Tlatelolco: Remembering Mexico City’s Forgotten Future


Scanning through the works of a photographer that a friend had suggested I check out, I was captivated by one photo in particular. A young woman stood with her jacket slipping off her shoulders stood in front of a large apartment complex. Similar to the flats that I had lived in in Ukraine and Georgia, the buildings had the austere façade that North Americans might dismiss as “Soviet architecture”, but that has always interested me aesthetically. The juxtaposition of this dreary building with the vibrant appearance of the woman kept forcing me to return to the photo with endless curiosity.

Raised in typical middle class fashion, I had never lived in an apartment until I was in university and always harboured a degree of jealousy for those who lived in them. A home housed one story whereas apartments sheltered incalculably diverse, contradictory stories, smells and personalities. The communal apartments of ex-socialist states did not make me curious for their dehumanizing lack of style and personality but for the wealth of diversity of their residents. Making me all the more curious about Maria Fernanda Molins’ photo was that they were not taken in Nizhniy Novgorod or Kutaisi. They were across the world, in Mexico City. More specifically, they were in Conjunto Urbano Nonoalco Tlatelolco.

The Tlatelolco neighborhood of Mexico City exists as an anomaly in comparison to the rest of the city. The modernist rows of high-rise apartment buildings exist as a contrast to the majority of the architecture in Mexico City. After spending years in the former USSR, the neighborhood appeared to be strangely familiar. In contrast to the endless indistinct neighborhoods found in the former Soviet bloc however, Tlatelolco’s introduction leaves you remembering its name. Stepping out of the cab on Avenida Lázaro Cárdenas, you are faced with the convergence of the three major chapters of Mexico’s history: the remains of multiple Aztec temples exist next to the Colonel Santiago de Tlatelolco Church with the shadow of the Tlatelolco housing estate sitting behind it. The sheer scope and size of all three aspects that comprise the Plaza de las Tres Culturas seems to demands your attention and curiosity.

Tlatelolco had historically been the commercial area for the Tlatelolca tribe, prior to canalization. Sitting on the edge of Lake Texcoco, it was famed for its high-quality goods and massive popularity, as documented by Spanish colonialists. Identified as a point of significance, the space was appropriated by the colonial Catholic Church as the first Christian school intended for the indigenous population, after the Spanish had successfully quelled Aztec resistance. The previous religious temples were destroyed to make way for the Santiago de Tlatelolco Church, a monument that still stands today.

For most of the post-independence era, Tlatelolco largely existed as a sort of no man’s territory once Lake Texcoco had been drained. With the advent of the so-called “Mexican Miracle” in the aftermath of the Second World War, when Mexico saw massive economic growth driven by great industrialization, economic aid received for their support of the allies, and major improvements of quality of living, Tlatelolco was re-altered completely. Facing greater urbanization and a chronic lack of housing, the area was once again re-appropriated for a massive housing complex that was intended not only to provide high quality housing for a variety of classes but to be a symbol of Mexico as a prosperous, independent, and forward-looking Latino country. Ironically though, much of the financing of the project was thanks to American aid money provided to Mexico as a means of deterring the spread of socialism in the country following the Cuban revolution.

Schooled in France, the main architect of the project, Mario Pani, had long been a proponent of the functionalist theories of Le Corbusier, with the apartments designed in an orderly, vertically concrete style. 102 buildings were built as a self-contained unit, along with a hospital, a school, a recreational center, and a park. Although only a few kilometers from the center of the capital, Tlatelolco was intended to exist as a city within a city. Furthermore, it would serve as a symbol of the next epoch of Mexican history; that of a vibrant post-colonial state. With the Aztec temples that had been buried now recovered and the Santiago de Tlatelolco Church preserved, the modernist Conjunto Urbano Nonoalco Tlatelolco represented the logical next step for a modern mestizo state that comfortably lived with its history and optimistically looked to the future.

The hope and aspirations for Mexico’s future embodied by Tlatelolco met its apex in 1968 with the summer Olympics taking place in the capital. The coming out party for Mexico which the Olympics were intended to represent took place over the backdrop of greater confrontation between students and the state. Following the trends of France and the United States, the emerging middle class of Mexico had demanded greater democratization, with protests and mass demonstrations becoming a regular occurrence throughout much of 1968.

Ten days before the start of the Olympics, 10,000 students took to the Plaza de las Tres Culturas to protest the autocratic Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that had ruled Mexico since 1929. Symbolically, the students taking over the plaza did not just represent a defiance of the state but also an attempt at occupying the symbolic future of Mexico. It would be the last major act of defiance. The police opened fire, murdering hundreds of students. The sight of snipers firing from the top of the apartment buildings transformed the apartments from emblems of hope to watchtowers of death in an instant. As Rodriguez and Duran state,

“From that day on Mexico was a different country. Different because channels of freedom were closed; different because an asphyxiating political system lived on; different because society was wounded, thrashed, with the assassination of its youth; different because we could not learn the truth amidst declaration about the preservation of the institutions.”

Following this massacre, the state, under the PIR, continued to conduct massive repression of members of the leftist opposition, resulting in an unknown number of disappearances, although possibly in the thousands.

The dreams for a free and prosperous Mexico embodied by the apartments of Tlatelolco not only symbolically died after 1968 but were literally destroyed by 1985, when an earthquake measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale hit Mexico City, causing astronomic damage to the city. With apartments standing over 20 floors high and not suitably built to withstand the tremors, Tlatelolco suffered among the worst damage in the city. The collapse of the Nuevo León building in the complex left an estimate 300 people dead. Eight other buildings had to be destroyed while another four had to be downsized to avoid potential future collapse. As the Mexican government rejected foreign aid and many resources were directed towards salvaging business interests across the city, thousands of residences in Tlatelolco were left homeless or forced to flee, unsure of the stability of the buildings.

The dreams of tomorrow that Tlatelolco once represented were left in the rubble, replaced by the horrors of crime, violence and economic oppression that looked to silence its residents. Today, the neighborhood is no longer safe to wander at night. The population of the complex has fallen by a third. The social ills of violence, corruption, murder, drug trafficking, and lack of governmental support in terms of police presence or economic support, continue. Only one police officer is in the area for every three thousand citizens. It is widely considered to be a poor to very poor neighborhood according to the Public Safety Department, despite its middle class origins. When inquiring about the area in a posh café in the Roma Norte neighborhood, I’m advised to avoid this area by a friend’s girlfriend because it is a place that represents “dead dreams.”

Luckily however, a meeting is organized for me by Mexico City-based photographer Gab Oliveros. After dinner in the center, we drove down Avenida Lázaro Cárdenas to Café Big Ben located in the bottom of one of the remaining high rises, owned by architect Santiago Jordá Salazar, that managed the rebuilding process of the complex after 1985. He was joined by a precocious activist-journalist named Jose Luis Herrera Hernández. We sat in the café going over the history of the complex and their own relationship with it. They speak affectionately about their attachment to the neighborhood, with Santiago continuing to keep the penthouse apartment in the Veracruz tower despite his wife no longer willing to live there, while Jose Luis endures the economic struggle of being a journalist in Mexico. However, both are enthralled with the history of the area, from their own memories of it to its indigenous history. They reflect upon the promises of a better life that Tlatelolco was intended to provide its residence and how those promises ought to be kept.

Together, they work to organize and engage the citizens of Tlatelolco through their multimedia organization Television Tlatelolca. They look to capture the moments of both struggle and strength of the neighborhood. They hope to cultivate a greater degree of conscientization through social media, video, and other mediums. Television Tlatelolca directly confront the dehumanizing act of silencing that the state, the economic elite, and organized crime looks to impose on the people. In doing so, they reclaim the voice that oppression always seeks to refuse them. With any hope, they will open the channels of freedom and optimism that Tlatelolca once held.

What Television Tlatelolca embodies more than anything is that Tlatelolca need not exist as a spectre of a failed dream. Rather, it exists a bellwether of Mexico where it becomes the space where the future of Mexico is sought out. It is where the soul of Mexico is contested and determined. Despite the acts that look to silence the people of this city within a city, the dream of a better future for both them and other Mexicans lives on.