Tlaxcala City: Traveling the Central High Plains of Mexico

articles Travel & Destinations

Charles E. Moritzky

The Plaza de la Constitution is the main plaza or zocalo. Its grounds are well landscaped with large old shade trees, flowers, park benches, decorative green cast lampposts and several fountains. In the center is a kiosk, serving as a bandstand, etc., which is rather new. It was built in the mid 1800’s. It is a peaceful place to sit and read a newspaper or feed the pigeons, or just sit. You will probably feel that you are in one of those small places in the world blessed by God.

The south side of the plaza has a newsstand where you can buy a couple of English newspapers. However, this side is mostly dominated by sidewalk cafés. A rather professional type waiter, in white shirt and dark trousers, brings me a cup of coffee. I must be going through a change in life. I find myself enjoying Coffee Mate and sugar in my coffee, especially when I’m relaxed. A chorus of birds chirping in the trees is a pleasant reminder that unbridled nature still exists.

Tlaxcala is the state capitol, but it is not a large city. I tried to find the population figures, but couldn’t. A wild guess is that it is around 40-50,000. It is small, by today’s standards, tranquil, and somewhat cosmopolitan. There is a university on the outskirts of town. Chela, my wife, took classes on the cultivation of Bonsai Trees, from one of the professors.

In 1525 the new city, Our Lady of Assumption, Tlaxcala, was founded by order of Pope Clemente VII. Although it was built by, and for, the natives, it was laid out in Spanish Renaissance style.

On the east side of the plaza is a complex of buildings referred to as “City Hall”, built in the mid-1500’s. The complex included the Royal House, town hall, and the granary. The Royal House was where the viceroys and other Spanish dignitaries stayed when visiting. The center building was the seat of local government, headed by a governor elected from the heads of the four dominions. The pre-Columbian republic or confederation of Tlaxcala was divided into four dominions with their seats of government in or near the present city of Tlaxcala. On the left was the corn-exchange or granary. Over the centuries the complex has suffered from usage, fires, and earthquakes, but has been restored.

A local artist, Desiderio Hernandez Xochitiotzin, for a period of about 30 years, off and on, has been depicting the history of Tlaxcala in over 450 square meters of wall space in the Palacio de Gobierno (City Hall). Preparations are being made for even more of his work. Actually, the historical murals depict the arrival of the first men in the area of the Central High Plains, the founding of the four dominions of Tlaxcallán, the prophecy of Quetzalcoatl, the military alliance with the Spaniards, the so called Golden Century, and Mexico’s independence. To me, the most interesting part is the busy, crowded market with its large variety of merchandise and the temples and other structures.

At the NE corner of the plaza, across the street from “City Hall” is the Parish Church of Saint Joan and Saint Joseph. It was built on the site of the old Marian Hermitage, which dated back to l526. In 1640 it became an important ecclesiastical administrative center and at one time served as a Cathedral. An interesting example of the compromises the church often made with the natives, are the two holy water fonts carved from stone at the entrance of the church. On the pedestal of one is engraved the Spanish Imperial Coat of Arms. On the pedestal of the other is engraved a Tlaxcalteca god of war and hunting, Camaxtli.

On the north side of the plaza, close to the church, is the Legislative Palace, originally the Royal Inn of the native government. Construction of this building was completed in l55l. It was originally an inn for important visitors. As time went by it was modified for various uses, such as an annex to the parish church, a bakery, a slaughterhouse, a hotel, and finally in 1982 it was restored to house the state legislative body.

In 1550, the Spanish Magistrate, Diego Ramirez, called upon the natives to build the Portales to improve the looks of the market and to provide protection for the vendors. They were later described as “well carved stone portales, which run along two sides of the square, under which, are many stores”. Merchandise from both Spain and the Philippines could be found there. I have mentioned the south side, with the sidewalk cafes, etc. The west side includes a very nice hotel and gift or tourist shops.

Leaving by the southwest corner of the plaza one enters another plaza. On weekends it becomes a market for the art and handicrafts of the area. At the southwest corner of this smaller plaza one climbs wide stone steps, shaded by huge old trees, to an old Franciscan church and ex-convent. It was built between 1537 and 1540, making it one of the first four Franciscan convents in the Americas. It became an ex-convent in 1861 during the reform. During the revolution it served as a barracks and later, a jail. In 1981 the convent part was made into a museum. Services are still held in the church.

“The city is much larger than Granada and very much stronger, with as good buildings and many more people…and better supplied with produce from the land…many beautiful valleys and plains, all cultivated and harvested, leaving no place untilled.” These were quotes from a letter written by Hernan Cortez, referring to Tlaxcala as first seen by a European in 1519.

The cities that were thriving at the time of the conquest, such as Tlaxcala, Cholula, Tenochtitlan etc. were torn down little by little and the materials used to rebuild in the image of the “Old World”. I don’t know where you would find a single vestige of the old pre-Columbian city of Tlaxcala. Sites that had been abandoned before the conquest were often covered with vegetation, and once excavated, could be restored to some degree, as in the case of Teotihuacan, Cacaxtla, and thousands of others.

On his way to the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitlan, Cortez was fortunate to have chosen a route, which took him to Tlaxcala. Although there was a fierce battle with the Tlaxcaltecas in which Cortez and his small army survived as exhausted victors, there was created an understanding. An alliance followed which was of great value to the Spaniards in the conquest of the Aztecs. Tlaxcala had been warring with the Aztecs for decades, and although they had managed to survive as independent, they were surrounded by Aztec dominated lands. A blockade of a sort was in effect. Their willingness to form an alliance with the Spaniards was probably, simply a desire to be rid of their old enemy. After the conquest they were given special concessions, and to a large degree, maintained their old form of government. Their alliance with Cortez, their participation in the Conquest, and the aftermath, is a whole story in itself.

A different government and the change is religion were perhaps not that difficult for the natives to get used to. Cortez expected tribute and laborers from his “vassal chieftains” just as had former governments. Yes, it was during the time of the Inquisition, but for people who were used to offering up human sacrifices to their gods, the Inquisition must have been a small thing. Plus, as is evident in many parts, they never completely gave up their old Gods.

There are really a lot of interesting things to see and learn about in Tlaxcala. For me, it is hard to find a place in Mexico that is not of interest. I guess it depends on the individual. Yesterday I had e-mail from a lady who was trying to get information on an incident that supposedly occurred over 350 years ago, the archangel Michael having appeared to an ‘Indio’ disclosing the whereabouts of a spring with curative water. I asked several people and they knew nothing of it. With some research I located the site, San Miguel del Milagro, in the southern part of this small state, maybe an hour’s drive from Tlaxco, and not far from the archeological site of Cacaxtla.

No matter which small village you visit in the state of Tlaxcala you are likely to find historic sites that date back hundreds of years, or perhaps thousands of years. Before we leave this state, we will visit some of these sites.

Published or Updated on: August 1, 1999 by Charles E. Moritzky © 1999


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