National Geographic : 1951 Dec
Mexico's Booming Capital By MASON SUTHERLAND With Illustrations by National Geographic PhotographerJnstin Locke "lOOK out of my office windows," an American resident of Mexico City told me. "Did you ever see so many high buildings going up all at once?" What he showed me was a jungle of sky scrapers, built and building, on every side. Some of these structures were so daring they made their older counterparts north of the border seem pallid and conservative. Architects, cutting loose from Spanish colonial traditions, had applied stainless steel, plate glass, and color with the lavish hands of to day's automobile designers. Indians Work amid Steel Sundecks, terraces, and penthouses replaced the somber outer walls of old palaces. New office buildings were sheets of glass thinly ribbed with stone; entire corners were multi storied solariums. Junior-size skyscrapers staggered with pagodalike setbacks; some turned concave faces to the streets, others were convex (pages 794 and 799). Later, as I walked the streets and peered into the pits of skyscraper excavations, I saw Indians doing the work of steam shovels. Scarcely more than five feet tall, the toilers carried backloads of earth hung from tump lines attached to foreheads. At noon they or dered no food from cafes, but cooked their own village-grown beans over an open fire. In the midst of steel, they looked as primitive as Stone Age men. I discovered the face of old Mexico City in house walls flush against sidewalks and in tree-shaded, flower-spangled patios con cealed behind those walls. Strolling the streets, I encountered men sweeping walks with besoms, old-fashioned bundles of twigs. Bicycle delivery boys juggled huge breadbas kets on their heads. Sandaled Indians in white cotton pants competed for sidewalk space with handsome descendants of conquis tadors. Strangers Feel the Altitude Mexico's capital lies just south of the 20th parallel, which, as it stretches across the world, intersects oven-dry Saudi Arabia and steamy Indochina. But, thanks to its lofty position, Mexico City enjoys a year-long spring, or autumn, broken only by the rainy season (summer). Businessmen as well as college boys take advantage of the mild cli mate to go hatless. Seersucker suits are as rare as coonskin coats. At 7,350 feet above the sea, the city sits in the Valley of Mexico, a maguey-studded basin enclosed by mountainous ramparts such as snow-clad Popocatepetl (Smoking Mountain, page 815) and Iztaccihuatl (White or Sleep ing Woman), two old, familiar volcanoes. To compensate for altitude's low oxygen volume, Nature gives Mexico City man more red blood cells. When sea-level man comes up to these heights, his blood system calls out the spleen's red-cell reserve, and the bone marrow manufactures more. The average in dividual takes a week or more to adjust. Alcohol and coffee play strange tricks on visi tors unaccustomed to the altitude. For centuries beyond memory the Valley of Mexico was the focal point of migrating Indian tribes. Brilliant civilizations scattered their temples and pyramids across the vale and, declining, vanished into the limbo of forgotten peoples (pages 816 and 824). About 1325 the Aztecs wandered here in search of a promised land. Tribal legend says that, fulfilling a prophecy, they spotted the omen they had been seeking, an eagle perched on a nopal cactus with a serpent in its talons: these symbols appear on Mexico's seal and flag to this day.* Where the cactus grew, the Aztecs founded Tenochtitlan, which means "Place of the Cactus Pear." Cortes Found a New-World Venice When Hernan Cortes and his band of fewer than 400 followers arrived in 1519 to visit Montezuma, the Aztec Emperor, the Spaniard likened the town to Sevilla. Venice would have been a better compari son. Tenochtitlan stood on an island in old Lake Texcoco, thousands of canoes thronging its waterways. Its farm produce came from chinampas, or floating gardens, won from the lake bed (page 810). Tenochtitlan has been dead four centuries. Spaniards, conquering the city in 1521, demol ished its pagan temples and erected Mexico City on its grave. Texcoco has been drained; the lake's In dian-built causeways are now broad avenues, but Montezuma's dead hand still marks the city.t The National Palace (page 791) and Chapultepec Castle occupy sites of his royal residences on the Z6calo, the main plaza, and in Chapultepec Park (page 789). * See "Flags of the Americas," by Elizabeth W. King. NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, May, 1949. t See "North America's Oldest Metropolis," by Frederick Simpich, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, July, 1930.