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date: 30 April 2017

The History and Visual Culture of Mexico City’s Xochimilco Potable Water System during the Porfiriato

Summary and Keywords

Historians have extensively explored the topic of water control in Mexico City. From the relationship between political power and hydraulics to detailed studies of drainage and other large-scale infrastructure projects, the epic story of water in this megalopolis, constructed over a series of ancient lakes, continues to captivate people’s imaginations. Securing potable water for the fast-growing city is also a constant struggle, yet it has received comparatively less attention than drainage in historical research. Moreover, until quite recently scholars have not been especially concerned with water control as a process of representation—that is, a process shaped by, and shaping, visual culture. Yet, potable water brings together many stories about people and places both within and outside of the Basin of Mexico. As such, the history of potable water is communicated through a diverse array of objects and modern infrastructures not limited to the idea of waterworks in the traditional sense of the term. A more expansive view of “infrastructure” incorporates more than the commonplace objects of hydraulic management such as aqueducts, pumps, wells, and pipes: it also involves architecture, photography, and narrative history, official and unofficial. Built in the first decade of the 20th century as a response to acute water shortages, the impressively modern Xochimilco Potable Water Works exemplifies a system that delivered far more than fresh drinking water through its series of modern electric pumps and aqueduct. The system was a result of a larger modernization initiative launched by the administration of Porfirio Díaz (1876–1911). It wove together an official history of water, which included the annexation of Xochimilco’s springs, through its diverse infrastructures, including the engineering of the potable water system as well as the significance of the structures themselves in terms of locations and architectural elaboration in neo-styles (also known as historical styles) typical of the period. Demonstrably clear from the sheer investment in making the Xochimilco waterworks appealing to the public is that infrastructure can possess a rich visual culture of its own.

Keywords: Potable water, Mexico City, Xochimilco, visual culture, history, Porfiriato

Many consider Mexico City to have reached a crisis point in its water management. Several centuries of large-scale infrastructure projects have depleted aquifers and left a legacy of scarcity and vulnerability to floods. Quality, meanwhile, remains a constant concern. Indeed, some sources suggest that Mexico now consumes more bottled water than any other nation.1 Water-related problems are in the foreground of city life and frequently make the headlines. Are there any new viable sources of water? Will they be clean and drinkable? Who will control and have access to them? How will climate change affect the water supply? In the background of these discussions are also the objects that help give water its visibility, shape, dimension, and presence, as well as its history and geography. These are things that communicate water, both in a literal and figurative sense, and influence how we experience, understand, and come to value it—that is, how we know and act upon it. This article explores the history of potable water in Mexico City as it was communicated through a diverse array of water control objects and modern infrastructures built around the turn of the 20th century, and known collectively as the Xochimilco Potable Waterworks. Such infrastructure incorporates more than the commonplace objects of hydraulic management such as aqueducts, pumps, wells, and pipes. Infrastructure in Mexico City is also visual culture, which is demonstrably clear from the heavy government investment in making the Xochimilco water control objects aesthetically appealing to the public.

The history of water control, moreover, has left an indelible imprint on the capital’s urban morphology. Even into the late 19th and early 20th centuries, residents could still visually appreciate the basic outlines of what was once a lacustrine city, or what some have referred to as an “aquapolis.”2 The intimate historical relationship between urban development and water control could be seen, for example, in the Canal de la Viga. Flat-bottomed boats, called trajineras, whose origins and use go back to the pre-Hispanic period, continued to use the canal as a conduit for delivering agricultural goods from Xochimilco, at the basin’s extreme southern end, into the city center at the landing and market on Calle Roldán. During the summer rainy season, Lake Texcoco often reached the city’s western edge, frequently flooding downtown, and constantly frustrating construction efforts. Today, most of the 1,000 square kilometers (621 square miles) of surface water that covered the Basin of Mexico at the time of Spanish conquest in 1521 has vanished.3 Since the colonial period, large-scale drainage projects, excessive groundwater pumping, and the channelization and paving over of rivers and arroyos have largely removed this surface water from view.

Mexico City thus generally does not figure into an imaginary of the world’s aquatic cities that includes places like Venice, New Orleans, or Rome, with its iconic aqueducts. Aside from the occasional manhole cover bearing the words “Potable Water,”4 unless one knows where and how to look, there are few obvious visual cues from which to retrace the outlines of this erstwhile lacustrine space. And yet, the structuring effect of the many canals, acequias, and aqueducts once present in the landscape can still be appreciated in the present-day roads that trace their outlines, in the boundaries of neighborhoods that were once marked by canals and other water control features, or by any number of scattered objects that remain in place but are obscured by today’s dense urban landscape. As architectural historian Hugo Arciniega remarked, one must search for “the evidence of water.”5 Many of the water control structures that are today hidden from view would have been far more visible, and visually striking, in the comparatively sparse urban landscape during the Porfiriato (the period of President Porfirio Díaz’s rule from 1876 to 1911).

The apparent loss of Mexico City’s once strong connection with its aqueous environment is frequently cited as a source of current hydraulic troubles. Since the late 1990s, therefore, activists, researchers, planners, and architects have been pushing for a “return to the lacustrine city” as a driving vision for creating more ecologically sustainable and humanly inhabitable spaces from what is often portrayed as a modern urban apocalypse.6 Of course, getting from apocalypse back to aquapolis, returning to an originary hydraulic geography, is impossible; the basin’s landscapes have been dramatically and indelibly transformed over the last five centuries, and especially since the end of the 19th. Part of this “return” or “re-encounter,” then, might best be understood as an effort to create and sustain what art historian Peter Krieger refers to as an “aquatic memory.”7 Here, objects and infrastructure become conduits for transporting both water as a unique combination of chemical and biophysical processes and water as a particular set of narratives about people, “nature,” and place. In other words, the stories that capitalinos are told and tell about water are directly tied to various infrastructures, indeed, entire landscapes, of hydraulic control.

Nonetheless, the drive to create an aquatic memory for the city is not new. It is a project with deep historical roots, and its narratives have long legitimated certain kinds of interventions in the basin landscape. At the same time, such narratives are themselves a result of the structuring effects of hydraulic landscapes and infrastructures. The focus of this article is on a critical period, the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when surface water was fast disappearing from view, being driven into a modern infrastructure of water control objects.

A Brief History of the Hydraulic City

At the close of the 18th century, the seasonal ebb and flow of surface waters affected daily life in Mexico’s capital in ways that are difficult to appreciate today. The Aztecs had built diverse works to control lake levels and salinity, including aqueducts to bring fresh water in from surrounding hills.8 Still, even with their significant engineering accomplishments, they could never achieve complete mastery over this complex hydrology and its unpredictable flows. Under Spanish rule, the old Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, conflicted like never before with the lacustrine environment upon which it was built. The Spaniards largely (though not entirely) failed to appreciate the intricacy of those indigenous works, and they suffered the consequences of severe flooding and saltwater intrusion into their fresh water supply with far greater frequency than did their predecessors.9 The Europeans’ environmental interventions significantly transformed the basin’s ecolog, and further exacerbated the city’s already difficult hydraulic situation. Reflecting on his earliest impressions of the Aztec city, 16th-century chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote, “I was never tired of looking at the diversity of the trees, and noting the scent which each one had, and the paths full of roses and flowers, and the many fruit groves.” A few years later, he perceived a different reality: “Of all these wonders that I then beheld, today it is all overthrown and lost, nothing left standing.”10 Severe deforestation of the hills ringing the basin had led to erosion, which, in turn, filled the lakes (Texcoco in particular) with sediment, making them further prone to floods that easily reached into the city center. Inundations thus increased in frequency and scale.

In the early 1600s, a series of floods practically destroyed the city. This prompted a number of massive-scale drainage projects, including what later became the Gran Canal de Desagüe (The Great Drainage Canal), parts of which continue operating to this day. Despite such efforts, the waters that remained in Lake Texcoco would continue to lap at the doors of downtown residents on and off throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Bailing water from one’s premises was just a part of life in the capital.

Mexico City’s tense relationship with its surrounding lakes was not the only way that visible surface waters and quotidian life intersected. Water infrastructure created an important node in the circuitry of human-hydraulic interactions. Open canals, drains, acequias, fountains, and aqueducts made water a highly visible part of what it meant to be a city dweller even into the early 20th century. The Chapultepec aqueduct (Fig. 1), with its nearly 1,000 masonry arches, delivered a potable supply from the springs at Chapultepec into the Salto de Agua fountain, not far from the Zócalo. Another primary source was the springs in the hills to the southwest, from both the Santa Fe and the Desierto and Los Leones areas. Despite the high quality and robust flow of those springs, the Santa Fe and Desierto aqueduct assemblage, at over 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) in length, was frequently under repair and unreliable. Its waters were put to so many different uses and subsequently returned to the primary canal that quality was generally quite poor.11 Water gave life to the city and was also directly tied to its insalubrity.

The History and Visual Culture of Mexico City’s Xochimilco Potable Water System during the PorfiriatoClick to view larger

Figure 1. Chapultepec aqueduct, 20th century (reconstruction of original colonial structure), Avenida Chapultepec, Mexico City.

(Photographs by Jeffrey M. Banister, 2015.)

For most capitalinos, public and private fountains remained the only source of fresh water. Landing a merced de agua, a royal water concession, for one’s home or business required time, elite connections, and, most of all, money. There were the many fees required to properly fill out official paperwork and grease the wheels of bureaucracy. Then came the large costs associated with building the infrastructure to conduct water from typically distant government works to private structures. In the late 18th century, in this city of around 150,000 people, probably less than 5 percent enjoyed direct access to a piped supply.12 Securing fresh water thus frequently took capitalinos outside of their homes and places of work, putting them in contact with one another, with people from different social strata, and with a wide range of hydraulic-control objects and infrastructures.

At the same time, water control infrastructure strongly defined the city’s urban outlines. One 19th-century observer noted that the aqueduct arches were beautiful, in many places strikingly high, and seemed to delineate a kind of garden space environment around the haciendas and orchards on the outskirts of town (areas that are now essentially part of the city center). Canals and aqueducts acted as barriers to transportation as well as conduits. As was often the case, new or repaired roadways accompanied waterworks, opening carriage access to many of those outlying areas.13 Walking the city today, one can still glimpse the historical role of hydraulic infrastructure in shaping its urban spaces, though this kind of “tour” requires significant effort and some basic knowledge of urban history and geography.

Despite the ongoing and substantial investment in infrastructure, desired improvements in water quality and quantity either failed to materialize or produced a boomerang effect of unforeseen and quite negative consequences. These, in turn, required further intervention. Sometime around the mid-18th century, the city began drilling wells and aggressively tapping artesian springs across the basin. What was originally seen as a “salvation” soon became the “tremendous nightmare of ground subsidence” that resulted from aquifer overdraft.14 In 1858, around twenty new wells were augmenting the overall supply of surface water.15 As of 1883, close to 500 artesian springs had been tapped for the potable delivery infrastructure.16 A mere three years later, Mexico City’s ayuntamiento had perforated around 1,100 wells. Excessive pumping caused water levels to drop precipitously. In a vicious negative cycle of social-environmental feedback, falling groundwater levels in turn required ever more powerful pumps to pull the water from even greater depths. One such pump had been installed at Chapultepec to bring waters from springs that had rarely faltered since the time of the Aztecs. According to a 1905 report to the Ayuntamiento, the insatiable machine had consumed 444,839 kilograms (980,702 pounds) of firewood in the month of August alone, during which time it had run without stop.17 At this scale, steam power was indeed a significant driver of deforestation and overall environmental transformation.

Combined with the many hundreds of wells, the basic dual structure of potable water18—Chapultepec and the Santa Fe/Desierto de los Leones aqueducts—remained in place until just before the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, in 1910. By that time, the capital had been hit by successive waves of severe water shortage and, related to this, intensive hydraulic conflict. The Archivo Histórico del Distrito Federal (AHDF) contains thousands of pages documenting water-related struggles among city government, neighborhoods, factories, and private water concessionaires.19 In 1878, during President Porfirio Díaz’s first term in office, the city had suffered such widespread water scarcity that officials for the first time decided to utilize all of the available flow from the Desierto and Leones aqueduct. It was a bold but controversial move.

Several haciendas and fincas depended on this infrastructure for irrigating fields, orchards, and gardens. The decision thus prompted immediate outcry from those who held longstanding water concessions. Combined with numerous other conflicts, litigation began to consume the city council’s efforts. The battle over the Leones aqueduct ultimately reached the Supreme Court, which ordered the city to settle with at least some of the claimants.20 Along with widespread shortages, water quality was also notoriously poor throughout the city. Medical doctors, scientists, and engineers, influenced by advances in the field of bacteriology, noted that excessively high bacteria counts were the source of widespread disease.21 These kinds of quantity and quality problems became so acute, the complaints and legal conflicts so numerous and complex, that officials and engineers began desperately seeking a definitive solution. What they hoped for was a new, reliable supply of clean, or “potable,” water, and a delivery infrastructure that would meet the capital’s needs for decades to come. The current structure of potable water provision was obviously unsustainable, and citizens everywhere clamored for an immediate solution. A “solution,” it turns out, had been in the works for some time.

The Advent of “Modern Water” and the Obras de Provisión de Aguas Potables de Xochimilco

In the early 1880s, Doctor Antonio Peñafiel, a highly regarded statistician and scientist, and Lamberto Asiain received a commission from the Ministry of Development (Fomento) to study Mexico City’s hydraulic infrastructure, the quality of its potable waters, and the relationship of water quality to disease. The study confirmed what many suspected: water quality was at the root of myriad urban public health problems. For Peñafiel and Asiain, “Potable waters should be: transparent and diaphanous, uncolored, without odor, fresh, and of an agreeable and light flavor, aerated, or with oxygenated air, and as far as possible without organic materials.”22 Mexico City’s existing infrastructure delivered the exact opposite of this. Their study did find high-quality water emanating from the springs that fed into Lake Xochimilco, located in the south of the basin.

Peñafiel and Asiain suggested that the waters’ high quality made them more suitable than any other source for the city’s primary potable supply. Moreover, they found that their flow volume was sufficient to cover the needs of foreseeable population growth (later to be revealed as a highly mistaken conclusion). In other words, Peñafiel and Asiain were some of the earliest and certainly most influential scientists to make a formal case for the “potability” of Xochimilco’s waters. In so doing, they laid down a scientific and, importantly, a visual, basis for understanding and assessing potability and for creating a set of hydraulic works to extract and export the kinds of waters that met their criteria.

Their investigation laid the ground for an understanding of what some have called “modern water.” This signifies a movement away from previous (“premodern”) understandings of water as heterogeneous (“waters”) and inseparable from the particularities of place, toward an abstract ideal of water as a singular “natural” substance with little connection to the landscapes or infrastructures through which it passes.23 Peñafiel’s study can thus be understood as a “constitutional moment whereby old forms of knowing and relating to water were ‘translated’ and ‘purified’ for the modern water user.”24 The study also established in contemporary scientific terms a parallel between Xochimilco and the idea of modern potable water: “nature” had placed those waters in Xochimilco for the general benefit of the capital, 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) away.25 All that was needed was an equally modern hydraulic network to extract and deliver them.

Around 1900, there were two competing proposals on the table for such a network that purported to solve once and for all the capital’s potable water woes. One came from an American, William McKenzie, who held a concession for springs near the town of Almoloya, 60 kilometers (37.2 miles) and a mountain range to the east, in the state of Mexico. The springs there form part of the headwaters that feed into the Río Lerma. McKenzie proposed a series of open canals and a closed steel tubing aqueduct to bring the water in, using the change in elevation between the two locations to generate hydroelectric power for the fast-growing city.26 McKenzie’s would be the first hydraulic works to import—or “transfer,” in today’s engineering parlance—waters from another watershed into the closed hydrographic Basin of Mexico. The other proposal came from a civil engineer and professor in the National School of Engineering, Manuel Marroquín y Rivera. It called for tapping the voluminous springs of Xochimilco, around 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) to the south of the city center. Backed by Peñafiel’s and Asiain’s study, and generally enjoying the support of the Díaz administration, Marroquín’s plan prevailed. By 1905, the Obras de Provisión de Aguas Potables de Xochimilco were well underway.

The Obras, projected in Marroquín’s map (Fig. 2), were more or less complete by 1913. They covered a large swath of the basin’s landscape with a diverse array of hydraulic-control objects and infrastructure, including an enclosed aqueduct and an entirely new steel tubing network for connecting homes and businesses to the water system. The Xochimilco structure was unprecedented in Latin America for its scale and decidedly modern in scope. Using the latest advances in electrical engineering, pump design, and cement technology, Marroquín and his engineers developed a formed and steel-reinforced concrete aqueduct to span the distance between the springs and the city’s western edge. The aqueduct’s diameter was an impressive 1.5 meters (5 feet).

The History and Visual Culture of Mexico City’s Xochimilco Potable Water System during the PorfiriatoClick to view larger

Figure 2. Proyecto de Abastecimiento de Aguas para la Ciudad de México, 1901, 121.5 × 64 cm (47.8 × 25.2 in.).

(Courtesy Archivo Histórico del Distrito Federal, Mexico City.)

Placed in series at the different Xochimilco spring sites along the southern shore of the lake, four ornately decorated pump houses, or plantas de bomba, pumped water into the aqueduct (Fig. 3). From there it traveled by gravity and the force of the pumps slightly downhill toward its final destination before finally moving into the new city network. Near the end of the line, in the Condesa neighborhood, was the largest and most complexly decorated of the plantas. Condesa contained a series of the most powerful electric-drive pumps designed to push water the final 40 meters (131 feet), all uphill, to a series of four enormous formed-concrete storage tanks. The tanks had been built at El Molino del Rey, an area known today as the “Second Section” (Sección Dos) of Chapultepec Park. They remain in place and continue to function as part of the city’s overall potable delivery structure.

The History and Visual Culture of Mexico City’s Xochimilco Potable Water System during the PorfiriatoClick to view larger

Figure 3. Plano que muestra la localización de las obras exteriores y terrenos irrigados con aguas del Canal Nacional.

(From Marroquín y Rivera, 1914, p. 114.)

Marroquín built the storage tanks there to take advantage of the site’s higher elevation compared to the rest of the city. Each is just fewer than 100 meters (328 feet) in diameter, with a capacity of 52,000 cubic meters (171,000 cubic feet). The tanks, in turn, fed water into and thus pressurized the expanding urban water grid. According to Marroquín, the system was designed to service 12,000 of the city’s formally registered 14,000 houses that were either connected or soon to be drawn into the new water network.27 By 1913, the total cost of the Obras was the huge sum of 19 million pesos (around 250 million current U.S. dollars).28 Even with the system’s many failures and shortcomings, which would emerge not long after its inauguration, piped water was available for the first time to far more of the city’s residents and not just to the elite. The increase in water pressure also allowed for the construction of taller buildings throughout the city, for until that time there were no reliable or affordable mechanical means to push water into upper stories. Excessive pumping of Xochimilco’s springs (which continues in the present) dramatically transformed the area’s ecological and social relationships developed over millennia.29

Porfirian Visual Culture and the System in the Landscape: A Survey of Primary Objects

With its multiple structures dispersed along a 30 kilometer (18.6 miles) diagonal corridor across the basin—not to mention the subterranean pipe system built across Mexico City proper to deliver water to commercial and domestic users—the Xochimilco Potable Water Supply was one of the largest scale public works projects built in the Mexico City entorno during the Porfiriato. Surprisingly, few researchers have studied this system. The Obras was completely in sync with the broad initiatives of the Porfirian administration, which were to: design efficient and modern urban infrastructures (for water delivery, sewage and flood water drainage, electricity, and communication systems); reshape and aggrandize the capital through the construction of new, beautiful buildings that were meant to be admired and observed (for example, in the buildings for the post office, communications ministry, geology and seismic institute, national asylum, national theater); and engineer a more healthful urban environment (for example, through public health regulations, construction of parks, green spaces, and promenades). What were these modern objects in the Xochimilco Potable Water supply? What did they look like? In what ways did they contribute to the expansion of the geography of public health?

The Xochimilco system was comprised of objects existing either above or below ground, or in some places a combination of both. There were: 5 pump houses, 2 valve houses, 30 or more ventilation chimneys connected to more than 28 kilometers (17.4 miles) of a primarily subterranean aqueduct, several overflow chambers, and 4 lanterns or access chambers connected to subterranean storage tanks.30 The Xochimilco system was designed by a team of engineers headed by Manuel Marroquín y Rivera (1865–1927). A team of architects, headed by Alberto J. Pani (1878–1955), designed its structures. Pani personally designed two pump houses (one in Xochimilco and one in Tacubaya), as well as the ventilation lanterns in Chapultepec.31

The Pump Houses

Four pump houses were constructed in the Federal District delegation of Xochimilco between 1906 and 1913. They were erected near the villages of San Luis Tlaxialtemaco (Fig. 4), Santa Cruz Acalpixca (Fig. 5), Santa María Nativitas (Fig. 6), and Santa María Tepepan (La Noria) (Fig. 7), about 1–2 kilometers (.6–1.2 miles) apart and above or adjacent to significant freshwater springs close to what was then the southwestern edge of Lake Xochimilco. San Luis is the most distant from, and La Noria the closest to, Mexico City. The pump houses were palatial in appearance and would have dominated the fairly flat, rural landscape in which they were situated. The buildings are about two stories high and well lit with multiple wood-framed windows of different sizes. Constructed primarily of the most modern material of the day, namely, reinforced concrete, the buildings were designed in historical, or “neo” styles, as were many of the new structures built during the Porfiriato, particularly in Mexico City itself.32

The History and Visual Culture of Mexico City’s Xochimilco Potable Water System during the PorfiriatoClick to view larger

Figure 4. San Luis Tlaxiatemalco, pump house.

From Marroquín y Rivera, 1914, p. 81.)

The History and Visual Culture of Mexico City’s Xochimilco Potable Water System during the PorfiriatoClick to view larger

Figure 5. Santa Cruz Acalpixca, pump house.

(From Marroquín y Rivera, 1910, p. 43.)

The History and Visual Culture of Mexico City’s Xochimilco Potable Water System during the PorfiriatoClick to view larger

Figure 6. Santa María Nativitas, pump house.

(From Marroquín y Rivera, 1914, p. 70.)

The History and Visual Culture of Mexico City’s Xochimilco Potable Water System during the PorfiriatoClick to view larger

Figure 7. Santa María Tepepan (La Noria), pump house.

(From Marroquín y Rivera, 1914, p. 51.)

Three of the pump houses evoke Renaissance palaces with their typical quoined and rusticated surfaces as well as rectangular floor plans. The fourth pump house—Nativitas—designed by Pani, is a synthesis of neo-Baroque and neo-Romanesque styles with a floor plan and decoration emulating a church with its rose window, nave, arms, crossing, and octagonal apse. The contours and styles of the exteriors also correspond to the hydraulic characteristics of the springs from which the pumps drew water. The engineering diagrams show that the shapes of the open water collection wells inside the buildings are either rectangular or octagonal. Two of the neo-Renaissance pump houses enclose rectangular collection wells, while the neo-Baroque/neo-Romanesque structure enclosed an octagonal well (San Luis did not have an exposed collection well).

A fifth pump house, also designed by Pani, was built in the new Colonia Condesa just southeast of Chapultepec Park in Tacubaya (Fig. 8). The building site was chosen for both engineering and financial reasons: it was proximate to the storage tank site and less expensive than land closer to the city center. The structure is situated on a triangular plot of land, toward the apex of which Pani oriented the grand façade of the building. Pani carried over the rusticated surface of some of the Xochimilco structures, although the decoration is far more elaborate and evocative of Baroque rather than Renaissance vocabularies. The enormous size of the building, much bigger than the Xochimilco structures, accommodates engineering works that collect and distribute the water from all four structures in the south. The impressive scale of the Condesa pump house approaches Porfirian public works, such as Palacio de Correos and the Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Obras Públicas downtown. And although primarily of reinforced concrete, similar to the Xochimilco structures, some sections of the Condesa pump house were veneered in marble.

The History and Visual Culture of Mexico City’s Xochimilco Potable Water System during the PorfiriatoClick to view larger

Figure 8. La Condesa, Tacubaya, pump house

(From Marroquín y Rivera, 1914, pp. 320–321.)

Pani designed an elaborate main façade at whose center was a massive entry in the shape of a triumphal arch originally intended to frame a monumental allegorical fountain (Fig. 9). Lack of funds and the politics of the Revolution resulted in the fountain not being built. Pani wrote in his autobiography that his design for the fountain was based on the Trevi fountain in Rome, designed in 1732 by Nicola Salvi and completed in 1762 by Pietro Bracci, and the Fontaine Saint-Michel in Paris, designed by Gabriel Davioud in 1858–1860. Pani’s fountain design can be seen in the photograph of the plaster maquette of the Condesa pump house published in Marroquín’s 1914 Memoria Descriptiva de las Obras de Provisión de Aguas Potables para la Ciudad de México.

The History and Visual Culture of Mexico City’s Xochimilco Potable Water System during the PorfiriatoClick to view larger

Figure 9. Allegorical fountain, La Condesa, pump house, plaster maquette.

(From Marroquín y Rivera, 1910, p. 85.)

Storage Tanks and Access Lanterns

The four enormous storage/regulating tanks are constructed below ground in what is now the second section of Chapultepec Park, northwest of Tacubaya, where the Condesa pump house was located. The tanks are nearly 100 meters (328 feet) in diameter and aligned along a northwest access. They are connected to both the Condesa pump house and the distribution pipes leading into the city. A concrete retaining wall about 2 meters (6.6 feet) high with inset panels reminiscent of pump house decoration encircled each tank. A small staircase aligned with the door in each access lantern allowed workers and visitors to enter the landscaped grounds covering the tank.

At the center of each tank is the access lantern, a continuation of a subterranean ventilation and access tower. The aboveground lanterns are circular-planned structures of reinforced cement, 12 meters (39 feet) tall and 5 meters (16.4 feet) in diameter at the base, narrowing to 3 meters (9.8 feet) ( (Figs. 10 and 11). These lanterns visually located the center of the huge subterranean tanks in the landscape above. Additionally, the spiral stairway within—accessed through the door in the lantern—allowed for crews to enter for inspections and repairs. An arcade of slender windows below the conical roof facilitated air exchange for pressure maintenance and clean air circulation. The roof is decorated with red and white diamond-shaped tiles in ferrous concrete. The cast iron and glass globe perched at the roof peak was designed to hold an arc lamp, creating a brilliant beacon when lit. The beacon was designed to illuminate the gardens that were to cover the ground above the tanks. Pani designed the lantern exteriors in an amalgam of neo-Moorish and neo-Baroque styles. The main section of the structure (ground level to bottom of the windows) is decorated with rustication and may be entered through an arch-framed doorway topped by a faux keystone.

The History and Visual Culture of Mexico City’s Xochimilco Potable Water System during the PorfiriatoClick to view larger

Figure 10. Access lanterns (above supply/regulation tanks), Chapultepec.

(From Marroquín y Rivera, 1910, p. 121.)

The History and Visual Culture of Mexico City’s Xochimilco Potable Water System during the PorfiriatoClick to view larger

Figure 11. Access lantern, with steps.

(From Marroquín y Rivera, 1914, p. 441.)

Aqueduct Ventilation Chimneys

Ventilation chimneys, also known as “breathers” or “ventilators,” were erected at regular intervals above the subterranean aqueduct that diagonally crossed the valley from Xochimilco in the south to Tacubaya in the northwest. These cylindrical, column-shaped structures, 5 meters (16.4 feet) in height and 1 meter (3.3 feet) in diameter, were closed at the top with a cap of steel screening to prevent atmospheric contamination from entering the aqueduct (Fig. 12). The chimneys allowed trapped air in the aqueduct line to escape and also provided access for repairs and inspections. Entry was by way of ground-level, cast iron registers installed on either side of the chimney column. The original design placed the chimneys .333 meter (1.1 foot) apart, though the distance between the actually built structures is somewhat variable; distance markers were carved into small plaques near the base of each chimney. The shaft was smooth, gray, cast concrete, with cantera facing at the base to create a decorative pedestal, as well as at the top, or capital, of the column shaft, typically in a contrasting color (e.g., rose). The simplicity of the base and capital recalls the doric, or simplest, of the classical orders. The three-banded decoration at the top of the shaft features four small circular disks placed every 45 degrees. These disks recall similar elements in the banding on the storage tank access lanterns in Chapultepec.

The History and Visual Culture of Mexico City’s Xochimilco Potable Water System during the PorfiriatoClick to view larger

Figure 12. Breather (ventilation chimney); aqueduct line. (Left: From Marroquín y Rivera, 1914, p. 218. Right: From Marroquín y Rivera, 1910, p. 58.)

Valve House

Just east of the Chapultepec storage tanks is a valve house that received water from the Condesa pump house and pushed it, uphill, into the four tanks (Fig. 13). This reinforced concrete structure is about 20 meters (65.6 feet) tall and designed in the manner of a domed rotunda. Like the roof of the lanterns above the storage tanks, its arcade of windows (crowning the dome) is topped by a cast iron–encased glass globe whose light also would have illuminated the surrounding gardens. The surface of the exterior walls is molded to mimic masonry and is similar to the pump houses in Xochimilco. Its door and window frames replicate those of the nearby lanterns.

The History and Visual Culture of Mexico City’s Xochimilco Potable Water System during the PorfiriatoClick to view larger

Figure 13. Valve House, Chapultepec. (Left: From Marroquín y Rivera, 1910, p. 106. Right: From Marroquín y Rivera, 1914, p. 452.)

On the one hand, as a whole, the various objects in the system would appear to be as morphologically and stylistically diverse as they are dispersed across the landscape. The neo-styles include: neo-Renaissance, neo-Baroque, neo-Romanesque, neo-Classical, and neo-Moorish. They could thus be seen to parallel the diversity of styles and functions of Porfirian architecture writ large. On the other hand, the architects also took care to carry over certain features that to greater or lesser degrees visually link the objects and, thus, the entire water delivery system. For example, the different types of rustication, keystones, and lanterns tidy together the access lanterns and valve house in Chapultepec. The rectangular plans and neo-Renaissance facades of four of the five pump houses project an image of uniformity. Circular disks decorate the access lanterns above the Chapultepec tanks and the ventilation chimneys above the aqueduct, creating a sense of visually and physically integrated or networked space across the valley.

Certainly, neo-styles characterized major public works globally around 1900, notably in the Croton Aqueduct, whose extension was completed in 1906 to supply New York City, and by the Marathon Dam, completed in 1925 to bring water to Athens, Greece.33 The latter features an array of visual languages including neo-Romanesque and neo-Egyptian; the former is emphatically neo-Classical with direct references to ancient Greek structures. Like the Xochimilco system, these public works traversed miles of terrain, effectively extending the political reach of the capital as well as symbolic boundaries of the city and, in turn, naturalizing the center’s claim to control distant resources. Neo-styles, then, are not merely a period or chronological characteristic but an integral part of the functional effect of the whole system. If the engineering infrastructure impounds the water itself, the visual and spatial effects of the system impound, it might be said, the landscape, which is a specifically modern landscape. At the same time, the neo-styles conjured up powerful ancient, imperial cultures that annexed resources for the capital.

Exemplary of the Mexican water system in this process are the pump houses in Xochimilco, the ventilation chimneys marking the route of the cross-valley aqueduct, and the access lanterns above the storage and regulation tanks in Chapultepec. The four majestic pump houses in Xochimilco are adjacent to luxurious springs. Their landscaped grounds transformed rural, often publicly accessible, lands into controlled spaces, similar to the parks and green space projects initiated in Mexico City itself, most notably in Chapultepec Park. The style, materials, and scale of these buildings were associated with the capital, as were the engineers and other officials who monitored the machinery inside. Local waters and users of the waters of Xochimilco were colonized by the city; water was rendered as tribute to the capital. Like never before, Xochimilco became an outpost of the central government in Mexico City. Connecting the two was the 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) of aqueduct line; marking the roadway was the series of ventilation chimneys. These were uniform, imposing, and would have been dramatically visible across and as part of the landscape.

The breathers and aqueduct also both entrenched and reoriented the spatial relationship between the city and the Basin of Mexico over all. Their construction required the creation of a new transportation corridor from the capital into the southern limits of the Federal District. The route runs along what is today the Avenida División del Norte, dovetailing with the light rail line on the Calzada de Tlalpan, which in turn ends at the station in Xochimilco. Driving a car, taking the Metro, or riding the Tren Ligero into the south, one can thus locate the aqueduct line by looking for the handful of ventilation chimneys that remain along the way.

The access lanterns situated above the four massive water tanks exhibited the most eclectic visual components, from the heavy rustication of the bottom half to the upper half with its slender fenestration below the polychrome conical roof with its glass orb. These structures simultaneously project a sense of sturdy protection at the base and, in the window arcade and roof, the playfulness of kiosks and pavilions built in park and garden spaces in Mexico City and internationally around this period.

Kiosks and pavilions were typically open structures and accessed by steps. The arrangement of the lanterns in the space above the tanks, combined with the retaining wall and the little staircase, evokes these small-scale structures set in gardens associated with leisure and spaces of socialization. Thus, these buildings embody a double significance: the primary function of the space—namely the safe storage of water underground—and the secondary function of the landscaped and lit grounds—to provide healthful public spaces. Indeed, the project commission proposed to expand the grounds around the tanks, thereby increasing “good hygienic conditions” and expanding this “lovely park and covering with plants all of the terrain around the tanks.”34

These green spaces created by the embellished retaining walls were bounded by the rigid geometry of the circular tanks and, moreover, offered visitors no view of surface water as might be seen in reservoir of, for example, the Croton or Marathon systems. The Lago Mayor, one of several shallow lakes constructed by the Porfirian administration in 1910, was, within walking distance of the tanks, thus creating an aqueous association to the tank site. This lake, like the others built throughout what is now the first section of the park, invited visitors to boat on the water, walk around the lake’s perimeter, or sit and contemplate the view. Whereas water had long been associated with flooding and disease, this new introduction suggested quite the opposite view. The Xochimilco committee’s project to include gardens and lighting and to acquire more surrounding terrain is in line with the broader Porfirian initiatives for expanding green spaces across the city.35 In this way, the Xochimilco system’s primary nodes effectively link two green spaces and two sites of leisure, both associated with historically important water sources (visually or conceptually present to view).

Xochimilco had long been a destination for elite leisure seekers from the city proper, while Chapultepec was already historically famous among visitors seeking respite and rejuvenation within its massive cypress forest and natural springs. The Porfirian project augmented the park’s aquatic reputation with the building of manmade lakes. Xochimilco was historically associated with its system of canals and so-called floating gardens (chinampas). The Potable Water System’s splendid pump houses sat on or close to the famous, springs whose clean and healthful waters would be pushed through the system. Both sites were engineered to attract visitors by train or tram, thereby enhancing an association between an apparent plentitude of water and elite activities. Compare the similarities, for example, in period photos of the Casa del Lago in Chapultepec built in 1908 on the shore of the park’s Lago Grande and of the water system’s pump house in San Luis, Xochimilco (Fig. 14). The latter was home to the newly established Automobile Club of Mexico; the former, a palatial shell around state-of-the art electric, mechanical, and hydraulic engineering. These are ironic mirror images of each other and resonate with views of lake houses and boating scenes found in multiple publishing formats in the 19th century. In the one, an artificial lake naturalizes its surroundings; in the other, the engineering project is naturalized by the spring.

The History and Visual Culture of Mexico City’s Xochimilco Potable Water System during the PorfiriatoClick to view larger

Figure 14. Top: Vista Parcial del Lago de Chapultepec (Casa del Lago, Automobile Club of Mexico, 1908). (From Garcia, 1911, p. 289; Bottom: Santa Cruz Acalpixca. (From Marroquín y Rivera, 1910, p. 43.)

Tracing the Waterlines after Xochimilco

By the 1920s, despite the significant increase in potable water coverage, the shortcomings of the Xochimilco supply network were already apparent. The Obras could hardly keep up with the city’s growth, and several structural and design flaws had presented significant problems for day-to-day operations. Nonetheless, potable water, streamed directly into private homes and businesses, had already become a taken-for-granted urban service, at least by most of those in the center part of the city where the Obras delivered much of its overall flow volume.36 Compared to the privileged handful of elites who enjoyed the benefits of a mercedes de agua during the colonial period, the Obras had made water available many people without financial means and political connections. In a way, then, the system significantly democratized access to water.37 Inhabitants of outlying areas were also clamoring for what they believed to be a basic right to piped potable water.

Such expectations, and the inability of city services to fulfill them, became a significant force in municipal politics. Matters came to a crescendo in November of 1922. It was late in the evening when one of the Obras’s big pumps went down. The tanks at Dolores were probably full to capacity, but while engineers worked to bring the system back on line, it took less than 24 hours to run through the entire stored supply and drain them dry. There were no reliable alternatives to the Xochimilco potable supply, for the system had been engineered as a silver-bullet solution to the city’s future water needs and as a way to eliminate the previous provision structures. On November 30, panicky urbanites, rallying in front of downtown city offices, demanded the restoration of water service. Violence erupted.38

By that time, officials had resurrected William McKenzie’s original 1901 proposal to import water from the lakes and springs of the upper Lerma River basin, in the State of Mexico. This included several overtly political maneuvers to appropriate those waters as well.39 The Lerma system finally was inaugurated in 1951 with a ceremony at the Cárcamo de Dolores, in the “Second Section” of Chapultepec Park (Fig. 15). The new system utilized the original Xochimilco Obras storage tanks at Dolores and was thus grafted onto the earlier potable infrastructure. A driving assumption behind the so-called Porfirian Paradigm—namely, that modern technology and infrastructure would simply obviate the need for what came before—once again proved false. The Lerma System was (and is) a complex assemblage of old and new infrastructures, worldviews, and assumptions.

The History and Visual Culture of Mexico City’s Xochimilco Potable Water System during the PorfiriatoClick to view larger

Figure 15. Ricardo Rivas, Cárcamo de Dolores, 1951 and Diego Rivera, Tláloc Fountain, Diego Rivera, 1951, Chapultepec.

(Photograph by Jeffrey M. Banister, 2015.)

There was now another important articulation that went beyond the realm of water control proper. This was a novel combination of the old and new hydraulic infrastructure, urban morphology, and a vastly expanded geography of potable water sources for the city. The new Lerma System waterworks at Chapultepec honored the original intent of Marroquín and the designers of the Xochimilco Obras by approaching the area as a kind of green space and as a museum space for recounting the official story of water. The Cárcamo de Dolores is a domed valve-house structure, designed by architect Ricardo Rivas, covering a water tank adorned with a mural cycle and a mosaic fountain, both designed by Diego Rivera. Together, these objects and structures tell that story. But, for the first time, satiating the needs of the fast growing capital also meant the “importation” of water from far outside the Basin of Mexico.40

Officials understood the momentousness of this shift in worldview and practice, and they contracted Rivas and Rivera to offer a visual interpretation—a celebration of engineering prowess and the city’s greatness. Rivera’s stated purpose was to create the “plastic integration of the mural … the Tlaloc fountain, and the building architecture in the context of the Lerma system.” Rivas, meanwhile, understood his building to work with the murals and fountain. He sought to create a “new aesthetic formula” that would articulate the work of painters, sculptors, architects, and engineers to “demonstrate the distinctive symbolic, scientific, and historic aspects of water in culture.” The Cárcamo—with its mural, which Rivera called Water, the Origin of Life, and mosaic fountain, a reclined image of Tlaloc, the Aztec water deity—thus wove together an expansive narrative of biological origins, a search for ancient cultural roots, and a tale of modern technological triumph.41 It also engendered the tense relationship between the Federal District and the towns and villages that had traditionally utilized the Lerma springs, a relationship that continues to be problematic.42

Much of the Xochimilco infrastructure from the early 20th century is still visible if in some places hidden within the urban landscape, whether still delivering water just as originally designed or repurposed or integrated into the ever-expanding geography of museums and patrimony, thus delivering a particular view of water and nature. In 1976, the pump house in Condesa was dismantled to make way for the construction of a new building for the Secretaría de Comercio. Considered a building of historical significance, there resulted a project to store the sections of the building for later reconstruction. In 1986 the façade was integrated into the Casa de Cultura de Tlalpan, where it remains today.

In Xochimilco, all four pump houses are extant. Santa María Tepepan (La Noria) was repurposed as the Central Cultural Carlos Pellicer and inaugurated in 1985.

The spring once adjacent to it has long since dried up, and it is the site of a small sunken amphitheater, whose depression was formed by subsidence. Santa Cruz Acalpixca houses the Museo Arqueológico de Xochimilco, although there is little signage that suggests its former purpose. San Luis Tlaxialtemalco has been incorporated into Centro de Educación Ambiental Acuexcómatl, an environmental educational park, where visitors may tour the pump house by appointment. The Nativitas pump house is in a state of disrepair but slated for restoration. A 2013 press release declared that Nativitas’s “contribution (of water) was of great help to the City of Mexico and today merits rescue”43 (Fig. 16).

The History and Visual Culture of Mexico City’s Xochimilco Potable Water System during the PorfiriatoClick to view larger

Figure 16. Pump houses today. Left to right, top to bottom: Santa Cruz Acalpixca; Santa María Nativias; Santa María Tepepan (La Noria); San Luis Tlaxiatemalco.

(Photographs by Jeffrey M. Banister, 2015.)

Most of the breathers marking the aqueduct line are also in place, some quite visible and accessible, others fenced off in overgrown medians. Some can be seen through the windows of a metro car (Line #2, Cuatro Caminos—Tasqueña) or of the Tren Ligero between Tasqueña and Xochimilco. In some areas, pathways have been created around them. All of the columns now bear metal tags that state: “It is prohibited to post advertisements and/or to paint (graffiti) on this work of historical value.” Graffiti abatement crews and graffiti artists are in constant battle for control of the smooth surface of the column shafts (Fig. 17). A Google Earth drive through Mexico City and the surrounding valley will allow you to find many of the objects in the system, if you know where to look.

The History and Visual Culture of Mexico City’s Xochimilco Potable Water System during the PorfiriatoClick to view larger

Figure 17. Newly painted breather and breather with graffiti, Coyoacán.

(Photographs by Jeffrey M. Banister, 2015.)

If you search for Chapultepec Park and zoom in on what is now Sección Dos, you will also find the great 100-meter (328-foot) circles marking the location of the storage and regulation tanks, which are still in use. The original concrete retaining wall was replaced in the 1960s with a low stone basin, known as the Serpent Fountain, that encircles each tank, the motif of which derives from the geometricized roof ornament in the adjacent Cárcamo. Fountain, tanks, and lanterns are not only visible from but in many ways made to be appreciated from the air, in an approaching or departing flight. As of July 2015, you will see in a Google Earth satellite photo that the once landscaped space, destined to expand Mexico City’s Porfirian park initiative, is quite dry and absent of all but scrubby weeds and grass. The four circular spaces show the effects of heavy foot traffic, mostly from playing soccer. In fact, the outlines of the pitches are also partially visible (Fig. 18).

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Figure 18. Leónides Guadarrama Architects, Serpent Fountain, detail, 1960s; Google Earth view, Chapultepec.

(Photographs by Jeffrey M. Banister, 2015.)

The photo in Figure 18 actually dates to 2001, as the satellite date makes clear. What cannot be seen in this view is the attempt to return these spaces to something of their original “green” intent. Today at the site you can see carefully arranged columnar cactus and agave plants covering the ground over large sections of the two inner tanks, numbers 2 and 3. These two tanks, along with the Cárcamo and its mural and fountain by Diego Rivera, are now part of the Museo Jardín del Agua. As the website of the Probosque de Chapultepec states, this museum—officially demarcated by several vertical vinyl banners on the site—is designed to raise awareness about the critical role of water and conservation. Additionally, the museum is designed to inform tourists about Mexico City’s water management and its urban artistic, scientific, and architectural patrimony (Fig. 19).

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Figure 19. Access lantern with cactus garden; Cárcamo de Dolóres with Museo Jardín del Agua banners.

(Photographs by Jeffrey M. Banister, 2015.)

Discussion of the Literature

The literature on the social and political dimensions of Mexican hydraulics is vast and includes a few excellent histories focused on water control, politics, and infrastructure. Several important publications also treat the topic in an oblique fashion. Though focused mostly on what is today the U.S. Southwest and Northwest Mexico, Michael Meyer’s Water in the Hispanic Southwest: A Social and Legal History, 1550–1850 stands out for its concise analysis of colonial policies and their legal and institutional legacies. Luis Aboites Aguilar is certainly the dean of Mexican hydraulic political history, and his book, El Agua de la Nación: Una Historia Política de México (1888–1946), is an excellent place to begin research on just about any dimension of the topic.44 In the early 1990s, Aboites and several of his students formed a water research group that has produced an impressively large and high quality corpus of research. Much of it is published by the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (Ciesas), at times in conjunction with the Colegio de Michoacán or the Secretaría de Educación Pública or the Comisión Nacional del Agua. Their work also led to the formation of the Archivo Histórico del Agua (AHA) in Mexico City (see below), housed in the old National Irrigation Commission building on Calle Balderas.45

Blanca Estela Suárez’s book, Dos Estudios sobre Usos de Agua en México (Siglos XIX y XX), and her edited volume, Historia de los Usos de Agua en México. Oligarquías, Empresas, y Ayuntamientos (1840–1940), offer path-breaking work on the modern history of water control in the Federal District and elsewhere in Mexico.46 Jonathan Kandell’s magisterial tome, La Capital: The Biography of Mexico City, provides some of the most complete coverage available of the city’s relationship to the lakes upon which it has developed, and in particular of the epic floods that have periodically threatened its foundations.47 Oziel Ulises’s excellent book, La Disputa por el Agua en la Ciudad de México, 1821–1880, amply covers the politics of urban water provision in Mexico City from independence to the late 1800s, a period of intense hydraulic conflict and the beginning of the turn away from the city’s colonial-era infrastructure.48 An important place to begin researching the early to mid-20th-century historical geography of Mexico City’s water system is also David J. Fox’s 1965 survey, “Man-Water Relationships in Metropolitan Mexico.”49 It is still the only work that covers its geographic dimensions in any depth.50 Indispensable to research on Xochimilco and the combined effects of groundwater exploitation and urbanization is Torrones López’s edited volume, A la Orilla del Agua: Política, Urbanización, y Medio Ambiente-Historia de Xochimilco en el Siglo XX.51

Scholarship on Porfirian Mexico City resonates closely with the present research essay, and in particular with its explorations of infrastructure and urban space. Here, four works stand out. First is Emily Wakild’s research into public parks, garden spaces, and drainage projects during the Porfiriato.52 Porfirian elites like Miguel Ángel de Quevedo and José Ives Limantour saw the human perfection of nature as a marker of modernity. Wakild writes that the positivism and scientific inclinations these men and others like them “began to concretely manifest in the corpus of their city. In a sense, [they] inscribed their … view of society as an organism onto the city’s layout and began to tinker with the body to create the health and morality they desired.”53

Next is Manuel Perló’s research on the Gran Canal de Desgüe, the centuries-old project to drain the Basin of Mexico and protect the city from floods. It was finally completed during the Díaz administration. Perló discusses what he calls the “Porfirian Paradigm,” an approach to infrastructure that equated modern technology with a boldness of scale and with administrative efficiency. A pivotal and quite erroneous assumption was that the new technologies becoming available at that time would render past practices obsolete.54

Patricia Romero Lankao, meanwhile, situates present-day Mexico City’s hydraulic structure in the context of a serious analysis of Porfirian-era waterworks. The current status of hydraulics in Mexico City, she makes clear, cannot be understood without a sense of its historical roots. Romero Lankao argues that the Porfirian approach both “consolidated a centralized, state-centered system of water management,” the social and political effects of which can still be felt, and “initiated a complete modification of the basin’s hydrological cycle.”55

Also centrally focused on the Gran Desagüe is historian Claudia Agostoni’s research that emphasizes the manner in which large-scale infrastructure altered capitalinos’ daily interactions and the nature of their connections to Mexico’s expanding bureaucracy.56 Equally if not more important, Agostoni supports Romero Lankao’s primary assertion that drainage, on the scale of the Desagüe, fundamentally altered the city’s historical relationship with its broader basin environment. The Desagüe failed to solve once and for all the city’s flooding problems, but it certainly did much to remove surface water from view and from people’s everyday experience.

This visual dimension of water is largely overlooked in the extant literature of 19th and 20th century Mexico, with the exception of a handful of studies coming out after 2000. Peter Krieger’s edited volume, Acuápolis, cited above, is the best example of this kind of innovative research. Krieger and the volume’s contributors understand well the historical importance of water control narratives to the shaping of a city with such hydraulic complexity.57 Histories of Mexico City, official and otherwise, almost invariably begin (and perhaps end) with an allusion to water. Issues of representation, representational technologies, water, and landscape are also highlighted in the 2012 MUNAL exhibition catalogue, Transformaciones del Paisaje Urbano en México.58 The exhibition upon which this catalogue is based presented multiple images in different media (from lithography to aerial photography), which, in some cases, highlighted the dramatic changes in the landscape in Mexico City and the Valley.

In a similar vein comes Andrés Reséndiz’s essay, “Lo Húmedo y Lo Seco: Fronteras y Polarización Social en la Plástica Mexicana del Siglo XIX.”59 Reséndiz shows how Lake Texcoco, on the city’s eastern flank, over time became stigmatized as an area of hazardous floods, putrefaction, and, by extension, as an area of moral depravity, corruption, and low class status. By the 19th century, the blame for such problems was laid squarely on the shoulders of the largely indigenous underclass populating and working in the area’s neighborhoods. Critically, the link between putrefied floodwaters and this underclass was supported visually in an array of period paintings and lithographs.60 We also have Citlali Salazar’s investigations into the relationship between 19th-century cartographic imaginaries and efforts to drain the lakes and control floods.61 Yet, apart from Salazar’s efforts and the research cited above, surprisingly little work exists on the nexus between physical interventions in the hydraulic landscape—that is, a diversity of infrastructures and space-shaping projects—and their representation in art, architecture, photography, etc.

As with most historical research on water control in Mexico City, this latter work on visual culture has, understandably, fastened upon drainage as its primary object of analysis. Drainage and potable provision are inextricable, particularly in Mexico City, where groundwater pumping and the desiccation of the ancient lakes together have dramatically altered the basin’s geology as well as the city’s form. A strikingly visual effect of this is the obvious subsidence that has damaged or destroyed buildings throughout the Centro Histórico and beyond. The authors of this article have also written about the advent of modern potable water in Porfirian Mexico City as operating within a highly visual register.62 Water delivery infrastructure, they suggest, is also simultaneously a highly visual infrastructure that delivers a particular set of views about hydraulic landscapes and various human interventions designed to control them. “Read” side by side with archival documents, remnants of this old infrastructure—from aqueducts to photo albums—can be searched for clues about the nature of this articulation and about how past interventions continue to shape present and future social-hydraulic outcomes.

Primary Sources

The most important primary sources are the extant objects of the Xochimilco Potable Waterworks, several of which are explored above. There are four primary texts describing the system. Marroquín’s initial project plans may be found in Proyecto de abastecimiento y distribución de aguas potables para la Ciudad de México presentado al Honorable Ayuntamiento de la misma (1901). This can be located in the Biblioteca Jaime Torres Bodet, in Mexico City, the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, and likely in a handful of other libraries and archives. The second source is the 1910 volume by Manuel Marroquín y Rivera, Obras de Provisión de Aguas Potables para la Ciudad de México. This is a small souvenir album published for distribution during the tour and inauguration of the system during the festivities of the 1910 Centennial of Independence. It is comprised primarily of construction photographs of the system with brief commentary intended for general public readers. The tour of the system is also described and illustrated with photographs in Genaro Garcia’s 1911 Crónica Oficial del Primer Centenario de Independencia de México—see in particular the section on “Obras Materiales” (pp. 212–215). The fourth and most crucial printed source is Marroquín’s 1914 Memoria Descriptiva de las Obras de Provisión de Aguas Potables para la Ciudad de México. This includes a long and detailed narrative of the project, with photos, plans of the structures, and a host of technical engineering information. Another important source is the online newspaper archive of the Hermeroteca of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

There are photographs of the centennial tour of the Xochimilco system in the Genaro García Collection (Part 3: Photographs; Fotografías del Centenario de la Independencia Mexicana, 1910) in the Nettie Lee Benson Library at the University of Texas, Austin. These appear to be outtakes and were not included in the final publication. There are some photos similar to those published in the García material as well as in the Marroquín volumes archived in the INAH Fototeca. The chief archival source for period information about water use, concessions, and complaints is to be found in the Archivo Histórico del Distrito Federal. The archives include correspondence and other official documents between the Federal District, Ayuntamiento, and local jurisdictions. The Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada is especially rich in periodical/newspaper information on Xochimilco and on city water issues more broadly, much of which has been cut and pasted to a separate archive.


This research was made possible with the support of an American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Collaborative Research Fellowship, 2014–2016. We also thank Kimberly Mast, Director of the Visual Resource Center, School of Art, University of Arizona, for her image wisdom and magic. Finally, we thank Dr. Hugo Arciniega, Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, UNAM, Dr. Esther Acevedo, INAH, and Dr. Emily Umberger of the University of Arizona, who have inspired our thinking and steered us to important resources.

Further Reading

Aboites, Luis. El Agua de la Nación: Una Historia Política de México (1888–1946) Mexico City: Ciesas/SEP, 1998.Find this resource:

Agostoni, Claudia. Monuments of Progress: Modernization and Public Health in Mexico City, 1876–1910. Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Aréchiga Córdoba, E. “De la Exuberancia al Agotamiento: Xochimilco y el Agua, 1882–2004.” In A la Orilla del Agua: Política, Urbanización, y Medio Ambiente-Historia de Xochimilco en el Siglo XX, edited by M. E. Terrones López. Mexico City: Gobierno del Distrito Federal, Delegación de Xochimilco y El Instituto Mora 2004.Find this resource:

Banister, Jeffrey M., and Stacie G. Widdifield. “The Debut of ‘Modern Water’ in Early 20th Century Mexico City: The Xochimilco Potable Waterworks.” Journal of Historical Geography 46 (2014): 36–52.Find this resource:

Banister, Jeffrey M., and Stacie G. Widdifield. “Seeing Water in Early 20th-Century Mexico City: Henry Wellge’s ‘Perspective Plan of the City and Valley of Mexico, D.F., 1906.’” Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas 107 (2015): 9–37.Find this resource:

Bribiesca, José Luis. El Agua Potable en la República Mexicana. Mexico City: Talleres Gráficos de la Nación, 1959.Find this resource:

Fox, David J. “Man-Water Relationships in Metropolitan Mexico.” American Geographical Society 55.4 (1965): 523–545.Find this resource:

García, Genaro. Crónica Oficial del Primer Centenario de Independencia de México. Mexico City: Gobierno de México, 1911.Find this resource:

Krieger, Peter, ed. Acuápolis. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México/Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, 2007.Find this resource:

Linton, Jamie. What Is Water? The History of a Modern Abstraction. Vancouver, UK: University of British Columbia Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Marroquín y Rivera, Manuel. Obras de Provisión de Aguas Potables para la Ciudad de México. Mexico City: Juan Aguilar Vera, 1910.Find this resource:

Marroquín y Rivera, Manuel. Memoria Descriptiva de las Obras de Provisión de Aguas Potables para la Ciudad de México. Mexico City: Secretaría de Fomento, 1914.Find this resource:

Peñafiel, Antonio, and Lamberto Asiain. Memoria sobre las Aguas Potables de la Capital de México. Mexico City: Secretaría de Fomento, 1884.Find this resource:

Perló Cohen, Manuel. El Paradigma Porfiriano: Ensayo sobre la Construcción del Desagüe del Valle de México. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1999.Find this resource:

Reséndiz, Andrés. “Lo Húmedo y lo seco: fronteras y polarización social en la plástica mexicana del siglo xix.” Anales del Instituto de Investigaciónes Estéticas 83 (2003): 77–98.Find this resource:

Romero Lankao, Patricia. Obra Hidráulica en la Ciudad de México y su Impacto Socio-Ambiental, 1880–1990. Mexico City Instituto Mora, 1999.Find this resource:

Salazar, Citlali. “La Inundación en el Sur de la Cuenca de México a través de la Imágen Cartográfica (1866–1869).” Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas 98 (2011): 107–153.Find this resource:

Suárez, Blanca Estela. Dos Estudios sobre Usos de Agua en México (Siglos XIX y XX). Mexico City: Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social/Instituto Mexicana de Tecnología del Agua, 1997.Find this resource:

Suárez, Blanca Estela. Historia de los Usos de Agua en México. Oligarquías, Empresas, y Ayuntamientos (1840–1940). Mexico City: Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social/Instituto Mexicana de Tecnología del Agua, 1998.Find this resource:

Wakild, Emily. “Naturalizing Modernity: Urban Parks, Public Gardens and Drainage Projects in Porfirian Mexico City.” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 23.1 (Winter 2007): 101–123.Find this resource:

Wakild, Emily. Revolutionary Parks: Conservation, Social Justice, and Mexico’s National Parks, 1910–1940. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011.Find this resource:


(1.) “México, Primer Lugar en Consumo de Agua, Embotellada,” La Prensa, July 27, 2015.

(2.) Peter Krieger, Acuápolis (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México/Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, 2007).

(3.) Krieger, Acuápolis, 47.

(4.) See Krieger, Acuápolis.

(5.) Personal communication, June 2013.

(6.) Krieger, Acuápolis, 87.

(7.) Krieger, Acuápolis, 19.

(8.) See José Luis Bribiesca, El Agua Potable en la República Mexicana. Mexico City: Talleres Gráficos de la Nación, 1959); see also Antonio Peñafiel and Lamberto Asiain, Memoria sobre las Aguas Potables de la Capital de México (Mexico City: Secretaría de Fomento, 1884).

(9.) Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Conquest of New Spain (New York: Penguin, 1963); Vera S. Candiani, Dreaming of Dry Land: Environmental Transformation in Colonial Mexico City (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014); Isabel Del Valle, “On Shaky Ground: Hydraulics, State Formation, and Colonialism in Sixteenth-Century Mexico,” Hispanic Review (2009): 197–220); Michael W. Mathes, “‘To Save a City’: The Desagüe of Mexico-Huehuetoca, 1607,) The Americas 26 (1970): 419–438; Ángel Palerm, “Obras Hidráulicas Prehispánicas en el Sistema Lacustre del Valle de México,” in México Prehispánico: Ensayos sobre Evolución y Ecología, ed. Carmen Viqueira (Mexico City: Conaculta, 1990), 185–443.

(10.) Cited in Joseph Kandell, La Capital: The Biography of Mexico City (New York, Random House, 1988), 197.

(11.) Peñafiel and Asian, Memoria.

(12.) Bribiesca, El Agua Potable, 49, offers several insightful observations and calculations about water availability during the early to mid-19th century.

(13.) Bribiesca, El Agua Potable.

(14.) Bribiesca, El Agua Potable, 56.

(15.) Bribiesca, El Agua Potable, 48.

(16.) Peñafiel and Asiain, Memoria, 51.

(17.) Informe al C. Secretario del Ayuntamiento. Memoria y Listas de los Trabajos ejecutados por la dirección de las aguas durante el mes de agosto de 1902, 9 septiembre 1902. Archivo Histórico del Distrito Federal (hereafter, AHDF), Fondo, Ayuntamientos; Volúmen, 42; Expediente, 600.

(18.) “Basic” because these two infrastructures constituted the core of the municipal water system. But there were other important pieces as well.

(19.) See in particular the AHDF’s Fondos: Ayuntamiento; Aguas Foráneas; and Aguas Municipales.

(20.) Carta al Señor Ministro de Gobernación de Tiburcio Montiel, 12 mayo 1880. AHDF: Volúmen, 51; Expediente, 23; Fojas, 265–268.

(21.) See Peñafiel and Asiain, Memoria; see also “La Cuestión de Aguas para la Capital,” El País, November 8, 1901.

(22.) Peñafiel and Asiain, Memoria, 158.

(23.) Derek Gregory, “Post-colonialism,” in The Dictionary of Human Geography, eds. R. J. Johnston et al. (London: Blackwell, 2000), 612–615; C. Hamlin, “‘Waters or Water’? Master Narratives in Water History and Their Implications for Contemporary Water Theory,” Water Policy 2 (2000): 313–325; Jamie Linton, What Is Water? The History of a Modern Abstraction (British Columbia: University of British Columbia Press, 2010).

(24.) Jeffrey M. Banister and Stacie G. Widdifield, “The Debut of ‘Modern Water’ in Early 20th Century Mexico City: The Xochimilco Potable Waterworks,” Journal of Historical Geography 46 (2014): 42.

(25.) Banister and Widdifield, “Debut.”

(26.) “La cuestión de aguas.”

(27.) Information for this paragraph is largely drawn from E. Aréchiga Córdoba, “De la Exuberancia al Agotamiento: Xochimilco y el Agua, 1882–2004,” in A la Orilla del Agua: Política, Urbanización, y Medio Ambiente-Historia de Xochimilco en el Siglo XX, ed. M. E. Terrones López (Mexico City: Gobierno del Distrito Federal, 2004), 97–149; and from Manuel Marroquin y Rivera, Memoria Descriptiva de las Obras de Provisión de Aguas Potables para la Ciudad de México (Mexico City: Secretaría de Fomento, 1914).

(28.) The total in pesos is in Bribiesca, El Agua Potable, 69; for the 1913 peso-to-dollar rate, see M. A. Denzel, Handbook of World Exchange Rates, 1590–1914 (London: Ashgate, 2010).

(29.) Aréchiga, “Exuberancia.”

(30.) Marroquín y Rivera, Memoria Descriptiva.

(31.) Alberto J. Pani, Apuntes Autobiográficos (Ciudad de México: Secretaría de Gobernacieon/Instituto Nacional de Estudios Históricos de la Revolución Mexicana, 2003, pp. 53–54.

(32.) For examples of Porfirian architecture, see A. Bonnet Correa, La Arquitectura de la Epoca Porfiriana. Cuadernos de Arquitectura y Conservación del Patrimonio Artistico. Mexico City: Secretaría de Educación Pública and Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes 1980; G. García, Crónica Oficial del Primer Centenario de Independencia de México México City: Secretaría de Gobernación 1911; I. Katzman Arquitectura del Siglo XIX en México Mexico City: Centro de Investigaciones Arquitectónicas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México 1973; T. F. Reese and C. M. Reese, Revolutionary Urban Legacies: Porfirio Díaz’s Celebrations of the Centennial of Mexican Independence in: 1910, Arte, Historia e Identidad en América: Visiones Comparativas, Mexico City; Conaculta and Curare (1994) 361–373; and M. Tenorio Trillo, Mexico at the World’s Fairs: Crafting a Modern Nation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

(33.) On the Croton and Marathon systems, see Kevin Bone, Gina Pollara, and Gerard Koeppel, eds., Water-Works: The Architecture and Engineering of the New York City Water Supply (New York: Monacelli, 2006); Diane Galusha, Liquid Assets: A History of New York’s Water System (New York: Purple Mountain, 2002); Maria Kaika, “Dams as Symbols of Modernization: The Urbanization of Nature Between Geographical Imagination and Materiality,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 96.2 (2006): 276–301; and G. Mavrogonatou and K. Chatzis, “Marathon Dam: A Collaboration Between American and Greek Engineers,” Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 166.1 (February 2013): 13–24.

(34.) Marroquin y Rivera, Memoria Descriptiva, 396.

(35.) G. García, Crónica Oficial del Primer Centenario de Independencia de México (Mexico City: Gobierno de México, 1911); Emily Wakild, “Naturalizing Modernity: Urban Parks, Public Gardens and Drainage Projects in Porfirian Mexico City,” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 23.1 (Winter 2007): 101–123; Heath Massey Schenker, “Chapultepec Park and the Staging of Modern Mexico,” in Melodramatic Landscapes (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009), 67–116.

(36.) Ariel Rodríguez Kuri, “Desabasto de agua y violencia política: El motín del 30 de noviembre de 1922 en la Ciudad de México. Economía moral y cultura política,” in Formas de Descontento y Movimientos Sociales, Siglos XIX y XX (Mexico City: UAM-Azcapotzalco, 2005), 167–201.

(37.) We thank Dr. Hugo Arciniega of the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, for this insight.

(38.) For an analysis of the protest and its causes, see Rodríguez Kuri, “El motín.”

(39.) Rafael Silva, “Agua y Subordinación en la Cuenca del Río Lerma”.

(40.) For the villagers living near and dependent on the springs at Almoloya, and for many officials of the State of Mexico, the Lerma System’s “transfer” of water to Mexico City was nothing less than outright theft. See Silva, “Agua y Subordinación.”

(41.) La Crónica de Hoy, December 17, 2010.

(42.) Silva, “Agua y Subordinación.”

(44.) Luis Aboites, El Agua de la Nación: Una Historia Política de México (1888–1946) (Mexico City: Ciesas/SEP, 1998).

(45.) See also: Alain Musset, El Agua en el Valle de México, México: Pórtico de la ciudad de México (Mexico City: Centro de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos, 1992); Del Valle, “On Shaky Ground”; Palerm, “Obras Hidráulicas.”

(46.) Blanca Estela Suárez, Dos Estudios sobre Usos de Agua en México (Siglos XIX y XX) (Mexico City: Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social/Instituto Mexicana de Tecnología del Agua, 1997), and Historia de los Usos de Agua en México. Oligarquías, Empresas, y Ayuntamientos (1840–1940) (Mexico City: Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social/Instituto Mexicana de Tecnología del Agua, 1998).

(47.) Jonathan Kandell, La Capital: The Biography of Mexico City (New York: Random House, 1988).

(48.) Oziel Ulises Talavera Ibarra, La disputa por el agua en la Ciudad de México, 1821-1880 (Morelia: Gobierno del Estado de Michoacán, 2004).

(49.) David J. Fox, “Man-Water Relationships in Metropolitan Mexico,” Geographical Review 55.4 (October 1965): 523–545.

(50.) Luis Aboites Aguilar, La decadencia del agua de la nación: estudio sobre desigualdad social y cambio político en México (segunda mitad del siglo XX) (Mexico City: Colegio de México, 2009).

(51.) Terrones López, A la Orilla del Agua.

(52.) Emily Wakild, “Naturalizing Modernity: Urban Parks, Public Gardens and Drainage Projects in Porfirian Mexico City,” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 23.1 (Winter 2007): 101–123.

(53.) Wakild, Naturalizing Modernity, 110.

(54.) Manuel Perló Cohen, El Paradigma Porfiriano: Ensayo sobre la Construcción del Desagüe del Valle de México (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1999).

(55.) Patricia Romero Lankao, Obra Hidráulica en la Ciudad de México y Su Impacto Socio-Ambiental, 1880–1990 (Mexico City: Instituto Mora, 1999), 163

(56.) Claudia Agostoni, Monuments of Progress: Modernization and Public Health in Mexico City, 1876–1910 (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2003).

(57.) Krieger, Acuápolis.

(58.) Peter Krieger, Ana Garduño, and Eugenia Macías, Transformaciones del Paisaje Urbano en México (Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes/Madrid: Ediciones El Viso, 2012).

(59.) Andrés Reséndiz, “Lo Húmedo y lo seco: fronteras y polarización social en la plástica mexicana del siglo xix,” Anales del Instituto de Investigaciónes Estéticas 83 (2003): 77–98.

(60.) Reséndiz, “Lo Húmedo,” 80.

(61.) Citlali Salazar, “La Inundación en el Sur de la Cuenca de México a través de la Imágen Cartográfica (1866–1869), Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas 98 (2011): 107–153.

(62.) Jeffrey M. Banister and Stacie G. Widdifield, “The Debut of ‘Modern Water’ in Early 20th Century Mexico City: The Xochimilco Potable Waterworks,” Journal of Historical Geography 46 (2014): 36–52; Jeffrey M. Banister and Stacie G. Widdifield, “Seeing Water in Early 20th-Century Mexico City: Henry Wellge’s ‘Perspective Plan of the City and Valley of Mexico, D.F., 1906,’” Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas 107 (2015): 9–37.