For thousands of years before the arrival of the Spanish, the people of Mesoamerica had gathered in outdoor public spaces that served as sites for ritual, commerce, and the performance of music. Shortly after invading Mexico in the sixteenth century, the Spanish organized “villages of evangelization,” or Indian communities, to attend to the religious needs of the newest converts to Catholicism. These communities were grouped around a vast space that served as a plaza mayor and a marketplace at the same time, usually on the analogous former pre-Hispanic site. The square was the heart of the town and the center of community life: “Here one found the fountain and the gibbet. It was surrounded by public buildings: the church, the schools (usually placed near the church), and the town hall.... These buildings were usually constructed of good stone.” One of the final acts when formalizing the founding of these new communities was “a great Indian military parade.”
The plazas of Mexico’s cities are located in the city center and give forth to its principal streets. The same is usually the case in Mexican pueblos, not just out of imitation or influence but also out of the logical principle of function. The plaza’s New World plan reflects both Mediterranean and Mesoamerican influences, and the fusion of the two consolidates the necessary urban criteria of a clear, enclosed area of public access.
After the Spanish invasion, the Mediterranean tradition of the plaza mayor was extensively adopted in the colonies as a principle element of urban design. The buildings that demarcated the plaza, the distribution of gardens and trees, and decorative elements both symbolic and practical denoted the activities that would take place there. The traditional grid pattern of the colonial Spanish American city placed the main plaza at the center of the political, religious, and social life of its inhabitants. The Spaniards knew what they were doing: constructing churches, arcades with market stalls, and government buildings on sites already dense with cultural meaning created a potent spatial hybridity.
Humanity’s social nature is made evident in the plaza, which provides a communal space in which to encounter, interact, and participate in social activities with fellow citizens. Here are concentrated the local inhabitants, street amusements, celebrations and civil acts, commercial transactions (when marketplaces are included), popular demonstrations and religious festivals, and annual fairs that not only stimulate recreation but also increase interactions with neighboring locales.
Through the years, municipal governments have remodeled and rebuilt these sites as a part of urban-renewal projects, and users of these spaces have responded in various ways. The plaza remains, however, one of the truly democratic forums for public celebration (and dissent) in civil society. This is certainly true in Oaxaca, as political protesters frequently occupy the Zócalo to demonstrate. Yet the massive influx of foreign capital, the burgeoning tourist trade, and rampant Mexican consumerism have combined to restructure urban life even in the plaza. In Oaxaca, though, social activists have limited the intrusion onto the plaza of foreign corporations such as McDonald’s, and the tradition of BME performances continues.