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Church and State: The Battle of the Railings.

Church-state relations are complex in Mexico. Since the Indian Benito Juárez, the official government party, now called the PRI, was anti-clerical through the presidemcy of Lázaro Cárdenas; he was an Indianist and named his son Cuauhtémoc after the last Aztec ruler. The problem was that the Indian population, like many Mexicans, remained fervently Catholic. So Lázaro´s successor, Manuel Avila Camacho, in 1942 made the historic statement "I am a believer." Finally, in 1992, the government of Carlos Salinas de Gortari established diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

The PRI, losing popularity and power, hoped this would win Catholic votes. However, the Church was moving toward Christian Socialism, and some priests were accused of siding with the Zapatistas in Chiapas. It thus entered into direct competition with the anti-clericals, now led by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas. He split from the PRI and formed the PRD, the Revolutionary Democratic Party.

When the present government of Ernesto Zedillo received Pope John Paul II with all honors, Cárdenas, now governor of the Federal District, greeted him at city hall but told him bluntly that he was not a believer.

Anti-clericalism in Mexico has involved, among other things, keeping the Church off the streets. This has given rise to a bizarre argument about the railings surrounding Mexico City Cathedral. It is on the city´s historic square, the Zócalo. Next to the Cathedral, on the long side of the Zócalo, is the government palace, and (opposite the cathedral) the city hall, both traditionally secular enemies of the Church, making it two to one. This uneasy situation has been complicated by the agreement between Church and government; this leaves city hall, the domain of Cárdenas, in a one to two minority.

With tacit support from Cárdenas, an expensive plan has been presented to restore the square historically. It would involve removing the railings around the cahedral on the grounds that they are only about a century old. This is clearly a phony argument, because historically the Zócalo should have as its centerpiece the equestrian statue of King Charles IV, but this is not mentioned.

The Church defends the railings and their historical value, charging that their removal would expose the church area to street hawkers and graffiti artists. One real reason is that the city would thus gain control of the area around the church. The national government is between the Cárdenas devil and the deep purple see. The devil is in the details of the renewal plan..

When I first visited Mexico City in the 40s, the square was charming, with a garden and lovely trees. It was then changed into a drab, vegetationless area, where government rallies could be held while the president addressed the cheering mob from the balcony of the national palace. The lack of trees also made in harder for gunmen to take potshots at political leaders. It is unlikely that the trees will be restored, what with all those Zapatistas around the city.

Ronald Hilton - 04/07/99

More on Church and State: The Battle of the Railings.

Who would have thought that wise WAISers would get into an argument about railings? Well, Erika Pani of Mexico, who is married to an arquitect, writes:

"Please don't buy the twisted, absurd, manipulated history according to which the PRI has its origins in Benito Juarez (who begat Madero, who begat Carranza, Calles, Cardenas etc. who begat Zedillo). Juarez, by the way, also considered himself a good Catholic.

Your reading of the cathedral's railings issue needs some revision. First of all, a steadfast alliance netween Zedillo's government and the Catholic Church --which has never been monolithic-- is highly unlikely, even against the PRD, which is not perceived as anti-clerical, for all its members who were communists. Also, it was Cardenas who visited the Pope in Rome, in order to finalize the details of his visit to Mexico city. John Paul II was such a mega-hit that all politicians of some standing tried to have some of his popularity rub off on them. Cardenas, for all his atheism, was no exception. His speech may have been uninspiring --they usually are-- but there was no mistaking his effort to make himself palatable to "Catholic" opinion (if there is such a thing). Among the drivel and general silliness unleashed by the Pope's visit, one misguided journalist even commented that Cardenas "had been inspired by the Holy Ghost".

The Zocalo project, on the other hand, is a joint venture between the federal and city governements. It is the result of an open, blind competion --a rarity in Mexico-- in which 157 mexican architects participated. It has been extremely refreshing to see a group of young, relatively unknown architects, headed by a woman, win. The comitee which decided on the finalists was made up of renowned historians, artists, urbanists and architects (among them, a Portuguese, a Colombian and a Japanese). I am not denying that one of the competion's main purposes has been to boost Cardenas' popularity (note that all work has to be finished by December... so that Cardenas can cut the ribbon before he resigns from city hall in order to campaign for the presidency) but the project does not, in any way, try to reflect an anti-clerical idea of the city, but to enhace and revitalize one of the most beautiful squares in the world. It is just a question of those --quite mediocre, by the way-- railings interfering with perspective. My architect husband would say that the treelesness also makes visually imposing. The new project has the advantage of keeping this openness, while planting trees, lining all one side of the square. Beautiful, lilac jacarandas. I think this project is one of the few things the city goverment--the church's knee-jerk reaction nonwithstanding-- has done well. It should be given a chance."

My comment: I certainly do not buy official PRI propaganda. The reaction of the Catholic Church cannot be described as "knee-jerk." The Archbishop and his colleagues saw exactly what is involved. Sending atheist Cardenas to Rome (where Mexico has an official envoy) to prepare the Pope´s visit was offensive to the Vatican, but was carefully planned in terms of Mexican politics. The importance of symbolism was evident when yesterday the Cathedral leaders and Cardenas met on neutral territory, the Fine Arts Palace, but their positions did not change. I, a once would-be architect, like the railings, which serve the protect the cathedral. De gustibus... Need I stress that Mexicabs argue passionately about history?

Ronald Hilton - 04/08/99