Politics, history, and the arts through murals

Visiting Mexico City means taking in the larger-than-life murals of Diego Rivera. We visited three locations featuring these exquisite frescoes.

The Palacio Nacional (National Palace), which houses the office of the President and other cabinet departments, contains a historical timeline of Mexico as depicted by Rivera. It is difficult to capture the grandeur of these detailed murals of the Mexican civilization. I will share only two murals with you, one showing the indigenous cultures that flourished before the Spanish conquest, and one after.

After the Mexican Revolution Rivera was concerned with two issues, and these determined his artistic themes: the need to offset the contempt with which the conquistadors had viewed the ancient Indian civilizations, and the need to offset the anti-mestizo and anti-Indian attitudes of the European-oriented ruling classes during the porfiriato (the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz).

The role of the arts was to restore understanding of and pride in the heritage and cultures that the concept of Spanish superiority had subverted . . . early indigenistas [like Rivera] tended to glorify the Indian heritage and vilify that of the Spaniards as a means of rectifying a historical imbalance and advancing certain political ideas” (103). (Source: http://bit.ly/2sBTjbn)

Totonac Civilization

Ruins of the structures depicted can be found at El Tajín, Veracruz. At the Museum of Anthropology, we saw the rings and balls used in the ball courts in the upper left corner of the mural.

The Arrival of Cortés

… he depicts in dramatic fashion the violence and exploitation of the Spanish conquerors. Natives hanging in the background, the branding of the native in the foreground, and the reduction of the indians to slaves and pack horses show the cruelty and savagery of the Conquest.

In the center is La Malinche (Doña Marina), a native woman who became Cortés’ mistress and mother of his child Martín. Malinche knew both the (Aztec) Nahuatl language and Maya, thus enabling Hernán Cortés to communicate in both. She became a very valuable interpreter and counselor. The blue-eyed child staring outward at us represents the mixture of the races. (Source: http://bit.ly/2tubi3n)

At the Palacio de Bellas Artes, a magnificent art deco building that hosts visual and performing artists, is the famous mural, “Man, Controller of the Universe.” This is the recreation of the mural that Rivera painted at the Rockefeller Center and which was destroyed in 1934. It is almost impossible to capture the entire mural given its size and frequent visitors, so I show you the panel that caused the controversy.

Man at the Crossroads

Man at the Crossroads … is a whodunit tale that also illustrates the tensions between art and politics.

… the piece would have been stunning had it survived. He had this vision of the importance of technology in the future and the hope that there would be a coming together of workers and industrialists and businessmen to further mankind in general, … It was a very hopeful mural. (Source: Destroyed by Rockefellers, Mural Trespassed On Political Vision, NPR. http://n.pr/1G1R5Rj)

If you are ever in CDMX and want to get unobstructed views of Rivera’s murals, go to the Ministry of Public Education, a few blocks away from the National Palace. We had the entire grounds practically to ourselves. The building has two large courtyards with Rivera’s murals covering several floors in each.

Attempting to sum up his 235 panel cycle, Rivera later writes that his goal was “to reflect the social life of Mexico as I saw it, and through my vision of the truth to show the masses the outline of the future.” (Source: http://mo.ma/2sBNvia)

While all of the frescoes have their own story, these were my favorite. They depict the daily arts of dyeing and weaving.

Los Tintoreros (The Dyers)

Los Tintoreros 3

Los Tejedores (The Weavers)

The one mural I have not seen is Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Central Park) located at the Museo Mural Diego Rivera. Therefore, I must return to CDMX one day!

More Mexico City Highlights

Our trip to CDMX (Ciudad de México or Mexico City) was packed with visits to historic archaeological sites, museums, street festivals, and restaurants serving the most delicious food. These photos do not do justice to the sights, sounds, and smells of the city but they will give you a glimpse of the amazing CDMX.

Templo Mayor

The Great Temple was the Mexica sacred space par excellence. The most important rituals were enacted here, including those dedicated to their gods, the naming of their leaders, and the funerals of the nobility. The Mexica architects designed the Great Temple as the center for their model of the universe, where the horizontal plane converged with the vertical plane. (Source: Site placard).

Coatepantli aka
Serpents and Frogs at the Great Temple. Different species of serpents were represented in architecture; their bodies were decorated with symbolic elements, such as feathers, rings, or spirals. Two enormous serpents, each measuring 6 m (20 ft) long and with an undulating body, flank the access to the platform. (Source: Site placard).
Chac mool at Tlaloc Shrine
Tlaloc, the rain god … was responsible for bringing rain, which enabled crops to grow. Outside the entrance, we can see the polychrome sculpture of a chac mool, bearing the attributes of Tlaloc and still retaining its original color. (Source: Site placard).
The House of the Eagles
Bas reliefs of eagle warriors and serpents.


Frida Kahlo’s blue house is located in the neighborhood of Coyoacán. The word means roughly “place of the coyotes” in náhuatl, an Aztec language still spoken today. The neighborhood is vibrant. Walking along the shady streets, we came across this brightly decorated altar to the Virgen de Guadalupe.

Our destination was La Casa Azul, the home that Frida Kahlo was born and died in. A hand painted sign tells visitors that Frida y Diego vivieron en esta casa 1929-1954 (Frida and Diego lived in this house 1929-1954).

Frida’s studio still has her collection of paint bottles and brushes.

A special exhibit called Los Vestidos de Frida Kahlo (The Dresses of Frida Kahlo) displayed the artist’s clothing, jewelry and footwear. Also on display were the tight corsets she wore as a result of a childhood accident that left her with a lifetime of pain.


“My painting carries with it the message of pain.” – Frida Kahlo.

The exhibition takes its title from an artwork by Frida Kahlo of the same title – Las Apariencias Engañan (Appearances can be Deceiving) – where Kahlo portrays herself in manner of an X-Ray, revealing her dramatic disabilities concealed beneath the layers. (Source: http://bit.ly/2s0j0lC)

Giant paper mâché figures are located throughout the house and courtyards.

Vogue Mexico has a slide show of many of the items from the exhibit plus selected photos of the Blue House. To learn more about the Blue House, go to the Museo Frida Kahlo site.

Trotsky’s House

Leon Trotsky’s house is a ten minute walk from La Casa Azul. The home is simple and the grounds peaceful although the guard towers and bullet holes in the walls tell another story.

Leon Trotsky House

Trotsky’s desk still has the items he used on a daily basis – his spectacles, papers and ink bottles.

Items on Leon Trostky's desk.

Yarn Sightings

The Mercado de Coyoacán is a typical Mexican market with all kinds of touristy items on sale including pottery, traditional dresses, puppets, t-shirts and the like. The market also carries an abundance of fresh fruit, meats and spices. Walking along all the circuitous aisles I finally spotted yarn. I didn’t buy any but it was nice to see and touch.

Yarn Sighting 1 at Mercado de Coyoacan

Yarn Sighting 2 at Mercado de Coyoacan

City of Teotihuacán

The holy city of Teotihuacan (‘the place where the gods were created’) is situated some 50 km north-east of Mexico City. Built between the 1st and 7th centuries A.D., it is characterized by the vast size of its monuments – in particular, the Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, laid out on geometric and symbolic principles.

Human occupation of the valley of Teotihuacan began before the Christian era, but it was only between the 1st and the 7th centuries A.D. that the settlement developed into one of the largest ancient cities in the Americas, with at least 25,000 inhabitants.

(Source: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/414).

A full-day excursion took us to the City of Teotihuacán where my son and I climbed to the tops of the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest pyramid in the world rising to 75 meters (246 feet) high. The 248 steps to the top are high and narrow. I won’t show you a photo of what I looked like once I got to the top, but trust me, I did it. We also climbed the Pyramid of the Moon which is 43 meters (140 feet) high.

Pyramid of the Sun

Pyramid of the Sun: The pyramid’s base is 222 meters long on each side, and it’s now just over 70 meters high. The pyramid was cobbled together around AD 100 from three million tonnes of stone, without the use of metal tools, pack animals or the wheel. (Source: http://bit.ly/2r8Zr9p).

Temple of the Feathered Serpent

The structure known as the Temple of Quetzalcoatl or the “Plumed serpent,” was built between 150 and 200 a.d. It consists of seven stepped bodies, with “slope and panel” designed walls on all four sides, decorated with plumed serpents, carved in stone, which move among seashells. (Source: Site placard).

Temple of the Feathered Serpent - Wall

Temple of the Feathered Serpent - Close up

As we walked down one of the pyramids, we saw these stones jutting out of the slanted wall. There wasn’t a sign telling us what they were but we surmised they are there to break someone’s fall should they have the misfortune of tumbling down the pyramid.

Side of a pyramid.

El Bazaar Sábado

Early Saturday morning, we made our way to the neighborhood of San Ángel for the Bazaar Sábado. We walked along cobble-stoned streets into beautiful colonial buildings and around the periphery of San Jacinto Square overflowing with artists. Artisans in many crafts gather every Saturday morning featuring artwork in leather, glass, pottery, jewelry, and textiles. The Androna textiles were magnificent in their multi-colored hues.

Androna Textiles 1

Textile techniques and designs are a living heritage passed from mothers to daughters throughout generations in regions like Oaxaca, Chiapas, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Guerrero, Hidalgo and Yucatán. With materials such as cotton, silk, wool and linen, Androna Linartas curates traditional textiles made with different techniques like back strap loom, foot loom, embroidery and hook among others. Her goal is to preserve the essential Mexican textile culture. (Source: http://bit.ly/2suKWAI).

Androna Textiles 3

This is already a long post so I will stop here. Luckily, the flight to CDMX is only two and a half hours from Houston. I see another trip on the horizon. Hasta la próxima.



From Beginning to End, Popular Mexican Traditions

Working full-time and pursuing an MBA do not leave very much free time. Immediately after the new year, there was a gap of about a week before major assignments were due. We took advantage of this opportunity for a trip to México City, only a two-hour flight from Houston. There was the added benefit that Cornell has a board room of students in México City and I was able to join them for class.

The purpose of the trip was to show our son some of the many treasures of México. We went on a whirlwind tour of murals, pyramids, cathedrals, archaeological ruins, culture and gastronomy. Along the way, my husband and son appeased me by allowing me to look for interesting textile arts.

We could have spent days walking through the vast National Museum of Anthropology. The museum features grand salons for every major period of Mexican history. We made a beeline toward the magnificent Piedra del Sol (Stone of the Sun), which is often incorrectly called the Aztec calendar. The Stone of the Sun is 3 feet deep, almost 12 feet wide and weighs almost 25 tons.


The stone “depicts the five consecutive worlds of the sun from Aztec mythology. …it is an elaborately carved solar disk, which for the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures represented rulership. At the top of the stone is a date glyph (13 reed) which represents both the beginning of the present sun, the 5th and final one according to mythology, and the actual date 1427 CE, thereby legitimizing the rule of Itzcoatl (who took power in that year) and creating a bond between the divine and mankind.

(Source: http://www.ancient.eu/Sun_Stone/)


After staring at awe at the massive stone, we wandered through various halls and came across these ancient textiles of the indigenous Nahua.

“Clothing distinguishes the indigenous groups of México and even within one group. Among the Nahuas each subgroup, each region and even each village has its own way of dressing. Each pattern conserves a tradition, each design speaks of knowledge maintained over the centuries, each form represents a way of seeing the world.”

(Source: Museum placard)


We saw woven bags and baskets made from hard fibers such as junco, bejuco, palm and carrizo.


This is a reproduction of a typical home in the village of Contla in the state of Tlaxcala. According to the museum placard, rustic pedaled looms were installed in any available space.


A day at the Saturday Bazaar in San Ángel yielded a wonderful surprise. Since we were there right after Christmas, we saw all the winning entries for the Primer Concurso Nacional, “De Principio a Fin, Tradiciones Populares Mexicanas” (First National Competition, “From Beginning to End, Popular Mexican Traditions”). Themes revolved around the Day of the Dead and Christmas.

Las piezas que se elaboran con motivo de estas festividades, dan cuenta de la compleja concepción de la vida humana y de la constante interacción entre la vida y la muerte dentro de la cultura popular mexicana.

The pieces that are created for these festivities tell the story of the complex idea of life and the constant interaction between life and death within popular mexican culture.

(Source: Event signage. Translations are mine.)

Nacimiento tejido en palma natural maciza y tierna, elaborada con técnica de esfera. 38 piezas.

Nativity woven from natural strong and tender palm constructed with a spherical technique. 38 pieces.

Carro alegórico con ofenda tradicional del Día de muertos, elaborado con fibra de trigo. Tiempo de elaboración: 1 semana

Allegorical vehicle with a traditional offering of the day of the dead, constructed with wheat fibers. Time to produce: 1 week.

“Los animales van a ver el nacimiento”
Tira bordada con hilo de algodón mercerizado con punto fino. Tiempo de elaboración: 4 meses

“The animals go to see the nativity.” Embroidered strip with mercerized cotton thread with a fine point. Time to produce: 4 months.

Nacimiento con bordado fino mazahaua en manta de algodón.

Finely embroidered nativity on cotton cloth in the style of the Mazahaua people.

“La tradición de mi pueblo”
Servilleta elaborada en telar de cintura, con técnica de brocado, tenida con tintes naturales: caracol púrpura y algodón coyuchi verde.

“The tradition of my village.” Napkin woven on a backstrap loom with brocade technique and tinted with natural dyes: purple snails and organic green cotton.”

“Nacimiento tradicional de Cuetzalan del Progreso. Puebla.”
Telar de cintura de algodón azul, bordado de brocado.
Tiempo de elaboración: 1 mes

“Traditional nativity of the city of Cuetzalan del Progreso, Puebla.” Blue cotton on a backstrap loom embroidered in brocade. Time to produce: 1 month

Tapiz de Nacimiento Mexicano, elaborado en telar de cintura de algodón con doble alzadera y puntas de flecos.
Tiempo de elaboración: 1 mes

Tapestry of the Mexican Nativity, woven on a backstrap loom out of cotton with fringe. Time to produce: 1 month

These are only a sampling of the many handicrafts we saw during our trip. More to come.

A Backpacking Trip to Real de Catorce

Real de Catorce is an old mining town in the Sierra de Catorce mountain range in the state of San Luis Potosí, México. My husband did field work there as an undergraduate and told me great stories of the place. So, the day after Christmas one year, we grabbed our backpacks and took off to Real. (Real is pronounced with two syllables – Rĕ ∙ ǎl – with short vowel sounds).

Unless you climb mountains, the only way to reach Real de Catorce is to take a 25 kilometer cobbled road off Highway 62 up the mountain. By cobbled I mean we rode in a bus at about 10-15 mph bumping along the whole way.

Once at the top, we transferred to a small passenger van for the ride through the tunnel. The only way to town is through the Ogarrio Tunnel, one of the longest tunnels in México, at 2,229 meters long. One can go through the tunnel on foot, on horseback, on a motorcycle or car or truck, but only in one direction at a time. The tunnel is only wide enough for one vehicle. A man with a walkie-talkie stands at the entrance and talks to a man with a walkie-talkie at the other end of the tunnel. They control the flow of traffic by allowing visitors to take turns going through the tunnel in only one direction.

The movie “The Mexican” with Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts was filmed in Real and Brad Pitt’s character drives through the tunnel.

This is the main road in town and a typical side street.

This is our room at the Rincón Mágico (magic corner).

This is the view of the mountains from our room. Real is located 2,770 meters (9,000 feet) above sea level. The mountain range has two peaks that reach 3,100 meters (10,000 feet) high.

Here’s the view in the direction of town at dusk. As it grew darker, it got colder. The temperature dipped into the 20s. We slept under a stack of 14 woolen blankets.

This is La Antigua Casa de Moneda, the mint. It is now a museum. In its heyday in the early 1900s, Real de Catorce was a prosperous mining town due to its abundance of natural resources in the form of silver. The town started to decline with the devaluation of the price of silver and fell apart in 1905 when Mexico switched from silver to gold as their monetary standard. The mint was constructed between 1863-1865; a year later it closed. In only 14 months of operation, 1,485,405 pieces of silver were minted there.

This is the view from inside the atrium. Renovations preserved the work rooms and machines used to mint the silver coins. The museum houses works of art and displays the history of Real through old photos and documents.

Ruins of abandoned homes.

We believe this could have been a shooting wall – a remnant of the Mexican Revolution at the turn of the 19th century.

Work mules.

The old cemetery.

The Iglesia de la Purísima Concepción is the central gathering spot of the town. The church was constructed in 1817. While not the actual patron saint of the church, St. Francis of Assisi is much venerated here.

The small pendants hanging from the robe are milagros (miracles). For a small donation, you can buy a gold-plated arm or leg or heart. You then pin the milagro to the robe and say a prayer to St. Francis of Assisi to heal the ache in your arm or other part of the body.

These are retablos. Not being a word I typically use when speaking in Spanish, I had to look this one up. It translates as “retable,” “tableau,” or “altarpiece.” Each retable is a small work of art painted by parishioners as an offering for hearing one’s prayers.

The following are close-ups of some of the retablos. I’ve translated the dedications as close in tone and style from the original Spanish.

Retablo about chickens: There having come a strong sickness among chickens and since I had so many and out of fear that some would die, I entrusted them with all my heart to the miraculous St. Francis of Assisi and since not a single one became sick I gratefully offer this retable. (October 1952).

Retablo about cows: Mr. Daniel Tella gives thanks to God and to St. Francis of Assisi because they took care of his cows and nothing serious happened to them. His wife, Mrs. Elodia Segundo de T. also gives thanks for the same favor. (October 1967).

Retablo about embolism (possibly misspelled in the original): I give thanks to our Lord St. Francis of Assisi of Real de Catorce for having cured me of an embolism, high blood pressure and taking away the tingling in my legs.

Retablo – painting only.

Retablo about tetanus: I dedicate this retable to you for having performed the miracle of healing the child of 12 years, Pedrito Ibarra Agüero of the illness of tetanus that lasted 29 days in therapy and without assurances because it was a mortal illness and we give to God thanks. (January 1981).

In order to gather and confirm facts, such as dates, heights of mountains, etc., I relied heavily on this wonderful guide-book we picked up in Real: Gómez Romero, Josemaría. Real de Catorce: San Luis Potosí, México. Guía Gráfica. Guadalajara, Jalisco, México: IVADIA & G, 2009. For more information or to plan a visit to Real de Catorce, visit their website. If you haven’t already, see the previous post on the Huichol Indians that live in Real and their yarn art.

Huichol Yarn Art

Some time ago, my husband and I made a backpacking trip to Real de Catorce, which is located near Matehuala. Matehuala is significant only in that it marks roughly the half-way point between the U.S.-Mexico border and Mexico City. It was one of those cross-country bus, non-air conditioned van, and back of pick-up truck kind of trips. (Yes, I know, first class all the way).

Real de Catorce is an old silver mining town located about 2,750 meters (9,000 feet) above sea level in the Sierra de Catorce, close to the Tropic of Cancer. The area is home to the Huichol Indians. They can be seen in traditional dress throughout the town and selling their arts and crafts in the markets. One of their crafts involves creating exquisitely detailed and colorful paintings using yarn. The yarn paintings reflect their religious beliefs and aspects of nature that comprise their cosmology.

When I visited, I did not take pictures of the Huichol or of their art so I found examples of their art online. The following four yarn paintings came from here. In them, you will find the visions of the Shaman, nature and deities, snakes, eagles, deer, an eclipse, the peyote, and corn, among others.

The central figures in this next yarn painting are the eagle looming overhead flanked by the sun and the moon while the bottom half features the peyote. The peyote is  a kind of cactus with hallucinogenic properties. The peyote is a sacred plant to the Huichol and the cultivation and gathering of the plant is controlled to prevent extinction and misuse.

This is what peyote looks like in the wild.


I did bring home this small 4×4 inch yarn painting (small items I could stash in the backpack). The painting is of “Hombre Chaman de Mucho Conocimiento” or “Shaman Man of Much Knowledge” and is signed by the artist, Alejandro López Torres. In it you can appreciate the winding of the yarn on the wood to create the image.

Another Huichol craft uses extremely tiny beads to create jewelry and decorate animals carved from wood. The beaded carvings are usually of animals revered by the Huichol, like this tiny deer (stands 4 1/2 inches tall).

Here is a beaded bracelet I brought home. The main motif is the peyote.

In the process of writing this post, I learned that a few days ago there was a huge gathering of Huichol Indians in Mexico City for Wirikuta Fest 2012. Wirikuta is another name for the Huichol. The music festival featured famous singers and musicians including Café Tacvba and Julieta Venegas, two of our favorite artists. The festival was held in support of the Huichol Indians who are fighting the encroachment of mining on their lands. The following pictures of Huichol in traditional dress were taken at the festival and can be found here (slides 18 & 19).

Stay tuned for a post about Real de Catorce.