Mexican Morals and Murals

IMG_8919On this Ash Wednesday we rose leisurely with a plan to pick off some key sites in the Old City.  With a few days under our belt we’re now confident in our surroundings, and in the morning it’s easier to glide through the Alameda park and along the side streets. Crossing the park we passed through Plaza Santo Domingo and its accompanying baroque church, conveniently located across the street from the Palacio de la Inquisition.  But the main morning attraction was Diego Rivera’s murals inside the Secretaría de Educación Pública.

Here Rivera put his heart and soul into 120 frescoed panels painted throughout the 1920s.  Depicting scenes of labor, industry, agriculture, traditions and festivals,

his proletariat perspective is unmistakable.   Walking past the Aztec’s capital Templo de Tlaloc, we entered the Palacio National to see more Rivera masterpieces, including a massive mural depicting Mexican history from the arrival of Quetzalcóatl to the post-revolutionary period.IMG_8946

And then, from among 22 million Metropolitan residents and visitors, I got tapped on the IMG_3258back by our Incline Village friends Gary Saunders, Jim and Caroline Kaplan… small world!  Gary and Jim (and later Greg Cecchi) are in town for an EO conference… we caught up over a beer later in the day.

Strolling between the Zocalo and Municipal Cathedral, I challenged the boys to figure out what was different about people today.  It took a while but eventually they figured out that the many had black crosses on their forehead – some artfully done – in recognition of Ash Wednesday.

The boys have been good travelers these last few days, so deserved to experience the famous hot chocolate at Restaurante El Cardinal… a 100+ year old establishment upstairs in a French Belle Epoche building off the Zocalo.  The hot chocolate was sumptuous, and the accompanying bread and light lunch fueled future explorations… first a shopping foray to buy cheap pharmaceuticals (Albuterol at 1/25 the US price, and a pharmacist mascot to boot!), then fresh ground coffee, churros and back to the Parque Alameda where I parted ways with Sue and the boys.

A fan of murals and art-deco design, I sought both inside the magnificent Palacio de Belles Artes.  There soaring maroon marbled pillars trimmed with sleek brass lines rise past metallic Mesoamerican masks to Tiffanied atrium ceilings.  Room names written in that lovely bronze art-deco font added to the Gatsbyesqe ambiance.  And on the walls, massive, provocative murals of suffering and liberation, the epic stories and hopes of Mexico.  Tamayo’s México de hoy (Mexico Today) and Nacimiento de la nacionalidad (Birth of Nationality);  Rivera’s Carnaval de la vida mexicana (Carnival of Mexican Life) and El hombre en el cruce de caminos (Man at the Crossroads – originally commissioned for but ultimately rejected by Rockefeller). Siqueiros’ La nueva democracia (New Democracy) and Orozco’s La katharsis (Catharsis).

Sue took Max and Ben to the Museum of Tolerance, which must have made an impression as they took 3 hours there, leaving me time for the kind of grungy backstreet exploration I’d never drag my wife and children through.  I wandered working streets filled with motor and hardware shops, crafts markets, stopped for a cold Victoria cerveza at one of the oldest cantinas in Mexico City, and then met back up with our Incline Village pals at the Hilton to continue our catch-up.

Later that night we returned to the Palacio de la Bellas Artes to watch the Ballet Folklorico.  My attention was on the magnificent theater itself, and the fantastic Tiffany stained-glass curtain depicting the Valle de México – made from a million pieces of colored glass.  Again, pictures tell that story best:

On this Ash Wednesday – our last in Mexico – I’ll leave you with some comforting advice from Pope Francis, as reported recently in the New York Times:

The Pope on Panhandling: Give Without Worry –

New Yorkers, if not city dwellers everywhere, might acknowledge a debt to Pope Francis this week. He has offered a concrete, permanently useful prescription for dealing with panhandlers.

It’s this: Give them the money, and don’t worry about it.

The pope’s advice, from an interview with a Milan magazine published just before the beginning of Lent, is startlingly simple. It’s scripturally sound, yet possibly confounding, even subversive.

Living in the city — especially in metropolises where homelessness is an unsolved, unending crisis — means that at some point in your day, or week, a person seeming (or claiming) to be homeless, or suffering with a disability, will ask you for help.

You probably already have a panhandler policy.

You keep walking, or not. You give, or not. Loose coins, a dollar, or just a shake of the head. Your rule may be blanket, or case-by-case.

If it’s case by case, that means you have your own on-the-spot, individualized benefits program, with a bit of means-testing, mental health and character assessment, and criminal-background check — to the extent that any of this is possible from a second or two of looking someone up and down.

Francis’ solution eliminates that effort. But it is by no means effortless.

Speaking to the magazine Scarp de’ Tenis, which means Tennis Shoes, a monthly for and about the homeless and marginalized, the pope said that giving something to someone in need is “always right.” (We’re helped here by the translation in an article from Catholic News Service.)

But what if someone uses the money for, say, a glass of wine? (A perfectly Milanese question.) His answer: If “a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that’s O.K. Instead, ask yourself, what do you do on the sly? What ‘happiness’ do you seek in secret?” Another way to look at it, he said, is to recognize how you are the “luckier” one, with a home, a spouse and children, and then ask why your responsibility to help should be pushed onto someone else.

Then he posed a greater challenge. He said the way of giving is as important as the gift. You should not simply drop a bill into a cup and walk away. You must stop, look the person in the eyes, and touch his or her hands.

The reason is to preserve dignity, to see another person not as a pathology or a social condition, but as a human, with a life whose value is equal to your own. This message runs through Francis’ preaching and writings, which always seem to turn on the practical and personal, often citing the people he met and served as a parish priest in Argentina.

His teaching on divorced and remarried Catholics has infuriated some conservative critics who accuse him, unfairly, of elevating compassion over doctrine. His recent statements on refugees and immigrants are the global version of his panhandler remarks — a rebuke aimed directly at the rich nations of Europe and at the United States.

America is in the middle of a raging argument over poor outcasts. The president speaks of building walls and repelling foreigners. That toxic mind-set can be opposed in Washington, but it can also be confronted on the sidewalk. You don’t know what that guy will do with your dollar. Maybe you’d disapprove of what he does. Maybe compassion is the right call.

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