By RICARDO CASTILLO
Nowadays, the big news in México is full of announcements about the shape of things to come for the 2018-2024 administration of President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). But the one item that really grabbed public attention this past week as the future president appointed his cabinet was the place where their offices will be: the National Palace.
“They will all have offices at the National Palace, right next or near my office, which will be the president’s office. We will modify nothing and the political life of the nation will be conducted from the National Palace,” AMLO said on Tuesday, Aug. 21, as he appointed Lazaro Cárdenas Betel as his head of the advisors’ coordinator.
AMLO made the announcement in his makeshift “press office” – if you can call it that – at his campaign house on Mexico City’s Colonia Roma. The office was this time ornamented with pictures of former Presidents Benito Juárez, Francisco I. Madero and Lazaro Cárdenas, who in López Obrador’s concept of history, were the only three Mexican heads of state who gave the country direction during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Furthermore, AMLO has announced he will live with his family in a nearby rented house, a possibility that may change as National Palace curators – it is now a museum – notified him that there were empty spaces in the 120,000-square-feet colonial construction which can be remodeled to serve as the president’s living quarters.
Without question, the National Palace is Mexico’s most iconic building. But what’s important here is not so much the nearly 500-year-old structure nor the history behind its walls, but the site on which it is located. It was precisely in this place that the nation’s true founding father, Tenoch, and his horde of nomad clans received the divine signal in 1325 that it was the site on which they should make their home and that it should be called Tenochtitlan.
The signal Tenoch and his tribe of “tenochcas” – now known as the Aztecs – had hoped for over a decades-long pilgrimage though North America was to be that of an eagle devouring a snake while standing on a cactus plant. It was the sign of the gods that it was this place where heaven and earth, body and spirit, would come together for them.
The entire Aztec civilization was built from a briar on an islet in the midst of the then-great Texcoco lake and it was at the site where the National Palace is now stands that Moctezuma’s “new houses” were built when Hernán Cortés arrived to conquer Tenochtitlan (the city of Tenoch) and raze it to the ground to build Mexico City. It was also at this place that Cortés killed and impaled Montezuma.
After razing Montezuma’s houses to the ground, in 1522, Cortés began the construction of what was to be his ow residence. But as the kings of Spain appointed a viceroy, the plush residence was rented to the crown to become the Viceroy’s Palace. It held that status until 1821, when Mexico’s independence from Spain was declared.
The National Palace might have changed tenants but it kept its status as the center of the nation’s political life until 1934, when then-President Lazaro Cárdenas decided to build a separate residence in Chapultepec Park, now known as Los Pinos. It has served since then as the president-in-turn’s residence and, for the most part, where official government business was carried out.
This sort of 84-year-long abandonment turned the National Palace into a virtual museum, though it has always been used for official ceremonies and protocols, such as welcoming foreign dignitaries and for the president to receive credentials from new ambassadors. It is used also to commemorate Independence Day on the night of Sept. 15, when the president-in-turn rings the bell of freedom and shouts the “grito” on a yearly basis.
But back to AMLO. He’s adamant about serving from the National Palace. At this point and time in history, this idea seems to many as a wacky whimsey, since Mexico City’s Centro Histórico (Historic Center) – as the area is now known – is not fit for public offices and way overcrowded by commerce, not excluding the myriad of “tianguis,” or street markets, that set up shop on a daily basis. More crowding of downtown Mexico City? You bet!
As for a living place for the new president, he simply refuses to live at or serve from Los Pinos. He jokingly contends that he does not like the place because there are ghostly apparitions there, particularly those of the mythical monster El Chupacabras (the Goat Sucker), a blood thirsty manlike animal that was popular back in the 1990s in Mexico and Latin America. But — and here’s the clincher — former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) lived at Los Pinos and guess what was his nickname among the populace? Absolutely, El Chupacabras.
One thing I can attest to is that indeed AMLO loves downtown Mexico City. Here’s an anecdote.
When he was elected Mexico City mayor in the year 2000, he served at the old Town Hall, (Palacio del Ayuntamiento), a building next door to the National Palace on the south side of Zócalo plaza.
In those days, the famous Mexican actress María Felix held a press conference with the international media exclusively to complain about the downtown area and plea with tourists not to visit it, warning all that “it smells like urine,” or “huele a meados,” in Spanish.
This crude comment from the diva is said to have left a negative impression on the new mayor, who immediately launched a campaign to clean up and renew the historical area, as indeed it did smell of urine.
In his quest, he invited telephone mogul Carlos Slim – whose fortune had not yet skyrocketed – to help as the president of a trust to revamp the old city. At the time, Slim recused himself from the offer, claiming he was too busy for such a position.
It was then that AMLO, a true armtwister when he sets his mind to it, asked Slim about the number of public phones he owned throughout the city. Remember that in those days there were no mobiles, but you could find a couple of public phones in every block of the city. The number of public phones ran into the millions.
“Let me remind you that those phones are in the city and they collect cash, but pay no taxes,” AMLO is said to have warned Slim. “From now on, you will pay taxes on the income of each of those public phones.”
Slim is said to have looked in awe at AMLO and answered: “When do we start with this trust fund?”
Slim went on to head the remodeling of downtown Mexico City. building a couple of high-rises for his own needs – one of them is where the Foreign Relations Secretariat is at now located on Avenida Juárez.
With this anecdote in mind, it comes as no surprise that AMLO wants to use the site of Mexican history to write his own chapter in the country’s chronicles..
So the news is, the old National Palace is back in presidential service.