By Brooke Gazer
Anyone who has visited Mexico will have heard of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20); well over a million people perished in that struggle for land and freedom.
But what about the displaced estate owners? What became of them and their families? A friend recently told me how her great, great grandfather lost most of his property during the revolution and continued her saga to the present. Mariana’s story demonstrates how loss and resilience can bring about great things.
The Revolution and the Family
Ángel Zimbrón and his family lived a privileged life on a vast tract of land in the Mexico City area, which included several ranchos. Zimbrón controlled over thirty-three square kilometers of livestock, corn and produce. His holdings were known as Azcapotzalco, and after the Revolution, the estate was incorporated into the northwestern part of Mexico City. The area, which still bears the name Azcapotzalco, is one of sixteen municipalities that comprise Ciudad Mexico; there is a neighborhood called Ángel Zimbrón, where you can now rent an apartment on the park, near the Metro, for under $400 USD a month.
During the Revolution, they lost all their land, except a small triangle called El Pañuelo. A pañuelo is, among other things, a handkerchief that has been folded into quarters and folded again into a triangle. Señor Zimbrón built homes for reach of his six children on this property
Alejandro Velasco Zimbrón, one of Ángel’s many grandsons, was born in 1908, towards the end of the Revolution. Despite his mother’s being widowed at twenty-four, he had a happy childhood playing with his siblings and numerous cousins. He was a kind child who ministered to injured animals, putting splints on chicken’s broken legs.
As Mexico City grew, the municipality developed major streets through Azcapotzalco. One cut a swath through their property, causing the family’s landholdings to shrink even further. As families expanded, the El Pañuelo estate became insufficient for supporting the growing brood. Several young people left to seek their fortune elsewhere, including Alejandro Velasco Zimbrón.
Young Velasco became a noted orthopedic doctor, a visionary who developed procedures and treatments for victims of polio. He co-founded Mexico’s first Children’s Polio Hospital. In the late 1940s he also founded a “bone bank” and implanted bone in people with severe bone damage. One of his patients was the artist, Frida Kahlo, who, after being struck by a bus in 1925, suffered from these injuries her entire life. Despite his status, Dr. Velasco was a generous and caring physician. He treated all classes equally, commonly accepting a chicken or a sack of corn in payment for his services.
Many of the children he treated expressed fear of the radiology machine, so to reduce their stress, he held them during the procedure. As a result, Dr. Velasco died in 1960 of complications from overexposure to this radiation. He was only fifty-two.
Octavio Velasco was one of the doctor’s six children. While studying architecture, Octavio met a young Spanish man named Vicente Gandía. Growing up in Spain, Vicente developed polio at age three. His family had heard of Dr. Velasco’s success in treating the disease, but could not afford to travel to Mexico. Even though polio left Vicente needing a cane to walk, he matured into a handsome man with a charismatic manner.
During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), Vicente’s communist-leaning uncle was forced to flee his homeland, and Mexico accepted many refugees from Spain. In 1951, Vicente’s widowed mother brought her family to live with her brother in Mexico. At age 16, Vicente helped support his family as an assistant to a newspaper illustrator, and he painted greeting cards. Later, he had some success printing his work but, believing that art provided a poor income, his mother encouraged him to study architecture. As classmates, Vicente and Octavio quickly developed a friendship.
Architecture did not inspire Vicente. When he dropped out to pursue a career as an artist, the two men lost touch. Vicente struggled as a painter, while Octavio became an accomplished architect. Ten years later, the two friends renewed their acquaintance and frequently met in coffee houses.
It was only by chance one day that Vicente caught a glimpse of Andrea Velasco, Octavio’s twenty-one-year-old sister. They were both visiting the same hospital maternity ward, each attending to members of their own family. Three days later, Vicente told Octavio that his sister’s beauty had captivated him to the point of obsession. He begged permission to court Andrea.
At the age of thirty, his work showed promise, but living a loose bohemian lifestyle, Vicente had insufficient income to support a family. He wanted not only to win Andrea’s affection, but also her hand. This was a turning point. Inspired by his new love, Vicente dedicated himself to becoming a well-established artist. Four years later, Andrea and Vicente were married.
By mid-1970, Vicente Gandía was beginning to be “discovered” and by the late 1980s, he had become a distinguished artist of international acclaim.
Vicente passed away in 2009, but his daughter, Mariana Gandía Velasco, carries on the artistic family tradition as a respected costume designer in Mexico City.
In five generations since the Revolution, this family has experienced remarkable twists and turns. Had the family stayed on the hacienda, their lives would have been far less interesting. Fewer Mexican children would have received treatment for polio. One of Mexico’s artists may never have reached his pinnacle. And I would not have met my friend Mariana.
Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an ocean-view bed and breakfast in Huatulco http://www.bbaguaazul.com.