The Story of the Zócalo in Mexico

Cuernavaca Zocalo

The word zócalo refers to the town square in Spanish. However, before we get too deep in our description of the Cuernavaca Zócolo, it is necessary to provide a bit of historical background on how the word zócalo came to be.

There is confusion over the meaning of the word zócalo (Spanish pronunciation: ˈsokalo‘), which is used today in Mexico to denote the central public square or plaza. The plaza or courtyard in most of Mexico was originally known as ‘ithual‘ in the original Nahuatl language of Mexico.

In order to find the source of the word zócalo as used today, we must go back to the original base of the word. And, like many words, it has different meanings.

The word was originally derived from the Latin socculus diminutive of soccus, a lightweight house shoe, which eventually became the name of the clothing item that we refer to as socks.

Socks first came into existence in the 8th century BC in Greece, where they were made out of matted animal hair and called piloi. In Ancient Rome, Romans wrapped their feet in animal skins and tied them around their ankles.

In the 2nd century (AD) Romans were the first to create a knitted fabric to create socks to be worn between the foot and the shoe. These first socks were called udones.

It would not be until the 17th century that the term sock was used.

Socle in Architecture and Construction

In 1704, the Italians began using the word socle (in Italian: ‘zoccolo‘) as an architectural and construction term to refer to the base onto which a column, pedestal, statue, or other structure is fitted. It is also used to refer to plinth, base, block, foot, hoof, clog, baseboard, block, skirting, slab, and wainscoting.

The word socle was eventually adopted and used in other languages. Today, the word socle is still widely used in architecture and construction. However, the spelling varies with different languages.

English: socle
French: socle
German: sockel
Hindi: sokal
Italian: zoccolo
Portuguese: Socle
Spanish: zócalo

Zoccolo becomes Zócalo

How did the word for sock or base become the name of the central public square or plaza in towns and cities of Mexico?

The Spanish Conquest of the Aztec Empire, beginning in February 1519, also known as the Conquest of Mexico or the Spanish-Aztec War, created untold changes upon Mexico.

On August 13, 1521, after a siege of 79 days, Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City) – the capital of the extensive Aztec Empire – fell to a large force of Spanish and indigenous soldiers. According to Aztec historians, 240,000 inhabitants of the great city, died during the 79-day siege, from dehydration, starvation, and disease at an incredible rate.

The conquest of Tenochtitlán spelled the end of the great Aztec Empire and the Náhuatl language that its people spoke. As the Spaniards, begin building they used the word socle when referring to the base or foundation of the buildings and sculptures that were created on the plazas of many Mexican towns and cities.

In 1800, the Plaza de la Constitucion in Mexico City once had a statue of Charles IV, the King of Spain, seated on horseback. The base or socle was a huge block of black marble, known as the zócalo in Spanish. In 1843, General Antonio López de Santa Anna, then the President of Mexico, ordered that the statue of Charles IV removed. The plan was to replace the statue with a grandiose monument commemorating the Independence of Mexico. However, Mexico entered into a recession at the time, and the project was indefinitely postponed.

However, the black marble zócalo was not removed and because of the huge size of the plaza, it was not unusual to have friends meet you at the zócalo. It did not take too long before the entire plaza became known as El Zócalo.

Eventually, this use of the word Zócalo spread from the capital to other parts of Mexico, and now the plazas of many Mexican cities are called zócalos.

As Paul Harvey would say, “And now you know…the rest of the story.”

The Cuernavaca Zócalo

To be precise, burials dated to c. 1000 BCE have been found in the north of the city, and it is believed that humans existed in Cuernavaca long before this. Obviously, the city was inhabited long before central Cuernavaca was built, and the current Zócolo was constructed. The Teopanzolco Pyramids, which were probably the first settlements in Cuernavaca, when they were built overlooking and protecting the valley’s crops below. So, it is highly unlikely that the current Plaza de Benito Juárez is the first Zócolo of Cuernavaca.

Cuernavaca is an ancient city and was already thriving before the Spanish invasion of Mexico. This is why Cuernavaca holds the unique distinction of being the only city in all of Mexico in which the current Zócolo does not feature a cathedral. Many towns in Mexico were built up after the Spanish arrived and built cathedrals next to the existing Zócolo. Upon arrival in Cuernavaca, the Catholics were forced to place their cathedral several blocks away, as there was no space available near the Zócolo.

Cuernavaca Zócolo

There is a lot of misinformation about the past of Cuernavaca. Many claims exist that the plaza referred to as the Plaza de Armas is the Zócolo. Perhaps this is because of its larger size, which accommodates many more people. The plaza was originally named Jardins de Morelos (Morelos Gardens). The name was changed to Plaza de la Constitucion when the Palacio de Gobierno Estado de Morelos (State Government Palace) was built between 1955 and 1969. Today, it is referred to as the Plaza de Armas. It sits between the three-story Palacio de Gobierno with its beautiful tezontle facade and the Palacio de Cortez.

Contrary to popular belief the Plaza de Armas is not the Zócolo, but it does share this honor today with the original Plaza de Benito Juárez Zócolo. It is found adjoining the northwest corner of the Plaza de Armas and across Calle Gutemberg. The Plaza de Benito Juárez (also called Jardin Juárez), was originally named the Garden of the Cross and Santa Catarina. It was renamed after the Republic of Mexico was restored and returned to republican rule in 1867 under Benito Juárez.

The Jardin Juárez Zócolo is the plaza with the central pavilion, designed and built by the world-famous Walter Macfarlane (1817-1885), who founded W. MacFarlane & Co., Glasgow, Scotland in 1849. The gazebo, sixteen iron benches, and twenty-four columns were purchased by Jesús H. Preciado, who served as Governor of Morelos 1890-1891. Preciado oversaw the complete rebuilding of the plaza, including the pavement of the garden. 

The Jardin Juárez Gazebo is another source of misinformation. Sometime after 2012, the story started spreading that the Jardin Juárez Gazebo was designed and built by Gustave Eiffel, the Eiffel Tower designer in Paris. Actually, the Eiffel Tower was designed by Maurice Koechlin, Emile Nouguier, and Stephen Sauvestre). The only two structures in Mexico Eiffel had a hand in designing are the Palacio de Hierro in Orizaba, Veracruz, and the Condominio Acero in Monterrey, Nuevo León.

There was no mention of the artist who designed the pavilion, nor were there any writings or publications that mentioned Eiffel before the restoration of the pavilion during Marco Adame’s government in 2012.

With its wrought-iron central gazebo and dating back to the end of the nineteenth century, the Zócolo is a breath of fresh air in the city. It is surrounded by park benches, which locals and tourists enjoy as they watch the steady stream of people passing by. Locals use the plazas to sell products such as honey, yogurt, traditional candies, books, crafts, and the ever-present stands offer shoeshines to all. Street food such as corn on the cob, snow cones, sweets, fruit smoothies, and more are generally available. Buy a fruit smoothie, read a book or the local paper, and spend a bit of time under the vast trees’ shade.

Until recently, the giant stone statue of José María Morelos stood at the opposite end of the Plaza de Armas overlooking Palacio de Gobierno. The statue was moved to the Palacio de Cortes’ side near the Artist’s Market several years ago, which brought about much dissent from the locals.

There seems to always be something to enjoy and include people dancing and any free concerts. Often clowns perform on the Zócolo and provide balloons and tricks for the children while telling double entendre jokes for the adults. You will also see artists juggling rubber balls or fire sticks, as well as breakdancers.

Opposite the Southeast corner of the Plaza de Armas and Palacio de Gobierno, you will find the Palacio de Cortés, now housing the Museo de Cuauhnahuac. These buildings have magnificent architecture that is beautiful to behold.

Main Plaza
Location: Centro Histórico