Tag Archives: Mexico City

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

Don’t go to the Zocalo on Saturday!

23 Oct

 

 

Oh, my, it’s been so long since I’ve blogged anything!  On the one hand this is a good sign, because it means we’ve been so busy having adventures that I haven’t had time to write about them! On the other hand, it means I’ve been so busy putting up shares on Facebook and wasting time in other ways that I have just been lazy about writing.  We have been in Mexico for three weeks now. We started in Ajijic, then travelled by bus to Queretaro–an authentically Mexican town unspoiled by mass tourism that I want to write about!–where we made a side trip to San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato, and are now in Mexico City.  I will get back to writing about these places, but our day at the Zocalo was so emblematic of present-day Mexico City that I just need to write all of it down.

First of all, we are staying in La Condesa, a rather upscale neighborhood that now seems to be Hipster Central, filled with cafes, artsy boutiques, and organic food. We had originally booked a place on AirBnB on Avenida Amsterdam–a gloriously elegant street with many intact and recently renovated 1930s buildings–but that apartment had a cave in (literally: the bathroom above fell in to the kitchen below!). Our lovely young hostess Xanath offered us instead this apartment on Calle Culiacan. Thoughtfully decorated and renovated, its only drawback is being on the second floor–a bit of a problem for G’s COPD lungs, but he has adjusted well. The street noise is minimal, and although the back bedroom wall is right up against another apartment, the noise during the week has stopped after 10 pm.

So let’s get to our Saturday, and our plan to go to the city’s main square, the center of Old Mexico, the Zocalo.  On Friday night, we had battled our way from Coyoacan through the city’s horrendous traffic–the poor Uber driver!–having forgotten that it was the beginning of the weekend, so the traffic would be even worse than usual.  Saturday morning, George informed me that the people in the apartment on the other side of the wall had stayed up ALL NIGHT talking and celebrating.  Thank God George took the back bedroom–he can sleep through that kind of thing, I cannot.  Add to this the fact that we are both having the turistas now–Travellers’ Diarrhea–George worse than me, so we’re sleeping fitfully.  But we decided to carry on with plans, not having a clue what was going on at the Zocalo that day, but intent on staying on some kind of schedule of “must sees” in the city–always a mistake for travellers who are experienced enough to know that it’s the serendipitous aspects of travel rather than the “must sees” that are important.  But we did want to see the Templo Mayor, and were excited at the prospect of seeing the very first printing press in the Americas in La Casa de la Primera Imprenta, which was right across from the Palacio Nacional.

But before we got going, we heard a loud bang outside–and then the electricity went out in the whole neighborhood. This meant that we couldn’t shower nor–in our case, most urgently–flush the toilets.  Remember the turistas? Yeah, that part….To our utter amazement, as our hostess was telling us that it would take many hours for the electricity to come back on–it came back on!  A transformer had blown, but apparently Mexican repair services were right on the problem. Everyone was surprised. We were all trying to figure out what we would do if there was no electricity for days….Mexicans do seem to take these things in stride, however.

We have been using Uber to get around–it’s worked like a charm and isn’t that expensive, and much more trustworthy than Mexican taxi drivers–boy, do they have a bad reputation, even among the Mexicans!  Our Uber driver this time was a loquacious one, assuming that we understood completely what he was telling us in Spanish. As we got close to the Zocalo, the crowds and the traffic even surprised our old veteran driver. But he got us there.  While we worked our way over to the enormous Cathedral, it became obvious that some enormous event was taking place on the plaza: along with the usual assortment of vendors, dancers, Aztec healers, and policemen, there were absolute swarms of people and tents and colorful floats. Apparently it was a parade having something to do with Dia de los Muertos festivities, but we only learned later that this event has only been held for two years, and has something to do with scenes that appeared in a James Bond movie! (Look it up on YouTube! It’s true!)

We had no idea!  I truly have never been part of such a huge stream of people who just kept coming and coming and coming–not even Mardi Gras had so many raucous, noisy and jostling crowds.  The photos above of those imaginary creatures floating above people’s heads is as close as we got to seeing anything of the parade, or anything of the Zocalo plaza itself.  We were able to come around the side of the Cathedral, where the traditional host of street vendors and dancers were arrayed, in less of a crowd.

By this time, I was in desperate need of a bathroom–nowhere to be seen. We worked our way along the street where a policeman said we might find a bathroom and found none. Then I saw a sign that said “Museo.” Great, a museum is bound to have a bathroom, and we’re always curious to visit any museum we can.  We went in. It was a building run by UNAM, presenting a kind of promotional story about the history of Mexico’s great university system, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.  The woman at the counter was not going to let us in, even when we agreed to pay the 20 pesos admission. Then one of the curators arrived to tell us there was a little music presentation happening–she spoke English–that we could attend, to which we said fine–anything to get to the bathroom!

And so we left the chaos of the Zocalo, and entered this beautiful 18th-century building, and ended up sitting in a room for an hour listening to earnest university music students playing a lovely bit of afternoon classical music. Through the windows, we could hear the pounding of the drums from the Aztec dancers, and the noise from the parade as well. But it was a delightful respite, and totally unexpected. One thing we found perplexing, and perhaps a very Mexican thing to do:  The program they handed us gave us the names of the composers and the works played, but not the performers’ names. We mentioned this to the organizers at the end of the performance, and they looked surprised; so they asked one of the professors who the performers were, and they told us their first names!  Is it a Yankee thing to expect recognition for performances? Just an interesting little observation.

By this time it was about 1:30, and we needed to eat, despite our delicate tummies. We found the old-fashioned restaurant recommended by our hostess, El Cardenal, and had an interesting if relatively uninspiring meal, then headed out in hopes of finding the Aztec Temple and then the home of the first printing press.  We got to the tremendously exciting site of Templo Mayor, the remains of which were uncovered across from the immense Cathedral when doing construction for the subway in the 1970s.  This is the place where Cortez probably met Montezuma, and it is tinglingly overwhelming, and fantastically immediate. There’s an excellent museum that displays more of their incredible finds, and we were on our way there, when things got hairy.

Remember the turistas? Yep, they struck again.  So we decided we would have to forego the Temple’s Museum, and try to make a dash to the Casa with the printing press, which is what we really wanted to see in any case.

Finding a public WC–strategically placed all over downtown, with a nice matron who for 5 pesos hands you some TP–we then made the error of going back TOWARDS the crowds that were either 1) coming from the parade; or 2) heading for the Saturday markets which, from the full-on shouting taking place from every vendor, must be a regular weekend event. We were swept along in this seemingly endless stream of people. When we got to the Casa–it was closed for renovation!   This fact had not been mentioned in any guide or online site we consulted, although it was obvious this had been the situation for a while.

What to do now?  Feeling a bit queasy already, but determined to accomplish something on this day, we decided to try for the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso–site of some of the earliest murals of the group that became so famous as the Mexican Muralist movement.  This again pushed us back into the crowds, which had not subsided one bit in all this time.  Going at a glacial pace was the only way to proceed, and our turn toward the Colegio placed us on five blocks of unrelenting and deafening spruiking (the Aussie word for street vendors’ calling for customers) and the continuous crush of people.  What was so astonishing to us, as we confronted this maelstrom of humanity and noise, was that the Mexicans seemed completely composed and patient, as if this were perfectly normal. No aggression, no pushing, no bad behavior.  Hats off to these people!  I was having a nervous breakdown! Honestly, I don’t know of any time when I have been in such a crowd of people for so prolonged a period, with a constant stream of humans coming both ways.

We did finally get to San Ildefonso, an old Jesuit college that was one of the first places to commission muralists to paint its walls (in 1922-24). While we weren’t able to see the famous Diego Rivera room–it had another exhibition going on–we did get to record several of the very dark and moving images of José Clemente Orozco, and the less polemical murals by Fernando Leal and Jean Charlot.  So at last, we accomplished one tourist must-see feat!

Getting back to our apartment was another trial for our poor Uber driver–the only time we had to wait a long time for one to get to us–and again, he was one who wanted to talk to us about the failings of the government and the need of humanity to be kinder to each other, all the while assuming that we understood everything he was saying in Spanish.  What I did understand was that Mexican traffic and Mexican crowds are almost always this overwhelming around the Zocalo, although this particular Saturday was especially brutal.

By the time we got back to La Condesa,  we were filled with nervous exhaustion and shaky digestion. But it gave us a real glimpse into life in Mexico City and taught us some things: 1) always check what’s going on at the Zocalo before heading off; 2) be prepared for enormous bodies of human beings no matter where or when in this city; and 3) traffic in the city is impossible.  But we also learned that the Mexican people are tops: kind, humane, helpful, and infinitely patient.  And resourceful! I’ll finish with two images of street vendors, improvising to present their wares: one a woman making esquite, a corn dish, on top of a shopping cart and over a can with a butane burner; the other one of the many traditional “healers” on the Zocalo performing his smoking and laying of hands on a person asking for help.

What an amazing place is Mexico City!