Three years ago, I chalked out a simple itinerary for a work trip to Mexico City—two days of meetings, two weeks of fervently finding Frida.
Like all loves, I don’t remember what it was about the Mexican artist that bewitched me 12 years ago; whether it was the intensity of her gaze as she looked back from self-portraits, with monkeys, parakeets, macaws on her bosom. Or the bold pigments that lay her most private moments bare: a metal rod cutting through her spine, her miscarriage, the hurricane that was her relationship with her husband, muralist Diego Rivera. Through Frida, that 20-year-old me was shaken and consumed by a world that could only be expressed with disarming vulnerability and a shocking colour palette.
Since her death in 1954, Frida has exploded all over the pop culture scene—she’s a feminist icon, queer artist, surrealist, a Halloween costume, a Barbie, Snapchat filter, and very recently, an emoji. Before my trip, I sit at odd hours, manically reading article after article—enchanted as ever by her provocativeness, her defiant unibrow, but mostly, consumed by her story of grief and grit. I speed-read her first biography written in 1983—how she contracted polio when she was six, how she met with an accident so deadly at 18 that 22 surgeries could not fix her damaged spine; her tumultuous “love story” with Diego, the amputation of her right leg that left her wheelchair-bound, her untimely death at 47, and the 143 paintings (with 55 self-portraits) that chronicle both her suffering and love for life. On the airplane, I watch Salma Hayek’s brilliant rendition in Frida, but chafe at Harvey Weinstein’s over-sexualised portrayal of the woman. By the time I land in Mexico City, my sleepless head is spinning, my phone is heavy and slow with the number of half-read Frida tabs on it. I’ve read about so many Fridas—the devoted wife, the seductress, the activist, the tragic artist, the bitch—each more contradictory than the other. In a daze, I exchange U.S. dollars for Mexican currency at the airport; Frida stares at me from a 500 peso note.
Her city jumps off the page as much her paintings. As I drag my suitcase across the narrow footpaths and cobbled lanes around Zocalo, Mexico City’s largest square, I can hear the booming, steady beating of drums reverberate through the historical centre. Concheros—Aztec dancers dressed in animal skin, turquoise-and-green-feather headgear and seashell jewellery—dance in a large circle to a hypnotic rhythm. The dance gained popularity after the Spanish conquest in the 15th century, as a rebellious assertion of the threatened indigenous Mexican cultures. A few metres from the dancers are the ancient ruins of Templo Mayor. When the Spanish conquered Mexico City from the indigenous Aztec rulers, they did not bother reconstructing the capital—instead they built their capital above the ancient city of Tenochtitlan. A capital sits on another capital—and the sculptures, scriptures, racks of over 600 skulls and turquoise masks found in Templo Mayor are a tiny, insignificant glimpse of the treasures and mysteries that lie underneath. Archeologists are taking every opportunity to comb numerous sites across the city—including recently a tattoo parlour—to unearth finds from a long time ago. As I gape at large, well-like excavation sites in Zocalo, I can hear street performers, singers, and hawkers selling churros stuffed with caramel and chocolate sauce. Labyrinths of lanes behind me are lined with tattoo studios, popsicle stands, bars, busy taquerias (taco shops selling tortillas filled with pork and beef, topped with cream cheese, salsa, guacamole and cilantro). Subtle, slow or simple is not the city’s style.
I head to my small bed-and-breakfast in the leafy suburb of Coyoacán, one block away from Frida’s former home. Coyoacán, or ‘the place of coyotes,’ is unlike the densely urbanised Mexico City that surrounds it from all sides. A former village on the southern shore of Lake Texcoco, Coyoacán likes its narrow cobbled streets, 16th-century Spanish-style pastel homes, and quaint cafés quiet. So nothing here prepares me for the drama of Casa Azul, that Frida painted a striking cobalt with brick red borders on the outside. Two papier mâché skeletons hanging off the blue ceiling guard its entrance. For several minutes, I stare transfixed at the doors, inhaling the indigo. I stand in the snaking queue instead of buying skip-the-line online passes, leisurely chomping on fresh fruit from street-side bicycle carts—papayas, mangoes, watermelon topped with granola, jam and whipped cream, and deep-fried, sugar-dusted churros. The wait, I hope, will calm my high-strung nerves.
Though Frida lived in different parts of Mexico and the world, she always returned to Casa Azul. It was here that she was born, raised, learned to paint, and later died. It is where she threw her infamous wild celebrity parties, sheltered exiled Soviet communist Leon Trotsky, sneaked in lovers when Diego was away, and spent her last years with a broken body, painting in a wheelchair. The home was turned into a museum and opened to public four years after her death. But The Frida Kahlo Museum is nothing like a state-built museum—the two-storey home has a central courtyard and garden, and its living room, kitchen and bedrooms are an invitation into a personal world that belonged to an artist who clearly spent a lot of time indoors, painstakingly curating a safe, loving space for herself. In one of her bedrooms, I see Frida’s ethnic Mexican jewellery, the orthopedic plaster corsets she was forced to wear to hold up her broken spine (she painted most of them), her medicines, and crutches. In her sun-kissed kitchen, I see clay pots and pans in which Frida cooked pork stew, tortilla soup and Oaxaca mole. Inside cabinets and on bedside tables are little puppets from her childhood, her unfinished paintings, her bank accounts and Mexican antiques that Diego collected.
For all the vibrancy Casa Azul emanates, it’s not without its moments of solemnity. I walk into Frida’s bedroom wherein lies a bed with a mirror above—something her mother put together after her bus accident. The accident crushed her foot, dislocated her shoulder, and sent a metal pole through her back, jutting out of her pelvis, leaving her half naked and bleeding on the road. “I lost my virginity,” she jokes in her diary. Lying on this very bed, Frida taught herself to paint. “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best,” she writes. In an adjacent room is a seasoned artist’s messy studio—open bottles of half-used paint, an unfinished canvas, a wheelchair instead of a regular seat. On a wall across the room, Frida’s words are painted: “Who needs feet when I’ve got wings to fly.”
For nearly for half a century, a part of Frida was kept locked in her own home. Diego requested that the bathroom inside a bedroom they shared in Casa Azul not be opened for least 15 years after his death. It is believed that it held Frida’s letters to other lovers that Diego wanted to keep hidden. In 2004, over 20,000 paintings, letters, photographs, clothes styled after Tehuana women (a powerful matriarchal community in Mexico) and Frida’s prosthetic leg spilled out of the room. Now, many of these objects, including her traditional Mexican clothing are on display. I am amazed at her self-styled wardrobe—flared skirts with floral embroidery, and rebozo scarves in shocking bright colours once worn by women fighting in the Mexican Revolution. I sit for hours in the museum’s garden where she raised peacocks, spider monkeys, parrots, hens, sparrows and xolotls, a breed of hairless dogs traced back to the ancient Aztecs.
I have to tear myself away from Casa Azul, but there is more Frida to find. I head to Museo Dolores Olmedo in Xochimilco, an eclectic neighbourhood with miles of waterways, mariachi bands singing on boats and floating flower gardens, in the hope of finding Frida’s self-portraits. To my great disappointment, I learn that all her paintings are on a travelling exhibition in South Korea. As consolation, I devour photographs of a younger Frida and see in a few, the eerie xolotls running among the museum’s vast lawns. I ride through the canals as if tracing the boat rides Frida took with her friends on summer days. The hand-painted trajineras, or canal boats, remind me of the art on Indian trucks—bold, bright, and highly personalised.
Two nights before my flight back to India, I call back home and tell a friend—a fellow Frida lover—about the misfortune of the paintings. But my luck turns on my last day in the city: in a passing conversation, a local at my B & B tells me that Frida’s most notable painting, “Two Fridas,” is very much at the Museo de Art Moderno (Museum of Modern Art, MOMA). I dash to the place, but after the deep intimacy of Casa Azul, MOMA’s neatly organised exhibitions amid sterile white walls, temperature-controlled rooms and theatrical lighting, feels cold and dead. I wonder what Frida would think as I gaze at “Two Fridas,” holding each other’s hands, their hearts exposed. The Frida on the left has snipped her heart’s artery with surgical scissors. The bleeding vein stains her white Tehuana dress. The Frida on the right has her heart intact, and she is holding a small portrait of Deigo in her hand. Frida painted this the year she and Diego got divorced. “I have suffered two grave accidents in my life,” she says in her diary. “One was a street car that ran over me, the other was Diego.” A year later, the couple remarried. I obsessively take close-ups of every inch of this painting and send it to my friend. Then, for one last time, I return to Casa Azul, for one last look at the last painting Frida ever painted, eight days before she died—the reddest, brightest watermelons with ‘Viva La Vida’ (Long Live Life) etched beneath.
I don’t leave until the museum shuts, and drag my feet to Mercado De Artesanias La Ciudadela, a market in the city centre. I am happiest here, because Frida looks at you from every tote bag, T-shirt, sandal, earring, scarf, cigarette lighter and fridge magnet. I stifle a laugh remembering snarky opinion pieces by art historians dissing “Fridamania” and “Fridolatory,” bemoaning how the legend is now a tote bag. I see young teenage girls obsessing over Frida’s books and clothes. Her self-portraits are not under scrutiny; her paintings don’t require long backgrounders on surrealism or her “love story” with her husband. Diego’s ghost does not follow her at the Mercado. I remember Frida’s mole sauce recipe painted on the wall of her sunflower yellow kitchen in Casa Azul, and order myself a plate of pork tacos and the spicy Aztec sauce. I can hear mariachi music streaming out of local bar. It is where I find my Frida—amid music, food and all things merry, free of judgement.
Essential landmarks on the artist’s trail
Between 1934-39, Frida and Diego lived in “twin houses” connected by a skywalk, in the tranquil, colonial neighbourhood of San Angel. Both homes are now a museum that showcases some of Diego’s paintings, paper mâché skeletons and his studio. It also has a few of Frida’s paintings, and some photographs.
This museum holds one of Diego’s most popular murals, “Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central” (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central). The 50-foot piece features colourful balloons, vendors, forests, and significant characters from Mexico’s history standing in the park. Diego highlights the Mexican Revolution through a clash between an indigenous family and policemen. At the centre stands Frida in traditional Tehuana clothing, with her hand on the shoulder of Diego who is portrayed as a young boy.
The palace’s winding stone staircases, courtyards and rooms are a trip down Mexico’s history, but its cynosure is Diego’s massive, second-floor mural that portrays the country’s cultural wealth before the Spanish colonisation. In it Frida is depicted as an Aztec princess.
*Note: The museum is closed due to the pandemic and here’s where you can take a free virtual tour.
You don’t expect to find a lush, green forest at the heart of one of South America’s biggest cities, with quaint cafés and bookshops at the fringes. Chapultepec is 1,695 acres of green dotted with Mexico City’s best museums, including Museo de Arte Moderno (the MOMA), the Museo Tamayo and the Museo Nacional de Antropología, several well-preserved archeological sites, installations by contemporary artists (check out the quirky, colourful benches at various spots in the park), a zoo (with giant pandas) and a tranquil lake surrounded by chic restaurants. And yet, it is the street performers, endless flea markets and bicycle food carts selling fruits with whipped cream, hot dogs, ice creams, tortilla chips with salsa, that will make you stay.
Time flies at the Anthropological Museum of Mexico, located within Chapultepec Park. The gigantic space offers the best history lesson on Mexico’s rich and complex cultural past through its pre-Hispanic carvings, sculptures and artefacts; sculptures of Aztec deities, and the popular Stone of the Sun—a finely carved Aztec sculpture which was found after the Spanish colonised the city in the 16th century. The sculpture was found under what is now Zócalo. Take a look at the fascinating model of Tenochtitlan, the ancient Aztec capital, which once existed near the very site of the museum.
Teotihuacan or ‘the place where gods were created,’ is the pre-Hispanic archaeological site located about 50 kilometres northeast of Mexico City. Historian speculators claim that it was built a thousand years ago, either by the Mayan or Aztec civilisations, but its origins remain a mystery. Teotihuacan’s highlights are large pyramid-like structures, including The Pyramid of the Moon, the Pyramid of the Sun and the Ciudadela (citadel). Frida, with her numerous injuries and broken spine, is known to have climbed the steep stairs of the pyramids with exiled communist, Leon Trotsky.
Leave an evening aside to walk through the wide breezy Paseo de la Reforma avenue in the heart of Mexico City’s commercial district. It is home to some of the city’s tallest buildings, but ut’s star is El Ángel—the Angel of Independence—a column with the statue of an angel holding out a crown of victory to commemorate Mexico’s independence.
Most streets are lined with small and big taquerias serving tortillas packed with a combination of meats and topped with beans, salsa, avocado, generous amounts of lime, cream, cheese and guacamole. Pick the busiest taqueria, with a large trompo—vertical rotisserie rotating with roasted meat— and ask for Tacos al Pastor (pork tacos with cilantro and onion).
Churros are Mexico City’s favourite late-night dessert. These long, soft, deep fried dough sticks, dusted in sugar and cinnamon—sometimes stuffed with, sometimes dipped in chocolate, caramel or hazelnut sauce are everywhere—from little carts on the streets and around museums to the best of Mexico City’s fine-dining restaurants.
Sweet, savoury, traditional, gourmet—tamales are easily the city’s most experimented-with food. They are stuffed with masa, or a bed of mashed corn flavoured with lime, and other fillings, and then wrapped in corn husk and steamed. Take your pick—there’s fried pork, chicken and cheese, burnt strawberry, mangoes, mushrooms or locally sourced spicy poblano chillies.
Paletas or popsicles in fresh fruit flavours are available in almost every alley in Mexico City. If you’re a fan of fruit, try the classic mango, strawberry or lime. The adventurous sorts must keep their eyes peeled for a cart that sells the sour cream and lime, mango and poblano chilli, blackberry and tamarind paletas. Heaven on a stick.
You cannot claim to have eaten your way through Mexico City if you have not had corn. You’ll find the simple, humble corn on a cob dressed up with mayonnaise, sour cream, cream cheese, lime, and chilli. There are also esquites—small cups layered with cooked corn kernels with the same ingredients.