Instead of the Zocalo, visit Tlatelolco

Tlatelolco is a massive public housing community that sits at the nexus of reoccurring Mexican tragedy. It is also one of the eeriest places that I’ve ever been – history kind of whacks you over the head there.

Spanish conquerer Hernan Cortes overpowered Aztec general Cuauhtemoc in a battle at Tlatelolco in 1521, leading to“the painful birth of the mixed race that is México today,” as a sign says. 

Then, in 1968, a student-led protest in Tlatelolco turned ugly when government forces started firing on people in the community’s main square. Officials then proceeded to cover up the massacre, which of course thousands of people had witnessed.

Then, less than 20 years later, the great earthquake of 1985 shook down several buildings in Tlatelolco, another naturally-caused massacre.

There is a lot to learn about here. The main plaza, where the protest took place, remains, as do Aztec ruins.

For whatever reason,  the government has not turned Tlatelolco into a very tourist-friendly place, nor does it promote the site. All outdoor signage looks fairly decrepit and I don’t think there are regular tours. At least, I didn’t see any while I was there.

Perhaps, they’ve abstained from promoting and cleaning it up because it’s still an unsafe area. Perhaps, officials remain ashamed of the 1968 massacre and don’t want to draw international attention to it. Or possibly, the government just doesn’t want to show off the site because, beyond security reasons, it’s not a prettied-up version of Mexico. The buildings are pretty dilapidated, and the playgrounds –loaded with tall iron slides and jungle gyms looming above cement flooring – look like total child death traps.

Two things to note: The community did recently receive an amazing, wonderfully striking large-scale art installation, which covers one of the area’s central buildings. Also, I didn’t have a chance to enter a museum in Tlatelolco, so maybe I missed out.

That said, the number of white/Asian/black/and other non-Mexican-looking people I saw there equals one,   my friend Geneva. With a mirror, it would have been two.

It took me more than a year and a half to visit Tlatelolco – despite having heard about it pretty early on. I think the lack of touristy frills and signs is truly what creates such a bizarre ambiance at Tlatelolco. There’s little acknowledgment of Tlatelolco’s historical significance. There are kids all over the place, kicking soccer balls against buildings and zipping down those treacherous slides. People walk their dogs, talk with their neighbors, do whatever.

The only comparison I can think of is if people just built a housing complex around the 9/11 site, put up a few plaques and then told everyone to go about their business. That’d be disturbing, right?


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