Mexico City’s Best Kept Secret: The “Other” Diego Rivera Murals

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 8.44.58 AMBy Carole Reedy

They really aren’t a secret, per se, as they appear in just about any guide book’s top-ten list. But even though they’re located in mero Centro Histórico in the building of the Secretaría de Educatión (República de Argentina 28) just a block from the Templo Mayor, this series of Rivera murals is often missed by visitors and native citizens alike. Even by foreigners who have lived in the megalopolis more than 40 years!

It’s quite a mystery, and one for which I don’t have a sensible answer. Upon seeing the murals for the first time, “why have I never seen these before?” is a common response. Just a few blocks away sits the National Palace housing Rivera’s famous sweeping mural (1929-1935), which hugs the grand staircase on the first and second floors. This mural was painted just one year after Rivera painted the ones in the Education Building (1923-38), a former convent dating from 1648.

Because the Secretaría de Educación is a functioning government building, its hours are 9 am to 6 pm Monday through Friday. Unlike other tourist destinations, it’s not open on weekends. Entrance is free. Both the National Palace and the Secretaría de Educación present some visiting challenges. The National Palace closes when business is being conducted by dignitaries. And rumor has it that at the drop of a hat, demonstrations staged by the teachers union can cause chaos at the Education Building. Neither reason should stop you from trying to view the unforgettable works of Diego Rivera.

At the Secretaría de Educación building, dozens of Diego Rivera murals flow up three floors, enough to put visitors in a tizzy. Take your time to view them all. The ground floor is dedicated to the traditions of the people of Mexico, including religious and political festivals. The second level’s works represent the intellect, science, and arts in Mexico. On the third level, my favorite, you’ll find the heroes of the labor and revolutionary struggles.

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 8.44.40 AMA red ribbon floats above the murals where the sentiments of three corridos are written: The Ballad of Zapata, Agrarian Revolution of 1910, and Thus Will Be the Proletarian Revolution. The allegorical murals are a scathing criticism of the rich, opponents of the Revolution and of Diego Rivera. Favorites include Arsenal, depicting Frida Kahlo distributing arms to the revolutionaries, and another of a fancy dinner party where gold lumps are served to wealthy diners.

When you visit the murals in the Secretaría de Educación, I highly recommend you start or complete your visit at El Mayor terrace restaurant just a half block away (at the corner of Donceles and República de Argentina). This seems to be another spot undiscovered by both tourists and residents of Mexico.

The terrace itself is located on the second floor of the building (there’s a large Porrua bookstore on the first floor). Find the elevator that will take you directly to the restaurant. Here you can sip a glass of wine or cappuccino while enjoying a relaxing breakfast or lunch (the restaurant closes at 6 pm but is open from 9 am) and contemplating the Templo Mayor Aztec ruins below and the Zocalo just behind it.

Looking right, the view is dominated by the huge cathedral the Spanish built over the Aztec ruins, an architectural travesty repeated throughout Mexico. (On one of your visits to this most diverse of countries, be sure to head toward Cholula, Puebla, where you can visit the cathedral above ground and the Indian temple below it.)

Diego Rivera is one of the most well known and renowned muralists of the 20th century. His works are recognized as masterpieces that depict the lives of Mexican people. While studying in Europe, he was influenced by cubism as well as by the murals of Italy. The Mexican and Russian Revolutions were passions of Rivera and his famous wife Frida Kahlo. Thus, Rivera’s murals grew out of these emotions and the couple’s involvement in Communism.

A visit to the National Palace, located on the Zocalo, never disappoints. Here the painted history of Mexico and the struggles of the Mexican people line the stairway to the second floor, where the murals continue to amaze. The blend of colors, both bright and muted, the details of the faces, and the rolling landscapes transport you to each time period in the turbulent history of the country.

The Bellas Artes building owns one of the most famous of Rivera’s murals: the one that he painted when he was commissioned by the Palacio de Bellas Artes to decorate one of its walls in 1934. This work contains many of the elements of the painting commissioned by the Rockefeller family, destroyed in New York when it was discovered Rivera had painted communist leader Vladimir Lenin in the foreground.

Frida’s Blue House in the neighborhood of Coyoacan is a tourist’s delight, filled with her and Diego’s paintings, personal rooms, and her studio. She and Diego lived here for many years, as did Trotsky for a short period before moving to another home just a few blocks away. Be sure to visit Trotsky’s home too, the place where he was assassinated.

In the neighboring colonia of San Angel, near the San Angel Inn, Rivera’s art studio and the adjoining houses of Frida and Diego are open to visitors. You may recall that at one point in the topsy-turvy relationship of the pair they lived in separate houses connected by a bridge.

Regardless how often you visit Cuidad de Mexico, something new awaits, very often just right around the corner.