National Geographic : 1930 Jul
NORTH AMERICA'S OLDEST METROPOLIS Through 600 Melodramatic Years, Mexico City Has Grown in Splendor and Achievement BY FREDERICK SIMPICH L OOK up there at Popocatepetl! . . . Think of Cortez letting a man down into that crater on a rope to get sulphur for gunpowder. . .. Where was it they stoned Montezuma? "Imagine only 500 Spaniards, with a few horses and clumsy cannon, conquer ing the whole Aztec race!" Into Mexico City swarms the travel stream, mostly Americans. With the in formality of eager sight-seers, they ques tion any one they meet, and comment freely on what they see. "Our Ambas sador looked tired when we called. They say Mexico City is the hardest post in our foreign service." "When is the bullfight?" asks a Chi cago Board of Trade delegate, meeting a Rotarian from Texas. "And I want to see where Gen. Winfield Scott's men put scaling ladders against Chapultepec. How could the Aztecs tell time by that big stone calendar in the museum?" "My daughter," says a man from Mis souri, "is here with 600 other American students for summer classes. The Uni versity is very old. It was started in 1553. Think of that-before Jamestown, Plym outh Rock, or even St. Augustine was heard of !" "This is the oldest big city in the West ern Hemisphere," volunteers a professor of history, slyly pocketing a guidebook. "When the Spaniards first came they found here a rich city of perhaps 300, ooo people, with an emperor's court, luxu rious palaces, lawsuits, poetry, music." PAST AND PRESENT, MEXICO'S CAPITAL IS UNUSUAL Mexico City is an astonishing place. Things have happened here so strange and unusual that were they not set down in authentic records they would tax all belief. It looms largest in the mind of the average American because of its supremely impor tant diplomatic relations with Washing ton, growing out of the many old, unsolved questions between the two republics; but in modern, superficial aspects it is not un like some other Latin-American capitals. It has old palaces, parks, paintings, and libraries; colleges, convents, great news papers, and broadcasting stations; like wise diplomats, soldiers, traffic jams, and jails. It buys and sells, and makes soap, soda water, shoes, shirts, candy, cigarettes, furniture, machinery, leatherware, patent medicines, and textiles. Sit in one of its theaters and watch a "news reel"; swim, dance, play golf or tennis at a club, or land at Balbuena Field in a passenger plane from El Paso, and except that you hear Spanish instead of Yankee chatter-you might as well be in Denver. In fact, the high top light and near-by snow peaks much resemble the scenic settings of Colorado. But under all this standardized modern ism is much more-a blend of Spanish and Aztec forces that goes back 400 years. You see signs of this, now and then, in flat, three-cornered Aztec faces moving stolidly in street crowds. Probe the mys tic past and you find that certain historic events staged here swayed the destiny of our continent for centuries. Here Chris tianity got its first foothold in North America, when idols were turned into altars and a glittering but cruel pagan culture yielded stubbornly to European civilization. Here America's first sheet music and first book were published. Here its first money was coined. And here, too, appeared the "Flying Mercury." Some have styled it America's "first newspa per," but more likely it was but a pam phlet on history or political discussion. Cortez himself built the first sugar mill, not far from Mexico City, and his men introduced many domestic animals, fowls, and farm methods new to the Aztecs. In fact, the coming of Cortez set in motion economic and other forces that to this day are felt, from California to Panama. That is one reason why, now, more than two million Mexicans live in the United States.