Zócalo literally means "pedestal" or "base": in the mid-19th century, an independence monument was planned for the square, but only the base was built. The term stuck, however, and now the word "zócalo" is applied to the main plazas of most Mexican cities. Mexico City's Zócalo (because it's the original, it's always capitalized) is used for government rallies, protests, sit-ins, and festive events. It's the focal point for Independence Day celebrations on the eve of September 16 and is a maze of lights, tinsel, and traders during the Christmas season. Flag-raising and -lowering ceremonies take place here in the early morning and late afternoon.
Mexico City's historic plaza (formally called the Plaza de la Constitución) and the buildings around it were built by the Spaniards, using local slaves. This enormous paved square, the largest in the Western Hemisphere, occupies the site of the ceremonial center of Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec empire, which once comprised
78 buildings. Throughout the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, elaborate churches and convents, elegant mansions, and stately public edifices were constructed around the square; many of these buildings have long since been converted to other uses.
The Zócalo is the heart of the Centro Histórico, and many of the neighborhood's sights are on the plaza's borders or a few short blocks away. Clusters of small shops, eateries, cantinas, and street stalls, as well as women in native Indian dress, contribute to an inimitably Mexican flavor and exuberance.