Personal Journeys


December 07, 2003|By Special to the Sun

A Memorable Place

Diego Rivera murals: Mexico's pride

By Gregory Cleva


It is Sunday morning and people fill the Zocalo, the enormous plaza facing Mexico City's National Palace and Metropolitan Cathedral. A block away, I walk past the Templo Mayor, an ancient center of the Aztec empire, and already the vendors are arranging clothing and jewelry for sale.

Many of the streets in the Centro Historico section look the same, and I have trouble locating what I have come to see, the Ministry of Education. It is near the Plaza de Santo Domingo, the fabled square where men with old-fashioned typewriters compose letters and documents for those who cannot write them themselves.

I wonder why the guidebooks are strangely silent about the ministry -- most fail to mention it at all. The building turns out to be inconspicuous from the outside; a small doorway opens to a waiting area with an information booth. Only a plaque commemorating Jose Vasconcelos, Mexico's education minister in the 1920s, reveals its meaning.

All this changes as you enter. The building opens to a large inner courtyard with sculptures and trees. Today, it is empty, but I imagine it during the week -- busy with the movement of government workers. The ministry has three floors and a grand staircase. There are arcaded walkways on each level.

Squinting into the sunlight, I begin to see the murals under the arcades, and their effect is staggering. First the color. There are earthen yellows, greens and reds. They are suited to the images -- images the writer Pete Hamill describes as "heroic ... representing Mexico to the world and in some ways to Mexicans themselves."

There are miners and schoolteachers, Mexican figures both historical and mythical, and scenes depicting Indian civilizations, foreign exploitation and revolutionary idealism.

In all, there are 128 individual panels covering 17,000 square feet. This is the epicenter of 20th-century Mexican muralism, created by the great Mexican artist Diego Rivera working unceasingly from 1923 to 1928. Rivera used the exacting technique of true fresco, painting directly onto wet plaster. His achievement here re- invigorated the tradition of Giotto and Piero della Francesca, whose Renaissance frescoes he studied in Italy.

I spend several hours going from mural to mural. Some have spoken of the progression of Rivera's work from the crudeness of the first-floor panels to his mastery on the third floor. But I am drawn most strongly to those seen first as you enter, particularly the "Entering the Mines" series.

There are doorways between many of the individual panels. Inside, I see the trappings of the modern office: computer terminals and fax machines. The contrast between these murals and the shape of modern life seems incongruous. What would it be like to work here each day? Would I grow indifferent to the beauty surrounding me as I try to keep up with my e-mail?

Gregory Cleva lives in Arlington, Va.

My Best Shot

Gordon C. Huggins, Eldersburg

Haunted sites of Bodie, Calif.

This photo was taken on the outskirts of a California ghost town known in the late 1800s as Bodie. The town was a thriving community of almost 10,000, and now it is a state park. Walking through the high desert country east of the Sierra Nevadas, one gets an eerie feeling about the long-gone inhabitants there and the wild times they experienced as gold miners. Killings, robberies, stagecoach holdups and street fights were regular occurrences.

Readers Recommend

Lake Powell, Ariz.

Terri Clayman, Columbia

"Imagine the Grand Canyon filled with water instead of air, and you have a pretty good picture of Lake Powell." So says Frommer's Arizona 2003 of the manmade lake in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in northern Arizona. We took an eight-hour boat trip on Lake Powell and explored narrow canyons, hiked to the Rainbow Bridge National Monument and enjoyed beautiful scenery.

Kennebunk, Maine

Sister Gerold Mobley, Baltimore

I saw this hand-carved wooden shrine from Lithuania on the grounds of the Franciscan Monastery in Kennebunk. On a foggy day last summer, the shrine was an inspiration to those of us who gathered for early-morning Mass at the monastery. The shrine is surrounded by pine trees on a spacious green lawn without floodlights or anything to highlight it. This gem has to be sought out to be appreciated.

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