Tlatelolco: A story of violence, sacrifice, and the birth of modern Mexico

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

Tlatelolco is fairly unique among archaeological sites in Mexico, as both its ancient and contemporary histories evoke intense feelings.

View of Tlatelolco’s main plaza and the Americas’ second/oldest university. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

During antiquity

As the archaeological site of Tlatelolco is right in the heart of Mexico City, all that remains is its main core. But recently, a handful of structures have been restored around its periphery.

An Aztec temple excavated a couple of blocks away from the core of Tlatelolco now sits beneath a grocery store. Photo: Courtesy

Tlatelolco proper was founded in 1338, 13 years after Tenochtitlan, though the area had been occupied under different names by Mesoamerican peoples at least 1,000 years before. 

Tlateloco’s architecture is primarily based on the Tablero-Taud style spread by Nahua people across Mesoamerica. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The largest temple at the site, known as the Templo Mayor, is at the core of the site and exhibits architecture similar to that of Teotihuacan, though on a smaller scale. 

Like all ancient structures at Tlatelolco, the site’s main temple is built out of carefully carved volcanic stone. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As is common with Mesoamerican sites in central Mexico, Tenochtitlan also houses several temples dedicated to the deities Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, and Huitzilopochtli.

Temple to Ehecatl, a variant or emanation of Quetzalcoatl responsible for the winds. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Tlatelolco had been one of several powerful competing kingdoms before the foundation of the Aztec Empire by the triple alliance made up of the city-states of Tenochtitlan, Tetzcoco, and Tlacopan.

Section of a mural found on Tlatelolco’s ancient water reservoir depicts a serpent devouring a frog. Photo: INAH

However, like Tenayuca, after the rise of the empire, Tlatelolco was folded into the Aztec hegemony but remained an important center given its proximity to Tenochtitlan.

The “Lovers of Taltelco” are among the 54 human remains found at the site. They were likely victims of the war between Tlatelolco and Tenochtitlan. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Even after its folding into the Aztec empire, Tlatelolco is known to have hosted an enormous market where people from across Mesoamerica would gather to sell and trade goods, both basic and exotic. 

Market scene from Tlatelolco housed in Mexico’s National Museum of History and Anthropology. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The archaeological site is also home to a colonial structure built in 1526. It is called El Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, and it housed the second-oldest university in the Americas.

El Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco would be renamed Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, which to this day is one of Latin America’s most prestigious universities. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

In Mexico’s modern consciousness

But as interesting as the history of this bygone age is, when contemporary Mexican hears the name Tlatelolco the first thing that comes to mind is the infamous student massacre of 1968.

Armored tanks belonging to Mexico’s Armed Forces roll down the streets of Mexico City. Photo: Courtesy

The massacre, which is estimated to have taken the lives of up to 400 students, took place on Oct. 2, 1968, and was carried out by the Mexican armed forces.

The massacre came after several student demonstrations against Mexico’s federal government and Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had been in power since the Revolution and would remain the only party to occupy the presidency until the year 2000.

Blame for the massacre of Tlatelolco has historically fallen on then secretary of the interior (and later president) Luis Echeverría, though he was never brought to justice and died at the age of 100 in July 2022. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

At the time, the protest was reported as a violent uprising against the state and Mexico’s upcoming 1968 Olympic Games. It had also been reported that the protestors had allegedly shot at the army first. 

Snipers take their positions on Oct. 2, 1968, across from Tlatelolco square. Photo: Courtesy

In a secret document declassified in the year 2000, it was learned that the Mexican state had positioned a large number of snipers atop surrounding buildings well before things had gotten so badly out of control. 

Mexican journalist Elena Poniatowska, who was at the protest, collected a series of interviews which she would then publish in her much-acclaimed book Massacre in Mexico.

Despite the passage of time, the events of Oct. 2, 1968, in Tlatelolco remain fresh in Mexico’s psyche through the refrain “2 de Octubre no se olvida” — Oct. 2 not forgotten.

The monument to the fallen at Tlatelolco lists only the names and ages of 44 people who died during the massacre, though the real number was 10 times higher. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Because of its important role in molding the Aztec Empire, Mexico City, and the contemporary consciousness of the country, Tlatelco is much more than just an ancient market  — for many, it represents the very essence of Mexico forged in sacrifice, blood, and renewal. 

A monument marking the fall of the Tlatelolco to the Spanish Tlatelolco poignantly reads: 

“On Aug. 13 1521, heroically defended by Cuautemoc, Tlatelolco fell to Hernan Cortes. It was neither a great triumph nor a defeat. It was the painful birth of the Mestizo (mixed-race) Mexico of today.”

Photograph of the monument mentioned above: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine.

If you go

Getting to Tlatelolco from any point within Mexico City is extremely easy, as there is a subway station of the same name basically right next to the site. 

A poorly considered placement of an advertisement for Mexico’s armed forces in the Tlatelolco metro station, given what happened there. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Entrance to the archaeological site is free every day. Gates open at 8 a.m. and close at 4 p.m.

Xiuhmolpilli calendaric temple in Tlatelolco, Mexico City. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Visitors follow an established path along an elevated walkway. Make sure to be respectful, as it is quite a solemn spot for many.

A map shows the location of Tlatelolco in the historic center of Mexico City. Image: Google Maps
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