By Jan Chaiken and Marcia Chaiken
Everywhere in Mexico you will find lengthy street names commemorating historical figures or events, and this is particularly true in Mexico City. Although the persons or occasions commemorated by the names of streets in the nation’s capitol are known to most Mexicanos, those of us who did not attend school here as children are generally clueless. Here we hope to help you get in the know about the background of street names so when sitting in gridlocked traffic you feel as if you are surrounded by history rather than just by hundreds of cars belching noxious fumes.
Nearly every tourist who has been in Mexico City is familiar with the Paseo de la Reforma, the grand wide avenue that transverses the city diagonally and looks as if part of the Champs-Élysées had been lifted up from Paris and transported here. Reforma was originally conceived by the Emperor Maximilian, an Austrian installed as the ruler of Mexico during the French intervention (1862-67); he intended to name it Paseo de la Emperatriz in honor of his wife Carlota, but it was given the name Reforma after Maximilian – who badly miscalculated Mexican sentiment towards him – was executed and Benito Juárez became President of Mexico. The name refers to La Reforma, a series of federal legislative enactments that brought about the separation of church and state in Mexico.
As you walk or drive down Paseo de la Reforma, you inevitably encounter the magnificent memorial The Angel of Independence (commonly called El Ángel) at the intersection of Reforma and Avenida Independencia. These names commemorate the 1821 victory of Mexico over Spain in its War of Independence. The Angel was dedicated by the dictator Porfirio Díaz in 1910, on the centennial of the date that independence was declared.
Another street most visitors to Mexico City encounter is Avenida de Los Insurgentes (aka Insurgentes), the longest street in the city. The 28.8-kilometer (17.9-mile) avenue runs from the southwest Mexico-Cuernavaca Highway to the northeast Mexico-Pachuca highway, connecting numerous neighborhoods, including the famous Roma area. Along this route, there are many restaurants, hotels, museums, monuments and entertainment centers. First known as Avenida Santa Cruz, the current name memorializes the people in the insurgent army that fought in the war of independence from Spain.
If you have traveled into or out of Mexico City’s Benito Juárez International Airport, you may have encountered a much less distinguished nearby street: Calzada Ignacio Zaragoza. Its namesake Zaragoza was actually born in the United States in 1829. His family moved to Mexico, where he attended the National Military College.
He served in the Mexican-American War and later was appointed commander of the Mexican Army in Puebla. In 1862 his army was victorious against the French at the battle of Puebla, an event commemorated as Cinco de Mayo, which in recent years has been celebrated, at least enthusiastically in the United States as in Mexico.
Calle 5 de Mayo (pronounced “Cinco de Mayo”) is a major thoroughfare in the historic center of Mexico City; it begins at the Palacio de Bellas Artes and ends at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City. Calle 5 de Mayo is only one of Mexico City’s many calles de calendario (streets named for dates on the calendar). Avenida Independencia changes its name to 16 de Septiembre as it approaches the historic center of Mexico City to commemorate the date of Mexican Independence. 16 de Septiembre is one block south of Calle 5 de Mayo and runs from the Eje Central, or Avenida Lázaro Cárdenas, to the Zócalo. (Cárdenas was a Mexican army officer and politician who served as president of Mexico from 1934 to 1940; the zócalo is Mexico City’s central square, formally named Plaza de la Constitución). Residents of Mexico would be familiar with the significance of 16 de Septiembre street from their schooling and their experience that the date is a national holiday, with schools, banks and many businesses closed.
One block further south is Calle Articulo 123. This is named after Article 123 of the Mexican Constitution, which is the labor law of Mexico – it guarantees workers the right to fair wages, safe working conditions, and social security benefits. It also ends at Eje Central/Avenida Lázaro Cárdenas. Calle 20 de Noviembre runs south from the Zócalo, perpendicular to the streets already mentioned. November 20th is a national holiday in Mexico that celebrates the beginning of the Mexican Revolution, which ran from 1910 to 1920 and overthrew Porfirio Díaz after he had been president for 35 years.
The 12th of December provides an interesting example of how separation of church and state operates in Mexico. December 12 is the Feast of Guadalupe, a popular national holiday in Mexico; religious processions are held throughout country, including in the Huatulco area, on that date. In Mexico City a very popular tourist attraction is the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe. But there is no calle calendario for December 12 near the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe. Instead, Avenida de Guadalupe is the name of the street that ends at the Basilica. Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico, and her image is one of the best known religious symbols in the world, but secular authorities who designate street names in Mexico City do not commemorate the date December 12.
If the average visitor begins to feel overwhelmed by the details of street names rooted in Mexico’s rich history, we suggest a drive through or stroll around the Polanco neighborhood where the streets are named after luminaries enshrined in history studied in most North and South American and European schools. Beginning with ancient Greece and Rome, Homer, Horace, Aristotle and Archimedes lend their names to streets, and there are streets named after 20th-century notables such as Mahatma Gandhi. Block after block of the small Juárez neighborhood remind us that Mexico City is a major urban center of Western civilization, with streets recognizing London, Liverpool, Amsterdam, Genoa, Tokyo, Oslo, Copenhagen, Rome. And overall, Reforma, Insurgentes, and calendar streets remind us of the struggle to achieve this status.