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Plaza del Angel & La Lagunilla

by Joseph Thomas

Walking through the broad doorway of Plaza del Angel is an immersion into the treasures of this past century. Swords, crystal vases and goblets, diplomatic and military uniforms of the dictatorial days nestle in their displays next to the more crass and common things of this era. Within the some 20 permanent shops (and an additional 100 vendors with tables on Saturdays), lie memories and emotions that our great-grandparents knew. Many of the wares sold at Plaza del Angel are typical of the flair and elegance of the turn of the century dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. Elegance in the shape of Paris fashions, Italian glass and English cloth draped and disguised for the elite the bloodiness of his more than 30 years of iron-fisted rule.
Diaz was born in the rural state of Oaxaca, where he studied in a Catholic seminary to escape the impoverishment of his indigenous roots. Although he abandoned the religious cloth before ordination-- to later become an attorney, legislator, general and finally president-- his thirst was to live at a level of elegance unequaled by the monarchs of his time. He converted the Castle of Chapultepec into a regal experience, unknown even to the aristocracy of Europe.
As president, Diaz ordered the construction of many important public buildings in Mexico City-- at times even using architects, artists and workmen from and in their own countries and bringing the buildings, in pieces, to be re-assembled in Mexico. He fostered an attitude of opulence in Mexico which became one of the hallmarks of the Porfirian Era.
His second wife, whom he married when he was 54 and she a mere 19, hosted parties which were designed to impress the heads of European and American businesses into investing in Mexico. That they did with zeal-- bringing along their own thirst to live in this nation with a lifestyle they could not afford in their home lands.
Although most were employees, the majority of these foreign managers wanted to live at a level superior to that of the distant owners of the companies they worked for. They ordered the best of imported goods, but also helped foster the development of a new class of Mexican artisan. The wares of Mexico's local craftsmen, built upon by the skills of their ancestors, reached a level equal to, if not above, those of Europe and other countries during the Porfirian Era. Yet beneath this veneer of wealth of the top one percent, the impoverished classes were reaching the breaking point. Their forced servitude could not sustain the amount of money shipped out of the country to foreign banks and companies. By 1910, even major massacres by the Mexican army - what Diaz called "small blood lettings"- could not suppress the building rebellions. Before long, the various small uprisings throughout the country united into The Revolution.
With the disruption of the economy, collaborators from the major foreign companies and banks fled the country. Many of these outside managers left behind large portions of the treasures they had collected during the regime. Diaz left for Paris to die in exile eight months after the armies of the impoverished defeated his German-trained and American-armed "federales." With the additional self-imposed exile of Diaz' rich Mexican cronies, a trove of cultural and artistic treasures entered the markets of Mexico City and Puebla. Many of these pieces past through the hands of subsequent owners into the households that endured the 24 years of the Revolution. Over the years countless pieces from this epoch have been traded and re-sold through privates sales and public markets, such as Plaza del Angel.
Like echoes from the past, these small treasures of our century are once again within the reach of those who are our guests here in Mexico City.