Tlatelolco, the area where you'll find the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, is full of significant architecture, spanning centuries that represent three distinct time periods: the Pre-Hispanic, the colonial, and modern-day.
The oldest structure here is the Tlatelolco archaeological site, where you're likely to see active digging and preservation. Though the site lacks the sizable pyramids of Teotihuacan (just outside Mexico City), it is nonetheless impressive, especially when one considers it was the largest market in the Americas during its golden age.
The second structure of architectural and historical importance is the Santiago de Tlatelolco Church, built in the early 17th-century.
And finally, the largest apartment complex in Mexico rings the plaza, an ambitious if somewhat timeworn (and earthquake-rattled) set of buildings that were incredibly ambitious and innovative when they were designed and built in the 1960s.
All three sites (or at least part of the apartment complex, which consists of 90 buildings) are visible from the plaza itself.
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History Just Keeps on Happening
It seems that every era has seen a major historic event occur at Tlatelolco. The site that is today known as the Plaza de las Tres Culturas (Plaza of the Three Cultures) was, in Aztec times, the Americas' largest produce and goods market. The market was part of an Aztec community that today is an active archaeological site where important discoveries continue to be made.
The 20th century saw major events occur at Tlatelolco, too. Architect Mario Paní envisioned a new style of residential complexes; Nonoalco, was the complex was called, was comprised of 102 apartment buildings and constituted a city within a city, with its own schools and services.
But the event that continues to hang over the plaza is the 1968 massacre of students just 10 days prior to the opening of the Olympic Games. Protesting students gathered on the plaza to express discontent with a variety of the government's social, economic, and political policies. Military forces fired upon student protesters, killing a number that to this day remains in dispute. The students known to have perished in what is known as the massacre of Tlatelolco are memorialized by a monument on-site.
The Setting of Elena Poniatowska's Most Famous Book
Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska has, over the course of her long career and life, written dozens of works–from newspaper articles and children's books to investigative non-fiction and short stories and poems– but the book that has probably made her most famous isLa Noche de Tlatelolco, or The Night of Tlatelolco in English.
The book is a compilation of oral histories of people who were at or affected by the massacre of student protesters at Tlatelolco in 1968. The book helped established Poniatowska's reputation as a writer committed to social and political subjects. Though she had been born to a privileged family and occupied Mexico City's upper social stratum, when she heard about the massacre, Poniatowska–mother to a four-month old baby–headed out to the streets to interview people involved.
The book that resulted from her on-the-ground research came to define her style and is considered a must-read in modern Mexican letters. The site of the massacre can still be visited today at the Plaza de Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, where a memorial stands for victims of the event.