Trotsky in Coyoacán

4 Nov

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In the last 30 years we are surely the only Americans  who have visited the charming “village” of Coyoacán, Mexico–now engulfed by Mexico City spread–without seeing a single Frida Kahlo/Diego Rivera site!  This was not entirely by choice–we went on a Friday, which was our first mistake, and the line to get into Frida’s house was ridiculously long. Add to that my impatience with the obsessive marketing of all things Frida in the last few years, and there was not much persuasion needed to convince me to skip the whole journey to the shrines. This is not to say that I don’t admire her artwork, and her story is sensational–I just can’t bear the kitschifying of her and her art. But that’s a theme for another blog!

What we DID head to see, and first up, was the Museo de la Casa Leon Trotsky. This is the home where exiled Communist leader Leon Trotsky, after years of exile in various countries fleeing Stalin’s brutal hand, lived 1939-40 until he was assassinated by a Stalinist operative. (Stalin had already killed just about everybody else associated with Trotsky, including his son and his first wife.) His murder by ice axe took place in this very house, in the study that has been preserved exactly as it was at the time of his death.  During his time in Mexico, he was an active participant in the heady intellectual and cultural life surrounding the Mexican Muralists and others drawn to revolutionary thought and action so significant in the 1930s and 1940s throughout Latin America and the United States.

The house as a museum is run by a private board headed by Trotsky’s grandson Esteban Volkow. Constantly in need of funds, the displays are sometimes cheesy, with amateurish labels and less than consistent displays. The emphasis is always on Trotsky’s very fruitful time in Mexico (he wrote some of his best books there), so there are many photos of him with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (Trotsky lived in their Blue House for many months, and is said to have had an affair with Frida), as well as an intriguing timeline of “revolutionary” events throughout Trotsky’s life. This display even included a photograph of the painter David Siqueiros in jail for his part in an earlier unsuccessful attempt on Trotsky’s life. The bookstore contained all the books in Spanish one would find at a socialist bookshop, on the likes of Rosa Luxemburg and Gramsci.  I felt like I did back in my time running with the YSA crowd in Portland, Oregon, only as if our activities were taking place in Spanish.

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The famous muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros was directly involved in the earlier assassination attempt on Trotsky, and served some time in jail. The great art historian Meyer Schapiro wrote a scathing indictment of Siqueiros about his part in this action.

Despite some museological “failings”, the impact of being on the grounds and in Trotsky’s house, surrounded by the objects of his daily life while in Coyoacán, was immediate and intense.  If only to have such a vivid document of material culture in 1940s Mexico, a glimpse at the kitchen, dining room, and even the bathroom I found fascinating. All those simply decorated dishes, all those beautiful wooden doors!

And then there was the study, with the desk still holding Trotsky’s glasses and the papers he had been working on when the Spanish-born Soviet agent Ramón Mercader, posing as one of Trotsky’s followers, entered the room and struck him in the head with an ice axe. I found this a very moving experience, seeing all his books and his bed and cane.  And then on the grounds, near Trotsky’s chicken coops and flowering trees, is his grave. His long-suffering wife Natalia Sedova, who lived into the 1960s, is also buried there.

Once we left La Casa Trotsky, we headed down to the Plaza Hidalgo in the middle of town, through Coyoacán’s magnificently authentic mercado. Ironically, having just come from the home of a revolutionary leader, Coyoacán, once a sleepy little artists’ community, is now one of the priciest places to live in Mexico City. As the waiter told us at the lovely little restaurant Moheli where we had lunch, its street, Avenida Francisco Sosa, is “like the Beverly Hills of Mexico.”  That street is indeed lined with venerable, newly renovated, estates built around 18th-century houses.

We watched dancers practicing flamenco steps on the elegant plaza–with Coyote fountain (Coyoacán means “place of the coyotes”)–and stepped into the pleasing interior of the town’s central Franciscan church, San Juan Bautista. Finally, instead of making it to the Rivera/Kahlo studio, we walked to the Nacional de La Acuarela , a charming display of the history of Mexican watercolors collected and donated by the artist Alfredo Guati Rojo.  We then made a torturous Uber journey back to La Condesa through Mexico City’s Friday night traffic. I would definitely advise people to make the journey to this wonderful village on any day but Friday or Saturday!

While the town is now a far cry from its lazy days of the 1940s, one can still get a bit of a sense of how it must have been when Trotsky was there.  The old street peddlers are still there, and the market place is as it must have been then.  If we had been game to elbow our way through the Rivera/Kahlo sites, I’m sure that we would have an even better feeling for that revolutionarily buzzing moment when Mexico seemed set for a new intellectual and cultural life.

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A honey vendor on Plaza Hidalgo

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