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Alumni Stories

Mexico City: Day 1 Through 4

by Molly Tierney

The sheer scale of people in Mexico City is mind-blowing.

They spill onto the streets so that the city during Christmastime is just one big festival, and at night vendors set up shop on street corners and sell light-up crowns and popcorn and cotton candy – sometimes the fluff will float free and people will jump to catch it.

It’s a busy place – Mexico City is the largest city in North America, beating even New York City – but busy is in the city’s history. Past the Ferris Wheel and the poinsettia Christmas trees in the plaza is the cathedral, built atop of the ruins of an Aztec temple. Before Mexico City was Mexico City, it was Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec empire and one of the largest cities in the world. In 1500, it was home to around 200,000 people: to compare, the London population in 1500 was only around 50,000.

One of the busy streets in Mexico City.

Mexico City is now home to almost 8 million and is a center of New World history. Sor Juana de la Cruz took her vows there. About 150 years later, it was the site of the downfall of Father Miguel Hidalgo’s march against the Spaniards after he had struck the match of Mexican independence with his Grito de Dolores (Cry of Dolores). Mexico City was also home to world-famous artist Frida Kahlo and her husband, muralist Diego Rivera, as well as poet and essayist Octavio Paz. Today, one can walk through the Frida Kahlo Museum in Coyoacán; admire Rivera’s educational murals as well as view authentic Mayan codices at the Secretaría de Educación Pública; and visit UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the largest university in Latin America and whose campus is so unique it’s been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Mexico City is a historic, cultural, and educational center of the world, and there it is easy to see how it is considered the cradle of American civilization.

El Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Landing there, however, I didn’t know any of this. While I was dragging my suitcase through the Benito Juarez airport, a stranger asked me if I was in line for something – in Spanish. I’ve never had someone assume I speak Spanish before, and I was so surprised I replied with “Yo no sé,” – I don’t know – and hurried on after the group. It was my first “conversational” encounter in Mexico, and I could only go up from there.

Morning at el Zócalo (city square). To the left is the Spanish cathedral, and behind it (unseen) is the remains of the Aztec Templo Mayor.

Mexico City is big, but the people are willing to help. I had the opportunity to ask a local where a good place to eat was, and he directed me to a Vietnamese restaurant a few streets over from the plaza. On the way there, I passed by taqueria stalls and churro carts and people eating cups of papas locas, potato chips coated in spicy seasoning, or drizzled with hot sauce. On my first night in the city, I ended up at a Chinese restaurant and a table with pancakes, fried rice, and some kind of pineapple pastry. On my last night, I was artfully anointing pizza slices with hot sauce (it works. Trust me).

It’s a strange thing to be in an unfamiliar place and with your preconceptions as your only guide. I had no idea there were over 8 million people in Mexico City (have I mentioned how big this city is?); or that when Spanish teachers say it was built on top of Tenochtitlán, they literally mean the Spaniards built over Tenochtitlán; or that one can order pancakes and Chinese food at the same restaurant, but Mexico City was full of surprises. The buildings are sometimes hauntingly beautiful: the cathedral, for example, overshadowing the remains of the crumbling Aztec temple. It’s impossible to ignore the city’s unforgettable history, from Aztecs to Spaniards, and its unforgettable figures, from Cuauhtémoc to Benito Juarez. It has offered me a learning experience that I had no idea I could be missing.


Molly Tierney

KIIS Maya Mexico Winter 2021-2022
Mathematical Economics
University Of Kentucky

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