Amatista Tostadas Coyoacán

The brightly painted door is open, though the placard reads “cerrado”. A lone waitress wipes the last of six white tables pressed against either blue tile wall.
“Please come back in five minutes.”
We buy tomatoes a few corners away and return. “Closed” still hangs in the window, but she waves us towards a table. The painted front window signs reflect the name and the menu right-way round again in the eye-level mirrors reaching back along both walls.
“The lunch menu, it comes with two tostadas?”
“Only one.”
“That’s fine.”
The waitress reminds us of old friends, strong and tattooed and perhaps as comfortable on the frontier as on this street rumbling with buses. A sweet creamy dressing tempts from the table in anticipation of the salad. Two enameled bowls, layers and spokes of crunch and fruit, greens and citrus, black and white. We find new tastes in each uncovering. Neatly drilled mason jars of playfully inventive agua fresca up through colorful straws. Each table is neatly set with four chairs, a pitcher of dried flowers loosely matched. We are the only diners, the owner comes to greet us, we lie and say we are from Chicago as a pact against blank stares for Atlanta.
“Thank you for opening early for us.”
“Oh we opened on time, but thank you for noticing the sign.”
As she flips it over while sliding the door closed to keep out the summer chill. She returns to the table nearest the open kitchen. A woman enters, leaves, returns; a pair of animated women sit across. The soup is simple and filling, a nod to experimentation hidden in a wave of cumin. Salsa, smoke and vinegar, the heat to follow. The owner asks if we enjoyed the salad, too late I remember,
“I do not have the words.”
Lingering memories of flavor as our tostadas pile higher in preparation, elegantly delicate presentation of basic simple food. A shot of broth and beans accompany the sqaure tortillas to echo the midpoint between soup and sandwich we have mmm’ed halfway through, trading first bites, exchanging plates for the last. All the tables full and humming now. Dessert is sufficiently small and light. As we finish I ask the owner,
“Lemon and what else?”
“Chia, it is a seed.”
“Ah, yes, a small black seed.”

Connie and Leonora

Connie joined us for our first week in Mexico City, flying down in the afternoon the day after our own arrival. A bright “I made it!” grin on her face and that of her taxi driver, a common side effect of successfully navigating a new destination without a common language other than smiling and waving.

In the months before our trip, she had become fascinated by the life and art of Leonora Carrington, a surrealist artist who called Mexico City home for most of her adult life. Connie shared with us how much she loved the story of a strong woman artist, the sacrifices she’d made to remain independent and creative, and the range of powerful mythological and indigenous imagery present in Leonora’s work. This excitement infected us too in anticipation of our visit to this magical metropolis, and we quickly made plans to share our time and lodgings in order to experience Leonora’s city with Connie.

A great bronze sculpture by Leonora sits prominently along the Paseo de la Reforma in the center of Mexico City. Originally installed in a fountain of Chapultepec park, it now sits in the pedestrian boulevard at Havre. Apparently Lewis Caroll’s whimsy was a recurring source of inspiration for Leonora, this piece is often referred to as “Cocodrilo” but the full title is “How Doth The Little Crocodile…”. We walked up from the metro stop Insurgentes, sunshine warming the pedestrian mall of Zona Rosa and dappling the Paseo’s wide walkway. As we neared the statue, the roadway was closed and filled with a long line of riot cops stretching to the ongoing protests for the now-nine-months-missing Ayotzinapa 43, beneath a banner declaring “Government and Education should not Assassinate.”. The crocodiles of the statue are frozen above our heads rowing away from this memorial and back towards the Angel and forest of Chapultepec.

Leonora’s former home in Mexico City is a reasonable twenty minute walk from the Paseo, south of the Insurgentes station on the small side street Chihuahua. Nearby a delicious-smelling bakery’s delivery fleet of bicycles were just heading out with baskets. Much of the neighborhood is rebuilt following the ’85 earthquake, but it is possible to imagine Leonora living behind the remaining simple facade here until her death in 2011. After a further walk among the figs and hibiscus flowers of Avenida Amsterdam’s garden-like path, we enjoyed a favorite lunch of tacos al pastor at El Califa and returned home to discuss Leonora’s surrealist influences from alchemy to mythology.

Bakery bicycle delivery
El Califa classic

One of our favorite educational stops here is the National Anthropology Museum, an overwhelmingly massive building featuring indigenous pre-conquest and modern-day artifacts from all regions of Mexico. In 1963 Leonora was commissioned to paint a mural for the Mayan exhibit, and she traveled to the state of Chiapas for inspiration and folklore research, resulting in “The Magical World of the Mayans”. Luck was on our side in finding this complexly surreal mural in the museum as it recently left Mexico for the first time to be exhibited at London’s Tate Liverpool, but it was waiting unmistakably for us on the second floor. The detail and energy of the piece absorbed us for thirty minutes at the end of our anthropological tour, so many strange faces, animals, and mystery blended in her interpretation of heaven, earth, and the underworld.

At the National Anthropology Museum
The Magical World of the Mayans

Two other museum experiences anchored Connie’s visit to the time and place of Leonora’s Mexico City. The Museum of Modern Art, though it did not have any of Leonora’s work on display, presented two fitting exhibits: A large collection of Giséle Freund’s documentary photography featuring Mexican artists, studio spaces, and exhibitions; and an assortment of films about artists featured Remedios Varos and David Alfaro Siqueiros alongside several of their works.

On Connie’s last day with us, we returned to Frida Kahlo’s home and museum (La Casa Azul), a short walk from our apartment. Every time I’ve been inside is so peaceful despite its popularity, it must have been a marvelous place to live and create through the pain; a wonderful light-filled studio and kitchen, and a garden courtyard filled with greenery, running water, and the omnipresent dark volcanic stone of Mexico City.

In Frida Kahlo's Blue Courtyard