Is This Mexico City’s Oldest House? And Who Lived Here?
In the eastern section of Mexico City’s downtown district, people have been selling food and trinkets on the streets for decades, their voices and whistles filling sidewalks and alleys. And, recently, archaeologists have restored what they believe to be the oldest standing home built after the Spanish invasion.
The house at 25 Manzanares Street sits on a corner, has one level, a courtyard and 12 rooms. In recent years, it had gone into disuse, with some of its roofs caving in, and shrubs and weeds covering its floors and walls. Now, the Historic Downtown Mexico City Trust has renovated it, and wants to convert it into a community center for children.
On a recent afternoon, a man with a tuft of gray hair looked at the house’s wooded double doors through his rectangle-rimmed glasses and proceeded to give a tour. The man, Florentino Canales Vargas, was born in one of the rooms on Nov. 2, 1938, he said.
Canales remembers salesmen visiting the house to sell things such as firewood or fish to his parents and the other families that lived here, he said. One salesman would sell candy to children for one cent, and would sing a song to every child who bought one.
“For example,” Canales said in Spanish, “if I bought one from him, he would play the guitar and sing: ‘Little Florentino came to buy a piece of candy, he didn’t buy one the other day because he didn’t have any money handy.’ ”
Canales also remembers the end of World War II, he said. He was 7.
“I remember everyone yelling, ‘The war has ended, the war has ended,’” Canales said in Spanish. “People came out onto the court yard and danced and hugged each other. I hugged my neighbors, too, but I wasn’t entirely sure why or exactly what was happening.”
Canales lived with his mother and father in one room, as was the case for most families that lived in the house on Manzanares 25. It is believed the house was originally owned by a salesman who built one room in the late 1500s and added rooms for his children when they grew up and had their own families, said Loredana Montes, director of the Historic Downtown Mexico City Trust.
“It is the only house from the 16th century that is still standing in the city,” Montes said.
But is it the oldest?
Ignacio Lanzagorta, a Mexico City urban anthropologist who studies the history of public spaces, is not convinced, he said.
Lanzagorta is skeptical because the area had been prone to floods until nearby canals were drained, and because its architecture resembles that of newer homes, he said.
But Lanzagorta says the house is still historic and represents a lot about how families lived in the neighborhood and the city. Plus, it’s in the middle of an effort to remove crime from the neighborhood, and the city wants to use it as a community center for children.
"So if they have to say that it's the oldest house in the city to make it valuable, for me it's OK. Go ahead," Lanzagorta said.
This neighborhood, called La Merced, has been known for its commerce practically since its inception, but is also infamous for street robberies and sex trafficking. In fact, Lanzagorta says many middle and upper class Mexico City families would never come here — much of it having to do with stigma.
"I hope that if you visit la Merced, you can feel OK,” Lanzagorta added. “It's actually not that dangerous."
During our tour of the house on Manzanares 25, Canales, our guide who was born here, gets a phone call from his son, who did not grow up here. As an adult, Canales had a career with a labor union about two hours from the city, which allowed him to buy a bigger home for his family: two stories for him, his wife and his son. But he says the house on Manzanares is special.
“The house is significant because of my roots,” Canales said. “I can never forget where I came from.”