The Portal de Santo Domingo take up the entirety of the west side of the Plaza de Santo Domingo. Remember, north of Belisario Domínguez, the name is technically the Plaza 23 de Mayo. Many Mexico City residents will tell you, there’s nothing quite so properly Santo Domingo as the Portales themselves.
The building has been also known as “the Portal of the Evangelists” since the early 19th century. This a reference to the scribes, typesetters, and printers who are believed to have moved in at about that time. The building is actually quite a bit older.
Probably intended originally as housing for the extended Santo Domingo community, it was designed and built by the architects Diego Pedraza and Juan Jaramillo in the 17th century. The buildings at República de Cuba 94 and 96, originally just one house have the date “1685” engraved into one of the stone arches. They were then known as the Portals of the Nativity and the “Old Coliseum.” The building was then extensively rebuilt in the 18th century.
But after Mexican Independence, the need in a less than widely literate population for letter writers grew exponentially. They undoubtedly began with feathers, and jars of ink. But later typewriters and various methods of printing moved in too. The “Evangelist” moniker took on a sinister meaning when, for a time, some of the vendors only made ends meet by dealing in counterfeit documents.
There is a legendthat Fidel Castro purchased a fake passport here in the 1950s. This allowed him to cross borders and plan the Cuban Revolution. But this is doubtless only a legend.
Mexico City restored the building in 1968, eliminating many of the alterations that had been made over the roughly 300 years of the building’s life. Today it’s still a major center for printing invitations, academic theses, and certain kinds of official certificates.
Not at all to be missed is the fact that Portal de Santo Domingo has also somehow sheltered some of the oldest “puestitos” in the City. Prior to our own age of plastic and tubular street stands, one making a living on a very small patch of real estate then would have needed a wooden booth. Many of them are still here with a few more scattered to the north of the Plaza in the shadows of the church next to Leandro Valle. It’s a wonderful part of a world worth looking into.