Postcard from Guanajuato, Mexico: Around the Barrio de la Presa

Above, La Bufa framed by bougainvillea blooming on the patio of our rental

The first week of our stay was right in the heart of the city with roving bands of costumed estudiantinas egging their audiences on to shout “Beso! Beso!” over and over again outside our windows. The second half of our trip was spent in a much more bucolic setting of a neighborhood near the dams, or presas, protecting the city. The split experience almost felt as though we visited two different cities. The second house we stayed in provided a gorgeous view of the surrounding mountains, including La Bufa, and came with a backyard bonus of ripe limes, figs, blackberries and pomegranates.

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Postcard from Merida, Mexico: A house that henequin built

Texas farmers’ need for a digestible binding material for bales of hay tossed to cattle gave rise to incredible wealth in the Yucatan, a boom that lasted from 1880 to 1915. Operating under the favorable conditions for the wealthy to further enrich themselves, aristocrats in Mexico were able to take advantage of a native plant – henequen – and cheap native labor to bankroll a lavish lifestyle built upon production of the requisite fiber. In 1914, more than one-million bales of henequen were exported from the Yucatan.

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Postcard from Mexico City: Rivera freed stories from ancient stones

After vanquishing the Aztecs in Mexico City, Hernan Cortes (1485-1547) requisitioned the stones from the destroyed palace of Moctezuma II (1466-1520) to build his home on the same site across the plaza from the Cathedral. While much of this building was devastated in 1692, the stones were incorporated yet again as the building blocks for what is known as the National Palace, the current home of Mexico’s Treasury and Archives departments.

Working on an immense mural on a massive staircase within the governmental building between 1929 and 1935, Diego Rivera (1886-1957) released some of the stories witnessed by those stones. Tackling centuries of the history of Mexico in one composition, he viewed his painting as an opportunity to redefine the national identity. An accompanying set of murals, added between 1940 and 1951 and covering part of the walls on the second floor, traced pre-Hispanic history and the early roots of products of Mexico.

Instead of presenting history through the traditional European descendant lens, an anti-Indian and anti-Mestizo lens, Rivera glorified what it meant to be Mexican. He did not shrink away from presenting the brutal horror of the conquest or the corruption he saw within the clergy or the reign of Porfirio Diaz (1830-1915). Native Americans and those of mixed race were given dignity as the true faces of Mexico.

Diego Rivera belonged to a generation of Mexican muralists who picked up paintbrushes as others would swords. His paintbrush was wielded as a powerful didactic tool for shaping public opinion and affecting political change.