A brief discussion of some of our experiences while living and traveling in Michoacán, Mexico.
Friday, February 20, 2009
THE VALUE OF A PLAZA!
As a resident of Mexico one quickly comes to love the plaza as it is the centre of public life (and to some extent private) and sets the tone for the whole community. In Canada and the USA there is a feeling that this type of space is missing and attempts are often made to create these feeling in private spaces – in the malls. It is unclear if this can ever be achieved in developed nations as a cultural mind-set is also required to maintain a large public space. But let’s describe one plaza in a small Mexican village.
The plaza encompasses 4-5 square blocks and has many of the typical features of such spaces: The plaza is almost entirely surrounded by portals which protect one from the elements but also provide a transition from the commercial spaces of the businesses and municipal offices and the public space of the plaza itself. In the portals one can enjoy a cup of coffee, share a meal with fiends or buy an ice-cream. The plaza itself has large walkways, three fountains (one with a large statue of a local hero), stone benches around the fountain and the periphery as well as a substantial grass area that you are asked to stay off.
In the plaza one can also see hints of the power structure of the village. The municipal office is here, the homes of three or four of the older and still powerful families front the square and as the rents are high the owners have some influence. Unlike many plazas there is no church here which of course is still a great power in Mexico. The other anomaly is the presence of a quite large building (the Palacio) owned by the indigenous community, granted to them 20 years ago and almost 400 years after the death of the last king. Is this real power? It is unclear.
It is the use made of the entire plaza that reflects the culture of the village. Activities fluctuate throughout the day, as does the mood. In the morning all is quite with people enjoying a coffee or breakfast and others strolling to work or to the markets. A few women sit on a corner selling the tortillas they have made early in the morning. As the temperature warms vendors arrive with fruit stalls and people spend time on the benches. By late afternoon you can experience a wide variety of happenings which vary over the year and time of day. Small stalls are setup on the sidewalks selling hats and scarves, others the work of artisans, the goods of the store spill out on to the sidewalk, school children on their way home stop to play in the fountain and to tease each other and mobile vendors sell various food stuffs and other goods. A band may show up and soon people are dancing, the dog training class arrives to go through their paces, children with new bikes are learning to ride, adults do some power walking as their daily exercise, the school bands come to practice their skills and perhaps a group of kindergarden kids arrive with their tutor to learn how to march (focusing on the art of turning corners and staying in line) or other school children may come to practice short races. By early evening the plaza fills with people just strolling and visiting, young lovers gather around the fountains and many are eating the goods from food stalls – fruit, corn, atole (a type of hot drink), tamales and always the ice cream. Later men and women arrive with mobile stalls selling hamburgers, pizza, breads, candies. And finally the “hippies” appears with their tables loaded with jewelry.
The weekends may have a more festive mood with the sale of balloons and pull toys for kids, musicians play, the local traditional dancers perform the dance of the viejitos (the old ones), very small horses take children around the outside of the space, someone erects a small pace for children to work on drawings or paintings, and on occasion the municipality erects a stage for very good guitar players or singers.
There are of course special occasions. For day of the dead and for three kings day the plaza fills with vendors, political disputes may be played out by buses blocking all traffic around the plaza (if not the entire town), there is a performance of the Christmas story followed by the breaking of piñatas. At Easter a large representation of the sorrow of Mary is centrally displayed and the procession of silence winds around the square. Funeral processions may go through the plaza and wedding cars announce to the village a change in life for two people, carnival dancers use the space as do dancers honouring the anniversary of the last king of the indigenous empire, wreathes are placed around the main fountain on the anniversary of the Bishop honoured here. Parades for the first day of spring, or celebrating the day of the revolution, or independence day, or flag day or almost any other event, all take place here.
All of this activity appears to go on without dispute or intervention by the police. There also appears to be little vandalism. Spending time in the plaza almost always leaves you with a sense of peace and belonging and a strong desire to return again just to sit and watch.
There are other plazas in the village and if you want to have your shoes shined, buy a paper or magazine, sit and talk to the people of even smaller villages, buy (and eat) a wide variety of foods, purchase a pirated movie, have a shrimp cocktail or sit in the evening for a good meal of plaza chicken, then go to the small plaza