Veracruz – the First Spanish City of North America

We’ve been staying in the Puebla area the past few weeks and I’ll have an article coming down the road on this eventually. Shortly after we arrived, however, Shirley and I hopped a bus to the coast for a few days to the twin cities of Veracruz (the True Cross) and Boca del Río (Mouth of the River), as Boca is now home to Mexico’s newest major orchestra.

City of Boca del Río

Upon doing some research, I found the region has an intriguing history and one that long predates the arrival of both the Spanish and the Aztecs. Historians believe the Olmec tribe originally settled there between 500-1000 BC. A non-warlike culture, the Olmec were known principally as farmers, fishermen and artists. These artisans were particularly renowned for their sculpting skills with the most notable surviving examples being the giant basalt sculptured heads, some weighing as much as 40 tons and standing up to ten feet in height.

Olmec Bazalt Sculptures

Thought by many historians to be Mesoamerica’s “cultura madre” (mother culture), by roughly 300 BC the Olmec civilization had gone into decline and was slowly overtaken by other emerging civilizations – principally the Totonac – who became the dominant tribe in the area for hundreds of years. To this day, roughly 100,000 Totonacs still inhabit the agricultural regions of the states of Veracruz and Puebla. However, in the fifteenth century the Mexica (may•SHE•ka) tribes that comprise the Aztec civilization, looking to expand their empire outward from what is now México City moved to incorporate this rich, fertile area. By 1480 they conquered the Totonac, annexed their lands, seized many of their people for slaves or sacrifice, and compelled them to pay heavy taxes and tributes.

The Totonacs were also the first natives Hernán Cortés met upon his landing on the Gulf Coast in 1519, just down the beach from present day Veracruz. Being heavily subjugated by the Aztecs for several decades, the Totonac were ripe for revolt, and their king eagerly welcomed Cortés promising the support of fifty thousand warriors against the Aztec Empire.

Totonoc tribes today

In 1519, the Totonacs were crucial in assisting Cortés and the Spaniards in the founding of La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz (The Rich Town of the True Cross) on the site of the present day port of Veracruz, thus making it the first city founded by the Spaniards on the North American continent. Over the next two years – and with those fifty thousand soldiers – the Totonac, along with some other Mexica hating tribes, took an active part as allies of the Spaniards in the ultimate downfall of the Aztecs.

As Mexico’s main port of entry during the Spanish colonial years, Veracruz had been a highly contested prize for both Mexican generals and even buccaneers who wreaked havoc throughout most of the Caribbean during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And as the first Mexican city founded by the Spaniards, ironically, it was also their last stronghold before the country finally expelled them in 1821.

Today, the city of Veracruz with its archaeological sites, climate and cuisine, is now also a popular seaside resort. And with such an advantageous location along the Gulf of Mexico it remains the country’s major port for exports to the United States, Latin America, and Europe. Seventy-five percent of all port activity is based there with their chief exports being oil, coffee, fruit, fertilizers, sugar, fish & seafood.

The Port of Veracruz

The twin city of Boca del Río lies several miles to the south of Veracruz and is a busy seaport in its own right. It’s also the metro area’s principal center for business travel with its international convention center, as well as a slew of upscale restaurants and hotels. (We stayed in one of those during our trip, just down the hall from where their Orchestra’s Music Director, Jorge Mester, also stayed that week.)

The city contains two museums, one dedicated to composer/songwriter, Agustín Lara and the other: a retired military ship that was converted into a naval museum. But the newest feather in the city’s architectural ‘hat’ is it’s new concert hall, Foro Boca (Mouth Forum), which figuratively translates as ‘Forum at the River’s Mouth.’

Foro Boca Hall

In Part Two coming tomorrow, I’ll delve into the intriguing stories of this hall and of the unique new orchestra it houses. In the meantime, below is a YouTube link to the Veracruz Dance which is the final sequence to all Ballet Folklorico performances at Palacio de Bellas Artes.

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