Like so many others, I first discovered Frida Kahlo in high school. Her fearless self-portraits showed me how much art could teach young women about self-expression and self-love. This was a revelation for me, considering how much of my art history education focused on the predominately male, European “masters.”
In my twenties, I began to only see her work reflected in hyper-commercialized settings: on refrigerator magnets, t-shirts, or in the movies. I forgot, or never knew, that her fervent belief in communism and complicated relationship with the art world was at odds with the way that she’s been celebrated posthumously.
This summer, I decided to reacquaint myself with the artist by taking a day to visit the home she shared with Diego Rivera during a vacation in Mexico City. Museo Frida Kahlo, or Casa Azul, is a small museum in Coyoacán. Once the headquarters of Hernán Cortés during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, today the neighborhood is a picturesque colonial-era village just outside the city center.
On my walk to the museum, I encountered El Vivero Coyoacán, the first tree preserve established in Mexico, created in 1907. Its robust aroma of evergreen plants is a sweet relief from the city’s air pollution and athletes in Distrito Federal, D.F. for short, take advantage of this. Runners are everywhere and next door to the preserve there is a flower and plant marketplace that’s a photographer’s dream.
My friend Claire recommended that I stop by Café El Jarocho and check out the scene while I was in the neighborhood. An old-school cafe, locals eye me with curiosity. In my experience, people are not quite sure how to process a young, American “morena” exploring the city. Regardless, I enjoyed my cappuccino, which was inexpensive, satisfying and sprinkled with cinnamon.
I was advised to avoid going on the weekend and even on a Wednesday morning, there is a half-hour wait to get into the Casa Azul but the museum was worth the wait. Significant works are not the draw of the Museo Frida Kahlo, neither is innovative museum curation. It’s kind of a mess in those regards. Instead, the best thing about the site is how Frida’s home and personal objects re-animate her as an electrifying, flesh-and-blood human being, rather than rendering her as flat as the posters in the gift shop.
The medical diagram of fetus gestation that hangs in her study is a punch to the gut when I realized how much of her finest work emerged after she suffered a miscarriage. The traditional regional handicrafts she and Rivera collected have details you’ll never find from souvenir vendors. Her family photos inject a warmth into her personhood that isn’t evident even in some of her paintings.
The museum is also the only place in the city where I’ve encountered other black American tourists. I meet a pair of best friends from Oakland, California who were enamored with the house and its grounds.
After taking in the museum, I strolled to the Mercado de Coyoacán down the street. It’s less overwhelming than some of the city’s other marketplaces and after purchasing a quarter-pound of mole spice, I grabbed a delectable shrimp tostada from one of the many food stalls.
Walking south, I found Jardín Centenario, a sleepy park with a fountain featuring two coyotes, a reminder that the name of the neighborhood is derived from the Nahuatl phrase “place of coyotes.” On one side of the park is Los Danzantes, a fancy farm-to-table restaurant where I ordered a tortilla soup. Topped with Oaxaca cheese, avocado, pork rinds, and sour cream, it was the richest dish I had on my entire trip.
And because no visit to a Mexico City neighborhood is complete without dessert, I tried two local specialties to top off the afternoon; a cone of coffee-flavored ice cream from Helado Siberia and a crispy-on-the-outside, melty-on-the-inside churro con chocolate from Churros Jordan. The day was sweet all the way around.
Should you decide to visit Frida in Mexico City, here’s where to go:
Address: Melchor Ocampo 100
Mercado de Coyoacán
Address: Corner of Ignacio Allende and Xicoténcatl
Café El Jarocho
Address: Avenida México 25-C
El Vivero Coyoacán
Address: Corner of Avenida México and Madrid
Address: Plaza Jardín Centenario No.12
Museo Frida Kahlo
Address: Londres 247
Address: Corner of Felipe Carrillo Puerto and Calle Jardin del Centenario
Helados Siberia Los Famosos de Coyoacán
Address: Jardín Plaza Hidalgo 6 Local A-B
Address: Aguayo 7