From behind Bellas Artes, Lázaro Cárdenas runs north towards the Plaza Garibaldi through an area crowded with seedy cantinas and eating places, theatres and burlesque shows. West of the Palacio de Bellas Artes lies the Alameda, first laid out as a park in 1592, and taking its name from the alamos (poplars) then planted. The Alameda had originally been an Aztec market and later became the site where the Inquisition burned its victims at the stake. Most of what you see now – formally laid-out paths and flowerbeds, ornamental statuary and fountains – dates from the nineteenth century, when it was the fashionable place to stroll. It’s still popular, always full of people, particularly at weekends, but it’s mostly a transient population – office workers taking lunch, shoppers resting their feet, messengers taking a short cut and street vendors selling T-shirts.
Laboratorio Arte Alameda and Museo Mural Diego Rivera
Almost at the western end of the Alameda, duck down Calle Dr Mora to the Laboratorio Arte Alameda, at no. 7 (wwww.artealameda.bellasartes.gob.mx), an art museum built into the glorious seventeenth-century monastery of San Diego. The cool, white interior is filled with temporary exhibitions of challenging contemporary art. They’re all superbly displayed around the church, chapel and cloister of the old monastery, a space also occasionally used for evening concerts – mostly chamber music or piano recitals.
One of the buildings worst hit by the 1985 earthquake was the Hotel del Prado, which contained the Rivera mural Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda. The mural survived the quake, and was subsequently picked up in its entirety and transported around the Alameda – it can now be seen in the Museo Mural Diego Rivera (wwww.museomuraldiegorivera.bellasartes.gob.mx), at the western end of the Alameda, at the corner of Balderas and Colón. It’s an impressive work – showing almost every famous Mexican character out for a stroll in the park – but one suspects that its popularity with tour groups is as much to do with its relatively apolitical nature as with any superiority to Rivera’s other works. Originally it included a placard with the words “God does not exist”, which caused a huge furore, and Rivera was forced to paint it out before the mural was first displayed to the public.
A leaflet (available at the entrance; M$10) explains every character in the scene: Cortés is depicted with his hands stained red with blood; José Guadalupe Posada stands bowler-hatted next to his trademark skeleton, La Calavera Catrina, who holds the hand of Rivera himself, portrayed as a 9-year-old boy; Frida Kahlo stands in motherly fashion, just behind him.