There is another side of Mexico City out beyond the urban bustle, and it is sedate, almost suburban -- and full of surprises. For set along the tree-lined streets of Coyoaca'n, a lovely residential neighborhood in the southern part of the city, is a cache of offbeat museums.
In one day you can comfortably see three out of four of the main attractions, or hurriedly see them all: the Frida Kahlo Museum, the Leon Trotsky Museum and House, the National Museum of Popular Cultures and the Anahuacalli Museum.
Coyoaca'n, which means "place of the coyotes" in the Nahuatl language, was originally a Toltec settlement. After the conquest of 1521, Herna'n Corte's centered his colonial government there, and eventually the area was incorporated into Mexico City. In addition to the remnants of colonial architecture preserved there, Coyoaca'n is set apart by a number of beautiful public parks and squares. At the Plaza Hidalgo and the adjacent Jardin del Centenario, residents gather to stroll amid the flowers and sculpted hedges.
If you're going south to Coyoaca'n from the center of Mexico City, consider taking a walking tour, from the Kahlo to the Trotsky to the Popular Cultures museum. Then drive or take public transportation to the Anahuacalli.
Painter Frida Kahlo was born, grew up and died in the brilliant cobalt blue and clay-colored building at 247 Calle Londres. The light-filled house has been kept much the way it was when she and her husband, the legendary Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, lived in it. The walls are lined with works by Kahlo, Rivera and such artists as Paul Klee, Marcel Duchamp and Jose' Clemente Orozco.
Although their marriage was stormy (one year, 1941, the couple was both divorced and remarried), the house is filled with signs of their devotion to each other. On one wall of the cheerful, blue-and-yellow tiled kitchen, miniature ceramic pitchers spell out "Frida" and "Diego." On the outside of the building, a hand-painted inscription reads, "Frida y Diego vivieron en esta casa 1929-1954."
A victim of polio and, at the age of 18, a bus accident, Kahlo was confined to a wheelchair and bed for much of her life. Her constant health problems, the numerous operations she underwent and her several miscarriages are reflected in her vivid paintings. French surrealist Andre' Breton was ecstatic when he discovered Kahlo's work, and called her the only surrealist painter in Mexico. In addition to paintings by Kahlo, memorabilia such as pages from her diary and samples of the traditional Mexican costumes and jewelry she loved to wear help shed light on Kahlo's courageous life.
One especially noteworthy section of the museum includes Rivera's extensive collection of religious devotions known as retablos and exvotos.
Both Kahlo and Rivera were attracted to communism, and signs of their political beliefs can be seen in the hammer and sickle painted on one ceiling and in paintings such as "Frida y Stalin." Rivera was instrumental in convincing Mexican President La'zaro Ca'rdenas to grant Leon Trotsky asylum in Mexico after he was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1929. Trotsky lived with Kahlo and Rivera for two years, then moved to a house five blocks away.
The Frida Kahlo Museum, 247 Calle Londres, is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free.
The Museum and House of Leon Trotsky is five blocks northeast of the Kahlo Museum at 45 Calle Viena. It was here that Trotsky was killed in 1940, and a monument in the courtyard marks the spot where the ashes of Trotsky and his wife Natalia Sedova are kept.
The museum, which is owned by Trotsky's grandson and is staffed and maintained by volunteers, is without electricity and in need of repairs. Trotsky's library, furniture and numerous photographs have been left as they were while he lived there.
The Museum and House of Leon Trotsky, 45 Calle Viena, is open Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free.
About 10 blocks southwest of the Trotsky Museum, just off Plaza Hidalgo, is the National Museum of Popular Cultures, which is known for its unusual and lively exhibits on various aspects of popular Mexican culture. A very colorful one on the history of the Mexican circus included hands-on demonstrations and displays that were wonderful distractions for children.
There's a small museum shop that's full of posters, crafts, art books and museum publications, among them books about the significance of corn in Mexican culture and the life of the country's fishermen.
The National Museum of Popular Cultures, 289 Calle Hidalgo, is open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday and Friday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.
The Anahuacalli Museum is southeast of Plaza Hidalgo, and is best reached by car or public transportation. The imposing, lava rock structure was designed by Diego Rivera to house his extensive collection of pre-Columbian art. He drew his inspiration for the museum from pre-Hispanic culture, and the result is an austere, hulking building standing before a large open plaza. The dim interior, lit primarily by sunlight filtered through onyx window panes, is reminiscent of a medieval church, and the clay figures, masks, bowls and vases are well displayed.
He said of his collection of nearly 60,000 pieces, "I'm giving back to the people of Mexico the artistic testament of their ancestors." Although he began working on it in 1933, when Rivera died in 1957, the museum was still not completed. His trusted friend Dolores Olmedo took over, and the museum was inaugurated in 1964.
After the dim seriousness of the first floor, be prepared for a surprise on the second. There, nearly floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the plaza send sunlight streaming into a huge studio that Rivera designed for himself but never lived to use. On view are studies for some of his murals, including the controversial work done at Rockefeller Center in New York (its socialist content led to its being destroyed, but it was later re-created at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City). And there's also Rivera's first drawing, done at the age of 3 1/2.
Anahuacalli Museum, Calle del Museo, is open Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free. Nancy Matsumoto is a free-lance writer living in Southern California.