Mexico City: Flores y Colores
This technicolor dream post is brought to you by the marvels in and around La Ciudad de México and by sunflowers.
I’ve grown a love of sunflowers. In recent years, they seem to cross my line of vision everywhere, and when they don’t, I often find myself seeking images. I like how, when seen up close, their dark centers actually camouflage innumerable points of brightness that refuse to succumb to or be defined by the limits of brown. In Spanish, they’re called girasoles, a far more expressive name that captures their natural upward penchant towards the center of our universe.For starters, the above Philadelphia version of VanGogh’s iconic Sunflowers series, which is arguably the center of the still-life universe in modern art, covers the iPad on which I’m writing this post. I’ve also got the London version printed on a sweater. And oh… the Munich one is affixed to the middle of my bathroom wall, just above eye-level, where I can see it in between splashes when washing my face.
This far lesser known painting, Diego Rivera’s Desnudo con Girasoles, I had never seen until about two months ago. It caught my eye, not just for the sunflowers, but for its rare and nuanced depiction (by a non-black artist) of black skin on a woman as a thing of beauty. As if inspired by the million pricks of light hidden in the center of its titular blooms, Rivera’s brush imbues the dark form of this anonymous kneeling woman with light, forcing you to look deeper at her skin, elevating its tonal depth from earthy to ethereal. This singularly glorious painting helped transform my prior Diego fandom into something more; it had the effect of turning a five-day trip to Mexico City (CDMX) into something like a pilgrimage.
A simple post on my online travel community—asking if the five days and nights I had left of Spring Break after numerous snow days would be enough to both satisfy my Diego fix and pay homage to both him and his wife (and partner of greatness), Frida Kahlo—generated dozens of enthusiastic yesses and lots of invaluable planning advice. So T and I cashed in some airline miles, booked a suitable, no-frills hotel in the thick of CDMX’s Centro Historico, and off we went.
For those in the know, there are many, many reasons to visit Mexico City, reasons that both defy and belie the media’s and current political administration’s propagated images of Mexico as:
A) solely a beach destination.
B) a questionable choice for safety reasons (although this is certainly valid for some Mexican states)
C) that place under our southern border, peopled with desperate, and potentially criminal migrants.
Obviously it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, take a trip to CDMX to appreciate Mexico’s historic and modern significance, but seeing its incredibly vast, surprisingly green, and culturally vibrant capital city serves as an excellent reminder that, whenever possible, we all need to turn off cable news and see things for ourselves.
But I digress. People go on pilgrimages in search of miracles; here are some of the ones I found.
Day One: Getting Acclimated
We make our way via taxi through some impressive mid-day traffic to our hotel, One Ciudad de México Alameda. After a quick check-in, it’s off to a two-hour walking tour of the Centro Histórico with Estacion Mexico Tours. Our guide is a sweet and very knowledgeable university student named Violet. Tomorrow we will find out that her sweetness is more than incidental, as she has anglicized her name from the poetic, Dulce Violeta. She meets our small group at the Zócalo, the colorful nickname for CDMX’s massive main square, La Plaza de la Constitución. From here, she walks us through the city center, showing us everything from where Mexico’s 45-minute president was deposed to where to get the most doorway-defying Quinceañera dresses.
I learn that Mexico City owes much of its architectural splendor to President Porfirio Díaz, whose late 19th Century 35-year tenure, marked in part by its beautification of CDMX, was a huge middle finger to past and potential colonizers, but also to the neglected common working people, especially throughout the rest of the country.
The tour ends near the Palacio de Bellas Artes, where we purchase tickets for the (amazing) Wednesday night performance of the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico.
T’s less than adventurous palate means that dinner is at Casa de Tono, a local chain, rather than at the thousands of carts that make up CDMX’s world-famous street food scene. This place specializes in pozole, a rich meat filled soup that neither of us ends up ordering, breaking my cardinal rule about not ordering burgers at a pizza joint and vice versa.
Day Two: Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul and Coyoacan
After breakfast at the hotel, we jump into the first of many astoundingly cheap Uber rides to the Museo Frida Kahlo in her neighborhood of Coyoacan. Frida’s Casa Azul, or blue house, and its surroundings look exactly as you might imagine them if you’ve ever seen her work. Thus, “blue” is a mild word for the house’s exterior color, a shade that falls somewhere between my eyeliner circa 1985 and the hue at the base of a gaslight.
We’re early for our 11:30 timed entry (purchased via the museum’s website two weeks earlier, as advised), but the line of fellow pilgrims is already halfway down the block. We eventually find our spot in the slightly shorter pre-purchase line before being allowed to enter Frida’s sanctum and its beautiful gardens. The Casa Azul, while Frida’s childhood home, was technically owned by Diego Rivera at the time of her death, and the couple shared the home during their tumultuous two marriages. Check out some of my favorites from the house below (click for captions an/or enlargements).
From there, it’s a stroll through T’s element, the local market.
At the risk of aggravating my indulgent travel partner, I’ve scheduled another two-plus hour walking tour in the afternoon, this time through Frida’s ‘hood. However, the only thing I end up aggravating is (what I am now convinced must be) my arthritic knee. Chastened by the prospect of painful walking, or worse, non-existent dancing, I make a mental note once and for all to begin taking a turmeric supplement.
Our guide today, is Carmina, a graduate of UNAM, or the National Autonomous University of Mexico, with a degree in dramatic literature. After a short wait at our subway meeting point, it turns out the two of us are her entire group, so she and I talk a little Shakespeare–she loves Hamlet— and Becket in between points of interest.
Carmina walks us through the lovely, narrow, cobble-stoned streets of Coyoacan (or “Place of the Wolves”) past the church of St. Anthony of Padua, built by a rich family as an offering to inspire a suitable match for a spinster daughter; past the now converted station and covered tracks of the streetcar that facilitated Frida Kahlo’s trips to school (and subsequently the accident that dictated the rest of her life); and past the park fountain erected in honor of Coyoacan’s original lupine inhabitants.
Stopping in front of a small figure of Our Lady of Guadelupe, inserted into the facade of one of the Spanish colonial-style homes that comprise this obviously high-rent district, Carmina offers a post-colonial version of The Virgin’s miraculous apparition which, good Catholic school girl that I was, I had never before considered. That is, could the sudden appearance of a brown-skinned, Native Mexican Nahuatl-speaking Virgin Mary to the humble Juan Diego in 1531 have been a carefully orchestrated ploy by the church to win obstinate indigenous souls? That is the question.
Day Three: Museos, Shows, Tacos, and Churros
Day Four: Sun, Moon, and Stars
It’s relatively early in the huge, still-active archeological site and former Mayan city that is Teotihuacán. I meet Vitorino while sitting at the base of The Pyramid of the Sun, resting my stiff right knee, and indulging my well-documented fear of heights. T, of course, is on his way to the top of this, the most formidable pyramid he’s climbed, well, since the last pyramid he climbed. Vitorino is one of the dozens of enterprising vendors at Teotihuacán, and he’s clutching an assortment of organic crystal quartz pendants that I’m already poised to refuse by the time he reaches earshot. To my smiling “No gracias, amigo,” he responds with “Tu eres maestra,” with his own broad and mischievous grin. The question of how Vitorino could possibly know I’m a teacher hangs in the air long enough to satisfy him with my befuddled expression before he casually informs me that he’s a brujo. OK. I decide to leave it at that. We chat for a few more minutes, formally introducing ourselves in the process. He doesn’t let up on the healing energy of crystals; I tell him (quite honestly) that I’ve got my own set at home, which deflates him a bit but he’s still game to keep chatting even with my halting Spanish. Ultimately, I can’t resist rewinding a little, so I ask him to tell me what grade I teach. He says university. Secondary school, I respond, shaking my head. Same thing, he says.
Later I meet Jose, who sells his hand-crafted silver jewelry near the base of (you guessed it) Teotihuacán’s Pyramid of the Moon. Once again, I’m left to my own devices as T climbs, and this time, I’m nearly overcome by the sheer beauty of Jose’s craftsmanship, coupled with my endless fascination with shiny things. I slowly and apologetically avert my eyes. However, Jose too is eager to talk, and asks where I’m from. When I tell him I live in New Jersey, he tells me about the eight years he spent picking flowers, gladiolas to be precise, in Vineland, a town about 100 miles to the south of where we live. At that moment, it’s hard for me to associate the hands that created the silver treasures in Jose’s display case with the rote and typically denigrating nature of day-labor, and I inwardly lament the unlikelihood that Jose and I would ever be able to hang out like this back in the States.
By noon, we’ve Ubered back to the city center, so I can see the the Diego murals that line the Palacio Nacional, and they’re nothing short of spectacular. I think of Vitorino and Jose, and of how fitting an honor Rivera’s masterpieces are to them, and to the spirit of Mexico’s working people in general.
That evening, we attend a taping of Dancing with the Stars. OK, not really, but make no mistake, a Friday night trip to lucha libre at Arena Mexico is not to be missed. It’s both classic Mexico City, and a colorful distraction of the highest order, with enough footwork, tricks, lifts, sequins, and theatricality to rival the popular TV show.
Day Five: The Shrine at Xochimilco
We almost skip Xochimilco. First, I’d read online that the Museo Dolores Olmedo’s entire Frida Kahlo collection was out on loan to Milan, and Xochimilco’s Floating Gardens, the only other attraction in the area, suddenly didn’t seem worth the 45-minute drive outside the city. With CDMX, there is ALWAYS something else to do, and I was sorely tempted to spend our last day in the Centro Histórico at an international food and culture fair at the Zocalo. Fortunately, whatever muse had inspired this journey knew what was waiting at the end, and spurred me on.
The Museo Dolores Olmedo, which houses the largest collection of Diego Rivera’s artwork in the world, rests on the estate of its namesake, who was one of the artist’s greatest patrons as well as his mistress. For me, this museum– in a city of museums– is a spiritual experience from beginning to end, front gate to rear gardens.
The estate is designed so that you simply cannot rush in. There’s the long walk between the ticket booth and the front door, but there are also the peacocks. Described on the museum’s website as “seemingly confected of living jewels,” they— seemingly all male, and all preening— noisily prance about the lushly manicured grounds, commandeering the awe they so richly deserve. Then there are the pre-Columbian Xoloiztcuintle dogs (or the breed that inspired “Dante,” if you’re like me and fell madly in love with Disney/Pixar’s film, Coco), which are so remarkable in their hairlessness that it’s difficult to differentiate the real thing from the sculptural version near the main entrance.
Inside, the museum is quiet, cool, and dim, not unlike a church sanctuary. There’s just enough light to illuminate the exhibits, which do not disappoint. The exhibits span Rivera’s illustrious career, and there are are numerous homages attesting to his love of (if not faithfulness to) women, including his beloved Frida, as well as the museum’s namesake. I am enthralled long before I look up to see the painting on the wall that I think Diego wanted me to see.
This time there are no flowers, just the nude woman, with her dark skin and unmistakably African features facing forward at last, her arms supporting a weary head, and her pensive gaze forever tilted upwards toward the sun.