Who lives in Mexico City knows that its location not only makes it especially susceptible to earthquakes.
Its foundation on a lake makes it also tremendously vulnerable to floods. That is why, for seven centuries, the inhabitants of this area have looked with suspicion at the sky when it rains heavily, fearing dramatic consequences.
This May 13, the Mexican government commemorated the 700 years of the founding of Tenochtitlan, former Mexican capital and current Mexico City.
And although there are great doubts about the veracity of this date – many historians They believe that the anniversary would be celebrated in 2025 -, of which there is no doubt that the megacity has faced great floods throughout its history.
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But among all of them, the one registered in 1629 stands out: a disaster that, although unknown to many, was undoubtedly one of the greatest tragedies of all time for the city.
The force of the rain was such that the capital “disappeared” under the waters for no less than five years and it was even considered moving to another place. The city had to literally emerge and rebuild almost from scratch.
That catastrophe that marked an entire generation is known as the deluge or flood of San Mateo.
CDMX: The problems of living on a lake
When the mexicas founded Tenochtitlan in the fourteenth century, they knew the risk of locating it in the middle of Lake Tezcuco. That is why they carried out works such as dams and stone walls to control the level of the waters that surrounded them.
When it fell to the Spanish two centuries later, Hernán Cortés led the construction on those ruins of a magnificent city destined to be the capital of the viceroyalty of New Spain.
Between lakes were palaces, churches, squares and hospitals, but not the proper drainage systems for that environment.
At the beginning of the 17th century, Mexico City suffered up to five major floods.
The authorities thought as a solution to build a large drain that would drain the lakes in the basin of Mexico.
The project was entrusted to the engineer Enrico Martínez, who began the works of the Huehuetoca canal in 1607. But the disaster was looking closer and closer.
“Enrico Martínez understood that deforestation, grazing without discrimination and the expansion of crops had eroded the soil layer. Year after year, the heavy rains they dragged more land into the lakes, raising the water level “, Richard Everett Boyer wrote in his book “The Great Flood.”
Two decades after the start of its construction, the constant modifications and the lack of investment meant that the canal was still not working.
A deserted city
When between September 20 and 21, 1629, a great waterspout hit the capital, Martínez decided to block the entrance of the canal to prevent the water from affecting the repairs that were being carried out.
The consequences for the city’s inhabitants were dramatic. The rain that fell with fury for 36 hours straight it descended unstoppably from the mountains to the city, where the water level exceeded two meters in height.
The torrent destroyed the fragile adobe houses of the indigenous population that lived on the outskirts of Mexico City.
The dead numbered in the thousands, that floated among animals and furniture carried by the current that reached the upper floors of the houses that had been left standing.
Many of the wealthy class inhabitants who survived decided to leave. Some sources suggest that of 20,000 families who lived before the flood, only 400 remained.
“That great city was almost abandoned, deserted. The panorama was bleak and the scenes that were seen were apocalyptic “, Enrique Ortiz García, writer and chronicler from Mexico City, tells BBC Mundo.
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One of them, highlights the cultural promoter, is the procession that was organized on the waters and in which some 200 canoes led by the Virgin of Guadalupe participated, whom the inhabitants asked to intercede so that the waters dissipated.
Or the call “island of dogs”, a mound on the uneven floor of the current Zócalo square where all the stray dogs of the city came desperately to take refuge and avoid drowning.
The waters did not go down, so those who stayed had to learn to live with them.
Wooden bridges were placed on the rooftops and the canoes were recovered, as they were used in ancient Tenochtitlan, as the only way to move around the city. The houses could only be entered through the windows on the second floor.
The priests celebrated Masses on the roofs of the convents to try to comfort the neighbors, who listened to them from their homes, believing that they were condemned, like that city, to disappear.
There was a shortage of food and looting was continuous. Poor hygiene and stagnant polluted water in the flooded city spread diseases like wildfire.
“This city will never be populated again”, Fray Gonzalo de Córdoba wrote, as highlighted by Héctor de Mauleón in his book “The Hidden City”.
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Two years after the flood, and unable to discover a system to make the waters disappear, the authorities discussed the possibility of move the city to another place.
Rodrigo Pacheco y Osorio, Marquis of Cerralvo and viceroy of New Spain, considered establishing the capital in Coyoacán or Tacuba.
But the idea was eventually scrapped. The investment to create Mexico City had been millionaire, so rebuilding the works and buildings affected by the water it would be cheaper than starting a city from scratch.
A generation marked by the flood
The city continued to suffer torrential rains and remained under water no less than five years.
It wasn’t until 1634 that a drought lowered the water level. Many preferred to think that were his prayers to the Virgin of Guadalupe those that saved the capital.
An estimated 30,000 people died in total, drowned or from diseases caused by floods in the years that followed.
The catastrophe, therefore, marked an entire generation of citizens of the capital. The foundations of all the buildings were damaged and many ended up collapsing later.
“In current Mexico City there are no more than 10 constructions before 1629. The flood was of such a degree that practically the entire city had to be rebuilt over time, “says Ortiz García.
That decision to keep Mexico City in its original location undeniably marks the destiny of those who live in it centuries later. “It is an extreme sport to live in this city because you take care of the floods, of the tremors because it is a seismic zone … “, affirms the writer.
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However, despite being one of the most important tragedies in the history of the capital with effects and consequences to this day, the tragedy of the San Mateo flood is not widely known.
According to Ortiz García, “the viceregal period in Mexico is generally little studied because still, in some way, ‘cove’ in the minds of Mexicans. The post-revolutionary governments extolled the original cultures and everything that marks the origin of independent Mexico. “
“Some even instilled a contempt for the Spanish occupation because they saw it from a current context. That is to understand history in a bad way, because they are facts of the past. that are also part of our existence “, ends.
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