Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Three names in Mexico DF

DANIEL: AfroMariachi Economista

My story with Daniel stretches back almost seven years in the past, when we both were in our turbulent High School years in Barcelona. Back then neither of us knew what to choose for a career, but living at a slow pace, we dedicated ourselves to enjoyed life  by the Mediterranean. In the middle of our tenth grade, I insisted on opening our school to a representative of the United World College international network; and, after a rigorous,  nerve-wracking application process, neither of us got in. Somehow, though, I was suspicious that my friend Dani had not been accepted, taking into account his affable personality and rich cultural background. But a week later, by some mysterious miracle not to my surprise, he got a call congratulating him for his admission to this world-class, two-year program. I felt privileged to be the catalyst for my friend's life-changing experience, but, in the days before Facebook, we lost touch... until a few months ago, thanks to social networking.

From the public library in San Luis Potosí, I sent him a message asking him if he would be in Mexico City by the time I would arrive. I did not hope for much, as he was always busy with his Economy and Statistic studies in London, but by another happy coincidence, he happened to be in his native country for the week! We connected immediately and got his address in the Distrito Federal (DF).

I see... so chaos also affects architecture in Mexico City, right?
The drive down from Morelia was bumpy and slow, just a taste of what traffic in the city itself would be. The GPS worked flawlessly, and, with a hint of intuition and common sense, I was ringing at Dani's doorbell by 3pm. That day I took the first warm shower in a week and shaved my wanderer's beard, prepping myself for a boy's night out with three of the friendliest bankers you could ever meet.

Chicken enmoladas (chile and chocolate sauce) with fried banana. Absolutely delicious!
Despite not having seen Daniel in the last five years, talking to him again felt like hopping in the Wayback Machine to the times in which we would laugh our bellies off to Spanish politics, bad jokes, memories of funny classmates and exotic topographic names.

DON RICARDO: Detective Story

For those new to my life story, my grandfather –Ricardo Tomás González Diez– is one of my lifelong inspirations. After studying mathematics and algebra in the monastery of San Zoilo in Palencia, he fled like many of his fellow intellectuals in the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. He stopped briefly by Cuba, where he almost starved to death, and soon hopped to Mexico DF to start his own private academy in 1954, right in the heart of the City. I always heard his legend in the family, which inspired me to leave for the United States to make a name for myself and leave an impact on others.

On August 27th, 2012, I proposed myself to do some real detective work and trace my grandfather's steps in Mexico City, trying to find and record all possible information along the way. My first stop was Google; the only record of his name belonged to the Centro Universitario Grupo Sol (CUGS), which had purchased my grandfather's school, the Colegio Español de México, in 1979, the year in which he retired back to Spain. I drove downtown to the Cuauhtémoc campus, where I asked a few, not-so-inspired-looking secretaries about D. Heriberto Solís, the person who purchased my grandfather's school. He happened to be out of the country, but was referred to D. Antonio Luna, a teacher at the center who, despite not having met D. Ricardo, knew a great deal about his story.

D. Ricardo Gonzalez Diez (left), serious as he always was! Picture from a family album.
After a nervous wait in a humble secretarial office, I was greeted into Mr. Luna's office. He received me with both reverence and surprise, as –in fact, Miguel-style– I had appeared out of the blue. Long conversation short, he told me the following two fun facts about his life:

1. He started, in a small, cramped room at the Spanish Casino in downtown Mexico City. Back in the forties he was a very active member of the "Club España", the Spanish Club, which included both sports and academics. He was handed the academic segment of the club, at the same time he was teaching mathematics at the Commercial University in the city, and in 1954 he purchased it from the club to turn it into a private academy that grew into a full-blown baccalaureate school.

2. The day he passed away, in 1980, his death was reported throughout Mexico on the radio, given his enormous contributions to Mexican education as a whole. I was not less than honored to know this... and I will be honest, it sets higher standards for myself!

Mr. Luna said that there were still a few coworkers and comrades of his that were alive, and scheduled a lunch for the next day with a retired teacher who knew my grandfather in person. From there, we shook hands and I left for downtown to see if the Spanish Casino was still standing.
The building in question. Took me a while to find it!
Opulence in the real of Spanish expats.
Many years later, it was me who crossed that same door at the Spanish Casino.
Would you imagine celebrating your end-of-year prom here?
A short drive later, I found out the Casino Español was still a working institution, right on Isabel La Católica Street close to the Zocalo (main square). I was more than delighted, and entered the fancy establishment with firm, proud stride. To my left I found a man with a fluffy white mustache, quietly reading the newspaper, who asked me if I was there to see somebody. From there, I told him my grandfather's story, to which he replied "Yes, Ricardo, I know him very well! He used to organize the annual end-of-year dance at the Casino! Some people in the afterparty, soccer players, would get drunk and pee on the billiard tables! You should talk to the President of the Casino, I think he also knew him". Ten minutes of conversation went by, and, just after I was done showing this friendly concierge the few photographs I had gathered, I was taken by a smiling Mexican lady to the office of the president, who awaited me with his elbows on a gigantic mahogany desk, his fingers solemnly interlaced. "So, how did you say you were related to Don Ricardo?", said Mr. Augusto Rodríguez Piñeiro, el Presidente. I narrated my grandfather's family legend and my person odyssey to trace his steps, to which he told me of some of his experiences as a student of his: "He was a very competent teacher, and the Colegio Español was one of the best institutions at the time; all companies were lined up to hire its graduates". From there he moved on to ask me about my journey: "Ah, the PanAmerican. Back in the fifties there was a very famous race going through, they have revived it now. I have a modified Porsche 911 to race in it, but never had the time; you know, stuff happens, so I had my friend borrow it from me". Automobiles and relatives? I was thrilled.

The President of the Spanish Casino (left), yours truly (center) and the animated live-in concierge (right).
As soon as we were done talking he called on the elderly concierge to take me to the place where my grandfather started teaching and were he formed his school: the Casino's library. And there it was, everything as it still was in the fifties, down to the books and the historical clock, all wrapped in the dense smell of aged leather and legend. I could not believe my eyes. The concierge suggested that I should go visit the third floor to see the head of the Andalusian Club, another oldtimer who may have known my grandfather. We shook hands and departed on our respective ways, cracking one last joke about how the Club España soccer team, despite ranking in First Division for many years, kept being beat by the Club Asturias, to which he was very, very partial.

And think that my grandfather started the whole legend amongst these walls!
Still laughing, I came out of the elevator and I was received by a crowd of elderly women. I was utterly confused, but soon found the head of the Andalusian Club, who invited me to seat with these charming ladies and eat. Twenty minutes later I talked to him, and, despite him not having known my grandfather, he felt a tremendous sense of camaraderie with him: "Well, us Spaniards; we leave and we set up private schools somewhere else. I founded the Universidad Europea, and can definitely relate to what he went through". By the end of my visit, I was called on stage to take part in a round of jokes, dance and singing. I told a very simple joke on Galicians (Gallegos) and tractors, and was waved goodbye amongst laughs and cheer. Man, what a day.

Don't call me señorita! It took me many years to get here!
Spicy jokes on death and infidelity. Who would tell?
The rest of the afternoon I walked around downtown Mexico City, admiring the mix of huste'n'bustle and diverse architectural styles, from century-old stone to cutting-edge skyscrapers. I changed some currency and eagerly imagined how the following days would roll, meeting the oldtimers who worked side-to-side with my grandfather at the Colegio Español.

I used to have a paperweight of the Torre Latinoamericana (1953); I always thought it was the Empire State...
El Zócalo (main square): iconic as Mexico City gets!
For the very little that remains from my grandfather's heritage, it felt overwhelming to receive so much information and get in touch with so many people who knew him first-hand in a single day. It felt immensely satisfying to trace the roots of a legend that has been inspiring me since I was a kid, down to the place where he started his school. For the reader that has gotten this far, I would like to encourage you to rediscover your family origins: you may be VERY surprised!

FRIDA: Flower in the Asphalt

Everybody remembers Frida Kahlo as the lively female painter who dressed in traditional Mexican garments and an proudly displayed her furry uni-brow as an anti-bourgeois statement; impersonated, back in 2002, by near-midget Salma Hayek in the film Frida. However, no one remembers the tragic extent of her existence, nor the strength with which she elbowed her way into the art world in a time where men had the last word in everything. I do not mean to give a history lesson here, but to remind you of two key elements in her life: her relationship (and eventually marriage, twice) with muralist Diego Rivera –the only constant to her turbulent love/sex life– and a tram incident that left her with a severe, crippling back and foot pain –showed in many of her imaginative paintings.

Frida Kahlo's family tree, including her father (middle), a professional photographer.
My first serious contact with Frida Kahlo's art was when I lived in England in 2006, when, walking along the Thames, I found out the Tate Modern had an exhibition exclusively dedicated to her work. I initially did not expect much outside of some Mexican folklore and bright colors, but as the exhibition progressed, I got an understanding of her motives that reached such visceral, such intrinsic aspects of myself I could not but feel a monumental respect for her and her work.

An oil painting by Diego Rivera, made during his deep grief after Frida's death.
Through an understanding of Frida I got a closer understanding of art, of life and the world, and now that I am not an overly-sensitive, angsty teenager anymore, I see the world with her eyes more than ever before. I marvel about how incredibly progressive her behavior had been at the time, from her open bisexuality –now an word of emptiness amongst artists– to her way of teaching and seeing her own reality way before the French surrealists started putting names on things .

The paintings describing her physical torment are more real to me than any X-Ray, than any scan of the nervous system can fathom. It touches on our basic sense of empathy, on what is, plain and simply, our sense of communion with our fellow human beings to express what is universal.

For this reason, one of my must-do's in Mexico was to visit her home. It lies in a street called after the British capital, painted in bright blue, very inconspicuous to the eye. Photography was forbidden, so the pictures in this section are limited to what I have managed to take furtively, and some others borrowed from Flickr. All I can say is that, besides the original paintings by Frida and Diego, the most relevant characteristic of the house was its sheer tranquility.

The texture of the "blue house", scarred by the years.
The peaceful atrium, shady and calm.
Her paints and wheelchair, right next to her bedroom. Courtesy of Cubamar on Flickr.
The nest of her suffering and eventual death. Notice the mirror on top. Courtesy of Cubamar on Flickr.
Her story is fascinating, to say the least. Not only she came into contact with some of the grandest intellectuals and artists of her time (André Bretón, León Trotsky, Luis Siqueiros and, of course, Diego Rivera), but had exhibitions in two of the world's foremost cities (New York, Paris), an army of lovers, and influenced several of her students at the Instituto Esmeralda to carry on her legacy of painting on a canvas what is within, what is the most real.

No comments:

Post a Comment