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Notes on the Geography of Mexico: Mexico City

In 1980 Mexico formally designated a historic-monument district in Mexico City. Perhaps this was triggered by the excavations started two years earlier at the Aztec Templo Mayor, the great temple demolished by order of Hernán Cortés; certainly it was followed in 1987 by UNESCO granting world-heritage status to the same district.

Compared to Mexico City as a whole, the historic district was a mere sliver, with perhaps 100,000 of Greater Mexico City's 22 million people. Spatially, it comprised only nine square kilometers, including a 3-square-kilometer core called Perimeter A, which corresponded to the city's footprint as it was in 1800, and an additional six square kilometers in a surrounding buffer called Perimeter B, which corresponded to the city's footprint in 1900. Perimeter A, in short, enclosed the colonial city established on the site of the Aztec city, Tenochtitlan. That colonial city, a shadow of modern Mexico City, was a shadow as well of the city Cortés destroyed, because Tenochtitlan at the conquest had half a million people; twenty years later, Mexico City had only 100,000. Fast forward three centuries to the eve of Mexican Independence, and the city had grown to only 130,000, not much more than the number of people who call the historic district home today. It's that core that we explore here.

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We're walking toward the Torre Latino-Americana or Latin American Tower, designed by Adolfo Zeevaert and completed in 1956. It famously survived the great 1985 earthquake, but we're here strictly for the view from the top. The street is the pedestrianized Calle Francisco Madero, the axis of the tourism corridor. The street is an old one, but its name is recent, bestowed by Pancho Villa in 1914 to recall the Mexican president assassinated in the previous year.

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We're up top and looking west, away from the historic core. The buildings in the foreground are the Superior Court Building, the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs, and the Hilton. In the distance is the lineup along Paseo de la Reforma, a Paris-inspired boulevard created in the 1860s at the request of the Emperor Maximilian. It is this vast periphery that UNESCO's staff had in mind when they wrote that the world-heritage site they were seeking to protect was the fragment of the city that "survived the flood of concrete which has engulfed" the Valley of Mexico. The park at the lower right is the Alameda Central, established in 1592, though not as large then as it is now, and in a different style.

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Here's the view the other way, into the colonial city. Francisco Madero runs east to the Zócalo, the great square rimmed most dramatically by the Metropolitan Cathedral on the left, or north. The historic-monument district surrounds the square and within Perimeter B protects a total of 668 blocks, though the concentration of monuments is greatest within Perimeter A, especially west of a line struck north-south through the Zócalo.

Urban development here goes back to the arrival of the Aztecs about 1325; Tenochtitlan, in other words, had a shorter lifespan than the colonial city that replaced it. For most of its existence, that colonial city was filthy and dangerous. It remained so until the arrival in 1789 of a new viceroy, Juan Vicente de Guemez Pacheco de Padilla, the Conde de Revillagigedo. Efforts to do more than clean the city and improve its security awaited the 1860s and the arrival of Maximilian and Carlota. They chose to make the Zócalo a public garden, though it did not stay one. During the 1860s, also, the Aztec canals were finally filled. The present street grid was completed a bit later by Benito Juarez. His Leyes de la Reforma included the confiscation of convent estates, which allowed the cutting through of new roads such as Madero itself, which bisects the old garden of the monastery once attached to the Church of San Francisco.

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A closer view of the cathedral. Behind it and to the left is the archaeological museum on the site of the Aztec's Templo Mayor, whose stones were recycled by the Spanish into buildings including the cathedral. On the far side of the Zócalo is the National Palace, once the viceroy's palace and built on land bought from the Cortés family. It says a lot about the balance of power in colonial Mexico that the cathedral was so much grander than the viceroy's palace.

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The archaeological site of the Templo Mayor. One of the men with Cortés, Bernal Díaz, wrote: "It was all so wonderful, that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before." He continued: "I stood looking at it and thought that no land like it would ever again be discovered in the whole world. But today, all that I then saw is overthrown and destroyed: nothing is left standing."

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Trees and benches were removed from the Zócalo in the 1960s. The view here, early in the morning before traffic rolls in, shows the west front of the square, mostly occupied by the Hotel Majestic, offices, restaurants, and many jewelry shops. This is the Portal de los Mercaderes, a shopping area that dates back to 1524, when the new government gave property owners permission to build a portico 25 feet wide in front of their shops.

Shopping here was nothing new. Cortés famously wrote to the Emperor Charles V in 1520 that "this city has many public squares... surrounded by porticoes, where are daily assembled more than sixty thousand souls, engaged in buying and selling; and where are found all kinds of merchandise." Bernal Díaz later wrote, "There were soldiers among us who had been in many parts of the world, in Constantinople and Rome and all over Italy, who said that they had never before seen a market place so large and so well laid out, and so filled with people" (Idell translation, 1957, pp. 158-9).

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Half the south side of the square is occupied by the Old Town Hall. The original building burned in riots that also destroyed the viceroy's palace, so the building here dates only from the 1720s, and the more decorative top floor is even newer, added in the 1920s.

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Its twin is the Federal District Municipality building, built to the same last in the 1940s.

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The National Palace, on the east side of the square, occupies the site of the residence of Cortés. Sold to the Crown in 1562, the building burned in 1624 and was razed in 1628. It was then rebuilt, but the lower floors were renovated in the early 18th century, and the top floor was added in the 1920s, perhaps in part to soften the fortress-like appearance.

Maximilian lived here; Bolívar and von Humboldt were guests. Today the building is partly a museum and partly offices for the federal treasury and national archives.

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Alonzo Garcia Bravo, with Cortés, laid out the plaza in time for a bullfight in 1526. Five decades later, in 1573 and on orders from Philip II, work began on the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María. Though consecrated in 1645 and again in the 1667, construction continued until 1813.

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The original plan was by Claudio de Arciniega, but the bell-topped towers were added by Jose Damian Ortiz de Castro, born in Mexico in 1750, late enough that the towers are reinforced with an iron frame. The stone is volcanic tezontle, the same reddish stone facing the building to the right, the Sagrario, as well as the National Palace and most other colonial buildings in the historic core. The great advantage of the stone is that it is light enough to float, which means that buildings are less likely to sink into Mexico City's soft foundations.

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Construction work went on so long that tastes changed as the cathedral rose. Arciniega's Renaissance base supports a Baroque tier and above it a neoclassical one. The Baroque is on display here, with a central panel framed like a picture and depicting the Assumption--remember that this is the Cathedral of the Assumption--flanked by Saints Andrew and Matthew intercalated between columns. Above them, the Neoclassical clock and balustrade were added by the Spanish sculptor Manuel Tolsá shortly before his death in 1816.

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Above the right-hand portal, St. Peter and the apostles appear on a relief titled "The Ship of the Church Sails the Seas of Eternity."

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The interior is vast and airy, Gothic in its height and airiness, though neoclassical in its arches and perhaps merely unfortunate in its fluting, like piped frosting.

Fanny Calderón, wife of the Spanish ambassador in 1840, visited the cathedral and wrote: "Meanwhile we entered the Christian edifice, which covers an immense space of ground, is of the Gothic form, with two lofty ornamented towers, and is still immensely rich in gold, silver, and jewels.... Not a soul was in the sacred precincts this morning but miserable léperos, in rags and blankets, mingled with women in ragged rebozos--at least a sprinkling of ladies with mantillas was so very slight, that I do not think there were half a dozen in all. The floor is so dirty that one kneels with a feeling of horror... I was not sorry to find myself once more in the pure air after Mass." (Life in Mexico During a Residence of Two Years in that Country, 1843, p. 50)

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At the end of the nave, the retablo of the Altar of the Kings was built in anticipation of a royal visit that never transpired. Of gilt cedar, it replicates the altar in Seville's cathedral and was begun by Jerónimo Balbás, the Spanish architect who had earlier created that now destroyed work. This one was finished by Francisco Martínez.

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T. Philip Terry, whose Terry's Mexico was the standard English-language guidebook to Mexico during the first half of the 20th century, wrote that the cathedral is "now but a similacrum of what it was in pre-reforma days, [but] a fairly accurate idea of its old-time splendor may be obtained from the Churrigueresque altar..." (1938 ed., p. 275). The exuberant style is named for José Benito de Churriguera, a Spanish Baroque architect.

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Crowned by God the Father, holding a globe, the altar is filled with saintly figures who appear dark in the midst of the brilliant setting. By one interpretation, their darkness represents humanity in the midst of divine glory.

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As so often happens in Spanish cathedrals, the nave is interrupted by an intermediate altar, in this case the Altar of Pardon, also by Jerónimo Balbás. According to one story, the name derives from the practice of parading here the victims of the Inquisition. Terry observes drily that the structure "mars greatly the interior view of the church."

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Adjoining the cathedral is the architecturally dissimilar tabernacle or Sagrario, completed in 1769 to store the archbishop's papers and robes.

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Terry calls this "undoubtedly the finest Churrigueresque facade of the city." The sculptor and architect was Lorenzo Rodriguez, who emigrated to Mexico as a young man and brought with him the style used here. The retablos in the adjoining cathedral had just been finished, and they are approximated here in stone.

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When Rodriguez moved inside, however, he switched styles from Baroque to neoclassical, which at least had the advantage of creating an interior that echoed the interior of the cathedral. The altar was from another hand, Pedro Patiño Ixtolinque, who was the protégé of Manuel Tolsá, who had added the clock to the cathedral facade. Terry laments that "the church was repaired and redecorated in 1908, and in the unhappy rage for restoration it was despoiled of most of its best adornments."

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The Archbishop's Palace stands to the east of the cathedral on land bought in 1530 by the first holder of that position, Juan de Zumárraga. Fanny Calderon wrote: "Were I to choose a situation here, it would undoubtedly be that of Archbishop of Mexico, the most enviable in the world to those who would enjoy a life of tranquility, ease and universal adoration. He is a pope without the trouble, or a tenth part of the responsibiity" (p. 34). The sinecure was disrupted in 1857, when Benito Juárez confiscated the property and assigned it to the finance ministry. The building is now a museum.

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A few blocks north of the cathedral, the Church of Santo Domingo, finished in 1737, is the third church on the site. It is "all that remains of the one time great monastery and central church headquarters of the Dominican Order in Mexico..." (Terry, p. 353). On the left is the Portal de los Evangelistas, or Arcade of the Scribes.

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St. Dominic receives both the keys of heaven from Saint Peter and the Epistles from Saint Paul. Above them, a dove represents the Holy Spirit.

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The neoclassical altar is by Manuel Tolsá.

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A chapel has a more exuberant altarpiece.

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West of the cathedral is La Profesa, or the Church of San Felipe Neri El Nuevo. A church built here in 1595 was the stronghold of the Jesuits in Mexico, but it was destroyed by a flood in 1629 and rebuilt in 1720 by Pedro de Arrieta. When the Jesuits were expelled from Spain in 1767, the church passed to the government and then to the order of San Felipe Neri. That order's previous church had been destroyed by an earthquake in 1768, which is why this church is called "the new." The Jesuits regained possession in 1802, but reform laws later that century forced their abandonment of the adjoining monastery, which was demolished in 1862 to make way for Calle de Cinco de Mayo, at the far side of the church.

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The baroque facade has a central panel showing Christ appearing to St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits. The flanking saints squeezed by columns are Gertrude and Barbara.

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The altar, a neoclassic design by Manuel Tolsá, was dedicated in 1799 to Saint Philip Neri.

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Yet another church, this one attached to the Hospital de Jesus Nazareno, was founded by Cortés, completed in 1665, and is still in use now as the oldest functioning hospital in the Americas.

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The walls are of tezontle, that lightweight volcanic stone.

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Another example of building with that rock, this is the church of the former Convent de Santa Ines, disbanded in 1861. Completed in 1770, the church has two entrances, one dedicated to Ines (=Agnes) and the other to St. James.

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The Jesuit's Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso was founded in 1575 to oversee the training of priests in Mexico, and the adjoining Church of San Pedro y San Pablo was completed in 1603 and remained in use until the Jesuits were expelled. (The educational function is hinted at by the small figure of Pallas Athena in the pediment and perhaps as well by the Spanish coat-of-arms that survives at the top of the building.)

The church was then used as a barracks and subsequently by the Augustinians. The Jesuits were allowed to return in 1816 but found the church nearly in ruins. With Independence, the church was used for political assemblies including the convention that created Mexico's first constitution. The building reopened as a church in 1832, but Juarez made it part of the National Preparatory School in 1867, and in 1929 it became the library of the National University of Mexico, which reassigned the space in 1996 to become the Museo de la Luz, a science museum.

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Until 1960, this was the Antigua Casa de los Condes de Santiago Calimaya. Though renovated in 1778, the building was erected in 1536 and was one of the first houses built after the Conquest. An exotic bit of supporting evidence comes from the recycled Aztec sculpture of a serpent's head at the black base of the corner shown here. The land had been granted by Cortés to Juan Gutierrez Altamirano, one of whose descendants in 1616 gained from Philip II the title of Count of Santiago de Calimaya. With the decline of the family's fortune, the building became a market, then a tenement before finally being sold to the city in 1960. Since 1964 it has housed the Museo de la Ciudad de Mexico.

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A detail of the entrance. Tha red stone is tezontle but the gray is cantera, a rock of consolidated volcanic ash, easy to carve but durable.

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Here it is shaped into spirals over real cannon.

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The interior is a courtyard of the sort common to colonial buildings in this city.

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Another exterior, this from the Ximénez house of 1760, later the home of the Heras y Soto family and later still the home of the Mexico City Historical Society.

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"This house was built by the silversmith Don Adrian Ximénez de Almendra in 1760, and its last occupant was the Count of Heras Soto in the XIX century." A good view of tezontle's texture.

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A unique, four-story mansion, the Palacio Iturbide, now the Palacio de Cultura Banamex.

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The entrance is a virtuosic display of cantera carving. The mansion was completed in 1785 under the direction of the architects Francisco Antonio Guerrero y Torres and Agustín Durán, working for the city's mayor, Miguel de Berrior y Saldiva, the Count of San Mateo Valparaíso. Remodelled in 1855 as the Hotel Iturbide, it had the city's first elevator. The hotel closed in 1928 and the building was eventually acquired in 1966 by Banamex, the national bank of Mexico, which restored it and uses it as a cultural center.

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Another display of tezontle's bubblacious texture.

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A departure from tradition, the Casa de Los Azulejos, or House of Tiles, was originally built in 1596 by the Counts of the Valley of Orizaba but was re-faced in 1737 with blue and white tiles from Puebla, from where the new occupant, a widow, had come. In 1880 the house briefly became the Jockey Club. In 1921 it became the first Sanborn's restaurant, an undertaking of Walter D. and Frank A. Sanborn, who had earlier established the Farmaciá América.

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Street-level view.

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Courtyard, with a mural by Orozco.

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Another Sanborn's, just a few blocks from the original.

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The courtyard.

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By the time Sanborn's was flourishing, Mexico City had developed a Parisian flair, largely because of the taste of Porfirio Díaz, president of Mexico from 1884 to 1911. Case in point: El Palacio de Hierro, the "iron palace," Mexico City's first iron-framed building and a dead-ringer for the Printemps store on Boulevard Haussmann in Paris. Designed by the French architect George Debrie, who didn't have to work too hard, the store opened in 1891. It is now part of a chain controlled by the Grupo Bal, a conglomerate.

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The interior of the store has a glassed-roofed atrium.

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The Gran Hotel de la Ciudad de Mexico was built in 1899 as another department store, the Mercantile Center. Adjoining the Zócalo on the west side, it became a hotel in 1966. For a time it was even a Howard Johnson's.

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Despite the columns, this too was framed with iron.

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And it has a glass-roofed atrium.

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The Casino Español was finished in 1903 in anticipation of the visit from Alfonso XIII that never happened.

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Another atrium.

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A late touch of Art Nouveau by the architect Paul Dubois in 1929.

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Street level.

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A leather-goods store even now.

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Another angle.

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Art Deco on the Calle de Tacuba.

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Gravitas from an insurance company in 1906. As of 2012, the ground floor was a Zara shop.

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Temples from the 1930s: Telmex and Sears.

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The Porfiriato offered equally pretentious government buildings, in this case one designed by Silvio Contri for the Ministry of Communications and Public Works. Completed in 1911, it was inaugurated by Madero, Díaz's successor. Since 1982 it has housed the National Art Museum. The equestrian statue of Charles IV is much earlier and is the work of Manuel Tolsá. Spain, however, was soon to become a satellite of France, and a plaque on the statue's base seems to reflect contempt for a weak king, or perhaps merely anti-Spanish sentiment. Dismissively, it states that "Mexico preserves it as a monument of art."

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Completed a year earlier than the Ministry of Communications Building, this was originally the Iturbide Theater, named for the same short-lived president as the four-story Palacio Iturbide. The Chamber of Deputies moved here, and the building was remodelled. In 1981 the Chamber moved to a new building, and this one became the home of a newly created legislative assembly for the federal district.

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Despite its appearance, this theater was built in 1918 on the site of a previous theater and is substantially modeled on La Scala. It was originally called the Esperanza Iris Theater for a singer of that time. She helped pay for it, but the theater was superseded as the city's premiere cultural venue by the Palacio de Bellas Artes. After Iris' death in 1962, the city took ownership and changed the name. The facade was almost entirely rebuilt, but in 2008, despite the sign on the front, the theater was back in business as the Teatro de la Ciudad "Esperanza Iris."

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The apogee of Porfirian monumentalism and an intended rival to the Paris Opéra, the Palacio de Bellas Artes was begun by the architect Adamo Boari. Díaz placed the cornerstone in 1904, and work was supposed to be finished by 1910. Instead, work stopped in 1913 and Boari left Mexico in 1916. Nothing happened until 1932, when work resumed under the direction of Federico Mariscal, a student of Boari. The building was finished quickly and opened in 1934.

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As with the city's cathedral, styles had changed in the interim, and the Deco interior is a different world than the Byzantine neoclassicism of the exterior.

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Another relic of the Porfiriato, this is the Palacio de Correos de Mexico, built to commemorate the centenary of Independence. Díaz inaugurated the building.

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The grand staircase, of Italian wrought iron, was built under the direction of Boari, the architect responsible for the exterior of the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

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The Porfiriato came to a dramatic end with the Mexican Revolution. The animus driving that event is on display here, in the Secretariat of Public Education, completed in 1922 to house the Iberoamerican library. The site had previously been the Encarnación Convent.

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The walls are covered with 235 murals painted in the 1920s by Diego Rivera.

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Here, the idyllic corn fiesta.

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Not quite so cheerful: porters.

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The evil ones. The title of this panel is "Wall Street Banquet." The wrinkled figure at the upper left surely is none other than John D. Rockefeller.

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"Orgy: The Night of the Rich"

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"Emiliano Zapata."

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"Death of the Capitalist."

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"Guarantees," but the subject seems to be the sweeping away of the exploiters or their confinement in their own vaults.

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The new dictum: "Let Him Work Who Wants to Eat."

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Outside the old Archbishop's palace.

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Security takes many forms.

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