Valley of the Aztecs

Antonio Banderas was a fake in the Mask of Zorro.

The real Zorro was actually William Lamport, a red bearded Wexford man, and not a dark-eyed mysterious Hispanic type as Senor Banderas would have you believe.

So don’t be too surprised when you announce proudly your Irish in a cantina in Mexico City that a local offers to buy you a dram of tequila to chase your cerveza.

The reason is unlikely to be because he remembers we gifted two goals to Luis Garcia in Orlando when we played them in the 1994 World Cup, although he will realise that we have quite a good soccer team.

Rather it is more likely to be because he remembers the Irish Zorro whose exploits once reached cult status in the eyes of oppressed Mexicans and is still fondly remembered by many of them to this day.

Captain John Reilly from Clifden was another man who contributed greatly to the current popularity of the Irish in Mexico. He led the San Patricio Battalion that defected from the US army during their invasion of Mexico in the 1840s and fought on the Mexican side.

William Lamport was a cross between the Scarlet Pimpernel and Robin Hood if research into Vatican records of the Mexican Inquisition by an eminent Italian historian is to be believed.

Born in Wexford in 1615 he left Ireland to live in Spain where he fought heroically with the Spanish army against the French. He changed his name to the Hispanic version of Guillen Lombardo.

After an affair that caused a scandal in Spanish society, he had to relocate to Mexico where he lived a life of mystery and suspense that seems straight from the plume of Johnston McCulley who created the character of Diego de la Vega or Zorro. McCulley, a New York journalist, reworked the tale of Zorro from the writings of a retired Mexican general, Vicente Riva Pallacio, who wrote a semi-biographical novel about Lamport’s life.

As with Zorro, Lamport is reputed to have been a staunch defender of the impoverished Mexican Indians against the cruel Spaniards and their Inquisition. He flaunted his controversial political views and used to meet with local Indian leaders to plot the downfall of the cruel Spaniards.

He also used to sneak about the city at night when everyone else was asleep and stick anti-Inquisition propaganda posters on the walls. He spent much time in prison for his troubles.

Somehow he also found time to have numerous affairs and frequented high society gatherings. As with his literary alter ego, Zorro, Lamport’s ultimate downfall was because of his weakness for women and when he was found in bed with the wife of the Spanish Viceroy he was sentenced to death. He was to be burnt at the stake as part of the Auto da Fe of 19 November 1659. In a final act of defiance, and true to form, he strangled himself with the rope used to attach him to the pyre.

The Irish Zorro remains a hero to this day even if much of his exploits are now eulogized in more myth than reality.

Galwegian Captain John Reilly is the second most popular Irishman that ever went to Mexico. If Captain Reilly and his fellow Irishmen in the San Patricio Batallion had had their way, then maybe America would not be the superpower it is today.

Mexico would be the proud owner of the states of Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico. The completely unjustified invasion by Americans into Mexico, which would have made the UN shiver and challenge its current interventionist policies, impelled an Irish contingent to defect from the US army and fight on the Mexican side.

As Catholics, they were ill treated by the Anglo-Protestant commanders of the US army, and when they saw the cruel treatment meted out to their fellow catholic Mexicans, they changed sides.

The Irish fought bravely and heroically for the Mexicans, but when the Americans triumphed they were hanged.

Their faces were branded with a hot iron of “d” for deserter. For years, true to the war propaganda of the era, their existence was denied in American history.

But the Mexicans remembered the San Patricios and called them the Irish Martyrs. There is now a monument in San Jacinto Square in the San Angel suburb of Mexico City and a museum dedicated to their heroism and they are commemorated in the city each September.

The heart of Mexico City is the Zocalo and this was the ancient centre of the Aztec city of Tenochitlan too. It is the largest square or city plaza in the Americas and only Moscow’s Red Square is bigger. It is generally filled with large amounts of activity and bustle.

There is never a dull moment, as there are frequent demonstrations by angry young students, political dissidents or dispossessed farmers. Mexico is a great country for demonstrations fuelled by a history of notoriously corrupt governments.

The Palacio Nacional is on one side of the Zocalo and this is a good place for mural fanatics to feed their passion. The spectacular Diego Rivera mural depicts the country’s colourful history.

Some ferocious looking Conquistadors, Hidalgo, Zapata, Pancho Villa, Karl Marx, Benito Juarez and even the country’s most famous artist Frida Kahlo (Rivera’s wife) all feature on this massive montage.

On another side of the square is the dominating façade of the huge drab gray baroque cathedral, which is rather dour both inside and outside and is usually covered with construction because of many years of earthquake damage and the fact that it is sinking into the sand.

The elegant Palace of Fine Arts at the nearby Alameda where you might catch an operatic performance if you are lucky is also tilting unsteadily. There used to be a big lake that filled the whole valley in ancient times and ancient Mexico City was an island fortress.

Cortes and his men were so impressed that many of them thought they were dreaming when they saw it. But the destruction and pillage of the lives of the Aztecs and the hands of the Spaniards was very real indeed. At the Zocalo you can often see young modern Aztec descendants twist and dance to the sounds of an ancient drum.

It is sad that this display for the tourists is all that remains of a culture destroyed by Cortez and his Conquistadors and you can understand what motivated Lamport.

The lake has gone and the only remnants are the sorry Xochimilco floating gardens in the suburbs. Although they are pretty polluted and in state of dilapidation Mexicans flock to fill the boats at the weekends and picnic and are serenaded by the Mariachis as the boats float around the bits of rubbish and detritus.

There is so much to see and do in Mexico City that you could spend several weeks. A day trip out to the ancient Aztec city of Teotihican and the standing warrior stones of Tula are well worth the effort.

A visit to the awesome Museum of Anthropology should not be missed. Housed in the relatively tranquil Chapultepec Park, the museum is one of the best Archaeology museums in the world. It is divided into the various regions of Mexico.

The great gem of the whole museum is the Mayan stone calendar that epitomizes the intelligence of the ancient civilisation. A large quantity of the most important Mexican stuff has remained in the country and has not been carted off to some rich foreign antiquity museum. Just outside the museum if you are lucky you can catch the spectacular voladores or human fliers who whirl in huge circles high above the ground from ropes attached to a pole.

The French built Metro is the best and quickest way to get around the city. It is cheap, fast, clean and inspite of its bad press really not too dangerous if you stick to travelling during daylight hours and you don’t act like you are asking to be robbed. I have travelled quite late at night and I have never had any problems.

It is great fun to travel in a carriage full of locals who on average only come up to your shoulder. It is no surprise that there are as yet no pro Mexican basketball players. The taxis are another great and inexpensive way to get around the city. Mexico has a huge fleet of VW Beetle taxis.

The famous yellow taxis are gradually being replaced by the green kind that use unleaded fuel (sin plomo) and are supposedly going to reduce the infamous pollution. There is meant to be some law about only registrations ending in an odd number being allowed on one day and an even number being allowed drive in the city on the next. But I have never seen any evidence of this being enforced, as there always seems to be far too much traffic. If you want to see the famous smog, go up to the top of the Torre Latino in the middle of the day and you won’t see a thing.

Use the metro or a taxi to make a trip out to the Basilica at Guadalupe (where a peasant had a vision of the Virgin Mary), to see the University library by Mexico’s most famous architect, Juan O’Gorman, the son of an Irishman, or to visit the elegant suburb of Coyoacan’s Saturday market.

After a cheap meal in one of the city’s famous restaurants and a quick drink in the Café Opera near the Zocalo the best way to end the day is to head out to see the Mariachi bands at Plaza Garibaldi. Here, well after dark, the dapper Mariachis compete to serenade courting Mexican couples in a cacophony of voice and melody. It is best to leave your valuables back in the hotel, as it is here you will see (or won’t see) the local at his most light fingered.

Mexico city is definitely not the place for you if your idea is of a good Mexican holiday is to drink Margaritas on the beach while the sun sets into the Pacific Ocean.

For those who love frenetic cities, you could spend a week or two sightseeing and then collapse with exhaustion into your seat on the plane home, but it will be worth it for the stories you will tell.


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