In the mid-nineties, amid a wave of immigrants from Mexico City, my parents moved to Cuernavaca, Morelos, a city of 400,000 people 54 miles south of the Mexican capital. At the time, Mexico City was regarded as the most dangerous and most polluted place in the country. An earthquake in 1985 was further reason to leave. Compared to Mexico City, Cuernavaca was perfect. It offered a safer, healthier, and warmer place to raise young children while providing the benefits of being close to the nation’s economic center.
Similar to my parents’ perceptions back then, the idea of Cuernavaca as a safe, hospitable place remains, but this view is held mainly by outsiders who see the city only partially. Tourism is the primary industry here, with the majority of visitors coming from Mexico City. On Friday afternoons, large numbers of chilangos form long lines of traffic on their way into Cuernavaca. On Sunday evenings, similar lines appear as the chilangos return home.
Cuernavaca is popular with tourists because of its warm climate and carefree image. What tourists don’t see is that employment is scarce, space for cultural activities is all but non-existent, and with the presence of organized crime, the city is unsafe.
Around 10 years ago, I left to attend college in Mexico City. Afterward, I found myself in the US. Despite their constant grievances, my parents are still in Cuernavaca. While studying, I would visit them regularly. Now I get to go around once a year.
On December 17, 2018, ahead of another trip home, I visited Cuernavaca on Google Maps. For a while, I dragged the map here and there. My tendency was to browse the areas that I’m familiar with. After a moment, I switched from the map-view, abstract by nature, to the street-view made with photographs. What an ambitious enterprise, I thought, to photograph all the streets in the world. It is perhaps this vastness of Google Maps that reminded me so poignantly that, although they are the most literal form of representation, photographs are still just an illusion.
I aimlessly wandered the virtual city. As I did so, I contemplated time—the time since I’ve lived here; and distance— the distance between the real me and the actual space, more than 2,000 miles away.
From my computer, I scrolled across Google’s satellite photographs until an array of gray, green, turquoise, and cobalt patches filled the screen. Here, at Vista Hermosa—an affluent neighborhood with a large number of residential swimming pools—I stopped at the intersection of avenues Río Mayo and Teopanzolco. I dropped the pegman on a small blue object and zoomed in to find a fountain adorned with five nude women, each cast in bronze.
One of the sirens was rinsing her hair. The other four struck joyful, seductive poses as the city went by around them.
According to Google Maps, the artwork was installed sometime between September 2011 and April 2012. Before this, the site—a median strip—was filled with empty planters and dying grass.
The fountain is the work of Mexican sculptor Gabriel Ponzanelli. Titled La Eterna Primavera y sus Cinco Musas, it references the nickname given to Cuernavaca by the German explorer Alexander Von Humboldt who, after visiting the city in 1803, described the climate here as “eternal spring.”
In the early 1980s, Ponzanelli made a similar work in Mexico City. Installed on Miguel Ángel de Quevedo, a major avenue in the city’s south, Ponzanelli’s nudes were the subject of a scandal, and after public outcry the works were moved to a more discreet location. For his installation here in Cuernavaca, Ponzanelli repurposed the molds from that earlier work. The muses seen here are a replica of those that were shamed in the capital
Who are these women? I wondered. Perhaps the fountain was only meant to beautify the city? Maybe the bathing muses stand as a reference to all the pools in the private backyards? Or are the women conceived to represent Cuernavaca’s weekend visitor?
After a quick Google search, I came upon an open letter addressed to Ponzanelli posted on the personal blog of writer María Helena González. The letter berates Ponzanelli for his failure in representing Cuernavaca and takes him to task for his lack of creativity in reproducing the work from a pre-existing mold.
“Why didn’t they leave them as they were, in bags?” she writes. Perhaps the bags—used to protect the sculptures during transport and storage—are more important to the work than the sculptor had otherwise thought. I imagined five stock-still female forms in plastic bags. I imagined the authorities lifting the bags, revealing the women to the public. I remembered that in Mexico an average of nine women are murdered every day.
I tell myself that I will ditch the official title La Eterna Primavera y sus Cinco Musas. From now on, I will give each of the sculptures a different name every day. I will transform the work from a fountain to a memorial: a memorial to our victims.
Nevermind la eterna primavera; this is la eterna chingadera.
After leaving Vista Hermosa, I meandered to La Paloma de la Paz, a monument to peace inside a roundabout at an exit from the Mexico City-Acapulco highway. For motorists who come to the city on this road—known colloquially as the Autopista del Sol because it leads to sunny, touristy destinations—La Paloma is a prominent welcome sign to Cuernavaca’s north side.
Produced by the artist Víctor Manuel Contreras in 1976, the monument features an elliptical bronze sculpture cast in the form of a dove. “Upon arrival [into Cuernavaca], the little dove opens its wings, welcoming you in its bosom,” Manuel Contreras says of the work. “And as you leave, it becomes a great seed [that] fertilizes peace in your heart.”
Due to the large volume of traffic that circulates here, La Paloma is frequently used as a civic forum of sorts. Here, in this image captured by Google in July 2012, a group of activists is gathered at La Paloma to protest corruption in that year’s presidential elections.
Other political messages are displayed on billboards.
In the above image the dove of peace is contrasted with an advertisement from 2009 in which the Ecological Green Party of Mexico promotes a policy of capital punishment for “murderers” and “kidnappers.” “Rage,” the tagline reads, “is knowing that your son’s murderer was left free.”
La Paloma is now different from how I remember it growing up. Between 2009 and 2011, the roundabout was renovated. The plinth— a pre-colonial-styled structure evoking the Mexican depiction of the sun deity—was replaced with an assortment of palm trees, bushes, and cobbles.
This new design evokes a Floridian resort or strip mall more than it does a monument to peace.
In October 2015, the Google streetcar photographed La Paloma again. To my surprise, I found that the site had been altered once more. The cobbles that were laid at the base of the roundabout’s palm trees when it was renovated are now arranged in the shape of the number 43—a reminder of the students who, in September of the previous year, were disappeared in Iguala, Guerrero.
La Paloma, it would seem, is not just a monument to peace, but a monument to the peace we have yet to find.
Across Mexico, there are countless tributes to the revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, one of which is installed here in Cuernavaca in the form of another roundabout monument. Born just a few miles away in Anenecuilco, Morelos, Zapata awakens local pride in people across the political spectrum. A peasant who rose up against the dictator Porfirio Díaz and the feudalistic hacienda production system in 1911, Zapata is revered for his fight for land distribution for agricultural workers. It is to him that we attribute the expression, “the land belongs to those who work it with their own hands.”
Colloquially known as “Zapata,” the monument is a critical place-marker in Cuernavaca’s Buenavista neighborhood. Standing at the entrance to the old highway leading to Mexico City, it faces north—a reference to Zapata’s historic journey to the capital in 1914 where he fought alongside Pancho Villa in the siege of caudillo President, Victoriano Huerta.
Rather than inspiring reverence, however, this site is often cause for frustration. For years, the intersection here has been a notorious bottleneck where traffic is frequently chaotic and routinely backs up.
Local police were the first to manage residents’ frustration by directing traffic. In around 2007 or 2008, the police were replaced with traffic lights, but I don’t recall that these ever worked. After that, then mayor of Cuernavaca Manuel Martínez Garrigós, invested MXN 170,000,000 in a scheme to build a bridge and tunnel to make new connections between the roadways. This project didn’t go unquestioned. Locals protested that to make room for the bridges, trees would need to be cut down. Others claimed that nearby businesses would lose income. Another consequence was that the Zapata monument would be obscured.
Over the course of time, monuments and artworks mutate. Take Spiral Jetty, for example; an artwork that is perpetually transformed through exposure to the natural elements, it changes each time the tide of the Great Salt Lake rises and falls. Monuments in cities, on the other hand, evolve through social forces. As the tides of fashion, politics, and culture rise and fall, so does a monument’s meaning, relevance, and function. In this process, new layers are uncovered and old meanings are unsettled. Time adds to a monument’s available interpretations.
Here, in August 2012, Zapata appears to be riding toward a bridge, holding his machete with the intention of cutting the structure in two. In this view from the ground, Zapata appears destined to crash into one of the great concrete columns that keep the bridge afloat.
With the construction of the roadways in 2011, the monument to our revolutionary hero was buried behind a web of concrete pylons.
In this image from 2009, four soldiers from the military base across the street clean the statue. Above them, the sky ends abruptly and instead of clouds, we see Google copyright watermarks.
On October 4, 2018, Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador—accompanied by the professional soccer player turned governor Cuauhtémoc Blanco and pop star Belinda— declared 2019 to be The Year of Emiliano Zapata, in remembrance of the 100th anniversary of his murder. This new political context would bring Zapata back into the light, and after eight years of obstructed visibility, it was decided that the monument in Cuernavaca was to be moved to a “more dignified” location.On December 20, 2018, Zapata was stationed on the Autopista del Sol where, 19 feet above the ground, he continues to face north in pursuit of the capital.
The next day, I made my annual visit to Cuernavaca. Eager to learn the inside scoop, I asked my mom all sorts of disjointed questions, for I too am now a visitor with a partial understanding of the city. It’s too soon, she hasn’t seen it yet. A touristy feeling took ahold of me. Ignorant as I was, I wanted to see for myself. I pondered on the pros and cons of Zapata’s new location and, always prone to cynicism, suspected that Zapata’s push toward the limits of the city would marginalize not only the object, but the historical figure himself.
Once again, I searched Cuernavaca’s monuments on Google Maps. This time, I browsed the comments that users have made. The succinct “reviews” are varied, addressing some aspect of the monument or something else altogether. Regarding Zapata in his previous location, users regret the construction of bridges and the monument’s low visibility. Others rate the food in the mercado nearby. At La Paloma, users describe the roundabout as both dangerous and a good meeting point, especially for those hitching a ride to Mexico City. “It’s poorly kept; it used to be in good condition years ago,” says one user. “Enblematic [sic] part of Cuernavaca,” adds another. There are no comments for Ponzanelli’s fountain because Google has not yet registered it as a “place.”
I recently learned that there was a shooting near the ceremony for the reopening of Zapata. In a joint effort, the police and military caught an alleged kidnapper. Throughout the episode, some of the attendees dropped to the ground while others took shelter behind the plinth. This fact overturned my distanced speculations, reminding me of a local’s experience of my hometown. “Cuernabalas”, they say, “la ciudad de la eterna balacera”.
As I now sit in front of my computer, many miles away from Cuernavaca, I search for Zapata on Google Maps. I fantasize about finding a bullet hole in his side, a permanent rupture in the monument’s material. The hole, I speculate, will reveal what is buried beneath the monument: the muck, the violence, and turmoil that tourists fail to see, and that locals wish to ignore. To my disappointment though, Google Maps lists Zapata as permanently closed. He appears to be erased from the old location, and is nowhere to be found in the new one.