Driven from the Yucatan by rain and time constraints, we touched down in Mexico City far earlier than we expected, but right on time. Once again our friend Irene had come through to introduce us to another cousin, Itzia, Jose Carlos’ sister. Despite the fact she wasn’t in the country and that we’d never met her, she invited us to stay in her home and made sure to leave her keys with a man who lived downstairs. Miguel was waiting for us as we walked down the street towards her house. He cautiously asked if we spoke Spanish and we told him we did, a little. He was visibly relieved and went on to speak very quickly about how worried he was about communicating with us as he spoke no English – we asked him if he could slow down. Itzia’s apartment was big and comfortable and we were feeling extremely lucky as Miguel showed us around. I noticed a large old photograph on the wall of a man who bore a striking resemblance to Jose Carlos overlooking the dining room and wondered if El Patron of the family was watching over us.
Mexico City is Berlin. It’s New York. It’s Buenos Aires. It’s sizzling with energy and delicious smells. Before food carts became a hipster trend in LA or Brooklyn, There were lines to buy delicious, freshly built tostada’s in Mexico City. We set about eating everything we could, trying to pace ourselves but ultimately becoming painfully stuffed in the middle of most meals. Looking forward to trying an interesting sounding guacamole at one upscale restaurant, we skipped over the unfamiliar Spanish nouns that cluttered the description and ordered one serving. Magda let out an audible gasp when it arrived, as if she’d seen a bug scuttle across the table. She’d seen many bugs but they were supposed to be there: dozens of crispy fried crickets were scattered across the top of the guacamole as if it was the grill of a car. A mariachi band sung loudly to the table next door as we tentatively tried, then wolfed down the delicious dish.
When we weren’t eating, we were riding the safe and clean subway system all over town. As usual Magda had researched a long list of buildings she wanted to photograph, and as usual the list took us to the least likely corners of an unfamiliar metropolis. We covered the entire campus of the National University of Mexico looking for the famed Central Library building by Juan O’Gorman. On the way we came across the National Library Building (who would have guessed there were two main libraries on either side of campus?) and the University Museum of Contemporary Art where we made an unscheduled stop to take in some compelling multimedia installations.
Along the way we wove through crowds of young university students wearing the campus uniform of students everywhere: threadbare jeans and ironic screen print t-shirts. They sat in groups and discussed profound ideas that they were destined to dismiss as idealistic as they grew older. Unlike many other communities in Latin America they paid us no mind. Middle-aged gringos taking pictures of the campus that was also the center of their world? So boring.
We dove into government buildings in search of Diego Rivera murals, which we found by the wall-full. I’d never fully appreciated Rivera until we stood beneath the epic series he completed for the Secretariat of Public Education in the center of the city, and was pulled deeply inside his emotional vision of class struggle and revolution. As I put my nose closer though, I began to understand the motivations behind the destruction of one of his pieces by Nelson Rockefeller, after the great capitalist took in the overt communistic symbology in a mural he’d commissioned. He’d asked Rivera to kindly remove the central portrait of Stalin, but the painter, who often teetered between fame and his convictions, fell on the side of his convictions. Rockefeller paid him and dismissed him, then destroyed the work of one of the 20th century’s greatest artists.
Rivera went on to marry Frida Kahlo couple more times, Rockefeller became governor of New York and Stalin went on to murder several million of his countymen.
We stopped by La Casa Azul to soak up a little of Frida Kahlos work. I was thinking we’d be amused by room after room of colorful unibrows, but was immediately taken aback by the power and focus of the work beyond her famous portraits. Like Che Guavara, Kahlo has been reduced to and defined by a single posed portrait for commercial purposes. Also like El Che, Kahlo was an unapologetic communist, and would have despised the simplified commercialization of her image. In both cases their images sell like hotcakes in the gift shops installed in what once were their family homes.
Casa Azul is a moving tribute to Kahlo’s life and work, her family, and her long romance with Diego Rivera. While her paintings are still searing exposures of her fiery personality and her physical torment from a lifetime of surgeries and emotional blows, it’s the parts of her house that they’ve left decorated by the artist herself that pull the visitor into her life. The final room houses her bed to which she was more and more confined, surrounded by gifts and sculptures. Plaster casts that the artist had taken from her own body are hung about the walls, flying it seems, above the bed. The theme of freedom from the bondage of her physical condition runs throughout. When she learned they’d have to amputate one of her gangrenous feet she asked: “Feet, why do I need them if I have wings to fly?”
Part of our time was spent back at Itzia’s apartment. Having found some bread and cheese and a bottle of red wine, we’d sat down for a little rest from the endless, albeit delicious, parade of Mexican food. As we sat and chatted, a man entered the apartment. I wasn’t alarmed because Miguel had the key and often entered unannounced to take the dog for a walk, but the man who appeared at the top of the stairs wasn’t Miguel, he was a stranger who seemed to have let himself in. He was as surprised to see us as we were to see him. After a tense few seconds where all of us wondered if we should be afraid, but decided en mass we probably need not be, he explained in English that he was a good friend of Itzia’s and he’d just come by to use her shower. Given that she’d invited two unknown foreigners to stay at her house for an unspecified amount of time, it seemed extremely likely that she’d have friends who would stop by to shower. Even so, as he locked the door to the bathroom, I hid our passports under the pillow.
Ten minutes later we were drinking and laughing with a complete stranger in another complete stranger’s house, getting to the know both of them with each passing sip of wine. I took the opportunity to ask this family friend if the man in the portrait on the wall was perhaps Itzia’s grandfather, and told him I thought him a dead ringer for Jose Carlos. He laughed, no, no relation he said, that’s Pancho Villa. It wasn’t the patron of the family, only of the country.
In the end this strange intruder, Hugo, gave us his number and told us to call him if we needed anything, anything at all.
We felt l like we’d only just scratched the surface of Mexico City by the time we needed to go. During our few days there it had been solidly gray but the morning of our flight the sky cleared and shone upon the ancient city. Miguel insisted on accompanying us to find a taxi headed to the airport and helped us smash our bags into a little Toyota. We waved our thanks and goodbyes, to Miguel, Itzia’s apartment and to Latin America. Suddenly, abruptly, we were headed back the United States. Back home.