Finding the centre in Mexico City

Nicholas Laughlin arrives in Mexico City, and realises his whole notion of geography is wrong. The Aztecs thought this was the centre of the universe — maybe they were right

For centuries, the vast plaza known as the Zócalo has been the heart of Mexico City. Photograph by Papa Bravo/shutterstock.comThe massive Aztec sunstone is a treasure among treasures in Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology. Photograph by Trappy76/shutterstock.comMexico City’s street markets are still called tianguis, their Aztec name. Photograph ©zaiaragon/iStock.comLooking across the colonial centre from the Torre Latinoamericana. Photograph ©DC_Colombia/iStock.com

The huge slab of grey basalt sits on a narrow ledge that hardly seems able to support twenty-four tons of rock.

On the face of the stone is cut a great disk, twelve feet across. Spotlights rake its surface, densely carved with images of animals, men, and complex glyphs that offer me no meaning.

At the centre, looming inside a series of concentric circles, is a figure with empty eye sockets and a hungry open mouth. He wears a diadem and a necklace, and in each hand he holds a human heart. I am mesmerised and repelled at the same time by his terrible stare.

Then two women nudge past me, giggling. They pose beneath the carved stone while a third takes their photo. A group of surly teenage boys is next — they want a photo too. Then a young woman poses beneath the stone like a dancer, with arms raised, while her boyfriend stoops to take the picture, in which the woman appears to be carrying the stone with her slender arms.

Everyone wants to be photographed with the Piedra del Sol, the famous Aztec sunstone, the treasure among the treasures of Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology. And I understand why: the carved stone feels like the gravitational centre of the museum, the great artifact at the climax of its galleries and arcade and vast courtyard.

Archaeologists date the sunstone to the late 1490s. At some point around the arrival of the Spanish in 1519, it was buried in the square at the heart of the Aztec capital, and so survived the destruction of the city by the conquistadors. Nearly three centuries later, in 1790, it was discovered again by accident, and since then scholars have debated its original purpose and significance. Is it a calendar? A sacrificial altar? Is the presiding figure the sun god, or another deity? Is it a map of the Aztec universe, with the city of Tenochtitlan at its very centre?

In the following days, as I explore the city, somehow I feel constantly aware of the sunstone sitting on its ledge in the museum in Chapultepec Park, as though its field of gravity has got hold of me, or at least of my imagination.

I am four days in Mexico City before I realise my whole sense of New World geography is wrong. It is a slow epiphany. First I have to grasp the city’s scale, physical but also historical.

I have to stroll the streets of Coyoacán, now a neighbourhood swallowed up by Mexico City’s twentieth-century sprawl, but once a village south of Lake Texcoco where Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors set up their headquarters during the Spanish conquest. The artist Frida Kahlo lived here, in a house with cobalt-blue walls where she was born in 1907 and died in 1954. Her pigments and brushes are still laid out on a table in her studio, overlooking a courtyard full of plants, and in the canopy of her tiny bed is fixed a mirror which allowed her to paint her celebrated self-portraits even while bedridden. A few blocks away is the house of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, where he lived in exile after falling out with Stalin. The Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James visited him here, not long before Trotsky was killed by assassins in his small study with red-painted floorboards.

I have to visit the Zócalo, more formally called the Plaza de la Constitución, the enormous square at the city’s historical heart. Here the Aztecs built their Templo Mayor, the twin-peaked pyramid temple that dominated their Sacred Precinct at the centre of the universe. Here the Spanish built their cathedral on the ruins of the temple, and laid out a plaza for parades and proclamations — and protests. Today, surrounded by government buildings and streets lined with colonial architecture, the Zócalo is the centre of a revitalised historic district. (Through his Fundación del Centro Histórico, the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim has lavishly funded the restoration of historic buildings and a general clean-up of the area around the Zócalo, sparking the return of businesses and residents, nightlife and tourists.)

I have to ascend the Torre Latinoamericana, for many years the city’s tallest skyscraper. From the viewing deck, nearly six hundred feet up, I finally can see for myself how Mexico City extends literally to every horizon, its chaos of buildings and streets filling the high Valley of Mexico. Nine million people live inside the city limits, and another twelve million in the greater conurbation within the walls of the mountains in the far distance.

But the moment of illumination comes the next day, as I accompany my friend to the street market near his apartment in the Condesa neighbourhood. We walk down a broad avenue of jacaranda trees and Art Deco apartment buildings, past bookshops and trendy restaurants. The Mercado sobre Ruedas (“Market on Wheels”) sets up here every Tuesday. The stalls are overflowing with every kind of foodstuff I can imagine, and some I can’t. Spices for moles. Cactus leaves for salad. Tiny pale potatoes. Huitlacoche, a fungus that grows on ears of corn, prepared like mushrooms. Dozens of varieties of chilies and beans.

My friend explains that these temporary street markets are called tianguis, an Aztec word. I recognise it. I remember a diorama I saw in the anthropology museum a few days before, with little wax figures depicting street life in Tenochtitlan: miniature market stalls, baskets of fruit, cactus leaves and chilies. I suddenly understand that Aztec Mexico hasn’t disappeared — I’m in the middle of it, just as I’m in the middle of a Spanish colonial city and a twenty-first-century metropolis.

I remember the sunstone, charting the centre of the Aztec universe, and I realise my whole idea of geography is wrong. If you’d asked me before where was the epicentre of the hemisphere, the exemplary city of the New World, I might have said New York, or Rio de Janeiro, or maybe even Havana. But it’s here. It’s Mexico City.

Perhaps I should have known this already. We learned about the Aztec empire at school, twelve-year-olds reading descriptions of Tenochtitlan with its temples and floating gardens. I knew that many of Mexico’s indigenous cultures survived the Spanish conquest and flourish in the modern state, even that Nahuatl, the Aztec language, is still spoken today. I knew that numerous traces of Tenochtitlan lie not far below the surface of the modern urban landscape. But I couldn’t have imagined the way that the city somehow seems, tangibly, to belong to and contain five centuries of human history — even as it grapples with all the problems and opportunities of an overpopulated, polluted, energetic, twenty-first-century megacity. I couldn’t have imagined my own sense of revelation, of finally understanding something about the order of the world. Or the feeling of the compass inside my head spinning madly.

Maybe it’s the strange pull of the Aztec sunstone, which for days after visiting the museum, I can’t shake off.

Or maybe it’s just the bookshops.

That’s another thing I’ve somehow failed to anticipate. In the far recesses of my memory I think I knew that Mexico City was for centuries the printing and publishing centre of the Spanish New World empire, but I didn’t realise that would mean bookshops are thick on the ground here, at least in the central Condesa and La Roma neighbourhoods near my friend’s apartment. He helpfully gives me directions to three or four, and the rest I discover by simply wandering around.

When I travel, I’m a habitual searcher-out of bookshops. I’d normally describe my bibliomania as mild, but here in Mexico City I feel a twinge of something more manic. Exploratory strolls become determined expeditions in search of new quarry.

I visit three branches of the El Pendulo chain. A trio of soulful indie rock musicians are playing the evening I visit Conejo Blanco, a quirky art book shop on two floors. I hear a rumour about a street in La Roma lined with secondhand bookshops, and I visit them all, my heart racing at the scent of aging paper. I buy Spanish translations of the poems of Derek Walcott and Aimé Césaire. A book of circus photographs. Mexican editions of the Ramayana and (in lurid pink covers) the Satyricon. A massive illustrated book of Mexican graphic design. I lug them back to my friend’s apartment each night and see his eyebrows rise.

Finally he hints that instead of buying more books, I might enjoy sitting and reading the ones I’ve already acquired. He takes me one morning to his favourite neighbourhood café, not far from the Mercado sobre Ruedas.

Café Guardatiempos has potted shrubs outside its wide doors and racing-green walls inside. During the daytime, it’s the haunt of elderly gentlemen who exchange news or play chess over their cups of coffee. Everyone says a general Buenos días on entering.

Now this is my daily routine. I walk five or six blocks to the Guardatiempos, and say Buenos días to señora proprietress, who calls me joven, and hums wistfully to the 1950s ballads on the radio.

I sit with book and cup of coffee, read and stare out the door, and try to imagine living five or six blocks away and coming here every day for the morning’s second coffee. La señora smiles at me and I imagine my Spanish is improving. The compass in my head seems finally to have settled down, and its needle is pointing to exactly where I’m sitting.

On my last morning in the city I finish my last cup of Mexican coffee, and close my book. The elderly gentlemen at the table beside me look up as I stand and wave goodbye to la señora.

She smiles and waves back. Joven, vuelve prontito!