Diego Rivera’s Vision, Realized and Unrealized.

Posted: 08/29/2011 in Capitalism, Development, Inequalities, Justice, Mexico

Yesterday I visited the Zócalo, the center of historic Mexico City, and toured the Palacio Nacional. There may be other reasons for visiting this historic government seat, but most captivating are the murals of Diego Rivera. Below, a Rivera mural depicting the history of Mexico from Pre-Columbian times to the then contemporary 1930s dominates the main stairwell.

Rivera's History of Mexico in the National Palace.

Across the top are pictured the revolutionaries of various eras, such as Emiliano Zapata holding one side of a banner that reads “Tierra y Libertad” (Land and Liberty). Below, the Conquistadors and Spanish clergy engage in various struggles with the native population –to convert, to kill, or to plunder and exploit. In the center is the eagle clutching a snake in its beak, the sign that, according to the myth, indicated to the Aztecs where they should build the city that has centuries later become my temporary home.

The eagle with the snake, important iconography in Mexico.

On the right-most wall of the stairwell is a baffling idyllic portrait of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec city that the Spaniards razed before constructing Mexico City from its ruins. Rivera’s central theme in this mural, as in much of his work, is the struggle of the classes across history, so his peaceful representation of the Aztec (which I did not take a picture of) is presumably meant to cast them as residents of a Pre-Columbian utopia. By contrast, archeologists and historians tell us that the Aztec were a warrior tribe that enthusiastically practiced human sacrifice, but Rivera ignores this.

On the left-most wall, traveling across the history of the central mural, Rivera painted his vision for the Mexico he lived in the 1920s and 30s –a Mexico that seemed ripe for social change and a Marxist revolution. Striking workers surround the dominant classes and share their copies of Marx’s teachings.

Cheery workers share the teaching of Karl Marx.

The drumbeat of the socialist revolution is heard in paint.

It’s an amazing mural. My dad visited Mexico City in the 1960s and said that he still remembers staring up at these paintings. The tragedy of seeing Rivera’s work now is, of course, how little has changed. Indeed, how in a country that has produced the world’s richest man, so many continue to suffer in poverty, trapped within the confines of their class. The vivid and lively socialists that must have seemed to Rivera to be ushering in a new age now look quaint and dated, the unrealized revolutionaries of a bygone era.

According to David Lida in his excellent book First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century: “The minimum wage in Mexico City is about five dollars a day. Only 12 percent of the working population earns more than twenty-three dollars per day. The largest sector, about 45 percent, earns between nine and twenty-three dollars per day. Another 24 percent earns between four and a half and nine dollars, and 8 percent earn less than the minimum. The remaining 11 percent don’t specify.”

Lida also writes, “In Mexico City, upward mobility is virtually non-existent.” So it has been, so it continues to be.

Rivera signed his masterpiece under the feet of a peasant woman.

  1. […] the 15th. The most famous is given from the balcony of the presidential palace (the same with the Diego Rivera murals I blogged on before) overlooking the central plaza of Mexico City, the Zocolo. Little translation is needed –the […]

  2. jafloresster@gmail.com says:

    Your commentary and photos are very interesting since I just visited Mexico City in October 2011. I had visited there before in 1972. I also enjoyed the Diego Rivera murals and his museum in Coyoacán and the Anthropology museum.

  3. […] another stunning and blatant critique of Mexico’s complex and fractured history from Rivera. There is simultaneously so much pride and shame and pain in this piece. The chairs are […]

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