Frida Kahlo at Coyoacán

Coyohuacán Casa Azul

A travel piece I read years ago, plus curiosity about her paintings,  made me think I’d like to visit Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul. And now, here we are, 10 subway stops and a short walk away, with a shiny new Metro card in hand. So, vamanos!

Photo of Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo’s father Guillermo was a professional photographer. She was often his assistant  and clearly learned the power of photographic portraiture.

If you are unfamiliar with the name of Frida Kahlo, perhaps you will recognize her by her distinctive unibrow and exotic dress in the photo above, or in the painting below. The majority of her work was self-portraits, at least in part because she had many medical issues and spent a lot of time recuperating in bed with no other subjects at hand.

The Two Fridas, downloaded
The Two Fridas, courtesy of”This double self-portrait is one of Kahlo’s most recognized compositions, and is symbolic of the artist’s pain during her divorce from Rivera and the subsequent transitioning of her constructed identity. On the right, the artist is shown in modern European attire, wearing the costume she donned prior to her marriage to Rivera. Throughout their marriage, given Rivera’s strong nationalism, Kahlo became increasingly interested in indigenism and began to explore traditional Mexican costume, which she wears in the portrait on the left. It is the Mexican Kahlo that holds a locket with an image of Rivera. The stormy sky in the background, and the artist’s bleeding heart – a fundamental symbol of Catholicism and also symbolic of Aztec ritual sacrifice – accentuate Kahlo’s personal tribulation and physical pain. Symbolic elements frequently possess multiple layers of meaning in Kahlo’s pictures; the recurrent theme of blood represents both metaphysical and physical suffering, gesturing also to the artist’s ambivalent attitude toward accepted notions of womanhood and fertility.”

I admire Frida Kahlo’s work because I think it’s striking and surprising. In art jargon, the style is called ‘surreal’ and ‘naive’ and ‘folkloric’.

So that is a crash course about Frida Kahlo.Now let’s go look at the famous Casa Azul with its two stories, and ten rooms, and internal courtyard.

It’s in the district of Coyohuacán, which was a village on the outskirts of the city when Frida’s father Guillermo built there at the turn of the last century. Her husband Diego Rivera, the noted Mexican muralist, added the studio wing in the 1940s when they moved in. At the time it was considered an artsy, bohemian and intellectual neighborhood.

According to records and testimony, and Wikipedia, “the house today looks much as it did in 1951, decorated with Mexican folk art,[3] Kahlo’s personal art collection, a large collection of pre-Hispanic artifacts, traditional Mexican cookware, linens, personal mementos such as photographs, postcards and letters, and works by José María Velasco, Paul Klee and Diego Rivera. Much of the collection is now in display cases designed for their preservation. The museum also contains a café and a small gift shop.”

First the kitchen. I hope these photos zoom well, because there are a lot of interesting details.

Yellow kitchen, lots of pre-Columbian Mexican art.
Frida and Diego collected pre-Hispanic art so the kitchen seems more like a gallery than a source of cooked meals.

Which leads to this cozy little sitting room.

A small sitting room in Frida Kahlo's Coyohuacan house.
The sign in this room mentioned again how much she and Diego liked to entertain, so in my mind, I envision a martini shaker and a plate of olives on the table. But space-wise, it might have been more comfortable in the garden! Or at the big kitchen table.
Bedroom of Frido Kahlo
Frida Kahlo’s bedroom, said, like the entire house, to be just as she left it. That’s a mirror in the wooden canopy, one of the ones she used for her self-portraits. It’s upstairs, just beyond the studio.
Artist studio of Frida Kahlo
Her studio overlooks the courtyard garden, with a fountain off to the right. Distilled artistic essence, the sign says. This is part of the house Diego had built after  Guillermo Kahlo’s death.
Easel, wheelchair, view out window.
Frida’s easel, a wheelchair, and, out of the picture, a mirror. She taught small classes here too.
Diego had a room downstairs. Those are his overalls and hats on the wall.
Diego had a room downstairs. Those are his overalls and hats on the wall.

The house is lovely – I could move in tomorrow, but for the heavy tourist traffic. It’s one of the most popular museums in Mexico. Frida was known in her lifetime, but became much more popular starting in the 1980s.

What turned out to be even more interesting to me than the house was Frida’s life as it related to her health and her art. In my mind she is a powerful and stately woman; something about the straight, enigmatic stare, perhaps. So I was taken aback to learn that she was 5’3″ tall and weighed 98 pounds. Diego was a large, even portly, man – it was said  they were  “a bull and a dove”.

She had polio as a girl and her right leg was withered and shorter than her left. Then, at 18 she was almost fatally injured in a bus accident. Her spinal column, collarbone and right foot were broken, and a steel handrail penetrated her abdomen and uterus.

From then on, her physical condition gradually deteriorated, and she was wheelchair-bound for ever-increasing periods, not to mention the psychological trauma and ongoing pain from 22 further procedures including miscarriage, abortion, amputation of gangrenous toes etc. It explains a lot about her subject matter. One of the reasons she painted so many self portraits was that recovering from her various surgeries kept her alone alot. Increasingly frail, she died at 47.

Frida Kahlo decorated corset
No matter how beautifully  she decorated these plaster corsets, they cannot have been comfortable to wear, particularly in a warm climate. It would be tough to get a ‘Victoria’s Secret nice underwear’ glow from a plaster cast..

One of the most iconic features about Frida Kahlo is her clothing. It is very elaborate, and mostly traditional. The long skirts cover her legs, and the heavy adornment on the upper part of the body focuses the attention there. It also made her distinctive, and autonomous from her famous husband.

Whatever the initial reason, her personal style staked out a prominent position for her in the art and fashion worlds. These aren’t my ideas of course; all of this is paraphrased from the reader-boards at an exhibit of her clothing and orthopedic devices which were found in a storeroom fifty years after her death.

Wardrobe from Oaxaca and elsewhere
What striking clothes! The long skirts lent themselves to sitting in a wheelchair, and the upper body details, including headpieces, braids and flowers gave her a distinctive style.
3 Frida Kahlo dresses from rear
Frida’s mother was from Oaxaca and an early photo shows them together, both dressed traditionally. But Frida’s choice of  this type of clothing as an adult was conscious and strategic.

While it was great to visit the house, there is surely much more to Frida than an hour’s visit and a dozen reader boards can convey. This Wikipedia entry leaves a different, and more nuanced impression than one might get from the house signs.

For instance: Her husband had lots of affairs (one with her sister) but Frida did too, with men and women. They divorced, they later remarried. And her sister was with her when she died in 1954. She was said to be fiery and passionate, and something of a drinker too. She had a following during her lifetime, but has become increasingly popular since the 1980s.

It must have been expensive to be Frida. Where did the money for all the medical stuff, and the clothing and accessories come from? How about household staff? How did she keep herself going despite chronic pain and recuperation? Where did her ideas come from? Was she fun to talk to? Could we have been friends?

I can only speculate, wonder at the paintings I see in exhibits and books, and re-gurgitate what I have read.  I’d suggest you visit Coyohuacán if you can. Go early to beat the tour buses. Tickets are easy to get online and will get you to the head of the queue. Meantime, more photos.

The Six Days of Mexico City

Skyscraper view down to Mexico City

On the first day in The City, 

my true love gave to me 

a ride in a double-decker bus.

So there we were, pinkish tourists in a bright pink bus, wired with earbuds so we could hear the commentary, camera in hand (mine.) The second-story roof was open, the weather was perfect and we were off for a magic carpet ride on our first day in Mexico City.

Crowds of people around Belles Artes
The Palacio de Belles Artes was always a hive of activity, a nexus of bus and subway transportation and a happening atmosphere.

Architectural Gems in the Centro historic district slid past. Beyond the Belles Artes, there was an extremely glamorous post office (remember when?), an equally beautiful museum, a church where lots of things happened.

Damaged historic church
A church of historic note in the historic district, it was damaged in the violent 1985 earthquake, and also is sinking into the earth.

Doug muttered “Get those plants out of the gutter”. Upon closer investigation, it was revealed that buildings sprouting greenery like this one were damaged in other ways: churches had leaning or missing steeples for example, other buildings either sunken, or surrounded by elevated roadways. And, not to mention buildings entirely absent, like missing teeth, in a built-up block.

Earthquake devastation 1985

Reason being: the massive earthquake in the early morning of September 20, 1985, which was felt most forcefully right here in Centro. Magnitude was a ‘violent’ 8.0, with two separate epicenters in and near the historic city center. An extra long duration, and an unfortunate congruence of seismic wave reverberations through the soft landfill that underlies much of the city meant major disaster in Mexico City.

There were 412 buildings totally destroyed, 3,142 seriously damaged, three to four billion USD in damages and effects that clearly linger to this day. Not to mention the 5,000 (bodies recovered) to as many as 45,000 souls who also perished. I am sure every city citizen above 35 knows where they were at that moment.

There is lots more of interest about this earthquake at a well-written entry:

But whoosh – we’re already enroute to the Minor Basilica (an official church term) of Nuestra Señora de Guadelupe. With such urban development all around, it is hard to imagine the scene in 1531 when a vision of the Virgin Mary appeared to a young Mexican peasant in a field and requested that a shrine be built there.

Crowded street approaching basilica
Pilgrims progressed toward the shrine in a steady stream.

“Am I not here, I who am your mother?” Is the inscription over the main entrance, which perhaps explains the shrine’s appeal to many pilgrims. But, as in so many matters of faith, there are also disagreements about the facts of the vision, the significance, the reliability; none of which prevent this from being the most -visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world.

boy with Image Virgin Guadeloupe
I sometimes make up stories about people I see; I work hard to make a happy story for rhis young boy here.

Created with Photospector

Image Virgen of Guadelupe
Nearly every image of this Virgin is surrounded by the bright spiky frame that reminds me of a classic migraine aura. I wonder if Juan Diego was a sufferer.

We drove past the Plaza of the Revolution, and the Angel of Independence, past the Anthropology Museum and through the upscale Polanco neighborhood, which was appealing indeed, in  a Rodeo Drive kind of way.

We were struck by the fantastic number of trees in the city. It seems a real effort is being made clean the air and reduce the pollution alerts which I hear are a regular summer feature. The traffic lights are ‘smart’, there are pollution-free transit zones, extremely inexpensive subway fares, lots of clean buses and trolleys, at least where we went. But, there is still a LOT of traffic.

We were also struck by the number of policemen we saw – different branches, mostly in pairs and groups, everywhere along our touristic routes, except in the really nice neighborhoods where perhaps private security guards performed the same function.

Group of Mexico City policemen with clear plastic shields
The shields seemed a little over-the-top to me, but didn’t concern or surprise the passers-by. And it turns out you can store a water bottle, cell phone, even lunch, on the back side.
Monument Angel of Independence.
This monument, photo courtesy of, might be the quintessential symbol of Mexico, we were told. Nicely lit at night, but of course we don’t know much about that!
A public reminder that the fate of 43 missing murdered students has not yet Been acknowledged by the government.
A public reminder that the fate of 43 missing murdered students has not yet been acknowledged by the government.

On the second day of Mexico we finished up the tour. We walked out to that proud symbol La Angél to join our bus. While we were waiting, we got harangued in two languages  by earnest young female Jehovah’s Witnesses, and watched several photo shoots, small parades and demonstrations.

Banner help, photos taken
It seems de rigeur to have La Angél as a backdrop for your meaningful photos.

And we saw this young lady celebrating her 15th birthday in the time-honored Mexican quincinera tradition. Our neighbor on the park bench informed us that this photography parade would continue all weekend long, day and night. Is that a stretch Hummer? I can’t say.

Girl in ball gown with young male attendants, and a stretch Hummer limo.
Throughout Latin America a girl’s fifteenth birthday is celebrated and signifies among other things, her entrance into womanhood. But only when I googled to check the spelling did I learn that while North Americans have taken to calling the event a quincerañera, in many countries, this is what the girl herself is called.

Santa Fe

Glass tower reflected in glass tower
There is a lot of interesting architecture in Mexico City, old and new.

The loop of our second day of bus touring went to Santa Fe, which we had no idea where, what or why, but, hey, it’s nice on the bus-top. Turns out it’s the biggest shopping mall in all of Latin America, full of high-end names, marble and subdued glitz. So I bought a pair of pajamas, in case I need to sleep in a multi-bed dorm with strangers. At a Sears store, at the way-back end of the mall, as far from Tiffany’s as it could get.

Santa Fe has many tall new buildings, several with I think helipads (at least windsocks) on the roof, and famous names on the facades. It may be an economic powerhouse, but it was pretty dead on Saturday afternoon.

On our third day in the City, we hit the ground because it was a Sunday. Everybody was out, shopping for Christmas, snacking, strolling the park. The streets were packed. Actually, they were packed downtown most of the time. But people seemed to move at a more relaxed pace on Sunday.

Lots of people,out downtown Sunday
Christmas shopping and Sunday strolling make for busy downtown streets.
Iceskating in the main plaza Mexico
This big skating rink-there’s more of it on the other side, plus long slides for the non-skaters – ihas been a winter feature since I think 2009. Maybe it makes Mexicans love their government more?
Nice decorations and maybe millions of poinsettias all over town.
Nice decorations and maybe millions of poinsettias all over town.
We went to the rooftop cafe
We went to a rooftop cafe atop a hotel which overlooked the ruins of the Aztec Templo Mayor. The historic district of Mexico City is build upon ruins like this on what once was an island in a lake.


On the fourth day in town, we made a DIY tour on the public buses to los pyramides of Teotihuacan.  The how and why of these Aztec places is lost in the mists of time, replaced by theory and conjecture.

Their demise may have been a result of climate change (long-lasting drought) and mis-management of the masses by the elites, which could serve as a lesson to other civilizations, were they desirous of learning it.

View from atop pyramid Aztec archaeological site
If I ever find a time machine, I might set the dial for this place, 600 AD, just to see how it looked in full development and decoration.

Emboldened by our new command of the transit system, on day five, we took the public bus to Coyoacán to see the house where Frida Kahlo was born and later lived with Diego Rivera. Right around the corner, Leon Trotsky lived, and had been assassinated.

Frida Kahlo was born here, and dies here in 1954 at 47.
Frida Kahlo was born here, and died here, in 1954,  at 47.

Both of these are separate posts. It’s getting a little cluttered here.

We also spent time circulating around the main plaza of the Zocalo. This led to us being targeted by students needing to fulfill an English class assignment. Each time one student would record the interview on his or her cell phone while the other worked through a list of questions like What is your favorite Mexican food? or What is your father’s name? or worse, How old are you? Then they most politely thanked us for our time, wished us an enjoyable stay in Mexico and retreated giggling to review the recording. Sometimes we had to do it again due to technical difficulties. No problema!

Doug helps a srudent from the Politecnico with his homework. Students sought us out several times, and filmed each other on their phones asking us questions like What is your favorite Mexican food' and What is your father’s name. How do you suppose they recognized us as tourists?
Doug helps a student from the Politecnico with his homework assignment. How do you suppose they recognized us as tourists?

And then it was time to catch our plane to Santiago Chile. The transit system offers a special Metrobus at 30 pesos (when the regular bus is 5) with access to its own traffic lane, to whisk passengers from the Zocalo, and other points on the line, in record time, and we (and a transit policeman) were the only passengers at ten am. Airport security was present and effective but far less of an ordeal than the TSA version.

It would take more time than either of us (you the reader, or I) has to do justice to Mexico City. But I am looking forward to a return visit and expanded exploration.

Here are some more photos:

Now that I see them on a bigger screen, I see ‘failure to focus’. But, perfection is the enemy of ‘done’!

Outward Bound for Inland Travel- Chile Ahoy!

In our travelling rigs, we wait patiently (good internet available) for our flight to Mexico City..
In our travelling rigs, we wait patiently (good internet available) for our flight to Mexico City..

Doug and I are sitting in Cuidad Obregon’s very civilized (small, modern) airport waiting for Interjet to whish us away to the Big City of Mexico, aka Mexico, or the DF, Distrito Federal. We decided to do a little land travel this year while we still have the oomph to lift our backpacks.
We are aiming for Patagonia Chile and maybe Argentina too. I’d also like to see the geysers in the Atacama desert which is all the way at the other end of a really long -2670 miles- country. So we’re starting in the middle, Santiago, where all the planes fly.
We’ll stay in hostels, which we find good for meeting other travellers and getting useful information. We usually ride the buses (South American long-distance buses can make Greyhound look very long in the tooth) but as I said, here we are in an airport having balked at the prospect of a 25-hour ride through Mexico.
Given that the trip plan is to have no plan beyond movement and serendipity, the most befuddling part so far has been the packing. We started with carry-on sized convertible backpacks with a capacity of ~42 liters and put our hiking shoes (they are not even boots, but they weigh five pounds each pair). The bag is full.

Well, actually not. I got 20 more pounds of stuff in mine, and Doug in his, but it was packed, unpacked, repacked, reconfigured, substituted, sat upon and reshuffled so many times that I’m not sure what actually made the team. Less is better, it is said, but how many summer clothes make a layer of glacier-proof winter wear?

The entire pre-travel process actually makes me a little anxious. Nobody like to pay too much or make the wrong decisions, but I eventually reach a stage where I’ll push the next button that appears rather than parse the possibilities any longer. Then for weeks I worry that I’ve made a mistake on the booking, or have the connection on a different day than the origination, or mis-marked my calendar,  forgot to set the alarm clock or the day of the week. But none that happened this time despite the energy I wasted wondering if I had gone wrong.

So here we are, waiting to board. If you get this you’ll know none of what I feared came to pass (as usual). The trip is underway, and taking on a life of its own.