The home-in-exile of the Russian communist notable Leon Trotsky is just a few blocks away from the Casa Azul so of course we had to drop in. I vaguely remembered Trotsky from my political science studies in school; with Josef Stalin and Vladimir Lenin, he was prominent in the Russian Revolution as it progressed through Bolshevism and into Communism and the Soviet Union. Trotsky was head of the Red Army.
While Frida Kahlo’s house is full of color and light and art, her neighbor and sometimes friend Leon Trotsky lived in a dimmer, dingier place. (There’s supposed to be a ‘featured image’ at the top of the post, but it seems not to be viewable in mobile devices, so maybe it will show up in the photo Gallery below). And someone in the peanut gallery is saying, well look at where they came from. No wonder her Mexican light is sunnier than his high-latitude somber.
Memorably, maybe from a Trivial Pursuits card, Trotsky was assassinated by being bashed in the head with an ice axe. That’s the event that took place in this house, and why, perhaps, it is still a public attraction. We were two of the five visitors in attendance.
But how and why did an exiled communist leader come to be living in Mexico City, and why was he finally assassinated so long after the tempest of the Russian Revolution? The Wikipedia entries on this subject are, I hate to say, more than I want to know. The particulars about whether government would lead the people, or whether the workers should be empowered first caused everlasting infighting. These people disagreed about everything, it seems.
Suffice it (I hope) to say that Trotsky was an ally of Lenin. As head of the Red Army, he seemed an obvious choice to succeed Lenin, who suffered a series of strokes starting in 1922. However, when Lenin died in 1924, Trotsky was politically outmaneuvered by Joseph Stalin. Here I am quoting and paraphrasing from http://history1900s.about.com/od/people/p/trotsky.htm
From that point on, Trotsky was slowly but surely pushed out of important roles in the Soviet government. First he was exiled to the very remote Alma-Ata. Apparently that wasn’t far away enough, so in February 1929, Trotsky was banished from the entire Soviet Union.
Writing prolifically during his exile, Trotsky continued to criticize Stalin and his increasing bureaucratic grasp, from homes in Norway, Turkey and France. He came to Mexico in 1936 under the aegis of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and lived in the Casa Azul for a year or so.
Then there was some kind of disagreement, and eventually Trotsky moved to this house a few blocks away.
Stalin, meanwhile, named Trotsky as the major conspirator in a fabricated plot to remove Stalin from power. As part of the Great Purge, 1936-1938, 16 of Stalin’s rivals were charged with aiding Trotsky in this treasonous plot.
All 16 were found guilty and executed. Trotsky, condemned in absentia, was also on the execution list.
On May 24, 1940, at 4 AM, Soviet agents broke in and machine-gunned Trotsky’s house in Coyohuacan. Although Trotsky and his wife and grandson were home asleep, all survived the attack. The tour guide carefully points out bullet holes in the wall just above the bed of Trotsky’s 8-years old grandson, and adds the comment that this attack failed because the would-be assassins were drunk.
Trotsky knew that he would always be a target and had taken several security measures.
Watch towers were built in the corners and the perimeter wall was raised.
The lovely big windows still stand but the bottom portions on the perimeter are bricked in. And doorways were reduced to slow down an intruder.
Imagine being so constantly reminded of how endangered your life might be! Trotsky was said to work hard on his writing and publications in opposition to Stalin’s brand of Communism. And in his spare time, he bred chickens – the coops, but not the chickens, are still there along a side wall.
On August 20, 1940, Trotsky was not so lucky. An insider, friend to Trotsky’s secretary, and Mexican Communist named Ramon Mercader, gained access to his study. As Trotsky was sitting at his desk in his study reading a document Mercader had brought him for editing, Mercader punctured Trotsky’s skull with a mountaineering ice pick.
Trotsky was cogent enough to indicate that Mercader should be held rather than be shot by the guards, but died of his injuries the next day. Mercader served twenty years in Mexican prison, was decorated by the Soviet Union after his release, and died in Cuba in 1978.
so, that’s the history of Leon Trotsky’s death in Mexico City as gleaned by an interested observer visiting the museum that has taken over his house. Hope it kept you awake, perhaps contemplating how and why these same ‘interventions’ are managed these days in the Soviet Union. (And elsewhere, perhaps)
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!
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.
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, 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.
Which leads to this cozy little sitting room.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/1985_Mexico_City_earthquake.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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’!