The Plaza of Three Cultures is weighted with history. It is fitting that the heart of Mexico City’s Tlatelolco neighborhood is now a place of artistic intent and understanding.
The plaza sits atop a particularly unsettling fault line through city’s history, marked by the architecture of transformative eras. The pyramids were built by the Aztecs of Tlatelolco, twin city of Tenochtitlán.
It was here that the Spanish Conquistadors first witnessed the Aztec ritual of human sacrifice. On August 13, 1521, this was also where 40,000 weary Aztec troops died defending their nation. The 1609 Church of Santiago Tlatelolco (originally constructed by Spanish settlers in 1524) overlooks the plaza alongside their far older temples.
The Plaza of Three Cultures is perhaps best known for the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre. Mexico had (quite surprisingly) won the summer Olympics, making the government overeager to sterilize their famously untamed city before the cameras arrived. On October 2, when some 10,000 protesters filled the square, demanding that federal funds be used to help the poor rather than build a stadium, the National Guard began firing into the crowd. Between 40 and 300 students were killed, their names inscribed at the Memorial del 68.
This isn’t a place where travelers come to laugh and relax, but rather meditate on the somber side of this city’s seismic history.
For residents, the echoes of this past underlie a a pleasant and affordable neighborhood for working-class and professional types, as well as artists, lefties, bohemians, and students drawn here by the National University of Mexico’s special Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco, dedicated to helping heal these historic rifts.
UNAM recently acquired the Ministry of Foreign Relations building that rises high above the plaza, one of the city’s most modern and impressive back in 1965. It has its own historical significance, as the site where the 1967 Tlatelolco Accords declared a commitment to a nuclear weapons-free Latin America.
This was the canvass used by artist Thomas Glassford, visible for kilometers around. Glassford, who moved to Mexico City in 1990, envisioned a skin covering the Foreign Relations building, to represent both violent struggle and fertility. He found his inspiration in the Aztec God of Spring, Xipe Totec, who wore sacrificed skins to ripen the maize.
Perhaps this is why Glassford chose the blue of veins, and red of arteries, with which to weave his artwork into the Mexico City skyline. Rather than neon, he opted for cheaper, more efficient LED cables, some 7km (4mi) of light. The echo of Moorish architecture in the crystalline pattern is unintentional, if fitting; Glassford had sought to emulate a specific type of non-repeating crystal, though crypto-Muslim immigrants arriving here in earlier centuries might have recognized it as their own.
Xipe Totec, as Glassford calls the piece, is “delicate and unobtrusive, yet massive and unavoidable, historicist without being nationalist,” writes James Oles. “And unabashedly abstract without suffering from an elitism that too often leaves the general public either mystified or indifferent.” Plus, it’s beautiful.
This isn’t the first project UNAM has commissioned to commemorate the 1968 Massacre, but it is less obviously political than its predecessors, and earning accolades from the neighbors. “It doesn’t represent 1968,” Pablo Franco, an area resident, told the New York Times. “It’s different. It’s about the university. It’s a symbol of education.”
Travelers can easily reach Xipe Totec by taking the Metro north of downtown to the Tlatelolco Station, right underneath the Plaza de las Tres Culturas.
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