MORELOS, Mexico.— It is something truly exceptional to see a work as impressive as the “Historia de Morelos: Conquista y Revolución” mural, painted between 1929 and 1930 by renowned Mexican artist Diego Rivera in the palace which was built in the 16th century for conquistador Hernán Cortés in the very center of Cuernavaca.
Along the lower part of the wall, below the nine color panels which depict the history of conquest and Revolution in the state of Morelos are a series of grisaille paintings which offer a visual account of events which took place in the territory.
This immense artwork must be viewed from left to right for the chronological sequence of events to have the desire effect and fully immerse the spectator in the piece.
Viewed in the context of the country’s post-revolutionary muralist movement – led by Mexican intellectual José Vasconcelos, a strong promoter of arts education – the mural depicts in beautiful, colorful sequences events such as the conquest of Tenochtitlán, the taking of Cuernavaca, the construction of the Cortés Palace, the sugarcane industry, the arrival of Catholicism, the subsequent emergence of syncretism, the building of the Cathedral of Cuernavaca, and the Mexican Revolution led by Emiliano Zapata.
In the foreground, represented among other scenes, are charcoal drawings of Cortés’ landing in Veracruz; Aztec emperor Moctezuma; the siege and destruction of Tenochtitlán; the torture and death of Aztec ruler Cuauhtémoc; and enslaved natives working in the silver mines.
“Historia de Morelos: Conquista y Revolución” is considered to be Rivera’s ultimate masterpiece. The immaculate detail of the work gives a lifelike quality to scenes of the arrival of the Spanish and their ensuing conflicts with the indigenous communities. Next to the figure of Cortés, sword in hand, is La Malinche, an indigenous woman from the southern region of what is now Veracruz state, who was given to the Conquistador as a slave and played an important role in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire, serving as Cortés’ interpreter, advisor, intermediary, and mother to his son, Martín Cortés.
Rituals which took place during those formative years of occupation, such as human sacrifices in a teocali or temple on top of a pyramid, can be seen taking place near an indigenous “Tiger” warrior stabbing a Spanish soldier, to offer a complete picture of Mexico. As one looks on, they will see other panels depicting scenes of local Mexico where Cuernavaca appears among various other representations.
The conquest of Morelia is visible in the lower part of the wall. Scenes of the bloody conquest, of the Spanish torturing natives, celebrating their triumph and looting, accompany a euphoric Cortés contemplating his gold as the natives are branded with red hot irons bearing the seal of the crown.
Then comes the country’s independence in 1810 with scenes of Mexican women forging their freedom, just as they would do 100 years later during the Revolution. Standing by them is leader of the independence movement José María Morelos. Meanwhile, using his artistic license Diego embodies the figure of Morelos by painting his face on to that of the leaders. Also pictured is campesino leader from Morelos state and one of the most important figures of the Mexican Revolution, Emilio Zapata, painted with his large sombrero, rifle and tricolor flag.
Cuauhtimoc, Aztec eagle warrior, could not be left out of the blend of motifs which make up this mural. After the brutal conquest comes evangelization. It is painful to see armed Spanish soldiers destroying temples and forcing natives to kneel before a cross, alongside an image of a massive pit into which manuscripts containing pre-Hispanic culture are being thrown.
The building of the palace where the mural was painted – now the Cuauhnahuac Regional Museum – is also featured in the work given its importance for the region.
The onset of the Revolution in 1910 “preserves” an inescapable moment in the mural. This part of the country’s history is embodied by the figure of Mexican revolutionary Zapata. Also depicted is Adelita, the heroine of the Revolution, whose name was attributed to the countless Mexican women who gave themselves in body and soul to the revolutionary cause.
“Independence” and “Land and Liberty” are the respective maxims which appear next to those two illustrious leaders from Morelos – José María Teclo Morelos Pérez y Pavón, also known as the Servant of the Nation, and Zapata, the Commander of the South – whose likenesses adorn the pillars of the central archway. Meanwhile a fresco of a Revolutionary battle, in which the artist intentionally inserts bows and arrows; a conquistador plundering treasure; Spanish burning natives alive; and the revolutionary victory, with Zapata at the helm and followed by a people in arms, are a few of the other “acts” which can be observed in this seemingly mish-mash symbiosis of Mexican history.
As can be seen, images of Mexico painted by the renowned muralist who died 60 years ago, adorn the walls of this establishment, where everything comes together and assumes coherence. But this abounding vision of Mexico also makes space to include Cuba, which tells its own story from the sugarcane fields which burst forth from the mural.
The emblematic crop which brought prestige and development to Morelos and was introduced into the country by Cortés, who brought it over from Santiago de Cuba, adds a greenness to the mural. Scenes of the cane being cut and transported by enslaved Africans and indigenous to the mill, the main axis of the region’s economy, take us back to the sweet Caribbean island.
This detail included by the artist, is sure to turn the strong sense of nostalgia evoked by the piece in any Cuban, far from home, into one of joy. Mexico and Cuba are joined by history and their peoples. Both know the sweetness of giving and receiving, of the solid ties which have existed since the time of conquest and will continue to exist for years to come.