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Author Archives: Mexican Museums and Mavens

Day of the Dead – A True Celebration of Life

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Mexico’s Day of the Dead festivities are so unique that the UNESCO declared this holiday “intangible cultural heritage” in 2003 (inscribing it in 2008). A glimpse into this colorful blending of pre-Hispanic ritual with European religion and traditions provides an insight as to how Mexican’s view not only death but also life!

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Dia de los Muertos is a two-day period where Mexican families honor their deceased loved ones. It is a window of opportunity, lasting 24 hours for deceased children on November 1st (actually beginning at midnight on October 31st and referred to as All Saint’s Day), and 24 hours for deceased adults on November 2nd (All Soul’s Day). It is believed that the spirits of the dead return home for a short visit during that time span.

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Personalized altars or ofrendas are prepared with much care, thought and love to welcome relatives and friends back to Earth.

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Among the most common elements placed on these altars is the fragrant cempasuchitl (orange marigold flowers), with the belief that the flower petals combined with copal incense (a natural tree resin which gives off an unmistakably pungent scent) purify the altar and attract the souls through their aroma.

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Candles light the path for the deceased in transit.

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Religious images and crosses incorporate Christian elements.

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Candies and toys are set out for the deceased children, while tequila, beer or mezcal (whatever the favorite libation of the deceased was) and typical foods (such as mole, fruits, tamales) are lovingly provided for more sophisticated adult tastes.

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Water and salt are also prevalent – basic elements for life.

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Photos and/or drawings of the deceased, along with whimsical sugar skulls are combined to make the decoration of each ofrenda unique, be it humble and makeshift or rich and elaborate – all in tribute to those no longer inhabiting the Earth.

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Ancient pre-hispanic tradition blends well with popular culture. Death was an integral part of life in Mesoamerican cultures. There were several festivities reported by Spanish chroniclers on their arrival to the New World. According to Sixteenth-century Spanish Monk Diego de Duran the actual dates the mexicas dedicated to the dead were moved to coincide with the Catholic calendar.

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It is not by chance that Day of the Dead falls at the end of the agricultural cycle. Mexico up until recently has been a predominantly agricultural society, with corn – the main staple of the average Mexican diet – central not only to local cuisine but to the culture itself. Halloween, celebrated one day before Day of the Dead, is rooted in the ancient traditions of the Celtic Druids (Samhain), which also holds that spirits return on this day, marking the start of a fallow period of the soil, when the land is put to rest.

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The main difference between these two holidays, both entrenched in ancient native agricultural societies, is that Halloween is laced with fear and concern over the returning malevolent spirits (which is why children were dressed in costumes – to confuse the spirits and protect the kids), while Dia de los Muertos is a joyful celebration, viewed more as a family get-together with transitory spirits.

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The focus of Dia de los Muertos is not solemn or gloomy. Actually, the bright colors, whimsical decorations and fragrant aromas set the scene for what is considered a serious yet festive occasion, all of these elements contributing to guide the deceased relatives and loved ones home or back to the cemetery where they were laid to rest. That is why cemeteries become the site of overnight vigils and partying. It is common, particularly in rural Mexico, that families spend the night at the graveside, on the watch for the visits spirits. At this time of year, it is common to see groups picnicking, dinner may be served with alcohol, while reminiscing to the backdrop of local music or mariachi serenades. Without a doubt, the annual gathering is one of joy and happiness rather than sadness and sorrow.

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The teeming metropolis of Mexico City, where Halloween-influenced decorations of pumpkins, witches, ghosts and spiders have become more and more prevalent every year, may seem far removed from rural and indigenous communities, yet there has been a revival of this vivid holiday. There are noticeable variations depending on the region

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There is much to do and see in the capital as well as around the country. Try the pan de muerto, a special sweet bun of sorts, topped with a cross-bone motif. Taste a calavera sugar skull (a reflection a fusion of cultures, since although human skulls abound in prehispanic cultures, sugar was brought to the New World by the Spaniards, making for an all inclusive and whimsical invention) or its more recently invented chocolate or amaranth cousins. The whimsical sugar skulls can be purchased at virtually any local market or even supermarket. Many vendors are happy to label them, upon request, with the names of your friends and family members! Buy the vibrant hand (or machine) cut tissue paper banners complete with images of friendly skeletal couples. Check out the altars that abound everywhere – literally on the street, in office vestibules, museums, supermarkets, malls and even in churches.

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This holiday has melded into an amalgamation of cultural as well as religious festivity, expressing the spirit of life as much as that of death. Where else can you experience the blending of prehispanic customs with Christian nuances, fused together to applaud life?

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NOTE:  All of the photos included in this blog were taken by me this 2013 Day of the Dead holiday.

If you would like to use them, feel free but please give me due credit.

 

 

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Anita Brenner: A Bridge Between Nations and Religions

Anita Brenner was a woman who straddled many worlds. She was multi-cultural before the word was invented. In fact, her footprint is deeply embedded in Mexican art, literature, world history, the muralist movement, tourism and politics. So, you wonder, why have you never heard her name before? If it weren’t for Susannah Glusker, I too, would be unfamiliar with this influential woman, who was way ahead of her times.

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The late Susannah Glusker has published two books on Anita Brenner: Anita Brenner: A Mind of Her Own and the more recent Avant-Garde Art and Artists in Mexico: Anita Brenner’s Journals of the Roaring Twenties, redeeming the historical role of this activist-author, while simultaneously providing a fascinating glimpse into a Mexico of another era — the effervescent 20s, touching on the role of women living in a post-revolutionary Mexico.

Brenner was the daughter of Latvian immigrants who moved to Mexico seeking a better life. They settled in the city of Aguascalientes in the late nineteenth century due to a mining boom which created a pole of attraction. She was born in 1905 and raised there until the age of 11 when the family moved to Texas given the threat of ongoing revolts which eventually gave way to the Mexican Revolution.

Brenner became a noteworthy intellectual of her time, freely moving between many circles both in the U.S. and Mexico. Her influx of ideas, her exceptionally lucid, eloquent and versatile writing style which ranged from art reviews, travel reports and children’s stories allowed her to entertain while educating, bridging the gap among people of different backgrounds. Her prodigious passion for explaining Mexico to an English-speaking public gave her an edge during tumultuous times for Mexico and the world, making her so much more than a simple journalist or political activist.

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Her interests crossed many boundaries – art, Mexican traditions, Jewish issues in Mexico, human rights – making her hard to pigeonhole. Writer Malcolm Gladwell would consider her a “connector,” based on his Tipping Point classification, i.e., part of “a community who know(s) large numbers of people and who are in the habit of making introductions … They usually know people across an array of social, cultural, professional, and economic circles, and make a habit of introducing people who work or live in different circles.”

Brenner Aguascalientes Book

She hobnobbed with people whose names are easily recognizable today, including artists Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Frida Kahlo, Francisco Goitia, Carlos Merida, Jean Charlot, Miguel Covarrubias, William Spratling, Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi, Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, as well as intellectuals of her times such as Frances Toor, Alma Reed and Carlos Fuentes. As a journalist for the Sunday New York Times and The Nation, she interviewed major figures such as Leon Trotsky and Miguel de Unamuno to name a few!

In fact, Brenner was instrumental in bringing Trotsky to Mexico. Although she never formally adhered to any political party or ideology, being too much of a free-thinker to fall into one specific group, she actively participated in the International Committee for Political Prisoners and other radical groups. After interviewing Trotsky in Paris, she was contacted to help get him political asylum since his life was endangered in Europe. Cabling Diego Rivera, they worked the appropriate channels to get Trotsky sanctuary in Mexico.

It was Anita Brenner who introduced Jose Clemente Orozco to Alma Reed. The stormy, taciturn, idiosyncratic artist, today dubbed one of the “Three Great Muralists,” alongside Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, eventually cultivated a long-standing friendship with Reed. Thanks to the connection Brenner established between the two, Orozco found a patroness and anchor who arranged contracts for the painter, which led to commissions at the New School for Social Research, Pomona College and Dartmouth University.

She is also responsible for convinced German-born Jewish artist Mathias Goeritz to stay in Mexico after Diego Rivera bitterly attacked him in the local press. The name Goeritz might not ring a bell, but undoubtedly you have seen his works if you have been to Mexico. He designed the iconic 5 tower abstract sculpture which greet commuters on the Periferico bordering on Ciudad Satelite (along with architect Luis Barragan). He also designed the modern stained glass windows in the Metropolitan Cathedral in downtown Mexico as well as those in the Cuernavaca Cathedral, and participated in creating the Experimental Eco Art Museum, which recently reopened its doors as a gallery. Goeritz participated in several public art projects such the Friendship Route (La Ruta de la Amistad), a series of 18 enormous abstract sculptures which still dot the southern segment of the Mexico City Periferico commemorating the ’68 Olympics.

Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, director of silent masterpieces such as Battleship Potemkin (1925), October (1927) and several historic epics, was said to have been inspired by Anita’s first book Idols Behind Altars for his non-political work Que Viva México! Unfortunately, due to a series of financial and logistics mishaps, Eisenstein eventually abandoned this ambitious film project before it was finished. Diego and Frida referred to Eisenstein’s work as “moving frescos.”

Idols Behind Altars: Modern Mexican Art and Its Cultural Roots

Idols Behind Altars (Brenner’s first title published in 1929) remains today a fascinating compilation of essays covering the historic, religious and artistic aspects of Mexico spanning pre-Columbian times to what was at the time it was written a burgeoning modern muralist movement.

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Her second book Your Mexican Holiday (1932) was a travel guide published back when travel in Mexico was considered exotic and difficult given a lack of infrastructure. Brenner began sharing her knowledge of the generosity and warmth of Mexico’s people and its impressive sights (pre-Hispanic ruins, amazing countryside landscapes, an emerging world-class artists’ moment and unequaled food) and eventually revived this thread in an English-language monthly magazine Mexico/This Month, as founder, editor, financial backer and writer. Her pioneering efforts in this sector were so outstanding that she was eventually recognized by the Mexican government.

The Wind That Swept Mexico: The History of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1942

Anita Brenner moved in many circles, comfortable in both the academic world as well as the literary world. With a PhD from Columbia University, she published an ambitious chronicle of Mexico’s complex revolution summarized in 100 pages of text supplemented with 184 photos entitled The Wind that Swept Mexico. This masterpiece remains surprisingly fresh and relevant even today, providing a candid portrayal of the revolution, recognizing its failure from the point of view of the campesino peasant class, the inefficient handling of land tenure, the role of a meddlesome church, etc.

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With one foot in Mexico and another in the US, one foot in a staunch Roman Catholic society and another in a strong Jewish tradition, Brenner never shied away from complex, controversial topics.  She became a spokesperson for the underdog, be it Mexicans bad-mouthed by the American press or the Jewish minority in a predominantly Catholic country. She wrote on touchy subjects such as the expropriation of the Mexican oil industry (in 1938), and William Randolph Hearst’s expansive land holdings in Mexico, as well as his meddling in Mexican politics in hopes of retaining his land by sending journalists to Mexico to write unfavorable reports and distorted information. Her point of view was always clear and consistent, unconcerned with gaining popularity. And her articles and books wielded great impact at the time they were published. It comes as no surprise that her opinionated, feisty personality combined with her bilingual background spurred many a debate.

Brenner Kids Book

With her untimely death in 1974 (caused by a car crash), she left several projects unfinished, including a children’s book on the life of Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Guerrero (who was shipwrecked and lived in the Yucatan peninsula 8 years prior to Hernan Cortes’s arrival), and a novel on Luis de Carvajal (who belonged to a well-known family of marranos or Jews who converted to avoid the persecution of the Holy Inquisition, only to eventually become its victim).

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Brenner was at risk of falling into historical obscurity if it weren’t for the late Susannah Glusker, whose biographical works on her mother has rekindled her historic importance. Thanks to Glusker’s vivid childhood memories of family friends including Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Anthony Quinn and Henry Moore among others she was able produce cogent, well documented books that portray an accurate account of the life of Anita Brenner.

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Unfortunately, Glusker passed away earlier this year, but she achieved her legacy to save Anita Brenner from historical limbo. I have chosen to resume my blog Mexican Museums and Mavens in tribute to my dear friend Susannah Glusker and her remarkable mother Anita Brenner, both role models for me and future generations.

 
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Posted by on August 3, 2013 in Mavens

 

Stones from Heaven – Stunning carvings of Jade and Jadite from Ancient Civilizations of Mesoamerica and China

Jade, more correctly – Jadeite,  was prehispanic Mexico’s diamonds. This green stone was no less valuable in Asian cultures. “Stones from Heaven: Civilizations of Jade” offers a glimpse into both the ritual and decorative aspects of what was once, and continues to be, a highly prized stone in both Mesoamerica and China. The 220 pieces on display at this relatively small but highly illustrative exhibit currently on at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City is one not to be missed.

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A Mexica (central Mexico culture, late post-classical period) rendition of a human heart, carved out out green stone. And remember that the Mexicas  who practiced human sacrifice knew a thing or two about human anatomy!! (24.2 x 20.9 x 14.1 cm) Photo: National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

Called “yu” in Chinese, “chalchihuitl” in Nahuatl, and “ya’ax chin hun” in Mayan, the term “jade” loosely refers to a variety of metamorphic green stones including jadeites and nephrites (a distinction best left for geologists and gemologists to differentiate) – all of which were of great value to early civilizations. Varying in size, craftsmanship and hues, the pieces showcased were hand-picked from hundreds of pieces crafted by the ancient cultures of China and Mexico.

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The Chinese items are on loan from the Forbidden City’s Chinese Imperial Palace Museum (of Beijing) marking the framework of the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Mexico and the People’s Republic of China. The Mexican objects have been culled from collections of the Olmec civilization, Teotihuacan culture, Mexica and Maya zones (borrowed from the National Museum of Anthropology), Teotihuacan, the Regional Museum of Yucatan, the Regional Museum of Campeche, the INAH in Veracruz, the Regional Museum of Tabasco, the Templo Mayor Museum and the Anthropology Museum of Xalapa).

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An elaborate funeral mask of Yuhkno’m Yihch’aak K’ahk’ (translated as Jaguar Claw) Maya Calakmul ruler (from Campeche, classical period). Mosaic work made principally from jadeite, shell and obsidian. Ca. 695 d.C., 28.2 x 21.5 cm. Photo: National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

All are stunning. The displays are divided into five principal themes touching on the characteristics of jade/jadeite and the techniques of working with these stones; the rituals involving jade/jadeite and its aesthetics; jade/jadeite as a symbol of power and the last segment of the exhibit shows evidence of how it was believed that jade/jadeite accompanied people into the after-world, both in Mesoamerican and Chinese cultures. The use of funeral masks in ancient Mexico is illustrated with a spectacular piece from the tomb of Calakmul’s great ruler Jaguar Claw, dating back to the late 7th century.

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Jade Mountain, from the Qing Dynasty (1736-1795), 51 x 51.5 cm. Photo: National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

The oldest item shown is a piece from China – shaped like a ring – calculated to be close to 7,000 years old.

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Prismatic Tube (Cong), carved from grayish-green jade. Liangzhu Culture dating back to the Neolithic Period (3200 BC -2200 BC), 31 x 7.5 x 7.5 cm. Photo: National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

The array of carved items, range from utilitarian pieces such as incense burners, arrow heads, musical instruments and jewelry, to sculptures of animals, humans and scenes, provide viewers with an ample selection of styles, uses, materials and symbols. It is fascination how these two unrelated early civilizations showed parallel esteem for this naturally occurring ornamental stone.

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Jadeite treasures from K’inich Hanaab Pakal’s tomb on permanent exhibit at the museum in the Mayan Hall (Maya civilization, classical period). Photo: Lynda Martinez del Campo

Ironically the color green has taken on a renewed relevance today. Whether it be nephrite or jadite from Asia or the Americas, this exhibit curiously reminded me that the color green, symbolizing life and vitality for early agricultural societies, has come full circle. Given our 21st century environmental sensitivities, once again the color green has become not only pertinent but fashionable to our cultural – with people “thinking green,” and activist groups baring names such as Green Peace or Partido Verde (a Mexican political party).  Whether you are an environmentalist or not, be sure to catch this unusual collection which shows how two unrelated civilizations held such a high regard for this rare, natural stone.

The National Museum of Anthropology is in Chapultepec Park, Mexico City. It is open to the public from Tuesday to Sunday, 9 am to 7 pm. General entrance fee is $57 pesos.

 

Awesome On-Site Museum at Tlateloloco (After A 50 Year Wait!)

A sign for the new on-site museum at Tlatelolco, depicting its pre-Hispanic glyph (a mound of sand)

A spectacular on-site museum has just opened in Tlatelolco showcasing the artifacts from the archaeological zone. To be more precise, there are two new museums to be seen – the impressive ground-floor exhibit showcasing the items found during the many phases of excavation at Tlateloco (Mexico-Tenochtitlan’s twin city), plus the extraordinary collection of Kurt and Lore Stavenhagen on the second floor of the CCUT Tower (the Tlatelolco University Cultural Center), a.k.a. the building which used to be the headquarters of Mexico’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. Neither of these sections is your average, run-of-the-mill pre-Hispanic museum. Once again, Mexican creativity is at its museographic best!

A snapshot in time of the architecture of a pre-Hispanic pyramid, an early Spanish Franciscan church and school, and a modern-day apartment building, forming the scenery of the Plaza of the Three Cultures

Stunning architecturally, with the dramatic backdrop of the Plaza of the Three Cultures (given that name because of the three phases making up the rich heritage of the zone: (1) the pre-Columbian ceremonial center, (2) the viceregal church and remains of the first school build for native Indians in New Spain, and (3) the modern-day high-rise apartments, once exemplary architecture, today left in squalid, tenement-like conditions), the displays showcase approximately 350 pieces culled from over 2,500 in total, highlighting the religious, political, social and commercial aspects of the people who inhabited Tlatelolco at its height.

A glimpse of the impressive displays inside the museum which showcases artifacts discovered duirng 50 years of excavations of the site.

Tlatelolco, established around 1337, was an impressive market site, which reached its splendor between 1465 and 1519. Hernan Cortes wrote a descriptive account to the King of Spain, narrating the vast selection of wares traded at the open-air market, as well as the organizational structure, thus we have a good idea of how the locals lived there. Tlatelolco was also the last strong-hold against the Spanish conquistadors, since this is where Cuauhtemoc was taken prisoner in 1521, thereby establishing the official date of Mexico’s conquest (take note that since part of Yucatan wasn’t conquered until the 18th century, 1521 is more of a symbolic, and somewhat arbitrary date, but don’t get me started on that topic). Plus, this is where the Spanish evangelists set up a school for locals, and where the Florentine and Badiano Codices were written. The area was also the site of two more recent tragedies – the student uprisings of 1968 where innumerable innocent people were slaughtered, and the earthquake of 1985, where even more people lost their lives. Tlatelolco is steeped in tragic history!

An anthropomorphic vessel with an unusual head-lid found in a dig at Tlatelolco.

The spick-and-span, state-of-the-art museum reflects changing times – providing lots of interactive displays (Ipads, computers and bar codes for the electronically savvy, who chose to scan signs for information), as well as a computer room.

One of several showcases exhibiting the use of natural dyes, part of the permanent exhibit on the 1st floor of the CCUT - be sure not to miss this fascinating section.

A personal collection of pre-Hispanic ceramics and other artifacts amassed over close to four decades by a prominent immigrant family (1942-1984), the Stavenhagen Collection can be easily skipped over, since it is hidden away on the second floor of the CUUT. This corpus, on public display for the first time ever, is unequaled by anything I have seen (except, obviously, the National Museum of Anthropology).  It is composed of 560 stunning pieces, objects of art, hand-picked from an amazing accumulation of approximately 3 thousand pieces of hand-crafted earthenware and carved stone, dating back thousands of years, evidence of the stupendous workmanship of the Amerindian cultures of Mexico.

An impeccable example of the Teotihuacan symbol for time is emblazoned on this hand-carved stone, part of the Stavenhagen Collection, which is on display to the general public for the first time. Refugees of WWII, the Stavenhagens started collecting pre-Hispanic pieces when they arrived to Mexico. The family recently donated their acquisitions to the UNAM, the country's National University.


Apparently so extensive, the family transferred part of its private repertory to the Museum of Xalapa and to the Museum of Colima years ago. Rodolfo Stavenhagen donated part of the family’s legacy to the UNAM (Mexico’s National University), which have been classified by general topics (rather than by the more conventional geographic and chronological criteria) ranging from daily life, love, maternity, bodily decoration, death, early man’s relationship with animals, etc. Although many of these pieces are unprovenanced, the majority belonging to the Mezcala, Maya, Mexica and Zapotec cultures.

This ceramic hairless (and often toothless) Mexican dog was typically found in ancient funeral offerings, since natives believed it led the deceased on their journey to the underworld. The Xoloitzcuintle recently regained its American Kennel Club recognition, making it a potential dog show breed. The worldwide population of Xolols is estimated to be around 30,000.

The wait for this site was exaggeratedly long -  given that it was originally envisioned for the mid 60s but never materialized.  However, the outcome of the laudable collaborative effort of the two giant Mexican cultural institutions (the UNAM and the INAH – the National Institute of Anthropology and History) is fantastic! Aside from providing a dignified abode for pieces which were in storage for decades, it breathes life into the often overlooked site of Tlatelolco Hopefully more museums of this stature will continue to pop up. This is a new “must” on my list of basic sites for tourists and residents alike! Visit or re-visit Tlatelolco – you won’t be disappointed!

Another spectacular artifact showing the quality craftsmanship of the native populations who inhabited Central Mexico prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. This museum is a must for tourists and residents alike!

Note: The museum is not easy maneuver. The difficulty lies in the fact that there are several exhibits spread between two separate buildings, with an absence of signs  – makes it easy to miss important collections.  Hopefully, this is an oversight that will be remedied with time.

Two images from the Mezcala culture of Mesoamerica. Every item on display has been hand picked and is exceptional in quality.

The Tlatelolco Museum (Museo de Tlatelolco) is open Tuesday through Sunday; 10am to 6pm; entrance fee is $20 pesos; Ricardo Flores Magón 1, Nonoalco-Tlatelolco.

 

King Tut Visiting Downtown Mexico City

The UNAM's Palace of Autonomy hosting the temporary exhibit of King Tutankhamen

King Tutankhamen is visiting Mexico City! Over 200 reproductions of artifacts found in 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter are on display in a temporary exhibit entitled “Tutankhamen: The Tomb, The Gold and The Pharaoh’s Curse,” at the Palacio de Autonomia (a UNAM-run museum site tucked away in a well conserved 19th century neo-classical building).

King Tut in all his glory

Copies of original objects housed in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo aim to duplicate the splendors of King Tut’s tomb. The funeral rituals, process of mummification and customs of ancient Egypt have little in common with pre-Hispanic Mexico. King Tut is believed to have ruled Egypt from 1334 to 1325 B.C. - way before the Mexica’s arrived to the swamplands of downtown Mexico, where the exhibition is housed. The treasures seem foreign, somewhat forced and out-of-place at first, until one passes through the first introductory section and becomes involved in the ambiance of the Pharaoh’s burial setting.

Reproduction of a burial found in King Tut's tomb

Capturing the extravagance of the mortuary chamber of King Tut, located in the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank of Luxor, is no easy task. Although some of the artifacts are noticeable copies, the majority are exceptionally well-crafted, making using the same techniques and material – including gold – as the original ones.

A sampling of exquisite jewelry which was found in King Tut's tomb in 1922 by Howard Carter

Unlike the previous mega-hits of “Pharaoh: The Sun Cult in Ancient Egypt” Exhibit or “Isis and the Feathered Serpent” both record-breaking expositions housed in the National Museum of Anthropology a few years back – with an obligatory 2-3 hour wait to get in), this exhibit is easily accessible and aims to combine art and entertainment, reproducing not only the wonder of a royal Egyptian burial but fostering mystique which shrouded the discovery itself.

A partial view of the King Tut exhibit on temporary display downtown Mexico City

The legend of the evil spell cast on the early explorers, intertwined with the revelation of the riches of the boy king itself is so deeply embedded in history, that it is a standard scenes in Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum! Needless to say, there was no curse. Archaeologist Howard Carter, who unearthed the cache, lived till the ripe old age of 65 (in the 20s that was considered old age!), surviving 17 years after his find.

The reproductions were made with painstaking care, using similar materials and techniques as the originals, in attempts to re-create the details of the objects found in King Tut's tomb

Do not expect a dry, scientific, conventional display – this is more of a trip back in time, a-la-Disney, with a play of light and sound to further dramatize the setting and the magic associated with the site. Yet, the exhibit is based on fact, including an explanation of techniques of mummification, and a representative selection of mortuary masks, the sarcophagus, a throne, jewelry, a royal diadem, a funeral Canopus vessel, and much more.

The gilded wall with detailed Egyptian hieroglyphs and decorations

The exhibit is small, divided into four main rooms: the first focuses on religion, funeral rites and the process of mummification used in ancient Egypt; the second highlights several of the most outstanding troves of the tomb including guardian statues, the God Anubis, and a golden casket; the third hall showcases the four monumental gold reliquaries which protected the Pharaoh’s sarcophagus, and the sarcophagus itself; and the last room is a recreation of King Tut’s tomb with a reproduction of the sarcophagus and coffin which housed Tutankhamen’s mummified body.

Life-sized proportions give the exhibit a dramatic, theater-like sense

Somewhat expensive for the average Mexican museum ticket ($80 pesos), this reflects a noticeable trend in ticket price-hikes at UNAM-affiliated exhibits (San Ildefonso is another example of this), which is unfortunate, since it is just one more excuse for people not to visit the many cultural offerings of the city – the ticket costs more that the daily minimum wage in Mexico City – certainly unfordable for the average Mexican household. However, for those who will never have the opportunity to travel to Luxor to see the original tomb or Cairo to witness King Tut’s mask or the treasures of the Pharaoh’s burial, this the second best!

For those who won't have the opportunity to visit the real thing in Egypt, this is the second best!

By the way, the income from ticket sales are earmarked for university scholarships according to Rafael Moreno Valle, chairman of the UNAM Foundation, organizer of the exhibit. The Tutankhamen Exhibit is in the Palace of Autonomy (Palacio de la Autonomia de la UNAM) which is open every day of the week, Monday through Saturday 10am to 6pm, Sunday 10 am to 4 pm; entrance fee to this temporary exhibit is $80 pesos; Lic. Primo de Verdad 2 (next to the Templo Mayor, access from Moneda Street).

King Tut's famous funeral mask, stunningly reproduced

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The Virgencita and the Basilica of Guadalupe (Part II)

A bird's-eye-view of the La Villa shrine in Mexico City, dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe

The Basilica of Guadalupe is the second most visited Roman Catholic shrine, following the Vatican.   The grounds surrounding the Basilica of Guadalupe are complex since they are dotted with many buildings of varying ages, some dating back to the 16th century, others yet unfinished, with next to no signs or maps indicating where or how to get to the many sites making up the complex.

No matter how you get here – by public transportation, on foot or by car – the starting point is always the Atrium of the Americas – a brilliant idea conceived by Mexican Architect Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, mastermind of the project to renovate the Basilica Area, which was inaugurated in 1976.  This expansive plaza is shared by both the Original Basilica and the New Basilica, and has proven to hold up to 50 thousand visitors at the same time. You may wonder why this is important. On December 12th – the Virgin of Guadalupe’s feast day, thousands upon thousands of Roman Catholic pilgrims come from around the country to pay their respects to the Virgencita, as she is affectionately referred to in Spanish, and they need to be accommodated. Not all, but close to 50 thousand fit right on the plaza, aside from the lucky ones who get a seat inside the Basilica! 

The Bell Tower in the Atrium of the Americas, resembling a pre-Hispanic God.

Standing in the Atrium is an ominous bell tower, reminiscent of a pre-Hispanic God, a modern day belfry of sorts, which shows the many ways people reckon time. There is a traditional analog clock, of course the standard fare of bells, a circular carillon, a sun dial, the Aztec calendar (actually a drawing of the Sun Stone currently in the Anthropology Museum), and an astronomic clock showing the Zodiac used by ancient navigators.

The Original Basilica, noticeably tilted since it is sinking unevenly!

The Original Basilica remains standing, thanks to thousands of pesos invested to assure its safety. Construction was initiated shortly after the Virgin appeared before Juan Diego.  It has suffered so many renovations that most of what is standing is from the 18th and 19th century, rather than the 16th and 17th. The big problem is that half the church is anchored onto Tepeyac Hill, while the other half is slowly sinking into the underground swamp land it is floating on, which is slowly pulling apart the building. The Blessed Sacrament (consecrated host) is permanently exposed in this church. For those unfamiliar with Catholic tradition, the permanent exposure of the holy Eucharist is referred to as Perpetual Adoration, which is why this Basilica is so frequented.

The New Basilica in all its glory, designed by Mexican architect Pedro Ramirez Vazquez

A stone’s throw from the Original Basilica is the New Basilica, another brilliant, functional solution of Ramirez Vazquez’s. It is absent of columns – a major architectural feat given that the dome measures 100 meters (330 feet) in diameter, thus allowing for maximum visibility of Cuauhtlatoatzin’s, better known as Juan Diego’s, cape which is emblazoned with the image of the Virgin dating back to 1531, and carefully protected behind bullet-proof glass.  Viewed with equal ease from any spot in the church, church-goers don’t have to compete for a “good” seat since there is nothing to block anyone’s view inside.  By the way, the new Basilica has the capacity to fit over 10,000 worshippers inside on a busy day (the 12th of December)!  Plus, for more private moments, there are 9 chapels, numerous confessionals, and a moving walkway for people to view the shroud up close without stopping, thereby resolving the problem of unruly crowds – yet another ingenious solution of Ramirez Vazquez.

The baroque Chapel of the Well, as lovely inside as outside. This is one of the sites where the Virgin Mary appeared before Indian Juan Diego.

A bit more hidden is The Chapel of the Well, a remarkable baroque structure in the round, constructed by Architect Francisco Guerrero y Torres in the late 1700s to honor the well that sprung up during one of the Virgin’s appearances.  Free-standing, it is in better structural condition than the old Basilica. The blue and white roof tiles are original, as are the pulpit and the paintings illustrating the 4 (actually 5) appearances of the Virgin.  I, personally, find this the most beautiful, spiritual and intimate of all the sites at La Villa.

It may not look very far, but there are a lot of steps to climb to get to the Chapel on the Hill!

Requiring a bit more stamina to visit, Saint Michael’s Chapel (Michael was Mary’s protector) or the Chapel on the Hill is well worth the climb to the top of Tepeyac Hill.  There is nothing left of the original chapel built in 1666, nor of the pre-Hispanic temple which topped the mount prior to the arrival of Hernan Cortes, in honor of the Indian Mexica Mother Goddess Tonantzin. But the top of the hill – where the Virgin left Saint Juan Diego proof of her existence for Archbishop Juan de Zumarraga – provides a magnificent bird’s eye view of the grounds, and the walls of this chapel are lined with well-known artist Fernando Leal’s mural-rendition of the appearances of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

A collapsing adobe wall, part of Saint Juan Diego's humble abode, where he lived and protected the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, as he waited while the temple was being built to permanently house the sacred image on his cape.

Many people walk right by the Indians’ Chapel, which is the oldest surviving structure at La Villa. This is where Juan Diego kept his shroud with the image of the Virgin while he was alive, awaiting completion of the church which was to house it.  An effort has been made to shore up what remains of the the collapsing wall of his modest, adobe home. Much like the Original Basilica, the intrinsic value is not architectural, but rather historical and spiritual.

Two nuns leaving the grounds of the shrine.

 The newest addition to the complex is the Marian Plaza.  Although it was inaugurated on Columbus Day (October 12th, 2011), this mammoth project remains partially unfinished.  Underwritten by Mexican Magnate Carlos Slim, this sorely needed multi-purpose center, when completed, will boast a four segment building with an Evangelical Center, complete with a mega auditorium (seating 858 people) and numerous classrooms, a new interactive museum, a health center, adequate space for retreats, study, and religious meetings, a columbarium (niches for funeral urns), a market, a restaurant and more parking spots. Several street blocks were expropriated by the Mexico City government, which donated the land to make this project a reality, while Slim’s company, Grupo Carso, provided the funds for the design and construction.  In numbers, the new annex covers 29,500 square meters, with construction coming in at a whopping 67.7 thousand square meters!

Only the façade of the Capuchin Convent Temple is original. The inside was destroyed during the wars and internal strife.

Then, there is a Capuchin Parish Temple which also remains standing, but has been gutted inside due to looting during wars, and devastation over the years. 

A statue of Pope John Paul overlooks the Basilica grounds. This Pope was particularly dear to Mexicans' hearts because of his devotion to the Virgin. He also promoted the canonization of Juan Diego.

There is also a small baptistery which was built just to cover the strong demand for baptisms on site. Curiously enough, this modern building is spiral-like inside.

Notice the group of Chamula Indians from San Cristobal de las Casas visiting the Basilica. It is common to see natives dressed in their indigenous garb as they visit from far to pay homage to the Virgin.

And I haven’t even mentioned the many sculptures, gardens, museums, market site and historic cemetery, where General Lopez de Santa Anna and other famous figures are buried.  In brief, there is a lot to see on the 17.7 hectare shrine grounds.

Faith remains vital to the 7 million Mexicans who visit La Villa annually.

Whether you are a believer or not, the vitality of faith in Our Lady of Guadalupe remains palpable here at La Villa. The Virgin of Guadalupe is Patroness of Mexico City, Patroness of Mexico (country), Patroness of Latin America, and was deemed by Pope John Paul II in the year 2000, “the Queen of Mexico and Empress of America.”  It is the sense of unity which the Brown Virgencita gives Mexico that is the greatest of all her miracles!  Again, Happy Feast Day to Saint Mary (which was January 1st) and Happy New Year’s again to you!

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2012 in Religious

 

La Virgencita or Virgin Mary’s First Feast Day in 2012

Our Lady of Guadalupe in the Basilica of La Villa

Happy New Year! Although faith seems intangible, it can actually be felt at the Basilica of Guadalupe as thousands of people visit the grounds today (and everyday for that matter). January 1st marks the first major liturgical celebration of the Virgin Mary on the Roman Catholic calendar. The Church celebrates the 8th day of Christmas by commemorating Mary’s motherhood of Jesus. And since the Basilica of Guadalupe is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, special Masses are being held there as well as at other Catholic churches today.

Candles are only permitted outside the Basilica for safety reasons

Watching people crawling on their knees, bearing armloads full of flowers, carrying heavy religious statues, lighting row after row of candles, walking kilometers in the name of the Virgin is an impressive site for believers and non-believers alike. Whether the Virgin truly appeared to mazehual Indian Saint Juan Diego 481 years ago or not is irrelevant.

The new Basilica reminiscent of a tent in the desert

Her daily miracle is that of keeping generations of Mexicans going, and weaving a sense of unity in a country splintered by marked socio-economic and cultural differences. Mexico is home to the wealthiest man in the world (Carlos Slim), yet children still die in the countryside from diarrhea; the far-right and the far-left clash verbally, and often physically, on a daily basis; 22 million people vie for space and time in the chaotic capital city. Dozens of indigenous and European languages mix in this urban sphere. Without a doubt, the Virgin is the sole force that unites the Mexican people, rural or urban, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, autoctonous or European. Her existence goes unchallenged even in 2012.

The faithful come from near and far, frequently filling the 10 thousand seat capacity

The grounds of La Villa of Maria de Guadalupe are complex, dotted with buildings of varying ages, some dating back to the 16th century, others unfinished. It is an ongoing project.  There are excellent examples of baroque architecture and paintings as well as modern-day solutions to bear the burden of overwhelming crowds. 

The original Basilica which is slowly, and unevenly, sinking into the swamp land it was built on

Stay tuned … tomorrow we will visit the most important buildings at the shrine.

 

Tequila, Mescal and Mariachis – How Mexican Can You Get?

Tequila, Mescal and Mariachis – How Mexican Can You Get?

MUTEM pays tribute to tequila, mescal and mariachis

Three of the most emblematic symbols associated with Mexico – for better or worse – are tequila, mariachis and charros (Mexican cowboys). The Museum of Tequila, Mescal and Mariachis (the MUTEM, as it is known colloquially) showcases all three!

A typical gala charro (Mexican cowboy) outfit used by Mariachi musicians

This month, the UNESCO recognized Mariachis as Intangible Cultural Heritage (meeting the committee’s stringent criteria, since it is “transmitted generation to generation and continuously recreated during festive, religious and social events; it strengthens the sense of identity and continuity of its communities, within Mexico and abroad”). With this honor comes a commitment from Mexico to promoting this genre of music and foster related research. More than anything, I applaud this declaration because it raises what is seen as a folkloric expression to a more serious level, assuring that Mariachi music remains vital and will, hopefully, be taken more seriously.

Mariachis playing on a chalupa or flat bottom boat in the Xochimilco channels in southern Mexico City

Mariachi music, for those unfamiliar with this traditional Mexican music, is played by a group that varies in size and style. It takes songs from different regions of Mexico – including jarabes, polkas, waltzes, the traditional serenata and corridos, many of which were not written for the express purpose of being played in a “mariachi” format – and turns them into a sound that is unmistakably Mariachi!  The vast majority of lyrics are associated with romantic courtships or rural life, and became recognizable worldwide during Mexico’s Golden Age of Motion Pictures, with actors such as Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete and Luis Aguilar to name a few, who often broke into song intermittently in their films.

A sampling of instruments which give Mariachi music its unique sound

Mariachi bands are made up of guitar, violin, trumpet, vihuela (an acoustic guitar with a rounded back) and guitarron (an acoustic bass guitar on steriods) players. The groups usually range between 6 and12 members, decked out in gala charro outfits with tight-fitting pants (or skirts, in the case of women Mariachis) studded with silver-plated buttons commonly linked with chains running along the side seams, a short jacket, long bow tie and the typical broad-brimmed Mexican sombrero, embellished with portmanteau embroidery and optional sequence.

A collection of hundreds of artisanal tequila and mescal bottles in the MUTEM

Mariachi bands can be heard and hired in Garibaldi Square. Yes, believe it or not serenades are still popular in Mexico, particularly for quinceaños’ festivities, to charm disgruntled novias, at weddings and for birthdays and saint’s days, though given the current economic climate, they are not as ubiquitous as year’s begone since they have become less and less affordable. The musical groups congregate in Garibaldi, which is lined with numerous bars, situated just off the city’s central artery (Eje Central) downtown. That is, appropriately, where the Museum of Tequila, Mescal and Mariachis is located.

A spruced up and renovated Garibaldi Plaza downtown

In the city’s attempt to clean up the “Plaza de Garibaldi,” the zone has been given a recent face lift, including the creation of the MUTEM (last year). Mariachi music has morphed over the years, but it’s roots can be traced back to the state of Jalisco in the 18th century.  The MUTEM is the only place in Mexico City to learn about the history of this music, or about tequila or mescal, which are all intertwined. (There are other tequila museums in Mexico (country) – one in the heartland of Jalisco – in Tequila (city) and another in Guadalajara (also in the state of Jalisco.)

The MUTEM has several displays illustrating how tequila and mescal are made

In order to retain the international honor that the UNESCO has bestowed it this month, Mexico is required to “protect” this living manifestation of its cultural tradition, so hopefully this small, yet comprehensive, museum will take on greater importance, and continue to expand its displays, which showcase the production of tequila, mescal and mariachis!

The open-air roof bar provides a great place to sample hard-to-find labels of tequila and mescal from around Mexico

By the way, the MUTEM offers one of the safest watering holes on the Plaza, since the third floor is the museum’s roof-top bar. The entrance ticket to the museum includes one shot of tequila or mescal of your choice from a broad collection which lines the walls! (Mexican antojitos or snacks are also available at a reasonable price.)  As an added bonus, you can listen to mariachi music to your heart’s content – for free! The best groups on the plaza alternate sets in this open-air space. If you chose to continue your spree, you can sample the agave-based liquors, selecting from a long list of top-notch tequilas or mescals carefully selected from around the country. And, given that the museum and the restaurant-bar is run by the city government, there is no fear of being overcharged or taken advantage of (as is often the case at the surrounding local bars) as your mind gets fuzzy from the libations!

There are hundreds of agave plant species in Mexico, but tequila is made ONLY from the "Agave Tequila Azul" or Blue Anaweber variety of plant, giving it its D.O. distinction

Thus, not only can you learn about the Mexican D.O. liquors – both tequila and mescal have been granted the seal of Denominación de Origen (D.O.) under the international appellation system, assuring that these beverages have been produced in a specific region and comply with stringent quality criteria – and Mexican music, but also sample the music and drink to your heart’s content in a safe environment, at a reasonable price.

The boutique handicraft and spirit store at MUTEM sells unique items you may want to stock up on, either for yourself or for gift-giving!

Be sure to check out the ground-floor museum store, which is brimming with a hand-picked selection of handicrafts unavailable elsewhere. The MUTEM staff travels around Mexico, combing the countryside for unique keepsakes, which it offers at affordable prices at its gift shop.  Plus, the spruced up Plaza now has underground parking, where you can park your vehicle yourself, rather than leaving it with often unreliable valet parking services or having to walk several blocks late at night (very convenient, particularly when your steps are wobbly!).

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Happy New Year from me and a 20 member mega-Mariachi group!

Happy New Year with a Mexican touch! Be sure to check out the MUTEM in 2012!

 

VIDA: The Textured Work of Juanita Pérez

Colombian-Mexican artist, Juanita Pérez in front of two of her works that are part of VIDA, an exhibit at Casa Lamm

Juanita Pérez is an extremely talented, unique artist. Her work is unlike that of any other artist I have seen. It projects her life – layers upon layer of elements built up to produce the final oeuvre, which emits a strong, sensual, energetic message. Her art is hard to describe in words. It is complicated, yet at the same time simple.

Three pieces that are part of her current exhibit

It is a collage of sorts, but not in the traditional sense of cut-out figures, pasted on a stark background. Juanita combines textures, patterns and diverse materials, telling her story in canvases covered with paper, textiles, oil colors and much more. Colombian-born, she formally studied art in the United States before making Mexico her permanent home. Her life narrative is reflected in the dynamics of her work – vivid, colorful, active, complex, rich, profound, coherent and vibrant.

An rich combination of colors, textures and materials makes Juanita's work unique

Many people shy away from abstract art since, unlike figurative art where forms and figures are clearly identifiable, abstract art leaves the viewer much leeway to interact and interpret the pieces – which is often uncomfortable for the neophyte. Juanita reassured me that this is exactly the point of this genre. The viewers “in abstract art have more opportunities of interpretation and freedom to invent their own stores.”  She hopes that her art is a trigger for the viewers to immerse themselves in their own dreams and adapt her images to their own emotional imprints.”  Thus, there is no correct or incorrect way of interpreting art.  According to the visual artist, art is free and open.

Luna y Viento (The Moon and the Wind), a mixed technique (144cm x 168 cm)

Her current exhibit, entitled “VIDA” or “LIFE” is on display at Casa Lamm, a unique Cultural Center which combines classes, workshops, exhibits and a variety of cultural activities. I have a soft spot in my heart for Casa Lamm, since that is where I began my current career as historian-guide-teacher over a decade ago!

Cosas y pensamientos nocturnos (Things and Nocturnal Thoughts), a six piece collection (each 43 cm x 43 cm)

VIDA contemplates and reflects on certain aspects of Pérez’s life and memories. To project these, the catalogue of this show explains that “she has chosen to use (papel picado) to symbolize festivals, remembrances, sacred rituals and childhood. The telling of stories, elaborate games, remembrances of things past, are concealed in the intricate patterns and colors of this integral and powerful manifestation of Mexican life.”

Juanita and I at her exhibit entitled VIDA (or LIFE)

A personal concern of mine is how attached the artist becomes to her pieces. In fact, in previous work, Juanita has included elements as intimate as passports, photos and maps, which are an extension of her very personal life, yet she insists that she is only attached to her work during the process of painting. After she has finished a piece, she lets it go.

Pedacitos de cielo y agua (Pieces of the Sky and Water) showcased on the catalogue cover of VIDA (145 cm x 105 cm)

Be sure to check out Juanita’s latest work at Casa Lamm, which is divided on two floors of the gallery.  And good news – the show (originally scheduled to close January 4th) will be extended until January 20th, 2012!  Her pieces will be available for private viewing after that date, so be sure to drop by Casa Lamm for an uplifting visual treat!

 

Mexico’s New Constitution Museum: Trying to Make Sense of a Complex Legislative Trail

The recently inaugurated Constitution Museum

Mexico’s new Constitution Museum has yet, once again, given a new purpose to what was originally a Jesuit School and Temple dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Abandoned when the Jesuits were banned from all Spanish territory in 1767, the building fell into disrepair, until salvaged almost half a century later by Mexico’s first emperor, Agustin Iturbide, who hosted several Constitutional Congress meetings here in 1823 and 1824. This is where Mexico’s first (or second – depending on how you count – more on that in a minute) constitution was signed by such historical heavyweights as Fray Servando Teresa de Mier and Miguel Ramos Arizpe. Mexico’s first president – Guadalupe Victoria – was sworn into office here as well.

Sparse explanations dot the ex-Jesuit school

Having previously served as a library, a military barrack, a military hospital, a customs warehouse, a home for the mentally ill and an animal stable, it was Public Education Minister José Vasconcelos who commissioned the very first mural here after the Revolution, launching what would become, unbeknownst to him, Mexico’s world-famous Muralist Movement. From then on, the building was assigned to education-related functions, housing the Hemeroteca collection (periodical library) and more recently, the National University’s Museum of Light, an interactive children’s museum.  In August of this year, it was re-purposed with its latest mission, narrating this nation’s constitution history.

Architectural detail from by-gone days add character to an otherwise bland exhibit

Mexico’s history is complex, and its constitutional history is even more complicated, justifiably meriting a museum all to itself.  Its first Constitution, by all counts, is the Constitution of Cadiz – promulgated in 1812 – however, the museum ignores this fact, perhaps because this legislation was handed down by Spain rather than issued in Mexico (however, duly note that the main square in downtown Mexico City, informally referred to as the “Zocalo,”  is formally named  “Plaza of the Constitution,” precisely after the liberal Constitution coming from the Courts of Cadiz – the first Constitution for Spain as well as Mexico, even though Mexico was still known as New Spain at that time.)

Roberto Montenegro's historic mural entitled "Tree of Life," fully restored

The Museum begins its count with the Constitution of 1814, and continues with the Constitution of 1824, the Constitution of 1836, the Constitution of 1843, the Constitution of 1857 and the Constitution of 1917, as well as the Plan of Ayutla, the Act of Reform and the Laws of Reform. It is hard to keep up with all that legislation, which is why this country needs a museum dedicated to all of its Constitutions!  In fact, the name of the museum in Spanish is Museum of Constitutions – in plural!

Details of Montenegro's mural

The exhibit is quite sparse and simple, made up of written texts except for two small, circular showcases. The building, seeped in over 400 years of history, is more impressive than the museum itself. Hopefully, with time, memorabilia and new material will be added to make the museum, and the topic it covers, richer and more interesting.  In fact, the saving grace of this museum (located on Carmen Street #36, on the corner of San Ildefonso downtown) is its backdrop – Roberto Montenegro’s recently restored, seminal work entitled “The Tree of Life” (often referred to as the Tree of Science) – the first mural painted in modern Mexico – and three of his stained glass window designs.

One of the three magnificent stained glass windows designed by Montenegro and Xavier Guerrero in the early 20s

 
 
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