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Magical Mexico City (Part 3)

Published
June 14, 2024
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THE next day, I joined a motorised tour of places that were a bit further outside the central city, led by a man in a broad straw hat. First thing in the morning, we headed toward the northern part of the downtown area, to visit a jewelry shop called Platería Rafael. This shop was founded by a man named Rafael Córdova, still the current owner, who has made jewelry for the films Titanic and Romeo and Juliet including the ‘Heart of the Ocean’ gem-setting that features so prominently in Titanic.

Rafael still works in his shop and you can watch him make things out of Mexican silver while you are there.

From Platería Rafael, we travelled some fifteen kilometres southward to visit the suburbs of Coyoacán and Xochimilco, arriving first in Coyoacán.

The ‘Coyoacán Letters’ in front of the nineteenth-century rotunda called Kiosco Coyoacán, in the Plaza Jardín Hidalgo

We went to a park called the Jardín Centenario, meaning ‘centennial garden’: another one of the great commemorations of the centennial of the beginnings of Mexican independence in 1810 that was celebrated in 1910, just a few months before the outbreak of the Revolution.

(They say nobody expected the Revolution: there the Mexicans were celebrating their centennial with magnificent statues and public gardens, and the next thing you know, a revolution broke out. There is a lesson in that somewhere.)

Jardín Centenario

The name Coyoacán is thought to mean the place of many coyotes, and so, in honour of that, the Jardín Centenario has this amazing fountain called Fuente de Los Coyotes, with a statue of two coyotes on top. The fountain is just through the yellow gate, which you can see in the background of the next photo.

The Fuente de Los Coyotes

The statue was created in 1967. The next photo is from the other side and shows a church behind the two coyotes. This is San Juan Bautista, meaning St John the Baptist. It is one of the oldest churches in Mexico City, with construction said to have begun in 1522 and been completed in 1552.

San Juan Bautista looks small from the front, but it is actually quite a sizeable complex, with a courtyard and monastery buildings behind.

San Juan Bautista

The courtyard behind San Juan Bautista

I made a video of the interior as well:

On a more secular note, here is a lovely yellow building beside one of the parks in Coyoacán.

Next stop was the Frida Kahlo Museum, based on the house where Frida Kahlo lived for most of her life: a house also known as the Casa Azul or Blue House.

The Casa Azul

It is full of mementos, including photographs of Frida Kahlo’s parents.

Here is a copy of ‘The Two Fridas’, of which the original hangs in the Museum of Modern Art, closer to the centre of Mexico City. One Frida is dressed in European attire, the other in indigenous dress.

Here is a little statue and a painting of it in the background.

Frida Kahlo with another statue.

Frida Kahlo with her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera.

Here is collection of their home movies including that still, on YouTube (and diegorivera.org).

A chest, heavily decorated with Mexican themes.

And a bright colourful painting of watermelons, called Viva la Vida.

Here are some filing boxes, including one protesting about the wealthy American capitalist Nelson Rockefeller’s destruction of the first version of ‘Man, Controller of the Universe’, called ‘Man at the Crossroads’, which was painted in the Rockefeller Center in New York. Rockefeller wanted the image of Lenin that Rivera had added to be painted out and destroyed the whole artwork when Rivera refused to do so, after which Rivera re-painted it as ‘Man, Controller of the Universe’ in Mexico City.

Kahlo suffered many health problems, partly as a result of a traffic accident she suffered at the age of 18, and died at the age of 47, officially from a pulmonary embolism. Both she and Rivera were unfaithful to each other, with Rivera even taking Frida’s sister as a lover. Frida wrote that:

I have suffered two grave accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar knocked me down … the other accident is Diego.

The exiled Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky stayed at the Blue House for a time in the late 1930s, before moving to a more fortified residence nearby (which you can also visit).

Stalin, as we know, had a bee in his bonnet about Trotsky and planned to have him assassinated.

Rather incredibly, Mexico’s second-most-famous muralist, David Siquiros, was the local ringleader of Stalin’s plot to assassinate Trotsky, the protege of Rivera and Kahlo. An unsuccessful attempt at storming Trotsky’s fortified house was personally led by Siquiros, in which one of Trotsky’s bodyguards was killed. It was followed a few months later by the notorious ice-pick assassination of Trotsky by Ramón Mercader.

Despite all that, Rivera and Siquiros continued to get on quite well thereafter.

Here is a video I made of the house, with a singer outside.

Coyoacán is also famous as a foodie destination with lots of restaurants, food stalls and bakeries, selling such goods as conchas, the sweet buns of Mexico.

A restaurant with a rooftop area in Coyoacán

On that note, Kahlo’s own kitchen is said to have influenced subsequent designers of kitchens and interior decorators.

Two views of Frida Kahlo’s Kitchen, at the Casa Azul

After the Casa Azul, we visited the Olympic Stadium and the nearby main campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the one with the Siquiros mural of students with outstretched arms.

The Olympic Stadium: The summer Olympics were held here in 1968

Here is some more mural art I photographed at UNAM. In the first one, the arm is reaching for a book with historically significant dates from Mexican history: 1520 (Spanish conquest), 1810 (the beginnings of independence), the Constitution of 1857. 1910 (the beginning of the Mexican Revolution) and 19??. Another arm, in armour, seems to be holding the grasping arm back, as if to keep people ignorant of their history.

The next photo shows a part of one of the walls of the Central Library, a building decorated all over in tiles by Juan O’Gorman.

A double eagle symbolising the Habsburg monarchy of colonial era Spain (1516–1700), in the style of the Spanish Coat of Arms, with its two pillars that symbolise the Pillars of Hercules on either side of the straits of Gibraltar, wrapped in a scroll bearing the Spanish national motto of Plus Ultra (‘further beyond’), is perched on top of an Aztec or Mayan pyramid. In its beak, the Spanish eagle bears another scroll bearing the dates of the Spanish conquest (1521) and Mexican independence (1820).

And there is lots of other symbolism as well, including homage to Copernicus and, mostly offscreen to the left, Ptolemy.

The artwork on this side of the building is called ‘Historical Representation of Culture’. Another thing I notice is that it looks a bit like an Aztec codex: one of those dense collections of pictograms shipped off to Spain in the early days of colonisation. No doubt, resembling an Aztec codex is another layer of O’Gorman’s symbolism.

There are lots of murals at UNAM, and you can read more about them, with photos, here.

After visiting the main campus of UNAM, we headed a few kilometres eastward to Xochimilco, to go on a boat ride on some canals and small lakes that are among the remnants of the old Lake Xochimilco.

Most of Mexico City has been built on the bed of several former lakes, huge but shallow and interconnected when their water levels were highest, during the rainy months of the year. Lake Xochimilco was one of these lakes, of which the largest was Lake Texcoco.

‘Map of the basin of Mexico circa 1519, at the arrival of the Spanish.’ Multiple authors, 31 January 2010, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Among other things, these lakes formed the habitat of the axolotl, the so-called Mexican walking fish (actually an amphibian), which is popular in aquariums but almost extinct in the wild. Today, Lake Xochimilco, which still exists in a shrunken form alongside some canals, is the only remaining wild habitat of the axolotl.

I went for a ride on the canal boats of Xochimilco, while being serenaded by a Mariachi band.

Canal boats

The band

Here is a video I made of canal boat scenes:

Modern-day Lake Xochimilco has many small, reclaimed islands known as chinampas, or more colloquially, ‘floating gardens’, similar to the many small islands that surrounded Tenochtitlán at the time of the arrival of the Spanish, though chinampas don’t actually float.

The chinampas are home to indigenous farmers, and the canals used to carry their produce to the heart of Mexico City, though most of the canals have since been filled in.

Though it used to be very well-watered, Mexico City has been suffering from water shortage in recent years, like much of the rest of Mexico. The three main local causes seem to be climate change, which has made drought more prevalent; rapid population growth (so that the water supply is not keeping up); and old, leaky pipes.

The drawing-down of the aquifer under Mexico City and the compaction of now-dry lake sediments above has caused the land under the worst-affected parts of Mexico City, which are mostly in its eastern suburbs, be subsiding by as much as an incredible 50 centimetres a year in recent times, though many other parts of the city are only sinking by a few centimetres a year.

In any case, severe water restrictions are expected from about the end of June this year.

Next: Tijuana.

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