Latin American Times: Mexico City

Newly-weds and patriots fear their angel is coming down to earth
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If you look twice at the monuments in Mexico City, you cannot help but get that sinking feeling.

The golden Angel of Independence and a divinely buff archeress are undeniably glorious statues, and a baroque cathedral soars at the capital's heart, but the clay lake-bed on which the Aztecs founded the city almost seven centuries ago is slowly collapsing, so landmarks are perceptively shorter.

The Zocalo, an enormous central plaza, has sunk 29 feet during the past century, and shows no signs of stopping. To prevent the 16th-century cathedral there from listing drunkenly to the east, engineers have been frantically excavating beneath the western flank, so that the great church can subside in a stately manner. Kneeling to pray is hazardous if the floors tilt too much.

While experts puzzle out how to construct a solid new foundation beneath the biggest and most venerable cathedral in Latin America, massive interior scaffolding carries most of its weight and props up the ceiling. A plumb line dangling from the cupola is dizzyingly off true. "I try to avert my eyes from it," confessed Eugenia Flores, a po-faced literature teacher, "or else I get The Pit and The Pendulum fantasies during Mass." The odd tremor sends it careening back and forth like the priest's incense censer.

The sacred building next door, which sits on the base of an old Aztec pyramid, is not nearly as wonky. Before the Spaniards knocked them down, some 80 Aztec temples and palaces made up the court of Moctezuma.

Down the capital's grandest avenue, Reforma, there is a more modern landmark which has become a lucky talisman for Chilangos, or Mexico City residents. A rowdy throng clusters beneath the Angel of Independence to cheer football, baseball, and boxing victories, and last year President Vicente Fox showed up with thousands of supporters to hail his political triumph. Newly-weds pose for portraits at its base, even though the buxom angel on tiptoe, spreading her wings and clutching a laurel wreath, is nowhere in the picture.

During the devastating earthquake of 1985, the gold-dipped angel was toppled from its 118ft pedestal, and the city's recovery did not feel truly under way until it was restored to its perch.

"That angel would be standing on a little stub, not a great column, if we did not add a stair each time it sinks too far," a city engineer told me.

An eternal flame flickers in the monument's base, and the skulls of local heroes who defeated the Spanish are placed in an inner vault, so there is considerable national pride in keeping the memorial well above the traffic.

The fountain of Diana the Huntress is less elevated, and passing motorists like to peep at the only sculpture that was once censored. Old-timers still whisper that the mistress of an influential official posed as this muscular goddess, and his wife made him banish it from view when she found out – tittle-tattle inspired by a risqué 1957 Mexican film, Call Me Bad, in which the unhappy wife of a wheelchair-bound man poses nude for a sculptor.The statue, surrounded by a fountain like a sunflower, has to be checked every year for subsidence.

The 18 million people who live atop Mexico's spongy lake-bed will eventually suck most of the aquifers dry, and that is why the clay crumbles. Residing on a major faultline, in an ancient caldera surrounded by extinct volcanoes, requires a certain sang-froid. Few people notice that we are sinking an average of three inches a year. It makes us all feel that much taller.