Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Lions and Tigers and Grasshoppers, Oh My!

The Bosque de Chapultapec is located in downtown Mexico City, at one end of the Paseo de la Reforma. Bosque literally means "forest," and Chapultapec means something like "place of grasshoppers;" a grasshopper silhouette is kind of its logo, seen in sculptures and on maps and signs throughout the park.

Chapultapec's closest relative is probably Central Park in New York (in that it looks like a forest in the middle of a city) or a kind of combination of Lincoln Park and Grant Park in Chicago; like those two Chicago parks, Chapultapec has a zoo, the city’s finest museum, swampy lagoons and larger-than-life sculptures, and lots and lots of people hanging out on the weekends. Chapultapec was within walking distance from our hotel last week, so over the weekend we took a trip down the Paseo to the park.

At the northeast entrance to Chapultapec two statues of lions stand guard. The lions are about the same size as the lions standing guard in front of Chicago’s Art Institute; in fact, they’re almost exactly the same in every way, except that unlike their more serene Chicago cousins these Mexican lions aren’t messing around.

Once you pass the lions the first thing you see are six towering white pillars with a black eagle on each one (Mexico’s national symbolic creature is an eagle, una aguila).

This imposing monument is in honor of the Ninos Heroes, the Heroic Children. These six military cadets committed suicide here at Chapultapec rather than submit to foreign troops invading Mexico City in 1847. What country’s troops would invade Mexico City? You really don’t want to know.

That the United States invaded Mexico all the way to Mexico City is pretty embarrassing, even a hundred and fifty years later. Apparently it isn’t just hindsight that makes it look that way; at the time, a young congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, called it “one of the most unjust wars that will ever be waged by a strong country against a weak one.”

That it was a bogus war is pretty clear, but the worst part is what happened next. As a condition of peace, the United States opted to annex not only Texas, which was what the war was supposed to be about, but also what is now New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and all of California, an area that includes the small parcel of land in which, over a century later, I was born.

It’s difficult to describe the feeling of standing here, in the middle of Mexico’s largest city, a guest of this country, looking at monuments and murals that depict wars and almost-wars in which the United States was the enemy. Set aside the guilt for a moment: I’ve never felt more like a foreigner in all my life. Then, of course, return to the guilt: Where do we go from here?

We continue on, up a hill to Mexico City’s highest point, on top of which lies a castle once occupied by dictators both foreign and domestic.

(Above: Mexico's old castle tower and its new one, the skyscraping Torre Mayor.)

There are more monuments to the Ninos Heroes up here, and more massive, 360-degree, room-sized murals depicting Mexico’s history in bold colors and even bolder violence. Mexican muralists rarely hide the violence so inherent in this country’s repeated struggles for land and liberty, tierra y libertad.

We wander outside and nearly grow dizzy from the view. From the Castillo (Castle) de Chapultapec, you can look straight down the Paseo to the Angel of Independence blocks away, the direct sightline surrounded by the skyline of the sprawling gray city, its tallest building sticking out like a sore thumb.

We leave the castle and make our way down the hill, past the throngs of sidewalk vendors selling everything from soda to sombreros. We stop and gaze at the people paddleboating around the lagoon and the millions more waiting in line to join them on this hot Sunday afternoon.

Everywhere there are families; children scurry past, hold hands, are pushed about in strollers and carried on the shoulders of their parents. This is a city of the past and a city of the future; both sides of time seem more alive than ever before.

(coming soon: part 2 of the visit to Chapultapec Park, featuring the National Museum of Anthropology...)

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