If you want to see Mexico City, you have to be prepared to spend a lot of time underground. Walking the crowded and buckling sidewalks takes forever. Taxis and buses of every size and condition sit endlessly in traffic honking their horns. With 20 million people, Mexico City is the world’s ninth largest metropolitan area sprawling across a Valley of Mexico basin surrounded by volcanic mountains.
What began in the 14th century on an island in Lake Texcoco as the capital of the Aztec Empire has grown to encompass 571 square miles. The lake was long ago drained and the center of the city today sits on water soaked silt and volcanic clay.
In 1985 an earthquake along the Pacific coast 250 miles southwest sent seismic waves all the way to the unstable bed of the city, damaging over 2500 historic buildings and killing an estimated 10,000 people. In the rainy season floods are frequent and parts of the city are sinking as much as eight inches a year.
Nonetheless, every day, 4.1 million riders take to the Mexico City subway system, not only because the fare is a mere 25 cents, but because it is the only logical way to navigate your way through the city.
Life in a Sardine Can
On my first day as an art explorer, I wanted to visit the hallowed homes of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in the Coyoacán neighborhood. When the famed couple lived there, Coyoacán was a pleasant outlying city, but, like many other suburbs, it has been subsumed in the city sprawl. I joined a throng of people––mostly students, laborers and peddlers––rushing through the station and pushed my way into a car.
I was the rare American. With barely room to stand or even find a pole to hang on, I noticed that nobody reads on the subway. But there is plenty of noise: friends talking to each other, hawkers selling their wares (marker pens, maps and Chiclets), and strangers battling for position. During rush hour, the Metro authorities set aside “women and children only” cars at the front of the train so they don’t get trampled under foot or molested under their clothes, but the hucksters pay little heed.
At stops along the way, the automated doors would bump open and closed a few times to encourage riders to get their limbs either in the train or out. But when it came time to leave, the train was off.
When I reached my destination, I emerged not into daylight but another tent city of peddlers, a virtual mini-mall of Mexican essentials: food, water and holy icons. (Willie Sutton’s admonition that he robbed banks because “that’s where the money is” applies to Mexican street vendors at subway entrances: that’s where the customers are.)
I walked almost a block before I could get my bearings, and walked many blocks more to where I wanted to go. But the good news is that wherever you are in Mexico City, these colorful street stalls are a sure sign a subway station is nearby.
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo
Diego and Frida’s marriage in 1929 was followed by many tumultuous years of infidelity, travel, divorce, remarriage, and, of course, art.
Casa Azul was always Frida’s house: the place where she grew up, where she retreated when Diego frequently enraged her, where she had an affair with exiled anti-Stalinist Leon Trotsky, and where she died. The walk from the subway station was long and confusing but the house was easy to find because of its stunning blue paint. On this sunny day, the pleasant courtyard and bright blue masked her tortured history that so graphically permeates her paintings – especially the self-portraits.
When they married, an artist/architect friend Juan O’Gorman bought two plots of land on the other side of Coyoacán (a damn long walk, let me tell you) and presented Diego with a bold idea to build two block shaped houses connected by what looks to be an early version of a skywalk.
He and Frida moved into this new arrangement – one house and studio for him (in blood red) and one for her (in her family blue).
His was bigger so that is where he worked and they entertained.
Hers was like a hideaway in comparison. Given their rough and tumble relationship, O’Gorman now seems a genius to have designed separate spaces for each.
Not far from Casa Azul is a museum dedicated to the third partner in the marriage.
The Trotsky Museum sits in the house he moved to after his affair with Frida and celebrates a man who was the intellectual force behind the 1917 Russian Revolution, second in command only to Lenin, only to be pushed out of power by Stalin.
During his lifetime, Trotsky was always on the ins or outs with someone. Under the czar, he twice escaped from prison in Siberia. Under Stalin he was deported to a half dozen countries, and finally welcomed to Mexico in 1935 to spend his last years with sympathetic friends like Diego, Frida, and other Mexican communists.
His house preserves the furnishings of his barebones intellectual life. In the end he had chickens in his courtyard and Stalin-hired assassins at his doorstep, one of whom successfully killed him with an ice pick to the head. But I’m glad I took the time . . . if only to rest my knees and feet in front of his tombstone.
Bosque de Chapultepec
I spent my remaining days in Mexico City in much the same way: dive down into the subway tunnels, surface into the smells and colors of street vendors, and walk walk walk to discover works of remarkable art.
Chapultepec Park, more commonly called the “Bosque de Chapultepec” (Chapultepec Forest), is the largest public park in Latin America. Only two subway stops away –practically right down the street – it was a fitting target for my next adventure.
The park includes the Mexico City Zoo, a Museum of Anthropology filled with Aztec artifacts and the Castillo de Chapultepec, a playground for emperors and dictators and later the official residence of the Mexican president. Since 1940, the castle has been the official history museum of Mexico although it sits high atop a rock hill and is approachable only by foot.
From the terraces of the former rulers’ home, the city and its broad Avenida Reforma glisten in a bright midday sun.
Inside, the carefully preserved rooms and elegant courtyards illustrate the fundamental dichotomy of Mexican history – the rich and powerful keep ruling while the peasants and poor keep revolting.
Nothing makes this more clear than the extraordinary José David Alfaro Siqueiros 4500 sq. ft. mural housed in its own room off the Castle depicting the revolution against the dictator Porfirio Diáz.
More history, more art, more walking, more irony. It turns out Siqueiros was personally involved in the first unsuccessful assassination attempt against Trotsky. And what we call the Mexican-American war included a famous battle here in 1847 in which U.S. General Winfield Scott stormed a garrison of cadets at the castle and six of them jumped to their death on the rocks below. The U.S. Marine Corps has commemorated the battle in its official anthem (“From the halls of Montezuma”) while Mexicans honor the six fallen cadets with a monument to the Niños Heroes who refused to surrender.
As you can imagine, we don’t come off too well in these murals.
The Avenida Reforma is a magnet for development.
High rises incorporate the new style of Mexican architecture and the Museum of Modern Art has beside the usual array of famous artists works by contemporary artists in a decidedly more whimsical vein.
The Centro Histórico
Although Chapultepec Park encompasses a half dozen museums, the Centro Histórico is where museums sit side-by-side in a broad path from the Parque Alameda (a once gated park for the rich like Gramercy Park still is in New York) to the vast concrete space of the Zócalo.
I walked the square on a Sunday when the National Cathedral, which faces out on the plaza, had scheduled masses one right after the other. The museums are all free on Sundays and they were full, none more so than the incredible Palacio de Belles Artes.
This Art Nouveau building sits on a corner across from the Alameda Park. Its art deco interior is made of Italian Carrera marble. A central sculpture by Italian Leonardo Bistolfi celebrates “Harmony” surrounded by pocket alcoves with other sculptures representing “Pain”, “Rage”, “Happiness”, “Peace”, and “Love”. But its true magnificence lies in the three floors above covered floor to ceiling with murals by Mexico’s finest artists. Once again Rivera and Siqueiros tell their stories of reform and revolution in paint, but here they are also joined by Rufino Tamayo and José Clemente Orozco whose murals tell an equally dramatic history of Mexico.
The most famous Rivera mural lies at the west end of the 3rd floor. “El Hombre En El Cruce de Caminos” (Man at the Crossroads) was originally commissioned for New York’s Rockefeller Center in 1933 and features a giant vacuum sucking up the riches of the earth to feed the factories of card-playing, hard-drinking white capitalist thugs. One of the thugs is John D. Rockefeller himself and the standard-bearer holding the red flag of socialism is Vladimir Lenin. When Rockefeller saw the work in progress, he ordered him to stop so Rivera recreated the painting here in 1934.
Surprise at the Post Office
As I walked from the Palace of Fine Arts toward the Zócalo, I found myself unable to resist stopping at every open door to every old building along the way. The National Post Office was an abandoned building preserved to in every respect.
The brass of the customer windows, elevator cage, and railings of a sweeping open three floor staircase glittered in the skylight sunshine.
Somebody was keeping the place up even though surface mail is all but non-existent in Mexico any more. It never was very efficient, but cell phones and the Internet have made this edifice, preserved in its original state, a museumpiece in its own rite.
Also not to be missed in the Centro Historico is the Museo Nacional de Arte with its open courtyard in front and the imposing 19th century façade of the former Palace of Communications. Both contain not only more work by the big names in Mexican art, but also that of the lesser known artists from the early history of Mexican art. This was art that migrated from the obvious copycat European portrait and religious work to the bold modern look of the muralists. The majesty of the Mexican landscape of mountains, coasts, and deserts is all there and, even more interestingly, the cantinas and pueblos where the people really lived.
Finally the narrow museum street opened on to the famous Zócalo where so many revolutions and political movements started (and ended). Sure enough, the big square (close to Red Square in size) was filling with some kind of labor protest. The sidewalk held a makeshift monument to Jubilados Resistencia (Retiree Resistance) and, sure enough, the military arrived to move the crowd along.
On Sunday mornings, Zócalo Square belongs to the street vendors and churchgoers. Those not given to formal services can nonetheless find shrines on card tables along the side streets, ornate headstones in sequestered little cemeteries, or abstract sculptures that invite your worship.
If every child in Mexico is raised on corn tortillas, he is also raised on a history of great art…and Mexico City offers the best of the best. Much of it has been collected in literally dozens of museums, but the joy of walking Mexico City’s streets is the random discovery of a corner sculpture or mural next to a flower market celebrating the twin deities of the Mexican people: religion and revolution.