If there’s a single entity that could be classified as “the most diverse place in the world”, it’s Mexico City. La Ciudad de México, Distrito Federal, is second only to Tokyo as the world’s largest metropolis, thus effectively categorizing it as a megalopolis. The capital of Mexico is home to the Mexican federal government as well as slightly less than one fifth of the country’s population. With this large a population, comes diversity. This diversity spans both cultural and physical boundaries. The city’s diversity is seen everywhere from the excavated ruins of Tenochtitlán and Teotihuacan to the sky while paragliding or skydiving, and even in the sheer size, beauty and representation of history that the Natural Museum of Anthropology offers. It’s easy to see why the capital of Mexico is such a heavy tourist destination. Mexico City is, by every definition, a Great City. Millions of people from around the world come to see the ancient ruins, the museums, the food carts and everything in between. However, Mexico City didn’t start that way; every great city must start somewhere. How did the Mexican Capital develop as such an intense tourist destination?
The capital of modern day Mexico began as Tenochtitlán, the capital city of the Native American entity known as the Aztec Empire. It was built on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. This location was chosen becasue it fulfilled a prophecy, in which an Eagle was found perched atop a cactus and eating a snake. Pre-Columbian Tenochtitlán was restored and can now be found near the center of modern Mexico City. Tenochtitlán is a a very unique place because thousands of people from around the world come just to see the ruins every year, but even before they were ruins, people from all over Mesoamerica came for its enormous festivals, to trade or even just to visit.
In all probability, Tenochtitlán attracted thousands of “tourists” even in pre-Columbian times. This great city of at least 200,000 people was the Mesoamerican hub of every thinkable trade. This hub was created in part by the vast tribute system and agricultural practices that comprised the Aztec Empire of the time, thus allowing the Aztecs a society of specialists (King, Heidi). When the Spaniards arrived, they were surprised to see the sophistication of art and architectural accomplishments of the Aztec Natives. Only about 20% of the population was devoted to agricultural production, compared with the present world average of 45% (about.com). Even when the Spanish first encountered the city, there were paved roads that connected Tenochtitlán to the mainland across the lake. They teemed with technological advances. There were bridges, dikes and aqueducts that gave the citizens a constant supply of fresh clean water that was separate from their sewage system and waste. They separated salt water from fresh water and were able to employ the lake and manmade islands for agriculture with a type of aquaculture. Even before the introduction of pack animals, artisans would come from far away just to live among and study other artisans of the Aztec Empire (about.com). Although those visitors may not have been tourists by our more strict definition, tourism in the Aztec Empire took the form of every trade from woodworking to poetry. People came to visit the capital for reasons ranging from selling their handmade goods to large religious and cultural festivals where merchants, poets and musicians thrived. Modern day tourism in the capital city is similar to that of pre-Columbian times in some ways, but they obviously differ in others.
To better understand how modern day Mexico City’s tourism developed, one needs to uncover why and how it became the second largest city in the world: In 1900, Mexico City was about one seventh the size of New York – very sizable, but no where near the collosus size it stands at now. Up until the 1950’s, the city didn’t have a single skyscraper. Although Mexico City had been the capital of Mexico since the country’s inception and a governmental center of New Spain before that, it wasn’t until the 1910 Mexican Revolution and subsequent overthrow of Porfirio Diaz that the governmental structure became more centralized in Mexico City. This led to an ever-exapnding Mexico City, however, the real growth happened beginning around the year 1950 when it was only the 16th largest city in the world. The Mexican government wanted to show that Mexico was a large modern country and began introducing legislation that greatly favored industrial production in the large cities, especially the capital (Mexico City – How Did It Get so Big?). Economic development continued and in 1968, for the first (and only) time in Latin America, the Olympic Games were held in Mexico City, successfully bringing the Mexican Capital onto a world-wide tourism stage.
Shortly thereafter, the city’s Metrobus system was built to accomodate an ever-growing population. The government couldn’t keep up with the growth and by the 1970’s, the city had succumb to devastating smog and pollution. Shantytowns or slums had developed on the outskirts of town as a result of growing poverty in the rural sectors of the economy all over Mexico and throughout Latin America. People from the countryside had moved to the city in search of stable employment, but there was little to be found.
After the Olympics, the city continued to decline both in monetary value and in tourist attraction. The wealthy fled from their historic place in the “centro histórico” to places completely outside the confines of the city as it grew increasingly more dangerous. Since the economic degradation that defined Mexico City in the 70’s, the city has cleaned itself up and is now an economic pillar of the Western Hemisphere and perhaps the center of economic activity in Latin America. Mexico City was and is still a major destination for immigration of people from all over Latin America where unemployment is rampant and rural industry is on the decline. The mass amount of people moving to Mexico City has made it a very powerful city (the mayor of the capital is widely considered the second most powerful man in Mexico), however, the mass migration, even since the 70’s, has caused many problems. Aside from those one would expect from any large city, the capital has several major problems that make it a less-than-perfect place to live or visit:
1. The air pollution in the city is considerably worse than other cities of similar size. This is due, in part, to the fact that the capital is at the base of a valley. Most cities of comparable size are port cities and air pollution doesn’t linger for as long. This air pollution detracts many potential tourists, because large amounts of it, even over short periods of time, can cause health problems.
2. Mexico City is more violent-crime ridden than most cities of similar size. The increased drug trade from South and Central America to the United States over the recent past is largely to blame. Although, there are many other factors including a corrupt police force and a large wealth inequality that has defined Mexico City and much of the rest of the country.
3. Mexico City is sinking! This is probably the most famous thing said about the Mexican Capital because of just how bizarre it is. The original capital city of Tenochtitlán was built in the middle of Lake Texcoco. The new capital is built right on top of the old one and its water supply comes from what’s left of that lake, which is now in underground aquifers. The aquifers are what constitutes the city’s water supply and a constant depletion of that water is what causes it to sink. The city may be sinking as much as 8 inches per year in some places.
In addition to the attractions listed at the beginning of this essay, sometimes even the problems of Mexico City can to attract people. While most people are turned off by problems such as rampant crime, others (mostly younger people) will go just for the sense of adventure. The sinking of Mexico City, a major problem that could cause the city’s infrastructure to crumble, is a major conversation point. It may never be the entire reason for a person to visit or vacation in Mexico City, but it produces enough press in magazine and news articles all over the world that the city is often introduced as a travel option in this context.
The damage caused by the sinking and crime has forced Mexico to infuse billions of dollars into its capital’s infrastructure just to keep up, but that increased infrastructure spending has created one of the most advanced and economically prosperous cities in the world. This has produced both praise and resentment among Mexico’s citizens. My experience with politics in Mexico mostly consists of citizens from farm communities discussing how the government, mostly from Mexico City, suck the life from the citizens, especially those of the rural communities, either for their own selfish gains or for the wealthy to whom the politicians must cater. This resentment is somewhat reminiscent of time before the Mexican revolution of 1910 that was supposed to end the type of corruption I was led to believe is still rampant among Mexican politicians. Instead, the revolution seemed to eventually just give way to new government officials who act in the same way. Though it may not feel that way to the starving farmer in rural Mexican society, given the numbers and standard of living, the Mexican people are, at least on average, better off than they were previous to the revolution. In some ways, this can be attributed to the art that enraptured the political revolution.
Mexico City became the center of the Latin American art world after the aforementioned revolution of 1910. Frida Kahlo, whose “work has been celebrated in Mexico as emblematic of national and indigenous tradition, and by feminists for its uncompromising depiction of the female experience and form.” (www.fridakahlo.com), claimed to have been born in 1910 and subsequently told her contemporaries that she represented the “New Mexico”. She was actually born before the beginning of the revolution in 1907, but became one of the leading faces of modern Latin American art and a great among revolutionaries nonetheless (Stokstad). The house in which she was born and later died is now an art museum dedicated to her and her movement. This piece of history draws thousands of tourists from all over the world every year. Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo’s husband, was also on the forefront of revolutionary Mexican art. Beginning with them and other artists of the time, the new Mexican government birthed the muralist movement, in which, artists were commissioned to paint the Native American history of Mexico in murals on the walls of public buildings all throughout the city. Never before had Mexicans celebrated their Native American past on such a large or official scale.
Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and others represented a whole new class of Mexican artists who embraced their Native American heritage. From the small-time salesman who sells tacos with corn tortillas on the side of the road to the giant monument in the center of town that celebrates the founders of Tenochtitlán, that heritage has become iconic in Mexico City dress, food, culture and general attitude. Nothing tells the story of Mexico’s heritage and rise to prominence better than its food. Corn tortillas from Central America, beef and pork from Africa and Europe, chicken and rice from Asia and everything in between are prepared in such a way that is distinctly Mexican. Mexico and Mexican food are as much if not more a melting pot of cultures as the whole of the United States. More so than that of the US, Mexican food and popular culture represent a coming together of the old and new worlds. While the United States received millions of immigrants from every corner of the Earth, they virtually annihilated their native populations. Whereas the native populations of pre-Columbian Mexico still live on, both in native communities and at least partially in the blood of most Mexican citizens. Historically (until the 20th century), the native populations of Mexico or those who were “more native” than others had been suppressed, pushed aside and deemed inferior. However, after the revolution of the early 20th century, a new feeling had come over Mexico in celebration of their Aztec and Mayan ancestry. Since then, thousands of people of native decent have risen to prominence, especially in competitive sports. Some people like Eduardo Najera, a basketball player in the NBA, have embraced their native Mexican heritage and helped native Mayans and Aztecs build their credibility without having to be “white”.
The Aztecs and Mayans were, in many ways, very athletic societies. They’re even credited by some as the partial inventors of both basketball and soccer with their sport of Ullamalitzli. The rules of this game are a far cry from either modern day soccer or basketball, but the ideas are similar nonetheless. Mexico City now boasts thousands of professional and semi-pro athletes. People come from all over Mexico and other parts of the world just to watch games and matches in Mexico City’s professional and other adult leagues of soccer, football, wrestling, boxing, cricket, baseball, rugby and many more. Mexico City alone has three professional soccer teams that each bring in millions of dollars in revenue every year. In addition to the more competitive sports, the city is home to an entire sub-culture of extreme sport athletes and adrenaline junkies, upon which a tourist industry is built (Extreme Sports in Mexico). Young adults (and other people, of course) from every swath of habitable land across the Earth come to Mexico City for its world famous mountain biking, skydiving and bungee jumping.
Although the city is famous for its outdoor activities and athletics, perhaps the “greatest” attraction (in the sense that it’s the greatest thing ever created!) is the famous Mexican invention: chocolate. This popular confection and its story draws fans and fanatics from all parts of the world and across every socioeconomic class. The story of chocolate begins at least two thousand years ago and may begin as early as four thousand years ago (Smithsonian). The word chocolate comes from the Aztec word “xocoatl”, which referred to a bitter drink from cacao beans that was thought to improve fertility in men; the reigning king of the Aztecs at the time of the first direct contact with Europeans, Moctezuma II, was said to drink as many as 50 cups per day. Cacao was consumed by the Aztecs strictly in liquid form and was never served as a sugary drink as it is today (Smithsonian). Today, chocolate and the production and consumption thereof are major pieces to Mexico City agricultural, manufacturing and tourist economies. Cacao is/was not the most important crop to Mexican or Aztec cultivation, but it had been with the Aztecs since long before their rise to prominence and continues today with the Great Mexican Capital.
Mexico City rose to prominence as a largely agricultural and later manufacturing based economy, but has tranformed into one of the leading service industry based cities of the world. It has risen to prominense multiple times throughout history, first with the Aztecs and the construction of Tenochtitlán, then later several times as Mexico City. The city itself is a melting pot – a mixing of cultures from all across the globe and with every sub-culture you could dream up. Despite the problems Mexico City has seen throughout the years with over-population, high crime rates and pollution, they’ve managed to build and hold together an ever-lasting tourist and cultural empire. The city, with its long standing academic, architectural and athletic achievements, its vast diversity of culture, and of course, its rich history as an ancient and forever modernizing city, was to develop one of the world’s largest tourist economies inevitably.
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7. Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson
Prentice Hall, 2008. Print.