DIEGO RIVERA -- MY ART, MY LIFE: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY (WITH GLADYS MARCH)
A SUNDAY IN ALAMEDA PARK
IN 1947 I was commissioned to do a mural in the main dining room of the new Hotel del Prado. The theme I chose was "A Sunday in Alameda Park." In the painting, I attempted to combine my own childhood experiences in the park with scenes and personages associated with its history. Though a public park, the Alameda, during my childhood in the regime of the dictator Diaz, was actually restricted to the "better classes." The poor were kept out by the police. I had more than once seen these unfortunates being hustled past the gate, and these scenes, which had incited my first anti-Diaz feelings, remained vivid in my memory. I had gone to the Alameda with my family and listened to the band concerts on the pleasant green. Chairs could be rented at twenty-five and fifty centavos, prices which my father, himself not a poor man, found exorbitant.
Under the rule of Cartes, in the very earliest colonial days, the monastery of San Diego had stood at the west end of the park. The structure included a crematorium where victims of the Inquisition were burned alive. But the stench of decomposing human flesh became intolerable to the residents of the surrounding fashionable streets, and the Church had been obliged to move its holy incinerator elsewhere. In 1848, the victorious United States army had camped in the park after the treacherous General Santa Ana, sabotaging the Mexican defense plan, had handed over the country to the invaders on a silver platter. Alameda Park had also been the scene of historical political demonstrations, among them the one organized by Ignacio Ramirez, later a minister in the Juarez government, to rouse the Mexican people to arms against the French invaders seeking to install Maximilian as a puppet emperor in 1862.
"Sunday Dream," as my mural was called, utilized such personal and national memories. In the center stood I, a boy of ten, a frog and a snake peering out of my jacket pockets. Beside me, a skeleton in woman's dress held my hand, and my boyhood master, Jose Guadalupe Posada, famous for his drawings of skeletons, held her other hand under his arm. Frida, as a grown woman, stood behind me, her hand on my shoulder. On the right side of the mural, I also painted Lupe Marin beside our two adult daughters. Above them were portraits of historical figures representing the social classes of Mexico.
One of the key scenes in my "Dream" was a portrait of Madero triumphantly proclaiming the success of the revolution against Diaz and speaking out against the corruption of the new bourgeoisie to a crowd in the park. On one side of the mural, I painted Cortes, his hands dripping with blood, beside figures representing the Inquisition at its work of torture and death; the traitor Santa Ana, surrendering the keys of Texas; and above him, the people's hero, Benito Juarez, holding up the liberating constitution of 1857.
Another of my portrayals was an average President of the Republic, with a composite executive face in which some saw the features of Calles, some recognized those of Avila Camacho and others, including that gentleman himself, those of Miguel Aleman. The partisans of these politicos, feeling that I had caricatured the physiognomies of their heroes, vilified the mural.
But the chief target of its antagonists was a brief quotation from a recorded statement by Ignacio Ramirez, which I reproduced on a scrap of paper held in his hand. It occupied a space no more than two inches high and read: "God does not exist."
The statement was not my own, as many people thought, but had actually been made by Ramirez when a student before an assembly of students and faculty at the Academy of Letran, located at the south side of the park. The academy was then headed by Father Lacunza, later Archbishop of all Mexico. Ramirez had taken the position that mankind could progress only through mutual aid, and this rendered the idea of supernatural aid an absurdity.
The faculty of the academy, most of them priests, had sought to prevent Ramirez from speaking. But Father Lacunza had overruled them in the interest of freedom of thought and expression. He had allowed Ramirez to deliver his address, which caused wild excitement in the audience.
Father Lacunza had gone further. He called for a unanimous vote to enroll Ramirez as a regular member of the academy, maintaining that Ramirez deserved this honor for the brilliant logic and scientific knowledge he had displayed. "Besides," he said, "God himself has permitted the birth and growth of a creature endowed with such a superior mentality. All-powerful God, if he wished, could have confounded the boy's dialectical prowess."
Ramirez had delivered the lecture, Father Lacunza informed the audience, from notes made on scraps of paper, because he had been too poor to afford fresh paper. Consequently, the torn scrap Ramirez held in his hand in my mural, as well as the declaration itself, had historical authority.
If certain people had not been deliberately seeking to provoke a scandal, this detail would have aroused little notice. It had been on the wall in the preliminary charcoal sketch for over six months with out any objection being raised.
The chief agitator in the attack on "Sunday Dream" was Torres Rivas, Manager of the del Prado Hotel. Like Pani before him, he dreamed of becoming a Mexican Rockefeller. Scion of a formerly wealthy family which had lost its money with the downfall of Diaz, Rivas sought a way of cashing in on his pretentious but otherwise worthless titles, which were almost his sole possessions.
Rivas did not wield enough power to achieve his dream alone, but he found a powerful ally in Rogerio de la Selva, President Aleman's personal secretary and commander of Aleman's private guard. Selva discerned his employer's features in my composite presidential portrait, and acted, he said, to protect the President's dignity. He was aided by corrupt journalists whom he used as his mouthpieces.
On his authority as Aleman's secretary, Selva mobilized a private civilian army of the student sons of the nouveau riche. These privileged hoodlums entered his service as a means of advancing in their political careers. In varying disguises, including the regalia of Jesuits and Knights of Columbus, they organized demonstrations against my painting and me, chanting through the streets:
"Does He exist?"
"Long live Jesus Christ!"
"Death to Diego Rivera!"
Some went so far as to throw stones through the windows of my studio in San Angel and my home in Coyoacan.
Taking advantage of the uproar, Rivas used this occasion to ask the Archbishop of Mexico to confer his benediction upon the new hotel building and upon my mural. As Rivas anticipated, the Archbishop refused and Rivas added this fact to his argument.
A nephew of Rivas, seeking a thrill and who knows what favors from his uncle, plotted more direct action. With three schoolmates belonging to Los Conejos, a secret fraternity of clerical and reactionary students, he stole into the hotel dining room and scratched out Ramirez's provocative quotation.
At the time, friends of mine and I were attending a banquet given to honor Frances Toor for her excellent writings on Mexican folklore, and Fernando Gamboa, head of the city's Plastic Arts Department, for his work in collecting valuable Mexican paintings.
When news of the vandalism was brought to me at the banquet, I got up at once to protect my mural. My friends, feeling that the best answer to the act was a protest demonstration right in the Prado, followed me into the street.
Senor Rivas' nephew's action constituted more than an attack upon my artistic property rights. At that time, together with Orozco and Siqueiros, I was an executive director of the board of the Fine Arts Department. An important part of the board's responsibility was to protect painters and their works from unwarranted attacks. Consequently, this wanton defacement of my mural was symbolically an outrage against the rights of every artist.
The cream of Mexico's intellectuals, young and old, marched into the Prado in a picturesque protest demonstration. While I set to work restoring Ramirez's quotation, Orozco, Siqueiros, and the bitterly eloquent popular writer Revueltas harangued the startled hotel guests.
The uniformed police did not dare to intervene, but some plain-clothesmen were sent over to watch us. They remained motionless, probably having been instructed to do nothing unless there was violence.
"Operation Schoolboy"' having failed, a government-employed carpenter was called upon a few days later to repeat the mutilation. This poor devil was given the alternative of carrying out the unpleasant assignment or losing his job. As he was instructed, he scratched out not only the offending quotation but also my face in the painting.
Again I repaired the damage.
In the final analysis, every official concerned in this affair failed in his obligation not only to enforce the established laws applying to the protection of artistic property and freedom of expression, but in maintaining official dignity and authority. The two separate acts of vandalism directly challenged the Fine Arts Department, the Ministry of Public Education, the Attorney General, and the President of the Republic. Yet not a single public official showed the courage to act as his duty required. Instead there were apologies and pretexts, and a few officials tried to buy me off with well-paying commissions to paint portraits of the wives of prominent Mexicans. An architect who held an important office in the Ministry of Public Health proposed that I change Ramirez's "God does not exist" to the single word "Confidence." I refused to permit this ridiculous and craven travesty upon historical truth.
For a long time after the two assaults, the newspapers filled columns with scurrilous attacks upon me. The fact that I wasn't lynched by an overstimulated mob was assuredly no fault of theirs. They tried their best.
The hotel owners, balked in their vandalism, finally hit upon a safe, typically hypocritical "moderate" solution; they covered my mural with a movable screen. Made of white nylon, the screen could be pulled aside for any distinguished guests who desired to see the notorious painting. And, as it turned out, these guests invariably gave large tips to the hotel guides -- a boon to employer-employee relations.