It was our last tourist destination in Mexico City. The National Palace. We were there to find one of the most amazing collections of murals by the famous Mexican artist, Diego Rivera. If you watched the movie Frida the courtyard of the national palace is in the scene where a young Frida Kahlo brings one of her paintings to Diego Rivera while he is painting a large mural. Before entering the building though, we were greeted by a long line.
Prior to this moment, my knowledge of Diego Rivera’s work was mainly from watching the movie Frida about five times. On a different trip to Mexico City we visited the Diego Rivera Mural museum thinking it was where we would find a history of his many murals. Instead, we were treated to a piano concerto in a large room that housed one of his most famous murals, Dreams of a Sunday afternoon in Alameda Park. It was a heady experience. Sitting in front of a fifty foot long mural, listening to classical piano music, and inspecting every character Rivera painted. Playing a version of Where’s Waldo, called Where’s Diego and Frida, as the painter hid himself and his wife in many of his murals.
The vibe at Palacio Nacional was different. It is a working government building, so the security guards were not only there to greet you but to make sure you don’t go into the off-limit areas. At the entrance we were greeted by el Profesor, the professor, the name I gave to a man we hired to be our private tour guide while in the Palace. Hiring local tour guides is a newer thing I do while traveling. Before I thought I was being hustled by fake tour guides. Now I know that in many places official guides do hang out at the front of historic places, especially in Latin America. The guides I have hired in places like Mexico, Peru, and Belize, have had unbelievably deep academic knowledge, many have college degrees, and personal experience of having grown up in the area. Having a tour guide has deepened my experience at many historical sites. Of course, only hire those that are licensed.
El Profesor, a man in his early 70s dressed in a tweed suit, welcomed us to the National Palace and introduced himself as a native of Mexico City and a former history professor who spent several years teaching at UC Berkeley. On our way to the murals, he told us about the many different buildings that surrounded us. But the oldest, he said, having survived since Spanish colonialists ruled Mexico, was the National Palace. A building that was built on top of the palace of the Aztec ruler, Moctezuma, in the mid 1500s. Today though we were mainly interested in seeing the Diego Rivera murals.
Crossing the courtyard, we entered an area with a large staircase. A central staircase lead to a large landing below the mural where the staircase bifurcated to the left and right framing the bottom of the mural in a wide V-shape. El profesor lead a lecture lasting almost 45 minutes describing each event depicted on the mural. Images that spanned pre-conquest Mexico, to present day 1930s Mexico. Of all the information el profesor downloaded on us that day, he emphasized one piece of information missing – for the most part – from this mural of the history of Mexico. The events from May 5th, 1862. Yes, that Cinco de Mayo.
Mexico had gained her independence from Spain in 1821, but Napoleon III in France had different ideas. In 1862, France sent troops to Mexico in an attempt to create a French territory within Mexico. The French landed in the state of Veracruz near the town of Puebla de Los Angeles. Waiting for the troops was a ragtag army Benito Juarez clamored together of mostly indigenous, rural folks whose anger and numbers upset France’s dream. El Profesor had a theory that the real scheme of the French was to conquer the United States by having forces in the north, in Canada, and those in the south, in Mexico, fight their way to the U.S.A. The Battle for Puebla, to el Profesor, was one of the most important battles fought on Mexican soil. But Diego Rivera’s mural didn’t capture it. Why? A conspiracy perhaps?
Cinco de Mayo is not depicted on Diego Rivera’s mural of the History of Mexico because, el Profesor thought, he may have been paid off by the French government not to capture that embarrassing moment in their history. Of course this could never be proven, but Rivera did live for over a decade, early in his artistic career, studying in Paris. El profesor, did point out, that Diego didn’t entirely forget Cinco de Mayo in his mural. If you look closely, at the upper left hand corner of the mural, you can see an eagle, symbolizing Mexico, flying away with the French crown.