The prettiest zocalo in Mexico, and other plazuela wanderings

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Discussion Thread Forum

Posted by Mike Otoole on August 05, 1997:

Whenever I’m travelling in Mexico and I arrive in a new town, the first thing I want to see is la plaza de armas, the heart of almost every Mexican village, town or city. The way it is laid out, maintained and used tell me more in a few moments than I’m likely to learn in hours of exploring the town itself. I always favor hotels on or near the zócalo and, after dinner, I’m inclined to find a bench to just sit and watch the swirl of humanity in the warm evening light. Maybe the town band will strike up a tune in the gazebo, perhaps there’ll be some conversation with a passerby, almost always there’s una paleta from one of the local ice cream joints. Pretty low key I’ll admit, but I like it. Anyway, to the point … do you have a favorite zócalo? If you do, tell me about it; about what makes it special; a brief description perhaps, or maybe a memorable experience you had there. As for me, one of my very favorites in el Jardín de la Unión in Guanajuato. Opposite the beautiful Teatro Juárez, it is more wedge-shaped than square and is definitely the heart of the city. Shade trees, cafés, wrought iron benches, a bandstand, families strolling … shoot, I’m on the next flight out!

Regards, Mike.

Re: The Prettiest Zocalo in Mexico.

Posted by anne on August 05, 1997:

I’m sure you will have many people tell you that the zocalo in Patzcuaro is the friendliest they have seen. It is very appealing in its low-key, people-friendly atmosphere. We watched Labor meetings, festivals for Vincent de Quiroga and Purepecha Indian dances from the balcony of our hotel, Los Escudos. There are dozens of vendors; Indian women selling their triangular tamales; balloon sellers; a little two carriage train filled with children in their Sunday best being driven round and round the Plaza; streamers; brass bells; wind-up toys; artists’ paintings leaning against the fountain; vats of exotic flavored sorbets; young people playing an obscure( to us!) courting game and in the background the bells calling anyone who will listen to Mass. It was a wonderful experience and we could have spent a couple of weeks being flies on the wall watching the square. We will go back again and again. We actually met a very interesting, articulate young Indian man who is the director of a center to encourage use of ancient herbs and plants, who explained in wonderful English( I wish we spoke better Spanish) what was going on in the square. By the way, we loved Jennifer’s description of Patzcuaro in the August edition. Hope this is not too boring for the majority of readers – maybe I should have e-mailed you, Michael!



Posted by Geri on August 6.1997:

My “first” zocalo still lingers fondly in memory. It’s in Merida, and a shaded retreat from the bustling city. I haven’t been there since the late 1970s, so I wonder if my memory is merely fantasy. Mayan mothers dressed in native white/embroidered shift-like dresses (I forget the Spanish word) tended young children and nursed infants during teh day on tree shaded benches. When diapers needed changing, they tossed the dirty ones behind the benches and periodically maintenance people made a sweep through the park, disposing of the behind-the-benches litter. Fond memories.

More recently, I LOVE the zocalos of San Miguel de Allende and Oaxaca. The cross-section of Norte Americanos, Mexicans and Euorepeans provides hours of people-watching far surpassing anything on tv. Zocalos are the heart of Mexico. Patzcuaro is on my winter agenda, and I look forward to more suggestions.


Re: Zocalos

Posted by John Cummings on August 06, 1997:

My favorite zocalo is in Vera Cruz. I was working there and stayed at a hotel right on the edge of the zocalo. The main attraction was the music. I could lay in bed at night and listen to the combination of marimbas and the mariachis. They had great places to eat on the perimeter and it was a people watching paradise.

Do you know that many Mexicans are not familiar with the term zocalo. All my wifes family ( Mexican ) and my many friends in Sinaloa and Sonora refer to them as plazuelas.

To be a zocalo it must have both a cathedral and government building on the perimiter of the plaza.


Posted by Geri on August 08, 1997

I didn’t know that. That answers a lot of questions, ie. why is the plaza in San Miguel de Allende called The Jardin. There is a government building (police station and city offices) and a church (parroquia) but not a cathedral. Ah ha! Merida, Oaxaca, and now you say Veracruz have zocalos. Where else?


Posted by Jack on August 08,1997

Doggone it John, why did you have to go and do a thing like make us think? Acapulco has what is called the zocalo, but I can’t recall any official buildings, only the cathedral. There goes the weekend. Trying to remember the layout of Acapulco’s zocalo.


Posted by Theodor Grossman on August 10,1997

I’ll muddy the waters a little for everybody and say that “zocalo” is a purely Mexican expression…probably meaning the same thing as “plaza”. “Plazuela” is a diminutive form of “Plaza”. At any rate, I agree on the importance of the “zocalo/plaza/plazuela” to the urban ambiance of Mexican towns.


Posted by John Cummings on August 08, 1997

Gee guys I didn’t mean to start you thinking. I was just giving you some trivia. Geri – Vera Cruz has only one Zocalo. I have never heard of more than one zocalo in any city. There may be many plazas but only one zocalo. Now watch somebody come up with a place that has more than one. Almost all Mexican cities have a zocalo. Tijuana does not. Think of the zocalo as we would the town square ( old fashioned cities ). Geri – I am not sure what distinguishes the difference between a cathedral and a church other than size. I am Catholic and should know this. All Mexican cities have a cathedral. The government buildings are the municipal buildings. Culiacan, Sinaloa has a beautiful Zocalo or as they call it plazauela.

If you don’t mind my deviating from the subject of Mexico for a moment, I will tell about the most beautifuk Cathedral I have ever seen. Was it in Europe or Mexico? No, It was in St Louis, MO. We went there in May for our son’s graduation from university. They have two Catholic cathedrals. One of them is all mosaic work inside. It took 73 years to comlete the mosaic work. It is absolutely breathtaking. They have tours through it every day. If any of you folks are ever in St Louis, make sure to visit it. Now back to Mexico. Anyways, yes, a zocalo or plazuela ( same thing ) must have the cathedral and government buildings. Otherwise it is just a plaza or parque. BTW, I had never heard the term zocalo until I was reading some travel book about Mexico several years after living there. We always referred to it as ‘la plazuela’ in Mexico.

You are quite right that from a linguistic point of view, “Plazuela” is the diminutive form of “Plaza”. However in this case it means more than that. Zocalo and ‘plazuela’ mean the same thing and require the cathedral and government building(s) to be on the perimter or at least across the street. Plaza on the other hand is more generic and can mean a park and not necessarily a zocalo. There can be many plazas in a city but only one ‘plazuela’ or ‘zocalo’.


Posted by Esteban on August 09, 1997

Colima the capital city of the state of Colima, has four large Cathedrals with a Plaza for each. I believe one of them is considered the Zocalo or Plazauela. All four are very beautiful as is the rest of this over 400 year old city. When I travel, I carry a “survival” bag with indespensible items. While in Colima and suffering a little of the “tourista two-step”, I walked away from one of the plazas leaving my survival bag on a park bench. About an hour later I noticed it was gone so I searched each plaza and when I got to the right bench, there it was sitting untouched. It almost made me believe in a higher power!


Posted by Dumois on August 09, 1997

A tropical city, Colima is famous for its gardens, jardines, and plazas. One of them is Jardín de Núñez; another, Jardín Libertad. But there is only one Plaza Principal, or Jardín Central, where the cathedral and Palacio de Gobierno are located.


Posted by John Cummings on August 10, 1997

My good friend Luis, could you be kind enough to explain the origin of the word zocalo. As I said in my previous posting, I had never heard of the term until reading a travel book about Mexico. While I was living in Mexico, it was always referred to as ‘la plazuela’. While visiting Mazatlan recently, everybody still referred to it as ‘la plazuela’. In fact most of the natives did not know what a zocalo was. As I defined it in my earlier post ( same as your definition ), the requirements to be named ‘una plazuela’ are the same as ‘un zocalo’.


Posted by Dumois on August 11, 1997

From the above definitions, I think it is easy to come to a couple of conclusions regarding our friendly debate on zócalos, plazas, plazuelas, jardines and kioscos:

  1. The term zócalo is used in Mexico to refer to that central or principal plaza found in many of our towns and cities. By the way, that beautiful urban device, which attracts the attention of visitors and villagers alike, came from Spain. It is clearly a Colonial invention. Apparently the original, correct word is zoca, not zócalo. On those central plazas operated the open markets of those days. And market is the meaning of the word zoca in arab. Not for nothing, the moros dominated Spain for many centuries. Nowadays, you may find mercados busily functioning on many Mexican plazas, as any visitor to our country knows. Why, then, do we use zócalo instead of zoca? Allow me to venture an explanation. Statues and monuments are found on many plazas; all of them stand on pedestals, zócalos. As the two words, zoca and zócalo, have similar pronunciations, and as they both converged in the same place, it is easy to imagine how our plazas came to be known as zócalos up to this day.
  2. Plazas and plazuelas. The common word in Mexico is plaza, plaza principal, or plaza central. Plazuela is used when the plaza in question is not a big one, as plazuela is the diminutive for plaza. In many small towns in Mexico, that also enjoy small central plazas, the word plazuela is applied.
  3. Jardín. As many plazas, zócalos and plazuelas are adorned with gardens, the word jardín, or jardín central, is used to refer to the plaza principal.
  4. Kiosco. This word is also used in relation with plazas principales, as many of them boast those constructions, usually built on the center of the jardín. On the kiosco, town bands play on Sunday, much to the enjoyment of everyone.


Posted by John Cummings on August 11, 1997

Thank you very much for your detailed explanation. I still have a questions for you. I have never heard the term zocalo used in Sinaloa or Sonora by the local people. You said that plazuela is used in the smaller towns. However Culiacán and Mazatlan are both large cities yet they refer to their central plazas as ‘la plazauela’. Both of their central plazas qualify as zocalos with the cathedral and government buildings. In fact many of the people have never heard of the word zocalo. I never heard of it once all the time that I lived in Culiacán. It was always ‘la plazuela’. Come to think of it, I never heard the term zocalo while I was living and working in Vera Cruz either. I associated with a very broad cross section of people. Is this a regional thing? Of course Vera Cruz has no connection with Sinaloa or Sonora. The only time I have heard the term used is in Travel Publications or by non Mexicans. Obviously some Mexicans must use the term regularly.
What gives here?


Posted by Dumois on August 12, 1997

Perhaps you’re right, and the term plazuela is used in a different way in Sinaloa and Sonora. As for Veracruz, I spent my childhood there, and I remember that in Córdoba, Fortín, Jalapa, Veracruz, and other cities, the usual expression was ‘la plaza’, or ‘la plaza principal’. Anyway, I’m flying tomorrow morning to Culiacán, to spend the day up there on a business trip. Be sure that I will conduct the proper investigations, and that in a couple of days I will report here with the results (that is, if I survive the heat; you know how Culiacán is in August).


Posted by Anne Murphy on August 12, 1997

I am amused at the direction a simple question about one’s favorite square has taken! What an interesting group of pedants we have! Seriously, thank you all for your explanations of zocalos etc. Now, can you all tell us what YOUR favorite square is?!


Posted by John Cummings on August 12, 1997

What do you mean we don’t stick to the point? This is serious stuff that needs to be answered. After all you can’t go around calling things by the wrong name. The point to all of this is to have an enjoyable time discussing things. Who cares if we stray from the original question? Conversations among friends don’t stick to some rigid agenda. We all learn something in the process and have a good time. What more could you want?


Posted by Dumois on August 12, 1997

As this is a forum oriented to discuss things concerning Mexico, perhaps we could take a more Mexican approach when we debate about plazas and zócalos. We could go directly to the point, yes, and perhaps organize a task force to produce an exhaustive, comprehensive, publishable inventory of favorite squares. But, then again, we could also try to enjoy ourselves and have the wonderful time we are having discussing about things other than producing a measurable, precise, let us say, Northener result. You may call that attitude pedantery; I prefer to call it friendly chat, divine leisure, time well spent among dear amigos.


Posted by Anne on August 13, 1997

I love your answer! But, you will admit that I set the cat among the pigeons! Of course, the posting was made with tongue in cheek and I would still like to know what you particularly enjoy when strolling in a Mexican square. I, by the way, am not a Northerner!


Posted by Dumois on August 13, 1997

For me, plazas and Sundays are closely related. I wish I had more time to invest in plazas, enjoying the many things you can do, see and listen to there. Like seating on a bench and looking at people walking by, like buying myself an ice cream from a street vendor, like listening to the band playing at the kiosco, like in the evening walking in circles around the square, like other men will do, while beautiful señoritas, dressed in their Sunday clothes and smelling like Heaven, walk around in the opposite way, so we can take a look at each other and exchange smiles on each turn; like meeting friends and talking about anything, like listening to church and tower watches bells play their soft time music, like feeling the town all around me, and knowing that I’m part of a community that I happened to have the luck to belong to, in a world that is quickly forgetting its roots; like feeling that I’m alive and surrounded by my fellow women and men. By the way, one of my favorite plazas is Plaza Don Vasco in Pátzcuaro. Ample and quiet, it boasts a circular fountain at the center, close to the bronze representing the great Michoacán benefactor, Don Vasco de Quiroga. Crowned by towering, ancient trees, it is surrounded by well preserved Colonial buildings. The overall impression you get there is one of harmony, serenity, and peace of mind that I, restless city dweller, very much appreciate.


Posted by Mike Warshauer on August 17, 1997

Luis Dumois; Your essay on Plazas and Sundays was muy simpatico y poetico. It brought tears to my eyes.Gracias.

Published or Updated on: August 5, 1997 by Discussion Thread Forum © 1997
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