What a delight to be back in Mexico again. This was our first trip back since 2007 when we were exploring the state of Puebla looking for amate paper. This time we were en route to the mountains of Michoacán with Natural Habitat Adventures (Nat Hab, for short) to observe the monarch butterflies who migrate there for the winter. If possible when we make these kinds of trips, we like to bookend the group tour with a few days on our own in the city where we started. This tour started in Mexico City on Sunday, January 3. New Year’s Eve fell on the Thursday before, so we decided to spend New Year’s Eve in Mexico City.
We arrived very early the morning of December 31 via Southwest Airlines. I love Southwest Airlines and am so pleased that it is now flying to Mexico, but it needs to do some reprogramming for its international flights. Specifically, it should be able to incorporate “trusted traveler” status into its international boarding passes for those passengers who have it. I strongly recommend that anyone who flies on a regular basis, either domestically and/or internationally, enroll in the Global Entry program with the Department of Homeland Security. The program designates you a “trusted traveler” allowing you to pass quickly through security in special lines without having to remove your shoes, belts, etc. You can re-enter the US by simply scanning your passport and four fingers at the Global Entry kiosks generally located at the baggage claim areas. Unfortunately, we had to endure the regular security lines when we exited the US. Hopefully, by the time we fly internationally on Southwest again the airline will have done the necessary reprogramming.
A Very Special Property
Nat Hab had arranged for us to stay at the Camino Real Hotel Polanco. I had researched the hotel on-line when we received our itinerary and was a little leery because many of the reviews described the hotel as being a 5-star that was losing some of its sparkle through age and neglect, but I have to say that from our observation money is being reinvested into this very special property. There was a lot of painting of walls and sanding of floors while we were there and that was good to see because the hotel is a work of art. I did take the advice of a traveler on Trip Advisor and booked “club level” rooms.
The Camino Real Polanco was designed as a hotel-museum by architect Ricardo Legorreta for the 1968 Olympics (the Black Power salute Olympics). The building combines Mexican modernism a la Luis Barragán with strong elements from the pre-Columbian pyramids found throughout Mexico and the spaciousness of a hacienda. It is only five stories tall spread over most of a city block. Polanco is an upscale neighborhood with wide sidewalks and lots of restaurants, a very pleasant area to walk around in.
As you enter through the main entrance to the hotel, your first sight is a magenta sculptural wall designed in 1967 by the artist Mathias Goeritz who called it “Celosía Exterior” or exterior lattice. The square lattice shapes of the wall echo the ceilings in the wide open lobby and public spaces. Architect Legorreta called the square motif “Albers squares,” referring to German Bauhaus artist and teacher Josef Albers who had immigrated to the United States after the rise of fascism in Germany. He became famous for his series of paintings “Homage to the Square.” In that series he explores the interaction of color with nested squares. The exterior walls adjacent to the magenta lattice are painted a goldenrod yellow. This ostentatious use of color actually reflects the intensity of color that had originally covered pre-Columbian pyramids and temples. The colors are stunning.
Just inside the entrance in front of Goeritz’s magenta wall is an amazing fountain by Isamu Noguchi that references the movement of the sea. During the daytime the water crashes about like waves hitting a shoreline and in the evening the sea calms down and a lighted mist rises up from the fountain’s bowl.
There are other quite striking art pieces designed specifically for the hotel. Right off the main entrance inside the lobby is a large mural by Rufino Tamayo entitled “Man in Front of Infinity.” On one of the upper floors where large events are held is a remarkable largely black and white op-art mural in acrylic on wood by Pedro Friedeberg called “16 Riddles of a Hindu Astronaut.” The mural is reflected on the opposite wall in a large mirror. Apparently, the mural was modified to accommodate an entrance to the parking garage, but the mural is still quite dazzling and dizzying and creates a 3-D illusion of being in a Baroque church. At one time there was a large free-standing Alexander Calder sculpture in the lobby, but it was sold to a private collector in 2003 when the Camino Real hotel chain went through one of its periodic ownership changes.
For New Year’s Eve I had made what I thought was an early dinner reservation on-line with a restaurant in the hotel called Beefbar, an admittedly odd name. When we arrived for our 7 p.m. reservation, we were told by Arturo the sommelier that dinner was impossible because the whole restaurant was booked for a big party beginning at 8 p.m. and that we should have received an email relating that to us, which we hadn’t. When we stay in a hotel for several days, Noel cultivates a relationship with one or more of the senior people working the bellman’s desk or, in this case, the concierge desk. With printed dinner reservation confirmation in hand, we appealed to Noel’s new friend Victor for help. Victor was suitably outraged and immediately went to the hotel manager who contacted the restaurant manager who probably dressed down Arturo the sommelier. At any rate, we were told to come back at eight and we would be seated. I had an image of our sitting there like bumps on a log, totally uncomfortable and out of place. This was not to be. At 8 p.m. we were the first to arrive for the party. I felt a little funny at first but then the room started to fill up with families and friends, many with their children. We had a blast. It was a prix fixe menu and the food was fabulous. The restaurant provided all the usual New Year celebratory paraphernalia, hats, horns, and champagne toasts. The starter was what really broke the ice for us because it was so good – thin slices of sword fish sashimi topped with an amaretto foam and a sprinkling of ground roasted coffee beans and some kind of micro greens. Noel made sure all the courses were accompanied by a great Spanish rioja.
Dance music was provided by a very professional DJ and crew who took requests and kept the sound at a reasonable volume so you could have a conversation but loud enough to dance to. Up to midnight the dance floor was dominated by high spirited but well behaved children. Noel and I are not exactly great hoofers, but when the clock struck 12, we took to the floor bringing the adults with us. Aside from the excellent food and wine, one of the highlights of the evening was five very skilled magicians who went from table to table doing sleight of hand and card tricks. It was just a superb evening and Arturo the sommelier became another friend.
Leaving around 2 a.m. and descending the stairs into the lobby, we were treated to the sight of the lighted Noguchi fountain that had become a huge bowl of mist. An installation of translucent white onyx cubes suffused the fountain’s light into the lobby.
Within walking distance from the hotel is Chapultepec Park, one of the world’s great urban parks along with Central Park, Paris’ Bois de Boulogne, and the Imperial Gardens of Tokyo. Although the museums were closed because of the holiday, we came across a troupe of Voladores de Papantla (the Flying Men of Papantla) performing their pole flying dance outside the Museum of Anthropology.
The troupe we saw consisted of five men who climbed up a metal pole roughly 100 feet high to a four-sided platform. While one man remained on the top drumming and playing a flute, the other four wound ropes 13 times around the pole. After tying themselves to the ropes, the four then propelled themselves backwards and slowly with much grace lowered themselves to the ground while rotating around the pole 13 times. The 13 rotations times the four dancers make 52 total rotations, the number of years in the Aztec “calendar round” which was roughly one human life span in pre-Columbian times. The origin of the dance goes back more than 500 years when there was a severe drought among the Totonac people in what is now central Puebla. The dance was designed to please the rain god Xipe who was apparently pleased enough to end the drought. The dance’s apparent success with Xipe caused it to spread quickly throughout Mesoamerica. Most of the contemporary performers come from the village of Papantla near Veracruz in the state of Puebla. It was an extraordinary performance.
Temples New and Old
The next day with the help of one of the hotel doormen we linked up with driver Reynaldo Madera whom we hired for the day. I had been told not to hail cabs on the street in Mexico City. After a visit to the Saturday market and lunch in the San Angel neighborhood we had Reynaldo drive us to the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The Virgin of Guadalupe is indisputably the unifying cultural and political symbol of the Mexican people and state. The story goes that the mother of Jesus appeared to a Mexican peasant named Juan Diego in 1531 and performed a series of miracles proving her authenticity. This was roughly only 10 years after the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish and the cultural and political upheaval of that time was immense. The location of the apparition was Tepeyac Hill where the Spanish had destroyed a popular temple to Tonantzin, the Aztec mother earth goddess, and built a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary on top of it. It seems likely that the conquered peoples conflated the Virgin Mary with Tonantzin and continued to visit the site. Between 1695 and 1709 a large basilica was built to honor what by then had become the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Because Mexico City is built on a lake, the ground under the basilica is unstable and it began to sink. To make matters even worse, in 1921 an anti-clerical terrorist planted a bomb inside the church damaging it even more. A new basilica was completed in 1976. The old one has been shored up and repaired to some degree, but I had a bit of vertigo when I went inside because the floor tilts substantially. It was an interesting visit particularly in the context of the next day when we visited the sacred pyramids of Teotihuacán.
Sunday morning we met some of our travel companions for the first time. We had signed up for one of the two extensions that Nat Hab offers with the monarch trip – Teotihuacán and humpback whale watching in Puerta Vallarta. We didn’t opt for the whale watching.
Teotihuacán is one of the largest archeological sites in the world but there seems to be no consensus about who built it. Scholars do agree that it was the largest religious and urban site in the pre-Columbian Americas, peaking around 450 AD with a population estimated to have been between 125,000 and 200,000. Somewhere around 550 AD parts of the city were sacked and burned and it was pretty much abandoned as a city after that.
No one knows for sure what the original name for the site was. Arriving 500 years after it was abandoned, the Aztecs named it “Teotihuacán” which means “the place where the gods were born.” Even in its abandoned state the site seems to have remained a sacred place. It was a multicultural city and its influence spread as far south as the Mayan culture in what is now Guatemala and Honduras. You can still see small remnants of what must have been gloriously painted frescos covering the walls of the pyramids and temples.
A key design element that appears in different configurations at Teotihuacán is the quincunx flower. A quincunx is a geometric pattern made up of five points arranged in a cross with four of the points forming a rectangle and the fifth point the center. As a flower, the four points are the petals and the fifth the center of the flower. To the pre-Columbians of Teotihuacán this flower illustrated the shape of the universe. Each petal represented the four 13-year cycles that make up the 52-year “calendar round” found in the Aztec calendar but ubiquitous throughout Mesoamerica before the arrival of the Spanish. The Papantla dancers that we saw in Chapultepec Park use this same matrix for their performance. Much of Teotihuacán is unexcavated, but it seems that the site itself is organized as a quincunx.
According to Alejandra, one of our guides, there appears to have been a gradual philosophical shift going on in the Mesoamerican culture that manifested itself in Teotihuacán – a shift from polytheism to monotheism. For example, the Pyramid of the Sun is balanced by the Pyramid of the Moon, the sun being male and the moon female. Instead of being identified as separate deities, the sun and the moon were starting to be viewed as two aspects of one deity. She based her assertion on artifacts found at the site that combine two or more deities into one object. If this is so, it explains in part the population’s rapid conversion to Christianity, particularly Roman Catholicism, with its array of saints that can absorb the characteristics of local gods into entities that act as personal intermediaries with a unified godhead. It may also have been a relief to the folks of that time to replace the Aztec gods that demanded human sacrifice with Jesus who did the dying for them.
We made an interesting stop on our way back to Mexico City at a shop selling objects made from obsidian. Obsidian is volcanic glass that is very hard and brittle and when fractured is also very sharp. It was used by the pre-Columbians to make cutting and piercing tools. I was able to buy a lovely little Teotihuacán quincunx flower made from local igneous rock with green serpentine in the center and mounted on obsidian glass. I love holding the universe in my hand.
That evening we had a welcoming dinner with all our travel companions and guides. Our group of 12 tourists ranged in ages from 21 to several of us well over 65. The political leanings of the group were decidedly progressive. As a pioneer in conservation travel, Nat Hab embraces an environmental ethos and strives to provide its guests with informative commentaries and observations during the daytime tours and with in-depth presentations after dinner at night led by the guides and even guests who have an expertise pertinent to the adventure. Nat Hab is in an alliance with the World Wildlife Fund and gives back part of its proceeds to the fund. The ratio of guides to guests was one guide for every three travelers which are really good odds. Two were fully fledged guides and the other two were guides in training. One of our guides had a PhD and was working on a post-doc at Berkeley.
Angangueo in the Rain
The next morning we left Mexico City for Michoacán and the monarchs. Noel and I have been to the highlands and mountains of Michoacán several times during what is supposed to be the dry season in the winter, but we have always been plagued by rain. This time on our first day out was no exception. We checked into our hotel in the village of Angangueo in the afternoon and immediately headed out to El Rosario Sanctuary with rain threatening the whole way. Upon arrival, we were told by the local people providing the horses for our trip up to the viewing area that we would have to hike because the trail was too dangerous for the horses.
It was starting to pour accompanied by thunder and lightning. I don’t relish being struck by lightning and, along with two other people, decided to sit this one out and try again the next day. We retreated to the relative comfort of the truck that brought us. Then it began to hail. At that point our head guide Fernando reluctantly called the venture off. Noel told me the trail had turned into a stream of muddy water.
We retreated to our Angangueo hotel Posada Don Bruno. Posada Don Bruno is a small quaint hotel with beautiful gardens. It is “quaint” in the sense that there is no central heating or cooling. The weather was not only damp but relatively cold, 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. However, each room has wood-burning fireplaces and Nat Hab also provides space heaters. The bathrooms are not luxurious but the showers work and there is plenty of hot water. We did end up sleeping in our long underwear, but overall we were quite comfortable.
The village of Angangueo itself has had a rough time in the last 50 to 60 years. At one time it was a prosperous mining and logging town, but it lost those two industries and the community plunged into a deep economic depression. There was a major mining accident in 1953 and the mines were then nationalized, finally closing in 1991. The town is located in a canyon with many houses built high on the surrounding hillsides. In February 2010 after a period of heavy rain and hail a major landslide occurred killing at least 30 people and leaving much of the population homeless. The landslide was caused by illegal logging mostly by economically desperate locals.
After dinner that evening our two lead guides, Fernando and Patricia, gave an excellent presentation about the discovery of the monarch sites. In January 1975 a major overwintering site was discovered outside Angangueo co-incidentally in the mining area and in the very trees that were being illegally logged, the oyamel trees, which are very similar to Douglas firs. This discovery no doubt hastened the closing of the mines. Needless-to-say, there arose a major conflict of interest between environmentalists and the local population that needed to work.
By 1976 several sites had been identified. Two, La Rosario and Chincua, the only ones open to the public, are close to Angangueo. There are 14 butterfly sanctuaries in Mexico. Five are in Michoacán. The local people had long known about the monarchs in their neighborhood before scientists from outside the community did. Strangely, it was an odd language breakdown that delayed the discovery for some years. The scientists used the word “mariposa” when they asked about the monarchs while the locals called them “palomas.” “Paloma” has two meanings – dove (or pigeon) and butterfly. When the local folks were asked about “mariposas,” they would reply that they had lots of “palomas” but no “mariposas.” The arrival of the monarchs in the late fall coincides with the celebrations around the Day of the Dead, November 1. To the indigenous people in the area the monarchs came to represent the souls of the departed returning home for a visit. (Homing pigeons?!)
After the landslide disaster in 2010 the Mexican government began to vigorously promote tourism as an alternative to mining and logging. Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund have been working closely with the local community to grow tourism with the monarch sanctuaries as the centerpiece, but the sanctuaries only operate four or five months a year. The challenge is to build a tourism industry that is year-round. Another challenge is protecting the butterflies from the inevitable noise and pollution that tourism brings. For many years the monarch population seemed to be declining but now there appears to be some cautious optimism that the population may have stabilized. There was one horrible freak winter storm in 1996 when 30% of the monarch population was killed, but it bounced back the following year. Another piece of good news is that illegal logging is declining significantly as more and more folks are employed in tourism.
Protection of the monarch sanctuaries in Mexico, however, is only half the battle. The other half is maintaining the milkweed plants on which the butterflies lay their eggs and on which the hatched monarch larvae or caterpillars feed. That milkweed is in the United States and Canada. Since 1996, 167 million acres of milkweed habitat have been lost primarily because the use of herbicides and insecticides has eliminated the growth of milkweed in corn and soybean fields and along roadsides. The indiscriminate use of Roundup is particularly awful. In February 2016 President Obama launched a $2 million plan to build a “flyway” for the monarchs along Interstate 35 which stretches from Texas to Minnesota. The “flyway” will basically turn the I-35 roadsides on federal land into milkweed refuges by planting milkweed and banning pesticides that kill the plant and insecticides that harm the insect. There is criticism that this is too little, too late, but we shall see.
Waiting for the Sun
With high hopes and no rain the next morning we traveled to the Chincua monarch sanctuary, the smaller of the two sites. We rode horses two-thirds of the way up and hiked the rest. The day was overcast so the monarchs were resting in huge clusters hanging from these very tall oyamel trees. If I haven’t known these gray-brown clusters were butterflies, I would have hiked right past them thinking they were some kind of Spanish moss. Quite frankly, I had envisioned walking through a fir forest with thousands of orange and black monarchs flitting around me. But this is not Disneyland. It was too cold for them to fly. Also, the viewing area is on a steep incline overlooking the trees so it would have been difficult to climb down close. That’s probably just as well, as the insects also cluster on the ground and I certainly wouldn’t want to step on any. But there they were all resting and waiting for the sun to come out. We were there roughly two hours hoping the sun would shine and it did come out a bit here and there toward the end causing a bit of activity, but all in all, it was a bit of a disappointment.
That evening at the hotel our guides gave us a presentation about the very complex life cycle and migratory patterns of the monarchs. The average monarch lives about six weeks, but the ones clustering here live roughly six months. They are in a state called “diapause,” that is, they are not sexually mature. They are basically all teenagers and like most teenagers, they like to hang out in groups. As the weather warms in Michoacán, they mature and mate. Most of the males die here after mating. The females keep the males’ sperm and their eggs in reserve and return in March to south Texas and the southern corn belt where they seek out young milkweed, lay their eggs and die. A female will mate with several males and vice versa. Generations of monarchs will gradually make their way north following the growth of the milkweed until they arrive as far north as southern Canada. Generally, it takes four generations of monarchs to make it to the northeast United States and southern Canada. In September the fifth or sixth generation will go into diapause and start the migration south back into Texas and finally Mexico where the cycle begins again. No insect makes the full migration.
In addition to our guides’ presentation we were treated to intriguing talks by two of our fellow travelers – Jim Brozowski on how to determine the health of streams and lakes and Heather Briscoe on her work at a monarch site in southern California. Monarchs west of the Rockies migrate to southern California. A monarch will winter in exactly the same tree in which their ancestor wintered the year before. Astounding! Unfortunately, the monarch population in California is declining significantly because of pesticides, habitat loss and most recently because of the drought caused by climate change.
The next day was a Mexican national holiday, Dia de los Reyes, the Feast of the Magi or Epiphany. A year ago Noel and I celebrated the same holiday called Timkat in Ethiopia. On this day in Mexico folks eat a special bread called rosca. A figure of the baby Jesus is baked inside the bread and the person finding it is considered particularly blessed. We all hoped the baby Jesus would bring us luck with the monarchs.
After breakfast we all piled into two open-air trucks for a final stab at viewing the monarchs and headed back to El Rosario, the sanctuary we tried to visit the first day. Third time’s a charm. We dutifully mounted horses that took us part way up and hiked the rest of the way. El Rosario is much larger than Chincua. The oyamel firs were absolutely weighted down with hundreds of thousands of butterflies. The site itself is closer to the trees and not quite as steep. We waited two hours or more with the sun teasing us the whole time. Finally, it emerged and the clusters of monarchs opened up like bouquets of orange daylilies and the insects began flying about, even landing on us.
One particularly persistent monarch spent a good 15 minutes exploring Noel’s head. I like to think she was the spirit of Bonnie Beasley, Noel’s sweet departed mother, coming back to say hello to him. You can’t help but talk to them, but as Heather, the woman from southern California, said to me, “They are totally unaware of you as a species. You’re the same to them as a bush or a tree.” It was pure magic. Thank you, Baby Jesus.
Local Markets and a Cosmic One
After a late lunch back at our hotel, we checked out and rode to our next destination, a resort town on an artificial lake called Valle de Bravo. The area is a favorite weekend getaway for affluent folks from Mexico City. In 1971 the town hosted the Mexican Woodstock when two to three hundred thousand people descended on the place from all over Mexico and Central and North America for the Festival de rock y ruedas. We were spending the night at a five-star resort attached to a golf course and spa called the Hotel Avandaro. It was a nice respite from the less than luxurious accommodations in Angangueo. The hotel has a really good bar.
The next morning Noel and I opted to stay at the resort to relax and really clean up while some of our companions toured a local waterfall. After lunch we were given a somewhat hurried tour of a local crafts market and a food market. I was a bit irritated because the two markets, especially the crafts market, are really very nice and I wanted to spend more time in them. Our guide Patricia kept saying that we had to get to Toluca to see a stainglass installation before the sun set. I couldn’t understand why it was such a big deal to see some stainglass. Boy was I wrong about that!
Toluca is an industrial city located about 40 miles outside of Mexico City. It is the capital of the state of Mexico and is not known for its tourist attractions. I have been in a lot of impressive churches, cathedrals, and mosques, but for me the Cosmovitral Jardin Botanico de Toluca is the most spiritually elevating building I’ve ever been in. The building itself was constructed in 1910 as a municipal market in honor of Mexican Independence Day, September 16. The upper two-thirds and roof are made of metal and glass in the Art Nouveau style and the design is supposed to resemble a train station. The market closed in 1975.
After much controversy the city of Toluca decided to convert the market into a space for art and a botanical garden. The Tolucan muralist Leopoldo Flores convinced the city to turn the massive glass structure into a stainglass mural that would not only cover the walls but also the ceiling. His theme would be “Man and his relationship with the universe.” He named the work “Cosmovitral,” that is, “cosmos” meaning “universe” and “vitral” meaning “glass.” Flores and 60 artisans worked on the walls from 1978 to 1980. It is the largest stainglass installation in the world, using 28 different colors of glass.
The installation is a panorama of conflicting forces battling it out with one side gradually emerging triumphant and then slowly being overwhelmed by the opposing side. Blues and darker colors dominate the north side and yellows and reds the south side. The focal point of the installation is the “Hombre Sol” panel on the east side. This panel combines the image of the sun with that of a man. This is supposed to represent enlightened human kind in complete harmony with the forces of nature, art, and science. Overall, the installation illustrates universal dualities and antagonisms that make up the cosmic continuum – the endless cycle of life and death, day and night, creation and destruction, good and evil, knowledge and ignorance. The work is a paean to secular humanism. Because of political problems, work on the mural stopped for 10 years and the ceiling was not completed until after 1990.
Below this astounding glass mural is a lovely botanical garden that brings all this cosmic sturmm und drang down to earth. At the center is a bust dedicated to the botanist Eiji Matsuda, a naturalized Mexican citizen from Japan, who was known for his research into the flora of Mexico. The garden is host to many art exhibits and municipal events.
Before returning to the Camino Real Polanco in Mexico City we stopped at a very traditional Mexican restaurant for our farewell dinner. Fortunately, for me at least, we had had a huge lunch and I wasn’t very hungry. The centerpiece of our dinner was very traditional Mexican specialties – maguey worms, ant eggs, chapuline (grasshoppers), and cabrito (goat). I believe that most of my companions at least tasted everything, but not me, except for the goat which I love. Someone in our group made the observation that insects would be the protein of the future because they reproduce incredibly fast and don’t emit greenhouse gases. Happily, I don’t think the ascendency of insects over red meat will happen in my lifetime. It was kind of an emotional farewell and we certainly hope to see our friends again.
Postscript at the Casa Azul
Noel and I had one more day in Mexico City. We arranged to have the same driver, Reynaldo Madera, whom we had used a week earlier, drive us to Coyoacán to visit artist Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul. The Casa Azul or Blue House is Kahlo’s family home that her husband Diego Rivera bought when her father had financial problems. Over time Frida and Diego redecorated and enlarged the house to align with their Modernist tastes and to accommodate their large collection of Mexican folk art and antiquities. I highly recommend buying tickets in advance on-line. The museum limits the number of people allowed in at one time and you can purchase tickets for a specific time slot. For a little bit extra you can also buy the right to take photographs but no flashes. Also, be sure to rent the video guide.
Our driver Reynaldo echoed one of the themes of the video on Frida we saw at the museum when he said to us, “She painted her pain.” The first two rooms of the museum exhibit many of her excruciating self-portraits. She contracted polio when she was six leaving her with one leg thinner than the other. At 18, she suffered a horrible bus accident that broke her spine and pelvis and caused an iron handrail to pierce her abdomen and uterus. She spent two years in bed including three months in a full body cast. She eventually recovered enough to walk, but she suffered from enormous pain her whole life. During her three months of immobility she began to paint. Because her various illnesses often left her alone, she focused her art almost entirely on herself. Later in her career the French surrealist André Breton called her a surrealist, but Frida rejected that label saying she just painted her reality.
That reality also included her tumultuous two marriages to Diego Rivera. To once again quote our driver Reynaldo, “They were people on a different level.” Indeed they were and they lived large. Both Frida and Diego had numerous love affairs, Frida with women and men, Diego with Frida’s younger sister. At one point Diego’s second wife the novelist and early feminist Guadalupe Marín managed Frida and Diego’s household at the Casa Azul. Frida and Diego sheltered Leon Trotsky for a few years when Joseph Stalin had put a death warrant out for him. Frida had a brief affair with Trotsky, but later she and Diego broke with him politically and she went back to painting herself with Stalin.
Although her paintings focus mostly on her suffering, there was clearly much joy in her life. That joy is apparent in the fabulous folk art collection that the two amassed. Many of the pieces are handmade children’s toys that she enjoyed playing with when she was confined to bed. She was clearly a very outgoing personality and loved company and entertaining the fascinating individuals that clustered around this remarkable couple. She had two bedrooms, one public where she could receive visitors when she was ill and one private where she slept at night and where she died. They were known for their dinner parties. The dining room and traditional Mexican kitchen are very important rooms in this beautiful house. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were at the heart of the intellectual and bohemian cultural life of Mexico in the 1930’s, 40’s and early 50’s. As committed communists, they celebrated the political struggles of the working class and embraced the indigenous cultures of the Mexican peasants.
Frida died in July 1954 at age 47. A few days before her death, she had participated in a demonstration against the CIA’s invasion of Guatemala. She had been in terrible pain daily since 1952 when she had to have her right leg amputated because of gangrene. She was often having panic attacks and was taking morphine. There is some suspicion that she committed suicide by overdosing. She had written in her diary, “I hope the exit is joyful – and I hope never to return – Frida.” Per her wishes she was cremated and her ashes put in a pre-Columbian urn that is displayed at the Casa Azul.
Diego Rivera said the day she died was the saddest day of his life. He commemorated her in a rare landscape that is also on exhibit in the house. It is a barren rocky seascape, almost monochromatic. Embedded in the rocks are angular human faces and figures that seem to be in the process of disappearing into the ancient stone coast. On the right are a white humanoid rock figure and a small circle of what looks like lit candles bleeding off the canvas, almost like a small crown, a frail tribute to a large personality like Frida who has returned to the stone altars of her beloved Indian ancestors.
We had a very early flight on Southwest Airlines the next morning to Houston and then back to Chicago. With the “trusted traveler” status on our passports we quickly cleared US immigration using the Global Entry kiosks in the Houston baggage claim area. It was quite a journey.