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Art, Frida and Chillies in Mexico

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Published in The Mint on Sunday on June 10, 2017

The history of Mexico—pronounced “Me-hee-ko" in Nahuatl, the indigenous language or rather group of languages spoken in varied forms to this day—begins with its original identity as the flourishing land of the Aztecs.

The arrival of the Spanish began around 1519 over a period of several months at the end of which the Spanish commander Hernan Cortes invited himself to the capital city of the Aztec empire, Tenochtitlan, at the court of what could only have been a reluctant host: Emperor Moctezuma the second. To the Aztecs he was Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, the ninth Aztec emperor. He would not remain emperor for long.

What seems to have worked against the Aztec king was the Spanish joining hands with rival indigenous tribes seething with discontent over tributes payable to the Aztec Empire, and being unwilling fodder for mass sacrifices, often running up to 10-20,000 or more at a time. The Spanish forces found in them a ready ally.

The Aztec power centre was its capital of Tenochtitlan, the modern-day Mexico City, and Teotihuacan, where the ruins of a city of well-crafted and advanced engineering techniques are to be seen.

As you walk into the Centro Historico (historical centre or Centro Historico de la Ciudad de Mexico) through to Zocalo (pronounced “so-ka-lo"—basically, the city square, which in the time of the Aztecs used to be the ceremonial centre), the place simmers with what has been. The modern-day Mexico City has been built on the rubble of a thriving erstwhile Aztec capital and is unique in that aspect.

Passing through the Calle Cinque de Febrero (calle is street, spoken with a “k" and then a skid ending with “ey") and taking in the row of grand buildings soaked in history, I am already in a state of irrepressible excitement.

Zocalo, known as La Plaza de la Constitucion, the largest plaza in South America, contains most of the heritage structures dating back from 16th to the 20th centuries. This includes the Cathedrale Metropolitana (metropolitan cathedral) the Palacio Nacionale (national Palace, where Motecohzuma II’s palace originally stood), and to its north, the Templo Mayor (the main temple).

The Templo Mayor was the elaborate temple complex dedicated to the two main Aztec deities, Huitzilopochtli, the God of war, and Quetzalcoatl, the God of wisdom, learning and rain, among other things. Quetzalcoatl is signified by the winged serpent and found extensively in Aztec architecture. We stand where the Spanish conquistadors built New Mexico on the ruins of Tenochtitlan.

This is also the location for the opening scene of the latest James Bond movie, Spectre. Cathedral de Historico is in front of me and to my right, the Palacio Nacionale where (having watched the movie) I can visualise Daniel Craig running along the rampart looking crushingly virile. In the movie, the building is brought down by a bomb; collateral damage in Bond’s endeavour to save humanity.

Christmas is in the air and the towering Christmas tree sponsored by Coca-Cola (festive, though without a sprig of pine to it) stands in the square. Having seen the unsponsored version of the tree in the Rockefeller Plaza just the day before, I find myself in a ridiculous position to compare the two and stop myself in time.

Even as I step into the precincts of the Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedrale Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen María a los cielos), I stop by to look at the glass-covered relic on the ground, of the ancient Aztec temple. For a moment, it is as though the ancients have been sealed in and are longing to emerge.

The cathedral, the largest in the Americas, was built as a replacement for the smaller one constructed by Cortes. Gothic in inspiration, the sombre baroque paintings by Cristobal Villalpando, who painted La Mujer del Apocalipsis (The Woman of the Apocalypse, 1685) and Juan Correa’s Entrada de Cristobalite a Jerusalén (Entrance of Cristobalite into Jerusalem, 1691) and La Asuncion de la Virgen (The assumption of the virgin, 1689), are the main attractions.

A mix of the baroque, neoclassical and the churrigueresque (after the Spanish architect José Churriguera) styles, it houses 14 chapels and five naves. Each of the chapels has lyrically beautiful altars dedicated to various saints and the Virgin Mary.

The interior of the Cathedral is of the utmost beauty and holds you mesmerised. It was almost completely destroyed in a fire in 1967. Fortunately, the two huge 18th century organs (of a type I’ve never laid eyes on before), the largest in the Americas, have been restored. The organs were sent to the Netherlands for repair. Restoration was accomplished with the help of archival paintings and photographs of the original interiors, and restorative work went on through much of the 1970s and 80s. The organs, immense and beautiful, are now fully-functional.

Three baroque paintings of great beauty and value, The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, The Holy Face and The Virgin of Forgiveness, were also lost in the fire. However, the renovation unearthed several until then unknown, hidden facts.

The crypt of archbishops lies below the altar of kings, of whom Archbishop Juan de Zumarraga, who helped many of the locals against the atrocities of the Spanish, is the most favored for the Mexicans.

Built on soft lake bed, the heavy cathedral has been sinking from the time of its construction. It was taken up for restoration by the world monuments fund and has since then been balanced to moderate the sinking if not completely stem it.

Palacio Nacionale was, as mentioned before, originally the site of the palace of emperor Motecuhzoma II. Brought down to build the current structure, most of the material is the original Tezontle, a volcanic rock native to the region that is a deep red in colour. The complex stretches across the whole width of the Zocalo, some 200 metres. It houses mainly the federal offices and national archives that are not open to the public.

However, the front entrance patio has the stupendous works of Diego Rivera, a Mexican nationalist and artist of great renown. There are nine murals covering the history of Mexico from 1520 to 1930, called the Epic of Mexican History. They span approximately 5,000 square feet. It is perhaps the most encyclopaedic and detailed illustrated rendition of Mexican history, and took Rivera six years (1929-35) to complete.

Spices and chillies

Mexican food is a tale of flavours that burst in the mouth.

The Mexicans are fond of their spices—chillies are a favorite, of which no less than 20 different species flavor their cuisine. There are the pickled chillies, the powdered ones, fresh green ones to go with Guacamole and so on.

Strolling along the streets of Republica de Uruguay and then through Isabel de Catholica upon landing in Mexico City (it is late evening), we walk plumb into crowds of Christmas revellers, sellers of corn and cheese with chilli flakes, candyfloss and children carrying huge pencil balloons. Music is in the air and the atmosphere is one of spontaneous merriment. You are there and you are one of them.

Standing in Centro Historico, on Calle de Republica de Uruguay, in the heart of Mexico City, food surrounds us. It needs the additional skill of language though (in this case Spanish) to pick one that suits your palate. The Mexicans are staunch Spanish speakers—you speak English and they smile tolerantly and wait for a Spanish word to emerge.

It would be advisable to brush up on a smattering of this third-most widely spoken language in the world. There is lots of help available on the internet—you just have to burrow un poco.

Being vegetarian and having done some deep research, I have discovered to my delight that vegetarian options are aplenty. You begin with “Yo soy una vegetariana" (I am vegetarian, spoken “ve-he-ta-ri-ana") and when you see light dawning of their face, you know you are getting there.

Reaching De Buena Casa Buena Mesa (Of good house, good table), we are plied with a sample of cinnamon-infused coffee sweetened with cane sugar (cafe olla, pronounced “oya") that has me in raptures. The Mexican staples of tamales, tacos and tlayudas, with some adroit Spanish and a willing host, are translated into vegetarian versions. This is food heaven.

The tamale, of sweetened pink corn, is delicate, with a generous sprinkling of raisins, and steamed in its own skin. The tlayudas (corn wraps) with mushroom, cheese and spinach with a freshly-made guacamole are hot and excellent. The king arrives then: stuffed corn wraps in frizole (beans) gravy with a feathery dusting of cheese. Last of all, the queen: dainty fried corn churros, sprinkled hot with sugar to be dipped in chocolate sauce. All of which gets rounded off with plentiful mugs of cinnamon-infused coffee and we are comatose.

The atmosphere is cheerful and abuzz with laughter. We inhale lungfuls of oil smoke from the frying churros. No restrained speech, no whispers. Mexicans are like Indians.

As we are finishing our breakfast, a handsome old man with a taqiyah (the traditional skull cap of the Muslims) on his head pauses at our table on his way out and wishes us a hearty meal.

Shopping and more

Stepping out, the streets of Mexico are packed with continually flowing humanity, mostly Mexicans from different parts of the country with families in tow, more so due to the Christmas season. We pass by departmental stores on the way with bowlfuls of a range of chocolates (Mexico is the original cacao nation), coffee seeds, nuts dipped in chocolate, variations of dry fruits, mixes and savouries. The floors above are overflowing with coats and jackets and dresses. There are shops selling trinkets, juices, flowers and leather goods.

The next morning, fortified by an array of breads and butter and assorted chillies and pickle, frijole paste and tomato chilli sauce from Los Bisquets, the restaurant on Calle Madero, we reach the Casa De Azulejos (The house of tiles) with the sun glinting off the fine, floral, blue and white tiles.

This structure, built originally in 1596, was decorated by Conde Del Val De Orizaba a century-and-a-half later with these beautiful hand-made tiles from Puebla, the capital city of the state of Puebla in Mexico and the home of the talavera ceramic work and pottery, most notable of which are the tiles known as azulejos.

As I climb up the stairs, the risers decorated with the finely-crafted tiles hold my fancy and the walls, done in similar fashion, arrest my step.

At the landing is an enchanting ceramic lamp that I photograph from all possible angles. On that wall is the famed mural Omnisciencia (all knowledge) by Jose Clemento Orozco. Every inch of the building is a sight for sore eyes.

At the entrance foyer is a restaurant that serves sumptuous food served by waitresses dressed in traditional clothing. It is an experience to be cherished.

We step out into dulcet morning sunshine and a jukebox player is playing familiar Mexican music on his music box set upon a tripod.

Art and its impact

The Palacio De Bella Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) is awe-inspiring for more reasons than one. Designed by Adamo Boari, with the sleeker influences of the Art Nouveau and the Art Deco, the facade of the palace is as magnificent as we expect it to be.

What it holds within is some of the finest of Mexico’s famed artist sons—Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Sequiros (whose work was constantly pitted against Rivera’s), Jose Clemente Orozco and Roberto Montenegro. Completed in 1934 by Frederico Mariscal as a monument for the centennial celebrations of Mexico’s independence (1910), it is the centre for art, music, opera, dance and literature and a venue for related performances. Even as we enter, we see that the ballet Folklorico De Mexico is performing later that evening but we are unable to make it in time.

You walk up the flight of stairs and you are with the famed mural by the Mexican nationalist and artist Diego Rivera (born Diego María de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez).

Yes, that’s one name.

The mural is profound for the range of subjects it covers and depth of its vision. It is encyclopaedic and has some serious history to it.

The masterpiece named El Hombre en el Cruce de Caminos (Man at the Centre of the Universe), needs dedicated time to understand. The three sections depict Rivera’s interpretations of man’s place in his universe, the forces of Communism and the socialist movement. It includes the men who spearheaded this movement—Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Frederich Engels—the Mayday Parade, the labour movement, the lives of the bourgeois and the proletariat.

It covers scientific advancement and discoveries, the macro and micro cosmic views, the rejection of the old, the emergence of the new, the liberation of man and his control over his destiny. The panel below reveals the resurgence of nature. It is the creation of a superior intelligence and a visionary.

I stand in deep reverence for the man who could bring civilisation, history, science and politics under the umbrella of his beliefs with such clarity. The one of Hitler and Orwellian depiction reveal not only artistic excellence but brilliance of thought.

It’s Mexico, it’s Kahlo

The Museo Frida Kahlo in La Casa Azul, the childhood home of Frida Kahlo, is an intimate space of two intense, deeply-nationalistic, highly-gifted artists and ideologues. Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera lived and loved here (from 1929-54) and faced the turbulence of their lives together. It is also where she spent the last days of her eventful life.

Going by what little I had read of Frida, I expect to see less of her art and more of relics from her life. I do find the light prominently turned on the sensational but as I look deeper, a passionate nationalist, Communist, a staunch supporter of indigenous rights and a committed artist of rare talent emerges.

Born of an indigenous Mexican mother and father of German descent, Frida threw in her lot with the Mexican nationalism deeply-influenced by Diego Rivera’s ideology and was an unrestrained spokesperson of her beliefs, living and practicing her ideas with conviction.

Her paintings, narcissistic in nature, are a raw explosion of her innermost thoughts and longings, her anguish in her inability to conceive, her mystical beliefs and staunch leaning on tribal mythological representations.

She is known to have met with a devastating trolley accident at the age of 18 that left her unable to conceive, putting her through at least 40 surgeries and extensive dependence on painkillers until her death at the age of 47. Post the traumatic accident that left her with a broken body and a will of steel, she learnt to paint lying on her bed with the help of a mirror above her bed.

La Casa Azul is an intimate encounter with her life and almost an intrusion into parts of her life she might have wished kept private. It’s the cost of being a celebrity and what is perceived as a sensational existence. Diego and Frida— two brilliant and substantial personalities—shared a deep and enduring love for each other. Life couldn’t have been smooth.

Frida Kahlo’s Studio in Casa Azul

Deeply-poignant areas of Casa Azul are those that house her shade palette, her paints and brushes, the mirror she used for her self-portraits and the wheelchair to which she was confined, continuing to paint as her condition deteriorated.

Her day bed with her death mask and the urn with her ashes on the dresser leave me shaken.

Photographs of her with her unibrow, the sombre countenance with the direct look, the understated rebellion tinged with sadness and the exotic and intelligent charm, make for a face not to be forgotten easily. The tour through Frida Kahlo’s home, bought by her father Guillermo Kahlo, takes one through each segment of her life with Diego—their favourite chairs, the artefacts they collected from over the world, the indigenous cooking vessels, their love for entertaining friends (several of whom luminaries from the political, literary and art worlds) their political leanings and their abiding passion and interest for detail. Each item is selected with care.

Rivera, the more prominent of the two, takes a back seat at La Casa Azul.

Often, while reminiscing on travels, one tends to look back and find that there is so much left. So much than has been covered or assimilated. Mexico, more than any other, has instilled in me the conviction that the journey has but begun and is far from over.

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