Entertainment | April 2005
|The Spirit of Trotsky in Mexico|
Barbara Kastelein - The Herald Mexico
Leon Trotsky's former home in Coyoacan, one of Mexico's most strange and melancholy museums, has seen an increased number of visitors after the movie "Frida." It is, somewhat hesitantly, meeting the new upsurge in interest visitors last year totaled 82,506 with information in English, a much-needed addition for foreign tourists who have been lamenting over this for over a decade.
|Though some dismiss the museum as "pathetic," others say it is one of the most interesting in the capital.|
For two months now, visitors start their tour still a pilgrimage for some with photographs and the explanation in English that, "In the history of the international labor movement, there wasn't anything like the persecution that Trotsky and his followers suffered. All of Trotsky's family was annihilated in this wave of terror."
The texts, almost perfectly translated from the Spanish, ask visitors to read between the lines that is, participate in euphemism from the get go, leaving the horror that must have been this exile's stay in Mexico up to the imagination.
It is a grueling and revealing experience if you open yourself up to it. Though some dismiss the museum as "pathetic," others say it is one of the most interesting in the capital.
"The museum is good but lacks information on the political ideas," says one of the observations in the current comments book at the entrance.
"We want to show this is history of a man in the 20th century who fought for an idea," said museum director Dr. Ramírez, "but making ideologies known is not among our aims."
And it is made clear that Mexico has a heroic and humanist role in offering shelter to this ill-fated man whose family was being knocked off one by one. The torment of Trotsky was certainly not for any fault of this semi-tropical country that bursts with color at a glance.
Everyone knows, thanks to the movie (a small part of which was filmed here), that Trotsky was offered friendship and admiration by some of the country's leading artists and intellectuals, such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo although others, like David Alfaro Siqueiros, tried to kill him. He became an avid cactus collector, his way of life was austere, as evidenced by the kitchen, which you can see here unchanged from the late 1930s, in red, purple and banana yellow, grayed with the passing of the years.
Museum secretary Lorena García says she enjoys the sense of intimacy working here gives her, as we stroll past the hen house.
"It's like getting to know Trotsky more, seeing his more human side. It demystifies him."
The museum information notes he worked no less than 10 hours a day while in Coyoacan while suffering from hypertension and debilitating headaches.
For me the place is heavy with history, painfully haunted by momentous decisions and the millions of deaths in the Old World at the first half of the last century. But these seem incongruous in the blistering sun of the New World.
Historians who have studied his diaries take note of the dawning realization of his son's murder (the one who steered clear of politics) within the same context of his reflections upon his ordering the deaths of the Tsar's children.
Don't visitors find the museum very sad? I asked Lorena.
"Not really. Most leave enthused that the museum has conserved a historical legacy."
The visitors' book is fascinating. Comments currently on view range from desperate pleas for information in English, to people coming away from the museum moved and engaged. Visitors have come from far and wide and have commented on the way the museum shows the "simplicity of revolutionaries." A visitor from Russia writes, "It's very interesting for Russians." Indeed, the museum contains information about and even images of Trotsky in the famous photographs of Lenin at the podium, wiped from history under Stalinism.
How much of this tormented exile's culture is Mexican is questionable, but the movie has led visitors to make a link between Trotsky and the neighborhood, spiced up by the question on most visitors' lips: "Were Leon and Frida really lovers?"
According to Lorena, "There was probably a tenderness between them, but hardly a torrid romance," echoing the opinions of remaining family members of both Trotsky and Rivera. "Everybody asks this," she says with a smile.
And yet, "We still receive visitors who do not know who Trotsky was," she adds. What the museum is trying to do is strike the balance between explaining the man's role in "Universal History" and trying not to get on the wrong side of critics who find anything to do with Communism offensive.
"We are not fanatics," said Dr. Ramírez, explaining, "We want to be careful with the U.S. public," especially with the "crusade in the United States against anyone suspected of exotic ideas." There is certainly a strange, time-warped sense here that this museum, which is also a mausoleum and crime scene, is still under attack. Located in the Colonia del Carmen, one of the most conservative corners of Coyoacan, it still gets sprayed with graffiti at election time, Ramírez said. Before 1990, one of the municipal residents of Coyoacan wanted to knock the house down and make the site a park (it would have been a comically ugly place, under the Churubusco overpass)! A handful of Spartacists still come here every August to sing the "Internationale" at Trotsky's tomb on the anniversary of his death, Lorena said, which sounds to me touching and quite appropriate, hardly sinister or "exotic."
However, the Mexico link could help achieve the longed-for balance. Trotsky's exile came at a crucial time in Mexican, as well as world, history the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas, best known in international circles for expropriating Mexico's oil industry from foreign business interests.
"If it had been another president, Trotsky wouldn't have been allowed to make his home here," points out Lorena. Cárdenas was making a show of his ideology, and thumbing his nose at the United States (which had refused to grant the Russian asylum).
Consequently the museum is also a symbol of U.S.-Mexican relations and some easily forgotten differences in political culture of the still-recent past. I was surprised to hear that the house was purchased for Trotsky by the U.S. Socialist Worker Party (in April 1940). And also that Trotsky made his living here by writing articles for the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Sadly none of these are on display Dr. Ramírez says the museum doesn't have the rights but here's a tip for those interested in this stage of history: The house contains a free public library (you do not need to pay the museum entrance fee to use it).
The Biblioteca Rafael Galvan specializes in social science and politics, and is stuffed with old Izvestias (that Trotsky received), Pravdas and also the Manchester Guardian, and Socialist Action. Here over 100 news clippings, from Excelsior and other Mexican newspapers, cover the period of Trotsky's attack and death, as well as subsequent death threats made to Natalia a moving testament to the confusion and dismay, passions and beliefs of the times.