Plaza de las Tres Culturas

Historic Site in Mexico City

Image by atosan Getty Images

So named because it symbolizes the fusion of pre-Hispanic and Spanish roots into the Mexican mestizo identity, this plaza displays the architectural legacy of three cultural facets: the Aztec pyramids of Tlatelolco, the 17th-century Spanish Templo de Santiago and the modern tower that houses the Centro Cultural Universitario.

Recent archaeological finds have altered long-held views about Tlatelolco’s history. According to the conventional version, Tlatelolco was founded by an Aztec faction in the 14th century on a separate island in Lago de Texcoco and later conquered by the Aztecs of Tenochtitlán. But a pyramid excavated on the site in late 2007 actually predates the establishment of Tenochtitlán by as much as 200 years. All agree, however, that Tlatelolco was the scene of the largest public market in the Valle de México, connected by a causeway to Tenochtitlán’s ceremonial center.

During the siege of the Aztec capital, Cortés defeated Tlatelolco’s defenders, led by Cuauhtémoc. An inscription about the battle in the plaza translates as, ‘This was neither victory nor defeat. It was the sad birth of the mestizo people that is Mexico today.’

You can view the remains of Tlatelolco’s main pyramid-temple and other Aztec buildings from a walkway around them. Tlatelolco’s main temple was constructed in stages, with each of seven temples superimposed atop its predecessors. The double pyramid on view, one of the earliest stages, has twin staircases that supposedly ascended to temples dedicated to Tláloc and Huitzilopochtli. Numerous calendar glyphs are carved into the outer walls.

Recognizing the significance of the site, the Spanish erected the Templo de Santiago here in 1609, using stones from the Aztec structures as building materials. Just inside the main doors of this church is the baptismal font of Juan Diego.

Tlatelolco is also a symbol of modern troubles. On October 2, 1968, hundreds of student protesters were massacred here by government troops on the eve of the Mexico City Olympic Games. The weeks before the Olympics had been marked by a wave of protests against political corruption and authoritarianism, and president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, anxious to present an image of stability to the world, was employing heavy-handed tactics to stop the unrest.

On that October day, helicopters hovered over the Plaza de las Tres Culturas and a massive police contingent cordoned off the protest zone. Suddenly shots rang out, apparently from the balcony that served as a speakers’ platform. Police then opened fire on the demonstrators and mayhem ensued. A government-authorized account reported 20 protesters killed, though researchers and media reports estimate the real number is closer to 300.

The generally accepted theory, though there are many, is that the government staged the massacre, planting snipers on the balcony. To this day the incident still generates a massive protest march from Tlatelolco to the Zócalo on October 2.

Along Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas, northbound trolleybuses pass right by the Plaza de las Tres Culturas.