Mexico City’s Zocalo, or town center, is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. Similar to the National Mall in Washington, the square is bordered by a slew of historic and culturally significant buildings including the National Palace, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and federal government buildings. In the center of the square, waving above the constant crowds and occasional market, is a Mexican flag the size of a small house.
The Metropolitan Cathedral, one of the most striking buildings in the square, is exceedingly beautiful, inside and outside: the exterior has a clock tower, bell towers, a large dome, and several status; inside, the high ceilings and walls are covered with murals, and there are 16 unique chapels open for prayer with elaborately decorated altars dedicated to various saints. Construction on the cathedral lasted over 200 years (from 1573 to 1813). Today, the cathedral offers daily Mass as well as baptisms, first communions, and confessions.
The cathedral is the oldest in Latin America and marks the arrival of Spanish conquistadors to the continent. When the Spaniards arrived, they conquered the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan and built Mexico City on top. The conquistadors used forced conversion, destruction, and violence to subjugate the native people. Missionaries kidnapped children and converted them to Christianity. In addition, conquistadors killed local political leaders who resisted the conquest. The Spaniards destroyed symbols of indigenous religions and replaced them with traditional Catholic imagery, building churches on top of destroyed temples. “The most important of these idols, and the ones in whom they have the most faith, I had taken from their places and thrown down the steps,” wrote conquistador Hernan Cortes in a letter to the Spanish royalty. The remains of the Templo Mayor, the primary temple of the Mexica people at the time, lie next to the Metropolitan Cathedral today.
This juxtaposition of colonial wealth against the destruction of indigenous culture is emblematic of the tensions of the colonial period. However, both the Catholic Church’s role in Mexico and the practices of indigenous people have developed and changed over time. In fact, it was a Catholic priest, Bartolome de las Casas, that led the movement against slavery in Mexico. Another priest, Miguel de Hidalgo, issued the first call for Mexican independence. Today, about 80 percent of Mexicans identify as Catholic, but many practice a unique version of Catholicism that includes pre-Hispanic traditions. According to the Pew Research Center, about half of Mexican Catholics report “medium” to “high” levels of engagement with indigenous beliefs and practices. For example, among Mexican Catholics, 45 percent believe in the evil eye, 45 percent believe in reincarnation, and39 percent believe in magic, sorcery, and witchcraft. Thirty-one percent believe it is possible to communicate with spirits.
Syncretism between indigenous religions and Catholicism is visible in many Mexican traditions. For example, the famous Day of the Dead holiday derives from the pre-Hispanic custom of venerating death and the dead, but modern altars typically include pictures of the Virgin Mary and rosaries. In the plaza outside the Metropolitan Cathedral, next to the remains of the Templo Mayor, you can find concheros (Aztec dancers) performing in their traditional dress and carrying conchas (Spanish guitars). Their dance, which evolved during colonization as a way to preserve and celebrate indigenous traditions, is intended to honor God and connect with the cosmos.