Thursday, May 25, 2017

Green Spaces | Del. Benito Juárez: Family Play in Deer Park

Traveling north via taxi from our base in Delegación Coyoacán, going up the boulevard División de Norte (Divsion of the North, named after Pancho Villa's army in the Revolution,1910-1917), on our way towards Centro, and shortly after passing under the Río Churubusco expressway, we pass by a fairly large, tree-filled park. It looks inviting, so we tell ouselves that someday we should pay it a visit.

So one Sunday afternoon, we call a cab and head up Division del Norte. Passing under the expressway, we enter Delegación (Borough) Benito Juárez. Within a few minutes, we arrive at the park. Getting out, and stepping onto the sidewalk, we immediately discover that we are in the midst of another type of "traffic". A number of various kinds of small vehicles carrying Mexican family members of all ages are traveling along the wide sidewalk.

Out for a Sunday Drive

Peddle cart

Electric "jeep"


Clearly, everyone is having a great time. But pedestrians best keep ¡Ojo!, an eye out. 

What's In a Name?

At the northwest corner of the park, we spy a large statue and walk up to investigate.

General Francisco Villa
Head of the Division of the North

It is a statue of General Francisco "Pancho" Villa. As it turns out, the park is officially named after him. But everyone calls it by a different name.

Statue of a "deer",
which acutally looks like an elk.

The park, we learn, is known as Parque de los Venados, Park of the Deer, or Deer Park. Why? Apparently because, for some unknown reason, a statue of a deer was placed in the middle. To us, who lived surrounded, at times overrun, by white tail deer in Connecticut, it looks like a western elk.

Walking along one of the paths crossing the park, we discover there are even other forms of rides.

Many Ways to Move

"Are you sure this is safe?"
"Really sure?"



On the east side of the park, there are rides that don't go anywhere, juegos mecanicos, amusement park-type rides.

Going for a "Sunday ride" seems to be the predominant form of play for family members, but there are other activities.


Fun for Sale

There are also the vendors one finds in any Mexican plaza or park.

Get your picture taken with Batman!

A Green Thought in a Green Shade

Others, as in parks everywhere, are just resting in the shade.


A Mexican Family Sunday

So "Deer Park" is a park full of families. Clearly, this is a place to come on Sunday, the one day off for many Mexican workers, to have some fun riding around the park in all kinds of ways, teach your kids how to ride trikes and bikes, maybe buy a big, colorful balloon, or just relax and watch others pass by. It's a real window into Mexican family life.

Delegación Benito Juárez
is the bright yellow area in the center-north of the City.
South of Cuauhtémoc, (tan) site of Centro
and north of Coyoacán (purple)

Colonias of Delegación Benito Juárez

Parque de los Venados, Deer Park
is marked by the green and yellow star.
It sits in the northwest corner of Colonia Portales Norte (red area).

Avenida División del Norte is the diagonal, southeast to northwest line just to the park's west.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Green Spaces | Centro:The Alameda Central

Green Space in Centro

While Centro hosts many buildings important to the City's architectural, political and social history, it has few trees or open green space. The huge space of the Zócalo, although once planted with trees, like a typical Hispanic plaza, is now a bare stage for public events and expositions. One does not go there to relax in the shade.

Zócalo in the 1930's
Looking south from Cathedral to Avenida 20 de Noviembre.
Photo displayed in entrance to Zócalo Metro Station.

Alameda Central: From a Spanish Park to a French One

While there are a number of small plazas and hidden, plant-filled patios in Centro (which we will get to later), the major exception to Centro's general lack of green space is the Alameda Central, which is one of the most pleasant places in the City to take a paseo, a stroll. Completely renovated in 2012, with marble walkways and restored fountains and plantings, it is at its most beautiful in March and April when the many jacaranda (hah-cah-RAHN-dah) trees are covered with their lilac blooms.

Created in 1592 at the direction of Viceroy Luis de Velasco, it was modeled after similar parks in Spanish cities. The name comes from the Spanish word álamo, which means poplar tree, some of which were planted here. The park was part of the viceroy's plan to develop what was, at that time, the western edge of the city, whose boundary then was what is today the Eje Central, Main Axis (north-south, one-way avenue, to the Alameda's east). Notably, the Alameda Central is the oldest urban park in the Americas.

What is now the western section of the park was originally a plaza built during the Inquisition and known as El Quemadero, The Burning Place. By the 1760s, the Inquisition had virtually come to an end and in 1770, Viceroy Marqués de Croix had that plaza torn up to expand the park. The park was expanded again in 1791 by the Count of Revillagigedo (Reh-veeyah-hee-HEH-doh.), who undertook a major renovation of the cityscape.

Alameda Central
Bellas Artes is lower right.
Viewed from the Torre Latinoamericana

In preparation for the 100th Anniversary of the beginning of the War for Mexican Independence (1810-1821) Porfirio Díaz (dictator, 1876-1911) had the park renovated in the French Neo-classic style, adding fountains of Greek gods and figures in 19th century Romantic style by the Mexican sculptor, Jesús Fructuoso Contreras, who also designed statues for the Paseo de la Reforma. In 2012, the park was completely renovated to restore its 19th century gracia, gracefulness.

View of Palacio de Bellas Artes
from the Alameda


What else are fountains for?


So, if you want to stroll through a 19th century Parisian-style park where flowers bloom year round, come to the Alameda Central

Monday, May 15, 2017

Welcome to Mexico City Ambles: Navigating the Blog

“I Speak of the City,
A novelty today, tomorrow a ruin from the past, buried and resurrected every day,
lived together in streets, plazas, taxis, movie houses, theaters, bars, hotels, pigeon coops and catacombs, . . . 

The city that dreams us all, that all of us build and unbuild and rebuild as we dream,  . . . 
I speak of the buildings of stone and marble, of cement, glass and steel, of the people in the lobbies and doorways, 
I speak of our public history, and of our secret history, yours and mine.

(Octavio Paz, “I Speak of the City” in The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, 1957-1987,
edited and translated by Eliot Weinberger, New York: New Directions Books, 1987, pp. 511-517)

Octavio Paz's prose poem portrays with words how the buildings and streets of any city reflect the urban human condition. But each does so embodying the historical and cultural character, el imaginario, the collective imagination, that makes it unique. Octavio Paz's city was Mexico City. This blog of perambulations through the streets and neighborhoods of his city is our effort to make it ours.

Welcome to Mexico City Ambles! Here we seek to present el imaginario of the city as embodied in its cityscape, architecture, monuments, and public art.

City as Hodge-Podge...

Your first experience of Mexico City, as you walk through its many colonias, or neighborhoods, is of an architectural hodge-podge, an incoherent batiburrillo, a jumble of buildings from various eras. Structures from the colonial period, adapted to contemporary uses, are enmeshed with newer neighbors from the 19th and 20th centuries.

The effect of this temporal-spatial desorden can be rather disorienting. You seem to be in no particular place or time—or in several simultaneously. It's as though you've entered a kind of time-warp that the chilangos, city residents, around you seem either not to have noticed or are not disturbed by. They go about their daily life, with its predictable actions and rhythms of working and relaxing, selling and buying, and, frequently, eating.

...or Vibrant, Vertical Archeological Site

So what to make of this hodgepodge of eras, these fragments of disconnected history, this batiburrillo? We are used to thinking of Mexican history in archeological terms, as a sequence of horizontal layers built one atop another, as the Historic Center sits atop the remains of the Mexica/Aztec Tenochtitlán.

Aha! One sunny afternoon, in the midst of one of our ambles with Alejandro, our chilango scout, guide and mentor, sitting in a quiet plaza, suddenly, the pieces fell into place. Like pieces of colored glass forming a pattern in a kaleidoscope, the layers aren't horizontal, but side by side. Mexico City is a vertical archeological site! The batiburrillo is the jumble of artifacts that would be found in any "dig", but no physical digging is necessary here. 

Recently, we came across a quote by Carlos Fuentes, the famed Mexican novelist and essayist, that confirmed our perception:
"Old cities are living and breathing entities, where the future is built not only atop the past, but also beside it. Mexico City, like Rome, is a layered city, where past civilizations coexist with one another." quoted in the New York Times, Sept. 8, 2005, in an article on Mexico City architectural issues as exemplified in the Paseo de la Reforma.
So all you have to do is walk around and keep your eyes open. (And ask Alejandro lots of questions.)

The only "digging" comes afterwards, digging for the histories of various pieces encountered. And for that, there's the Internet! Fun, relaxed armchair exploration after an intriguing amble. Mexico City Ambles is our presentation of this archeological-historical exploration-in-progress.

Organization of the Blog

Each post is listed in the blog chronologically by publication date. Scrolling down takes you to the most recently published post. The chronological list of posts can be accessed via the Blog Archive (bar at top right). Most posts, however, are related thematically or geographically. As a navigation aid, individual Pages (bar at top left) provide listings of posts grouped by theme or geography.

Information about a specific person or topic can be located by using the Search feature (bar at top right). Porfirio Díaz, for example, entered into the Search box followed by Click brings up a complete list of posts about this Mexican president.

Four Introductory Pages set the stage:

The first two acquaint you with Mexico City's geography—its sixteen delegaciones, boroughs, and the Metro, the "subway", which is the fastest and cheapest pathway (US30 cents) to get to places we explore. The second two Pages examine grandeza, grandeur, as a visual theme that appears again and again in our ambles and then Baroque religious architecture as a pirmary manifestation of that grandeza in the capitial of Nueva España and Mexico.
  • Mexico City's Sixteen DelegacionesMexico City (January 2016: Distrito Federal, Federal District, officially became its own political entity, Mexico City) is shaped rather like a lumpy pear: skinny at the top—it even has a "stem"—then rounds out to a very fat bottom. It is divided into sixteen delegaciones, or boroughs, of greatly varying sizes, shapes, population densities and histories.
  • Mexico City Metro: The Mexico City Metro (officially, the Collective Transportation System) is a network of subway and surface electric train lines enabling chilangos (city residents' name for themselves) and visitors to get around the city quickly, cheaply (US30 cents) and safely. The system has 12 lines, each distinguished by a color on its signage.
  • Grandeza Mexicana: Grandeur of Mexico CityWalking the streets of Mexico City, from its Centro Histórico to various of its colonias, neighborhoods, acquainting ourselves with their architecture and public art, we have noted the recurrence of what becomes a visual theme: an architectural grandness that relays a message of wealth and power. This city is, or has been, a seat of major political and economic power, expressed through physical grandeza, grandeur. Here we explore the particularly Mexican roots of this impulse to grandeur.
  • México Barroco | Baroque Art: Representing Divine Ecstasy, Evoking AweIn Mexico the art of the Baroque epoch (mid 17th to mid 18th centuries) is all around you. It is the art of the height of the Spanish Empire and its realization in Nueva España. A Wikipedia article on the Baroque helps us see its character as centered on grandeur, exhuberance or lavishness, and drama. We also come to realize the goal of its religious forms is to express holy ecstasy and evoke awe. With that perspective we explore the quintessential expression of Baroque religious architecture in Mexico City, the Metropolitan Cathedral.

Thematically or geographically related pages

These are organized in a rough chronology and present lists of related posts:
  • Mexico's History As Embodied In Mexico City: Lists all posts addressing the many stages in Mexico's history as they are manifested in the cityscape, from the Aztec through the Spanish colonial, and the 19th and 20th centuries. In chronological order, with brief summaries.
  • CentroEl Centro, the Center of Mexico City, actually consists of five colonias, or neighborhoods: Centro Histórico, and East, West, North and South Centro. Spanish colonial palaces and smaller residential and commercial buildings from that period are numerous, but mixed in among them are buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries. Within them, and flowing among them, in the streets is the everyday timeless activity of selling and buying.
  • Mexico City's Original Indigenous Villages and Their Spíritual ConquestContemporary Mexico City is an amalgam, not only of the Spanish Colonial Centro Historico and its expansion beginning in the late 19th and across the 20th century, but also of ancient indigenous pueblos, villages, that, beginning some two thousand years ago, were established on the shores and islands of the five lakes at the center of the Valley of Anahuac. So Cortés and the Spanish not only had to transform Tenochtitlan, they also had to transform a geographically extensive civilization and culture via the "evangelización de los indios," what has been called the Spiritual Conquest. This series of posts explores the landmarks, neighborhoods and fiestas that continue to embody this encounter and synthesis of two civilizations. (Our current work-in-progress)
  • Chapúltepec Woods and Paseo de la Reforma: Five kilometers, three miles, southwest of Centro, on what used to be the western shore of Lake Texcoco, sits the ancient, sacred site of Chapúltepec Woods. A royal retreat and source of fresh spring water for the Aztecs, the Spanish turned it into a park. Subsequently, a "castle", actually a palace, was built at the top of its landmark hill. It served as the Mexican Military Academy and, in 1847, was the scene of a major battle in the Mexican American War. In the 1860s, Emperor Maximilian decided to make it his palace. To connect it with the City Center, he had a boulevard built, which, after his overthrow, became Paseo de la Reforma.
  • Reign of Porfiro Díaz and Neighborhoods of the Early 20th Century: As the 19th century approached its end, Mexico City's well-to-do, who had increased in numbers under the economic policies of Porfirio Díaz, sought new residences outside the old Spanish Colonial Centro Histórico. They began to develop colonias, planned neighborhoods, to the west, along Paseo de la Reforma boulevard and to its north and south. Posts on six of these neighborhoods, with introductions, are listed.
  • Mexican Revolution: Overview of Its Actors and Chapters: The Mexican Revolution (1910-1917) was a watershed between traditional and modern Mexico. Actually a series of civil wars fought between a diverse cast of characters, with widely disparate histories and motivations, the war and its aftermath can be divided into five stages or chapters, each consisting of a number of critical episodes. This Page offers an overview and links to Pages with fuller accounts of the personalities and chapters of the war.
  • Mexican Muralists: A revolution in Mexican Art emerged during the Mexican Revolution. It unfolded in a group of buildings in Centro and expanded across the city throughout the 20th century. Page provides links to posts on the sites and their murals—works by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and their successors.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mexican Muralists | David Siqueiros, Part III - His First, Unfinished Mural Forshadows His Later Work

David Alfaro Siqueiros

Siqueiros | Twentieth Century Odysseus

In our first post on David Siqueiros, we wrote that in the early 1920s, after the Mexican Revolution, he took part with Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco in creating the first works of the Mexican Mural Movement in the National Preparatory School (formerly the Jesuit College of San Ildefonso), but that he did not finish the mural he began there.

In 1925, after the election of Plutarco Calles as President, replacing Álvaro Obregón, José Vasconcelos—the Secretary of Education who had sponsored the artists' work and who had wanted to become president—was replaced in his post. The painters were dismissed. Siqueiros went to Guadalajara, where he could find work because he knew people from his participation there in the war.

His artistic and political passions then led him, over the intervening years, to Russia, South America, the United States and active duty in the Spanish Civil War. Whenever he returned to Mexico City, he would become active in the Communist Party and get jailed for various acts of protest. As a result, he was not to leave his own visible artistic mark on the city until the 1940's. (See our page: David Siqueiros: Twentieth Century Odysseus)

Returning to a Beginning

At the time we wrote the post, we had read that Siqueiros' first work, in San Ildefonso, was not accessible to the public, as it was in a "back stairwell" in an unoccupied part of the building. Subsequently, while visiting San Ildefonso to show its murals to friends, we learned that that part of the building was now the Museum of Light, under the direction of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), as is the main San Ildefonso Museum. But at that point, we had moved on to other topics in our Ambles, so we did not pursue visiting the Museum of Light.

Recently, we were able to redress that omission. While visiting Centro to explore another episode in the Mexican Mural Movement previously unknown to us (and which we will be writing about), we realized that we were very close to San Ildefonso, so after completing our new investigation, we went to the Musuem of Light, not knowing whether it would lead us to the Siqueiros mural that lay somewhere within. 

Third, east, patio of San Ildefonso,
now the Museum of Light

In the entry passageway, we ask the ticket taker if the Siqueiros mural is accessible. She replies, "Yes, if you buy a ticket. It's in the stairwell." We happily and excitedly pay the few pesos charged for admission and head into the patio to find the stairwell.

As soon as we start up stairs, we are confronted by the first sign of Siqueiros' presence hanging above our heads.

The bold color and forceful figure speak at once of the artist's eye and hand. Continuing upward, we then meet Siqueiros' artistic and ideological vision in full force.

Painted on the stairwell ceiling

A very human, very muscular winged goddess, traditionally of Victory, foreshadows Siqueiros' post-World War II mural entitled 'Democracy', in Bellas Artes. We have read that the artist referred to it as The Elements. To us it is a direct expression of his life-long focus on liberation of the suppressed underclasses.

Democracy breaks the chains of Fascism
Bellas Artes

We turn the corner of the stairwell and look up.

Mural at the top of the stairwell

We are definitely puzzled by the composition above us but not surprised, given that we have seen Siqueiros' final work, the Cultural Polyforum, completed nearly fifty years later, in 1971. Here in San Ildefonso, he first undertook the challenge of using a three-dimensional space to surround his viewer with his vision. His March of Humanity, in the Polyforum, is the culmination that effort.

Section of March of Humanity Toward the Democratic, Bourgeois Revolution,
Siqueiros Cultural Polyforum

So we try to decipher the various components. Fortunately, a small plaque on the wall helps us.

David Alfaro Siqueiros
The Call to Liberty
The Myths
The Burial of the Sacrificed Worker

Two themes are certainly central to the artist's lifetime work: Liberty and the oppression of Workers. We will try to figure out what the "Myths" might be.

The Call to Liberty

The Call to Liberty

In the right-hand corner of the stairwell's left wall, the figures in the Call to Liberty are hard to make out due to the low light and the viewing angle. However, the forceful nude male figure, with his large, strong arms and legs, holding a child in one hand and a pole in the other, although flatter and more static, is certainly the forefather of later males created by the artist.

Victim of Fascism
Bellas Artes, 1944

Two unfinished portraits stand to the side of the male figure. What their relationship is to the Call to Liberty isn't evident, but they are nonetheless interesting portraits.


The two portraits are markedly different in style: one is a face of fine lines, narrow width, wide eyes and relatively light skin; the other of thick lines, round-faced, somewhat veiled eyes and darker skin. Whether Siqueiros intended a reference to racial and social differences in Mexico (our hunch), or was just experimenting with styles remains a mystery.

The Burial of the Sacrificed Worker

The right wall of the composition also presents a puzzle, at least on initial viewing.

Three men hold an iridescent blue object. The image is far above the viewer and in low light, so we can´t make out the nature of the object. The title should have been clue enough, but it takes our later blowing up and lightening up of our photo to see: it is a coffin. On the top, barely visible, are a hammer and sickle, symbols of laborers and farmers, and their alliance via Communism. Siqueiros makes no secret of his political beliefs and revolutionary passions. 

We are also struck by the artist's use of cerulean blue. It was used extensively by José Clemente Orozco (San Ildefonso, third floor) in his paintings of ordinary Mexicans in the midst of revolutionary chaos, evidently to express a still-existing hope. But we haven't seen it used by Siqueiros in any of his other works, which are dominated by aggressive red and black. 

In the right-hand corner stand a woman and man painted in Siqueiros' favorite red. The woman holds one hand erect, in an apparent gesture of defiance. In the other, she holds broken chains, the symbol of liberation from oppression. 

In the middle of the wall is a single portrait, powerful in its directness and simplicity. The portrait is of a man—by his features clearly an indigenous Mexican campesino, traditional peasant farmer. We wonder what Siqueiros might have had in mind for the rest of this empty middle section.

The Myths

We now turn to try to decipher The Myths section of the mural on the center wall. 

Two large human figures and one small one seem to float at the top. At the bottom, two other figures lie on their backs, mouths agape. In between the two windows is Siqueiros' clear profession of faith, the Hammer and Sickle, symbols of the uniting of laborers and farmers via the Communist vision (myth?) of liberation from capitalist domination. 

The left-hand figure is clearly a king, now deposed, lying helpless on his back. The right-hand figure is another puzzle. From the heavy, dark features he would appear to be indigenous, but why is he then overthrown like the king? The covering on his head may be a hint. Its tan color reminds us of the battle attire of the jaguar warriors of Aztec/Mexica fame who, together with eagle warriors, were the elite soldiers protecting the empire and those who ruled it—the tlatoanis like Moctezuma the Younger and Cuhuatémoc, who were defeated by Cortés. 

If our interpretation is correct, the artist is depicting the overthrow of two empires, the indigenous and, later, the Spanish. 

Floating above are three figures. On the right is a morena, dark-skinned, woman, clothed in cerulean blue. Her arms are folded as if she were holding an infant; on closer inspection, she is evidently wearing a halo. Is she Siqueiros' image of the Virgin of Guadalupe—that synthesis of Spanish Catholicism and indigenous identity that is literally the vision (or myth for non-believers) that unites Mexicans from both sides of the Conquest?  

The image may also refect the Virgin's counterpart in Mexican "mythology"—one who elicits great ambivalence from Mexicans, Malinche. She was the indigenous woman who served as Cortés' translator, thereby betraying her indigenous world by opening its door to its conquistadores. In counterpoint, by bearing Cortés' child, she began the "mestization", the mixing of indigenous and Spanish blood that resulted in the Mexican people. If the woman is seen as Malinche, then we know the meaning of the child floating between the woman and the naked, face-down indigenous man on the left side. As such, he is not a vision (or myth) of hope.

We are reminded of José Clemente Orozoco's much more direct and, therefore, more powerful representation of this conflict between and mergers of races, of peoples from the opposite side of an ocean. It lives in another stairwell in San Ildefonso.

Cortés and Malinche
By José Clemente Orozco
San Ildefonso

We are also reminded that Siqueiros took up this primal Mexican theme (myth) at the end of his artistic life, at the Polyforum.

The Mestizaje,
The Interbreeding
Here the Spaniard is naked, exposed,
like the Cortés of Orozco.
One of the huge outdoor murals
at the Siqueiros Cultural Polyforum.

As for the row of steel bits filling the ceiling, that is another puzzle for us. Given the Communist frame of reference, perhaps Siqueiros was alluding to the industrial, capitalist economy and the related concentration of power that exploited and suppressed workers.

Fragmentary Hints of Siqueiros' Later Art

So, in another, previously inaccessible part of the ex-Colegio San Ildefonso—what in the 1920s was Mexico's first government-run high school—we gain a fragmentary glimpse of the artistic and revolutionary vision and the graphic style and palette of David Alfaro Siqueiros. All the aspects of his later works are foreshadowed here: bold, molded muscular figures projecting towards the viewer; predominant colors of red and black; themes of liberation of the common folk from oppression by those in power; and the attempt to master a three-dimensional space in order to surround his audience with this vision. 

We leave very satisfied that we have finally been able to see this first work of the master. We have a feeling that we have come full circle in our encounters with Siqueiros' tumultous life and dramatic works, connecting the later flowering with the first sprouts. And we are grateful to UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) for the opening of the Museum of Light in this previously neglected but grand space, making possible this encounter and fulfillment.

More about how the Museum of Light came to be in San Ildefonso will be shared in a subsequent post, which will also focus on an obscured beginning of the Mexican Mural Movement.