexico’s Finance Ministry, modern Mexico’s hallmark of orthodox market economics.

Across from the National Palace sits one of the colonial seats of commerce, today filled with jewelry shops and two prominent hotels. Until very recently the streets and sidewalks of the Zocalo teamed with street vendors and day laborers, offering up their wares and skills – making symbolic Mexico’s center a center for its vast informal labor market.

Mexico City’s Zocalo is also the center of Mexico’s politics. Each year the President comes out on the central balcony to give the grito – celebrating Mexico’s indepdendence day. It is also the epicenter of conflict. It is here in 1938 that President Lázaro Cárdenas announced the nationalization of Mexico’s oil to an overwhelming crowd. In 1988, during the first truly contested Presidential elections of the century, thousands of Cuahtemoc Cardenas’ followers convened to protest election fraud. In 2001, followers of the Zapatistas used this same space to demand greater political autonomy. During the tense weeks after the 2006 Presidential election, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s swore himself in as President in front of thousands of his supporters. Just last year, the Zócalo was filled to capacity during a country-wide protest against crime.

spencer-tunickTwo recent events point to the vast transformations occurring in Mexico today. The first occurred in May 2007 when New York photographer Spencer Tunick convened a gathering of nearly 20,000 Mexicans on a cool Sunday morning to pose for photographs – naked. Turnout far surpassed similar events held in presumably more liberal cities of Amsterdam, New York, Montreal, and Barcelona. The enthusiastic shedding of inhibitions by the thousands not only created a series of beautiful photographs, but also hint at the seismic cultural, political, and economic shifts occurring in Mexico today.

This last weekend the Zocalo was scheduled to act as a backdrop for a culturally interesting event (though in the end the event was held just up the road in front of the Monument of the Revolution).  Thirteen thousand dancers,most in costume, convened to break the Guinness book of world records for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” reenactment.

That this would occur in Mexico highlights the power of globalization. And, perhaps less dramatically, it points to the many moments of intense fun living within one of the world’s largest and most vibrant cities.

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