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Chasing Spirits: The House Museums of Mexico City

Special for Infobae of New York Times.

Within hours of arriving in Coyoacán—a quiet, beautiful, tree-lined neighborhood in the southeast of Mexico City—I was already searching the internet for spaces in the area for long-term rent. It was pure fantasy that my family could live there. I felt that we had found the ideal base to explore Mexico City, a place that I have always loved. With its tree-lined sidewalks, brightly colored houses, and well-cared-for vegetation, Coyoacán is an oasis of tranquility, like an island surrounded by the constant and bustling energy of the country’s vibrant capital.

The neighborhood’s appeal has been obvious for centuries, long before it was engulfed by the growth of the city, in fact, even before it was a nearby town. Conquistador Hernan Cortés is said to have lived here around 1520 (after the destruction of the Aztec capital), though obviously not in the 18th-century building now known as the Casa de Cortés. Coyoacán was incorporated into the capital in the 19th century and, in 1928, it was designated a district.

In the early and mid-20th century, Coyoacán was the Greenwich Village or Montparnasse of Mexico City. Artists from all over the world came to visit their Mexican counterparts, and they stayed. Much of the area’s rich history—and its particular magic—has remained and can still be seen in the homes in which these luminaries lived and worked. It may be superstitious to feel close to the dead in the places where they lived, but if so, it is a superstition shared by a great many people.

By sheer luck, the house we found on Airbnb was the studio of painter José Orozco, one of the founders of the Mexican muralist movement, a group that included Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and others. Drawings and prints by Orozco, who died in 1949, hung on the walls, and booksellers kept volumes of reproductions of his art.

Many of the houses where the famous residents of Coyoacán lived are now museums. Museum houses attract us because of the curiosity we feel to know the living conditions and possessions of a figure that we venerate or abhor. I’ve seen Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s deck of cards, I’ve read the first drafts of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Day of Infamy speech, and from the little house where Virginia Woolf wrote I’ve looked across the field to the river where she lay. He drowned. If indeed we believe that ghosts continue to inhabit these structures, we yearn for the tranquility and solitude that will allow us to listen to what they have to tell us.

By far the most famous of the house museums in this neighborhood is the Casa Azul, which lives up to its name, where Frida Kahlo spent much of her life and later passed away. In the 1940s and 1950s, she and Rivera hosted Mexican artists, European surrealists, movie stars, wealthy art collectors, expatriates, and political refugees.

When I first visited the house—long before the movie with Salma Hayek came out, before Fridamania, as Mexicans call it, spread around the world with no end in sight—I was the only visitor besides a Canadian backpacker who cried as she went through each invite.

Now it is a very popular tourist attraction, it is almost a place of pilgrimage; You have to buy tickets in advance and (almost always) stand in long lines to get in. You can stop in front of the showcases that contain the typical costumes that the artist used and visit her bedroom that looks like an altar, but it is difficult to feel a personal communion with her in what has become less a recreation of her house and more an exhibition in the form with a gift shop and a Patti Smith quote written on one wall, words that couldn’t possibly have been there when Kahlo and Rivera were enjoying the pretty patio.

Either way, it’s worth putting up with the crowds, because Kahlo had excellent collections, especially of altarpieces, many of which depict miraculous rescues. Furthermore, it is inevitable to think that Frida and Diego would have been delighted with the affluence, the astonishment and the attention. They were both ambitious, they were both very concerned about their careers and their reputations.

Anyone who wants to know more about Rivera’s ego should schedule a visit to the Anahuacalli Museum, half an hour by taxi from the Casa Azul. It is the extraordinary monument that Rivera built for himself with the help of architect Juan O’Gorman. The structure, once Rivera’s studio, now houses his collection of pre-Columbian art, displayed in spectacularly lit display cases.

The Blue House is by no means the only house museum that you can visit to get an idea of ​​what Coyoacán was like in another era, who lived here and what they did, and the community they made up. When Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky arrived in Mexico in 1936, he stayed at the Casa Azul rent-free. Later during his exile he moved to a nearby house on Avenida Río Churubusco, where he was assassinated by an agent of Stalin’s secret police, and which is now also a museum.

Trotsky’s house presents a quieter scene than the Blue House. It also has a pleasant courtyard, where the relative peace and physical space make it easier to imagine the brief period in which the revolutionary – a man persecuted by the Russian authorities – found refuge there. Perhaps his haunting aura is due to the fact that you can see the desk at which Trotsky was working, supposedly writing his biography of Stalin, when he was assassinated, with an ice axe, by a Soviet agent.

One weekday morning, my family and I were the only visitors to my favorite of all the Coyoacán house museums, the magical and atmospheric Casa de Emilio “el Indio” Fernández. In a charming and especially serene corner of Coyoacán, it seems that tourism and the passing of the years have hardly diminished the former home of this Mexican movie star (open only on weekends).

Built with volcanic stone, the “fortress house”, which occupies much of a square block, was designed and built in 1947 on behalf of Fernández, a director and actor who, until his death in 1986, made more than 120 films and whose impressive physique is said to have been the model for the Oscar statuette. Born to an indigenous mother (hence his nickname), he claimed to have fought in the Mexican Revolution and went into exile in the United States, where he lived in Los Angeles and made his way in the world of cinema, before returning to Mexico.

These monuments to the past are not the only reason to visit Coyoacán, which has a great gastronomic offer, a huge botanical garden, a pleasant zócalo, and food and craft markets. Here, as in much of Mexico, past and present coexist. On a quiet Sunday afternoon, in the Centennial Garden, a band was playing for a few elderly and middle-aged couples who were dancing with dignity a kind of salsa-fox trot. Their families were sitting around, drinking coffee, eating Esquite or grilled corn; the children sucked on hot popsicles. There’s still not much traffic, and it’s not hard to imagine the luxury cars lining the central square on their way to drop off guests at one of Emilio Fernández’s long and amazing parties.


if you decide to go

The museum houses of Coyoacán offer a window into the rich artistic and cultural history of the neighborhood. Visiting them is cheap and, with the exception of the Blue House, they are not usually saturated with tourists. Here’s how to find them:

Blue house

London 247, Colonia del Carmen

Hours: Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Wednesday, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Monday.

Admission: Weekdays: 230 pesos (about $11.25); weekends: 270 pesos. Tickets can be reserved online, which is recommended.

Leon Trotsky House Museum

Avenida Rio Churubusco 410, Colonia del Carmen

Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: 40 pesos

Anahuacalli

Museum 150, Colonia San Pablo Tepetlapa

Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Admission: 80 pesos; free with a Blue House ticket

House of Emilio el Indio Fernández

Ignacio Zaragoza 51, Colonia Santa Catarina

Hours: Saturday and Sunday, from 12 to 17 hours.

Admission: 100 pesos

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