Monuments in Mexico City
With Message for the United States
By M.P. Prabhakaran
As soon as I checked into my hotel in Mexico City, I pulled aside the window curtains and looked for what the hotel’s Web site features as its special attraction: It “is located in front of the Angel de la Independencia (one of the most important monuments of the city).” All I could see in front was a multi-storied building, with a garage at the level of the room I was going to occupy. I asked the bellhop who had brought my bags into the room whether that was the famous monument the vicinity of which the hotel touted as a selling point.
“That building came up a couple of years ago,” he said. “It blocked the lovely view of El Angel we used to have from here.” Mexicans usually use the short form, El Angel, while referring to the monument.
“Tell the hotel management to change the wording on the Web site,” I told the young man. “It should say that the hotel is located in front of a monumental garage, not Monumento a la Independencia.” He was embarrassed.
“It’s not your fault,” I said, placing a 20-peso (two-U.S. dollar) bill in his hand as tip. “You speak much better English than those guys at the front desk.”
He smiled and thanked me “for those kind words.” I felt happy that I helped him get over the embarrassment.
He did speak good English. In fact, he spoke better English than even the immigration and customs personnel at Benito Juarez International Airport, with whom I had to struggle to get my points across. I didn’t understand anything they said, except the word “prohibited,” which the customs official uttered while confiscating the ‘contrabands’ he found in my carry-on bag. The contrabands were an apple and a pear. I had forgotten to eat them before boarding the plane at JFK International Airport, New York. This time, to Delta Air Lines’ credit, the plane had taken off on time. On many a previous occasion, the apple and pear had come to my rescue during my long, hungry waits at airports. Long delays in departure and arrival of planes have been a norm lately at most U.S. airports.
The first thing I did after getting up the next morning was to go looking for El Angel. It was built at the turn of the 20th century to commemorate the centennial of Mexico’s war of independence. The war began on September 16, 1810 and ended on August 24, 1821. The Treaty of Cordoba that ended the war also brought to an end three centuries of Spanish colonial rule in Mexico.
The Angel, which gives the monument its name, is represented by a 23-foot-tall statue of a woman with wings, symbolizing what Mexicans call the Winged Victory in their war of independence. The Angel holds a crown in her right hand and a broken chain in the other. The crown symbolizes victory and the broken chain freedom. The gold-plated bronze statue is perched on top of a 121-foot-tall column made of steel. On four vertices of the quadrangular base of the column are bronze statues of four females representing Law, Justice, War and Peace. In 1925, the remains of the heroes of the war of independence were interred in the basement. Since then, the basement has been revered as a mausoleum for those heroes. The 148-foot-tall monument, built on the beautiful Reforma avenue (Paseo de la Reforma), is quite an impressive structure and a great tourist attraction.
The gold-plated statue of El Angel shone brighter against the morning sun. The first time I saw it was on the morning of April 9, 2008. My immediate reaction on seeing it was to forgive my travel agent who had not told me that the hotel he had booked for me was not air-conditioned. The joy El Angel gave me more than made up for the tossing and turning I did all night in my non-air-conditioned, non-ventilated hotel room. “But for the fact that the hotel is only two minutes’ walk from here, I wouldn’t have had this joy,” I said to myself, taking in the beauty of the monument. I gave myself that joy every morning, and a few evenings, of my one-week stay in Mexico City.
One evening, I was training my camera way up, on the face of the Angel, when I got distracted by a female voice. “Don’t fail to take note of where the Angel is facing,” the voice said.
When I turned around, I saw a middle-aged woman, in blue jeans and T-shirt, smiling at me. I guessed, from her blond hair and blue eyes, that she was of Spanish, not Mexican-Indian, descent. (My guess was right, she told me later: Her grandparents had come from Madrid.) I smiled back and asked, “Where is the Angel facing?”
“Can’t you see? She is facing north.”
“What about it?”
“Do you know what is to the north of Mexico?”
“The Rio de Grande.”
“Beyond that river, I mean.”
That made me pause for a while. “Are you telling me that you have problem with the United States?” I asked her.
“I have no problem. But no Mexican can forget what they did to us. After grabbing half of Mexico, they now want to build a wall to prevent a few poor Mexicans from entering their country, looking for menial jobs which most Americans won’t do. They should have built the wall before they grabbed our land.”
I wished for a moment that the anti-immigration activists in the U.S. had been with me, listening to what the lady was saying. She was referring the demand being made by some of them to erect a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border as a way of preventing illegal entry into the U.S. She was also referring to the defeat and loss of territory her country suffered in the 1846-48 Mexican-American war. Many Mexicans even now call it the war of North American invasion.
In terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the war, Mexico was forced to renounce permanently its claim to Texas. The treaty also obligated Mexico to cede to the U.S., in exchange for mere 15 million dollars, what are parts of present-day Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, and all of California, Nevada and Utah. The remaining parts of Arizona and New Mexico States were acquired by the U.S. in 1853, in a deal that came to be called the Gadsden Purchase. The purchase price Mexican President Santa Anna received was 10 million dollars.
“Come with me,” my new Mexican acquaintance said. “Let me show you another statue that captures Mexicans’ attitude toward the United States.”
We walked a few blocks on Reforma avenue. When we reached the point where Reforma meets Sevilla Street, she stopped. Pointing to the statue of a naked woman posing as an archer, in the middle of a floral-shaped fountain at the intersection of the two roads, she said, “This is the Fountain of Diana the Huntress, another important landmark in the city (see to the right). Though it is now called la Diana Cazadora or Diana the Huntress, the original name given to it by its sculptor was la Flechadora del Norte or the Northern Arrow Thrower.”
The sculptor, Juan Olaguibel, had meant his work to be a monument not merely to Diana, the Roman Goddess of Hunting, but to the beauty of female body as well. So he presented Diana in the nude. His model, it is said, was a 16-year-old part-time secretary who worked for Mexico’s state-owned petroleum company. The story goes that she posed naked for the sculptor every day of the April-September 1942 period that took him to complete the statue. The young lady's only compensation was the joy “of seeing her body immortalized on one of the most beautiful avenues in the city.”
But soon after the statue’s inauguration, on October 10, 1942, Diana’s nudity drew protests from Mexico’s prudes. The forms of protest included covering the nudity with underwear made of cotton. Cotton underwear on a bronze statue? Sculptor Olaguibel had a better idea. He replaced it with one made of bronze. But hoping to take it off sometime in the future, when the Mexican society was expected to become less prudish, he welded the underwear at three corners only tentatively. On the eve of the 1968 Olympics, in the midst of Mexico City’s much-trumpeted preparations to host the event, Olaguibel petitioned to the government for permission to remove the underwear. The petition had the backing of a large number of Mexican artists and social activists. The government granted the sculptor his wish and the public once again began to enjoy Diana’s beauty in its pristine form.
“You didn’t drag me here to give a lecture on the covering and uncovering of Diana’s nudity, did you?” I asked the Mexican lady.
“You are right. I didn’t,” she said. “I want you to take a look at the direction in which the arrow is pointed.”
“Oh, Oh,” I responded. “Here we go again. And what is the evil the Goddess of Hunting is trying to eradicate with her arrow?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I want you to know that the arrow is pointing northward. Once again, what is lying to the north of Mexico?”
“You have made your point,” I said. “Let’s talk more about it over a coffee.”
We walked into a nearby coffee shop. Soon after ordering coffee – she ordered ‘Espresso’ and I ‘Coffee Americano’ – she apologized for “rudely disrupting” my photographing El Engel. She said she “didn't want to pass up the opportunity I got to reminisce with an Indian the wonderful time I had in New Delhi a few years ago.” She visited New Delhi on her way back from East Timor, where she had gone as a volunteer to monitor the elections held under the auspices of the United Nations.
“Don’t be apologetic,” I told her. “The evening has been quite an educative experience for me.”
It was. Not just in terms of what I learned about two important monuments in Mexico City. Thanks to the time I spent with her, I got an insight into what Mexicans think about what is now a hot-button issue in the U.S. The anti-immigration campaigners are being naïve in thinking that erecting a wall along the Mexican border is a solution to the country's illegal-immigration problems. Mexicans detest the idea, as do most fair-minded Americans.
(First published on May 4, 2008. Pictures have since been replaced with new ones.)
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Food for Thought
Interesting reading. And food for thought, especially for those who do not know the relationship between the United States and Mexico.
Javeed Mirza, Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A.
May 5, 2008
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