Cascade Park

Cascade Park

Friday, April 17, 2015

Open to Visitors Again

The enormous National Palace occupies one entire side of the Zócalo, the main plaza of Mexico City.  It has also long been a major tourist destination because of the mural paintings by Diego Rivera which adorn one of its courtyards.  Beginning last autumn after the disappearance and likely murder of forty three students, the Zócalo was the frequent venue for anti-government demonstrations.  The National Palace was closed to all visitors.  Prior to this trip, I had read on TripAdvisor that it was open once again.  I had not been there for a couple years, and I had never posted any pictures of the murals on my blog, so I decided to return.

The National Palace was built shortly after the Spanish conquest on the site of an Aztec palace.   Over the course of nearly five centuries the building has been destroyed, rebuilt, renovated and expanded.  It was originally built as a palace for the "conquistador" Hernán Cortés and his family.  In 1562 the Spanish Crown purchased it from the son of Cortés, and the palace became the residence of the Spanish viceroys.  After Mexico won its independence, the building became of the headquarters of government ministries as well as the presidential residence for much of the 19th century.  (Today the presidential home is "Los Pinos" in Chapultepec Park.)  Today the National Palace is the seat of offices of the executive branch of government.

The famous mural painter Diego Rivera was commissioned by the government to do a series of paintings on the staircase of the main courtyard of the National Palace.  Rivera worked on these murals between 1929 and 1935.

The largest of the three murals is like a Cecil B. DeMille movie... an epic with a cast of thousands (OK, well maybe hundreds).  Into this huge painting Rivera has crammed the events and famous people of the history of Mexico, from the Spanish conquest to the 20th century.

The side mural to the left clearly reveals Rivera's political stance.  The capitalists are raking in the money with the help of corrupt politicians and clergy.  (Notice the priest with the half naked women.)  Above them Karl Marx is leading the workers to a better future.

The side mural to the right depicts the story of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god.  According to mythology, the god was embodied by a white-skinned Toltec king.  Quetzalcoatl left Mexico, sailing away on a raft of snakes, but he had promised to return.  It is thought that the Aztec emperor Montezuma believed that the Spaniard Hernán Cortés was the returning god, and was thus hesitant to fight against him and his army.

In 1945 Rivera began painting more murals on the second floor corridor of the courtyard.  The plan was to paint panels all the way around the courtyard depicting Mexico's history.  He only completed eleven panels before his death in 1957.  The paintings depict Mexico's pre-Hispanic civilizations and end with the arrival of the Spanish conquerors.

Perhaps the most impressive of these panels is Rivera's depiction of the bustling Aztec market with a panorama of their capital, Tenochtitlán (present-day Mexico City) in the background.

Even though the Spanish invaders wrote that Tenochtitlán was a spectacular city, Rivera appears to have idealized the place.  Notice the snow-covered volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl in the background.

Amidst the crowd of people in the market, this woman with tattooed legs stands out.  She is a prostitute.  Notice that a prospective client is offering her the severed arm of a Spanish soldier as payment.

The final panel, "The Arrival of Cortés", portrays the violent subjugation of the native peoples by the Spanish.  

Rivera takes his vilification of the Spanish invaders to a ridiculous extreme by portraying Cortés as a hunch-backed, deformed, syphilitic monster.

The native woman shown in this mural is "La Malinche", the mistress of Cortés.  On her back she carries their child, a blue-eyed baby.  Here, amidst the cruelty of the conquest, Rivera portrays the future of Mexico... a people of mixed indigenous and Spanish ancestry.


  1. Mexico has such a fascinating history.


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where the English are revered.

    1. It certainly does. And since I had a double major in Spanish and history in college, that makes Mexico all the more attractive to me.

  2. Fascinating. I'm most intrigued by the image of the prostitute being offered the severed arm of a Spanish soldier as payment. What would one DO with a severed arm received as payment? Make a soup out of it? Ewwwww.

    1. Actually, yes. It is known that the Aztecs would on occasion use the flesh of sacrificial victims as an added source of protein.