Monday, September 13, 2004

¡El Zocalo!

To me, one of the very best things about Mexican life is the zocalo. Just about very city and town in Mexico has a zocalo -- the main square across which the principal cathedral sits juxtaposed with the local palacio de gobierno. But the zocalo is not just the center of local religious and political life; it’s the local social center as well. There’s usually a gazebo at the center of the square for concerts, and benches, walkways, gardens, trees, fountains, and statues fill the rest of the space. Sidewalk cafes ring the sides of the square and there’s never a shortage of shoeshine and newspaper stands, either. The zocalo is always lively, from early morning to late at night, and there’s no better place to grab a shady bench seat and spend an hour or two people-watching. That is, if you can manage to find a bench seat not occupied by a smooching young couple.

Sunday is an especially busy day at the zocalo and a great time to admire families strolling slowly around and around the square in their Sunday best. In Queretaro there are free band concerts in the zocalo every Sunday noontime, and yesterday I happened to catch a parade there of various groups from the Isthmo region of the state, decked out in the amazingly colorful traditional dresses that the region is famous for. It was the type of sublime and serendipidous moment that happens with pleasant frequency here.In my opinion, the features that really make for a great zocalo are these: traffic-free streets around the perimeter, lots of shade trees, colonial artchitecture, and plenty of places to sit nursing a good cup of coffee. Queretaro’s zocalo has all of these. One feature that a great zocalo definitely does not have is an American fast food restaurant. As you may have read, there was a big to-do here a couple of years back when McDonalds leased a prime building on the zocalo. Fortunately, the locals got pretty pissed and got the city government to put a stop to the plan. Other cities – Puebla and Mexico City, for example – haven’t been so successful in keeping KFC, Domino’s, Burger King, and the like off of their main square. San Miguel de Allende, due to its topography, isn’t laid out grid-like as are many cities here, so it doesn’t have the typical zocalo. Instead, the Union Garden, a triangular-shaped green space with a gazebo, serves as the town social center.

When I was teaching in Queretaro and I’d ask my students to talk or write about their free-time activities, “walking around the garden with my family and friends” was often at the top of the list. I would imagine that if the question were posed to their peer group in the US, a more common response would be “sitting in my darkened room, getting high, playing computer games.” I guess I’m getting old and square, but walking around the garden with friends seems a lot more appealing to me.It’s too bad that we don’t have something like a zocalo in the States. Here, as soon as school gets out or the work day ends, it seems like the place to go is the zocalo. I guess the other problem we have in Tucson is that it’s so hot for much of the year that the last thing anyone would want to do is go sit in a park. Maybe it’s time to build retractable roof common/zocalo-type spaces back home – I think it could really revitalize our downtown areas.

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