Cuernavaca | Mexico City

March 14, 2016

13 de marzo

Today, much like yesterday, was a very busy day. We visited museums, religious sites, and markets in Mexico City, learning all the time.

The day started off with an early start: we had to be on the bus to go to Mexico City by 7:00 AM, so we could see as much as possible. The first stop was to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe as well as Tepeyac hill, the old Basilica, and various other sites in that area.

Since today is Sunday, we were very fortunate to witness a mass in the cavernous Basilica. The Basilica’s design is very interesting as it does not look like a typical Basilica or church. It is a breathtakingly large tented semicircle with the capacity to hold thousands of seated participants along with standing room for hundreds more. The experience to witness thousands of loyal Christians professing their devotion all at once, punctuated by the occasional bellows of the grand church organ, was truly unforgettable and set the tone for the rest of our visits near the Basilica.

After taking a small tour of the Basilica, which included standing directly underneath Juan Diego’s tilma upon which the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is forever imprinted, we took a sort of mini-pilgrimage up to the top of Tepeyac Hill, the most sacred site for Latino Catholics in the world. It was upon the Hill that the Virgin Mary showed herself to Juan Diego; now a church resides upon that very spot. There were no photos allowed in the church as it would be disrespectful to the worshippers and to the image of the Virgin herself, but suffice it to say that the church on Tepeyac Hill was, truly, a sacred place.

There are plenty of other places to see and things to do near the Basilica though, including museums and gardens. In fact, the first place we visited after Tepeyac Hill were more gardens dedicated to the Virgin, and a small chapel whose roof resembled the waves of the sea.

However what was incredibly interesting to see was the heavily tilting old Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A little background on the original Basilica is that it was constructed shortly after the original church on Tepeyac Hill, but is now sinking due to Mexico City being constructed on the remains of Lake Texcoco. Therefore, there is almost no bedrock nor solid ground to speak of, and almost every building older than 100 years old is tilting to one direction or another. However, mass is still held within the old Basilica, even though the building is tilting far forward, and may become unstable in the future if nothing is done to re-level it.

Behind the old Basilica we were able to visit a museum dedicated to the art of Our Lady throughout many years as well as religious iconography and history associated with Catholicism. We learned about many interesting artifacts, but the exvotos were particularly fascinating. Exvotos are messages of devotion and thanks given by devout Latin American Catholics to either the Virgin Mary or other figures such as Jesus or God. They are created when a Catholic wants to thank a specific figure for an event, a healing, or some sort of miracle. For example if one survives a terrible car crash they may write an exvoto dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, thanking her and offering a donation to the church for their miracle.

We had to say goodbye to the great religious complex eventually, and then go visit the studios and homes of some of Mexico’s most famous artists: Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. We started by venturing to Anahuacalli, Diego Rivera’s personal museum. It is well known that Diego Rivera was a great muralist whose works reside in various assorted places around the world, but it is not well known that he himself had a great collection of Pre-Columbian art. This collection consisted of over 50000 individual pieces of pottery, statues, and masks, all of which greatly inspired Rivera’s art style.

He imagined Anahuacalli as his museum and collection room for his Pre-Hispanic art collection, but today it is used for even more. It houses his art collection, quotes, displays, musical events, and some of his sketches for his great murals. Now keep in mind that murals do not have small sketches, these ‘sketches’ were the size of the murals that they would eventually become, so huge. In addition, Rivera’s use of volcanic stone in his museum as well as its design all lend themselves to giving a greater sense of awe for his work.

In Anahuacalli there is also more than just the Great Volcanic Pyramid where Rivera’s collection is kept, the other outbuildings house workshops, libraries, and other galleries for his work. One gallery particular told the tale of how Rivera, a communist, was commissioned to make a work for the lobby of John Rockefeller’s new building. He designed a mural called Man, Controller of the Universe, and painted it in the lobby. It was, unfortunately, destroyed after Rockefeller noticed that a portrait of Lenin was prominently included in the photo, and after Rivera would not agree to remove the image.

One cannot talk about Diego Rivera without speaking of his ever enigmatic wife, Frida Kahlo. She, like her husband, was an artist who specialized in painting over sculpture or pottery. Kahlo and Rivera lived for years in a house called La Casa Azul, or the Blue House. It was here that much of their art was created and their legends born.

Frida suffered a great deal of pain throughout her life, and it dramatically affected her art and the way the world sees her today. When she was just 6 she contracted polio in her right leg, causing it to be shorter and weaker than her left leg. In fact, part of the reason that her dress so often consisted of flow skirts was to hide the fact that her legs were uneven. She wanted to preserve her body image as much as she could, so she hid her disability.

Then, when Frida was only 18, she suffered a life-changing accident when a bus she was riding on collided with a trolley car. Not only did the initial impact break many of her bones, but her subsequent impalement on an iron rod caused serious physical and psychological damage as the rod pierced her abdomen and uterus. Her inability to have children heavily affected her art as a result. Frida underwent 35 surgeries over the course of her life, and most of them were to correct damage done by the crash. Even for years afterward she would have spasms and intense pain as a result of the accident.

Her art shows the vulnerability of her condition, and also how much she was affected by lacking the ability to reproduce. Frida’s work is often praised because of how she represents herself, and how she shows her vulnerabilities and weaknesses. She now serves as a symbol for Mexican art and artists, albeit in a different sense than Diego Rivera, as a well as a source of national pride.

There was one last cultural experience for us today: our visit to one of Mexico City’s many different markets. This particular one was mostly dedicated to goods like clothing, jewelry, and general trinkets with items of interest. Most people took their time to barter and buy souvenirs for our families, but it was definitely a new experience for many of us. The tight spaces, different smells, and varied types of music created an atmosphere unlike almost any other; personally I would compare it to the Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars. It is a place full of different people, languages, and experiences which all goes to create an atmosphere that is completely unique.

As you can see, we had quite a busy day today, and we hope to have a few more before we head back to Colorado on Thursday!