September 2023

Ernest O. Lawrence, Diego, and Emmy Lou Packard at UCB’s Rad Lab.

Dear Friends of Diego,

The few “degrees of separation” paradox that characterizes the Diego Rivera in San Francisco story has struck again. Just saw the film Oppenheimer and was reminded of a Rivera connection. The above picture shows Diego and his assistant Emmy Lou Packard visiting Ernest O. Lawrence at the Rad Lab (Radiation Lab) at UC Berkeley on Aug. 28, 1940, a couple of years before J. Robert Oppenheimer appeared and the issue of the bomb arose. Diego might have been the first communist (who wasn’t a a scientist) to visit there. The book they are perusing is unknown. Rivera was very inquisitive and one of the main dualities he incorporated in the Pan American Unity mural is the reconciliation of Art and Science. The very first characters that the Mexican artist wanted in the mural were Samuel F.B. Morse and Robert Fulton. A Pflueger note while on his April 1940 Mexico City visit was to follow up with research on the two inventors for Rivera’s use. Morse had obliterated time with his invention of the telegraph and Morse code. Now messaging was “instantaneous.” (It is a revelation to some younger mural visitors that messaging hasn’t always been “instantaneous.”) Fulton obliterated space with his working steamboat and now travel was not dictated by the wind. Ever the engineer Rivera was enthused that these two great inventors were also artists.

Oppenheimer’s relationship with communism mirrors Rivera’s; neither was able to toe the line. Rivera had been expelled from the PCM, the Mexican communist party in 1929. The Mexican artist wanted an indigenous party, not one controlled by Stalin from Moscow. American Prometheus author Kai Bird in a New Yorker podcast, said Oppenheimer “was not the kind of man to submit himself to party discipline.” However, though it seems that the scientist did join the party, he denied it during security clearance hearings. Diego went so far as to script an article for the Russian Hill Runt, “I Am Not A Communist.” Though, philosophically, both were communists, they needed to unload that baggage, which hindered their agendas. In 1940 Diego had finally gotten his foot back in the door after the exile from the US over the Rockefeller incident, ostensibly for his inclusion of a portrait of Lenin in the mural. Mental reservations were made for the “greater good” as these titans perceived them. (A Russian Hill Runt newsletter drawing confirms that Frida went to the public opening of the mural in early December, though she had told Dr. Eloesser she was not interested in attending the private opening on November 29, when “all those dames” would be there.)

Ambiguity infuses these stories with ironies. Rivera depicted Stalin as one of the bad guys. Yet by June 1941, just seven months after the mural was finished, he was an ally, “Uncle Joe”, after Hitler invaded the USSR with Operation Barbarossa. By the end of the war both Diego and Frida were Stalinists. Oppenheimer led the construction of the bomb, but later campaigned against its use. But it was he who had opened Pandora’s Box.

The latest news on the San Francisco Art Institute is that it is for sale, including the mural. However, “A group of nine arts and business leaders, including philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, is pursuing the purchase of the bankrupt San Francisco Art Institute’s vacant Russian Hill campus.” Librarian/Archivist Jeff Gunderson writes that “We are thrilled to be up-and-running at the SFAI Legacy Foundation +Archive—welcoming researchers with great topics—so far from the University of Exeter in England (tech & art/eco-art from the ‘60s & ‘70s), Stanford (Bernice Bing, Win Ng, Charles Wong), CSU-Chico (AE Women Artists ‘40s-‘60s), a NYC scholar researching Bill Berkson!, and San Francisco historian, Lee Bruno investigating the artistic fallout from the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition!”  There’s a 1917 listing for Mexican artist José Clemente Orozco living at 628 Montgomery, the “Monkey Block”.

A worst-case scenario is that all three of Diego Rivera’s San Francisco murals will be publicly inaccessible after the March 2024 storage of the Pan American Unity mural (SF Mercury News front page article-for subscribers only, unfortunately.) The City Club is private, as it has always been, but all three Rivera murals form an artistic legacy for San Francisco, unique outside of México. (The smaller Still Life with Blossoming Almond Trees has been conserved at SFMOMA, but its re-display at UC Berkeley will be delayed as a new more accessible venue is prepared.) The prolonged local storage of  another of the GGIE’s artifacts, the large Covarrubias maps, is a sobering case study. (Lithos of the painted maps.)

There is a civic, moral, and ethical responsibility that goes with owning world-class masterpieces, which can last centuries. The enduring care of the Pan American Unity fresco mural requires yet unrealized institutional protocols. A non-binding MOU the college signed with the Mexican Consulate in 2011 speaks to the need for future cooperation, but you cannot care for the mural with platitudes only. Someone will always have to be el Custodio of the mural.

Facilitated by SFMOMA’s intervention, the mural is being passed to the future in great shape as 300,000 museum viewers can attest. The mural has been cleaned & conserved and “panel mounts” have been bolted to the back of the mural to strengthen it and facilitate handling & mounting. Cultural Heritage Imaging recorded a mural benchmark; a 3D photogrammetry shoot, whose massive digital files are preserved in perpetuity at Stanford University. A new Diego Rivera Theatre at CCSF will eventually showcase the masterpiece.

Frida’s exposure with San Francisco Opera’s work, El Ultimo sueño de Frida y Diego this past June, will continue next year with a San Francisco Ballet work on the Mexican artist in April 2024. This is choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings, first performed by English National Ballet and danced by Tamara Rojo, who is now the artistic director of San Francisco Ballet. In 2018 I had the honor to show the mural to Ms. Lopez Ochoa when we were connected by our friend Celia Fushille, outgoing Artistic Director of the Smuin Ballet.

ALERT: The long awaited BBC2 three-part documentary Becoming Frida Kahlo will be aired on PBS beginning September 19 at 9/8C.


Retired art mover Scott Atthowe came by to visit the mural. Nobody had thought about the mural move more than Scott and it became his grand exit. His company is now in the sure hands of his former employees, now owners. Scott had already been thinking of the mural move for a decade when I met him in 2004, when his company installed the replica 14 ton Olmec head (a gift from the Mexican state of Veracruz) in the Frida Garden adjacent to the mural at CCSF. In 2011 we engaged Scott, conservator Anne Rosenthal, and the late engineer Jim Guthrie to evaluate the viability of a mural move. Some people say we did it because the theatre building was structurally unsound. This was not the case. The evaluation reflected the reality that the mural could long outlive the building and would have to be moved some day. SFMOMA’s offer to borrow the mural and execute the delicate move was the best thing that has happened to the mural. The siting of the mural at SFMOMA answered many design questions and gave the mural the international exposure it deserved.

Mural visitor Mike Bernhardt recently sent me a link to a short refugee story, The Tides of War. Sometimes, we can collect facts about WWII, but have a poor sense of the impact on ordinary people.

José Moya del Pino was an artist in the Bay area. Originally from Spain, he brought a collection of Velasquez reproductions he had painted at the request of King Alfonso XIII to the Bay area. He ended up staying. I only knew of him because of a photo of the Family Club. Recently his family came to visit the mural, daughter Tina and granddaughters Paola and Anna.

Here is Rivera in 1940 with some  members of The Family Club, a split off from the Bohemian Club. These are mainly artists Rivera met on his first 1930 visit. Left to Right, Standing Lucien Laubdt (Beach Chalet), Antonio Sotomayor (Grace Cathedral), José Moya del Pino (Coit Tower), Otis Oldfield (Coit Tower), William Gerstle (SF Art Institute), artist Phil Little, architect Timothy Pflueger, seated are Diego Rivera and Charles Black (head of PG&E and Shirley Temple’s father-in-law).

José was good buddies with Otis Oldfield, who is the figure sketching in the central image below from Coit Tower. The “Hooded Nuns,” anthropomorphic industrial chimneys, from the Simmons Mattress Factory on Bay Street that Diego included in all his San Francisco murals, are depicted in Moya del Pino’s work at Coit Tower. He used to come and visit Rivera on the scaffolding when he was painting his first work Allegory of California at the Pacific Stock Exchange Lunch Club and they could chat in Spanish. Frida’s use of the image was not affectionate.

Canadian Consul General Rana Sarkar has come by a couple of times. He will help host APEC CEO’s conference being held at Moscone in November. We’re hoping to get the original Covarrubias maps from the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition displayed for this gathering of countries from the Pacific rim.

As the Moscone Centers conferences have ramped up, we’ve had architects, psychiatrists, game developers, and cyber security personnel meeting. Many attendees have come by to visit the mural and the foot traffic has been brisk. The international visitors have included Lithuanians, French, New Zealanders, Australians, Spaniards, British, and people from all over the Americas. All have left with smiles on their faces.

Had a nice visit in Carmel with some avid mural fans, who wanted to continue our conversation.

Happy Birthday this month to Don Cairns, the little boy in the lower center of the mural. He and his wife Kathé have been supporters of the mural for decades and first shared the precious work of his mother Emmy Lou Packard.


Mexican Independence Day commemorates September 16, 1810, when Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla (left) gave the “cry of independence” from Spain.  He and José María Morelos y Pavon (right) are featured in the mural. Recently, the US has returned stolen pre-Hispanic artefacts.



June 2023

Photo: Mexican Consular Staff

Dear Friends of Diego,

It was a great honor to present the mural to Esteban Moctezuma Barragán, Ambassador of México to the United States of America. He and his wife came with local consular staff led by Consul General Remedios Gómez Arnau. The ambassador was in town for a gathering of past ambassadors, both from México and the US. Showing me his grandmother’s picture, he said that as a young woman she passed on an opportunity to sit for a portrait by Rivera, having heard of his bad reputation. However, past Ambassador Gerónimo Gutiérrez Fernández proudly showed me an image of the portrait Rivera painted of his evidently fearless grandmother. (Ambassador Moctezuma was recently in the news for his reply to Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy’s ‘vulgar and racist’ comments.)

The visitors were disturbed by the thought of the masterpiece going into storage, given its significant exposure at SFMOMA. Over the past 23 months there have been 260,000 visitors to the mural. The museum has been true to past SFMOMA Director Neal Benezra’s promise that the mural “would never be little known again.” In 2011 CCSF signed an MOU with the Mexican Consulate pledging cooperation in the stewardship of “a treasure of two countries,” a mural which can last centuries. México’s participation in the mural move will never be underestimated by those who worked on the project. UNAM’s number-crunching, computer modeling, and construction of a pair of full-size mural panel replicas, delivered the hard data guiding the handling of the precious art. No value can be placed on the Mexican team’s friendship, which graced the project.

The Mexican Consulate’s Cinco de Mayo celebration at SFMOMA’s Roberts Family Gallery was another opportunity to showcase the mural. We did a 15 minute presentation between the Mariachis and the Ballet Folklorico. Luckily, I was not asked to sing nor dance. The Consulate had previously graciously invited me to a dress rehearsal of SF Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet starring Mexican ballet dancer Isaac Hernández in a title role.


Local Reminder:

Our dear friend and long-time mural supporter, flautist Elena Durán will be performing MÉXICO DE MI CORAZÓN, Sunday, 18 June 2023 @ 6pm at the Brava Theater in San Francisco Mission’s Calle 24 Latino Cultural District. Elena is an East Oakland Chicana, who after teaching at Stanford went on to gain world-wide fame at the International Flute Festival at Stratford-on-Avon.  She is México City’s musical ambassador as La Flauta Que Canta. The program with Nicholas McGegan on piano will be accompanied with clips from the movies of the Golden Age of Mexican Movies. Diego and Frida, avid movie buffs, would have loved this, ensconced in a front row seat with a shot of tequila. (Use the code 20SF23 and get a 20% discount on the tickets!)

The exciting times continue locally with the much anticipated presentation of San Francisco Opera’s El último sueño de Frida y Diego . Bay Area composer Gabriela Lena Frank and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz will be coming to visit the mural as will delegations of other opera companies in town to see the five performances (plus Livestream), June 13-30. In a first for San Francisco Opera, the work is sung in Spanish with English and Spanish super-titles. The opera is set on Dia de los Muertos 1957 as Diego senses his imminent demise and wants to see Frida, who died three years before.


Recently it has occurred to me that, though Diego’s infidelities is perceived as the major stumbling block in the stormy relationship between the two Mexican artists, Frida’s homesickness is also a significant impediment. This observation might allow a more nuanced take on their relationship. Technically, there is no infidelity after their November 1939 divorce.  In a September 15, 1940 letter sent from San Francisco’s St. Luke’s Hospital, Frida wrote Anita Brenner in New York that Diego had asked to remarry her. She reminded Anita that in the long time both of them had known Diego, he had always been the same and he was not going to change. Frida admitted.Scratching deep in my very interiors I do not believe that there is much to fault Diego- but to my very difficult mode of being. Sentimental and young.” She decided to marry him again because they needed each other. For their remarriage Frida’s confidant, Dr. Leo Eloesser brokered the pre-nuptials. Intimate relations were not part of the deal. In papers my late Rivera partner Julia Bergman and I scoured in Canada in 2015, Diego confirmed that he and Frida were not conjugal after they remarried. Their re-marriage may have been spurned by the shock to their complacency after Trotsky’s assassination. Frida and her sister Cristina had been arrested for two days because the sisters had unwittingly had the assassin over for a meal at the Casa Azul, where the Trotsky’s initially lived after he got asylum in México in 1937. The police decided that since Frida was divorced from Diego and the daughter of a German, she wasn’t even Mexican. Diego was afraid she would revert to being a “German Jew” in a country still cordial with Germany. She was hastily naturalized a Mexican on August 26, 1940, and that afternoon applied for a visa to come to San Francisco. Of course, Frida wasn’t Jewish, it was a story she made up. Years before her father had been naturalized a Mexican citizen under the signature of Porfirio Diaz. As she suspected, the police were just messing with her.


Over the years, while abroad, Frida wrote dozens of letters home and asked to be remembered to a litany of family members, friends, and neighbors. (She used letters to her mother to create a cover for her first meeting with photographer Nick Muray.) Leaving México, Frida was homesick as soon as she reached the border. She was truly a lover of family. Diego was not as much of a family man. Wherever he landed, Rivera was lionized, and she was marginalized. Frida’s acerbic tone in talking about foreigners might just be an expression of her loneliness. Lucienne Bloch in her journal in April 1932 commented on how Frida had cried all night in reaction to Diego’s thought of going on to the USSR after spending an upcoming 5 months in Detroit, “…and F wants to go right home to Mexico, being torn between her family and R.” Emotionally, the time in Detroit would be troubling for Frida; she had a miscarriage and, accompanied by Lucienne, returned to México only to watch her mother die.

Alone in Paris in early 1939 she had bad things to say about Andre Breton, who was supposed to have organized her exhibition, but hadn’t even recovered her art from customs. Very significantly, she had nothing but good things to say about Marcel Duchamp and Mary Reynolds, who plucked her from a hospital and took her home with them. Duchamp went about getting a gallery and having her show mounted. She thought Duchamp was the only one in Paris who had his feet on the ground. Though Frida met Picasso and Josephine Baker, among others, Duchamp and Mary were the closest to being “family.”



As the mural’s SFMOMA stay will end next March, I am treasuring all the thousands of people from all over the world who have come to savor the masterpiece. The mural has been a tremendous goodwill ambassador. Wish I spoke more languages. After its brief unveiling at the 1940 fair, Diego never saw the mural again. The mural reflected the seeming inevitability of a Nazi victory in Europe. But who knew that the British RAF would maintain air superiority over the Channel and dash Hitler’s plans to invade England. The head Nazi would then turn his eyes to invading Russia, not a good idea as Napoleon might have told him. Rivera never returned to triple the mural’s size per the contract he signed as he left the US for what turned out to be the last time. What might he have painted if he had returned? Having become a Stalinist, the Mexican painter might have created a battle that made the Rockefeller incident seem like a mere skirmish. Historical thresholds are often transparent as we pass through them. A door closed silently, and the mural was put into storage for 21 years. The mural’s impending storage is sobering.

Conducted a tour of Rivera’s Allegory of California (City Club) and the Pan American Unity mural for 25 Georgetown University alumni, among the thousands of Georgetown folk in town for a “John Carroll Weekend.” With the SFAI  mural inaccessible, I’m relegated to two-mural tours and have a couple this month.

Had a wonderful time with Santana drummer Karl Perazzo and his cousin, my friend Armando Alvarez, at the mural and at a fine Nicaraguan lunch afterwards.

Diver Helen Crlenkovich’s daughter Bari came by to visit again with a friend.


A family came by and when I commented on Diego’s model Nieves Orozco, for a short while in the queue to be Diego’s next wife, the son rolled up his sleeve. His tattoo is Nieves as Desnudo con Alcatraces (1944), part of SFMOMA’s “Diego Rivera’s America” exhibition. The synchronicity startled us both. Nieves told me in 2006 that she posed that way because she was pregnant with her first child.


In giving mural tours, the threads of the tapestry Diego has woven, never cease to amaze me. Spaniards’ Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s 1929 surrealist silent short film, Un Chien Andalou is probably the source of the image of the severed hand in lower Panel 4.  Rivera in his first foray into Hollywood in June 1940 had likely met Buñuel at one of several parties. An official of the Spanish Republican government, Buñuel was in Hollywood when Franco won. The filmmaker found temporary refuge working as an uncredited gag writer for Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Diego referred to Buñuel without outing him to Stalinist assassins.

There are musical threads in our story. In lower Panel 5 the tattooed Sailor painting refers to composer Carlos Chavez’s symphonic ballet, H.P., for which Diego had created the sets and costumes. On a private railway car going to Philadelphia for its March 1932 premiere, Diego had met composers George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, Carlos Chavez’s buddy. Later Frida and Diego would have a soda with Gershwin after a NYC performance of music by composer Ernest Bloch (Lucienne Bloch’s father). In March 1937 George Gershwin met and fell for Paulette Goddard (lower Panels 3 & 4) at a Beverly Hills’s party art patron Edward G. Robinson (lower Panel 4) hosted for composer Igor Stravinsky. Gershwin related his 1935 México visit to her and suggested she go there to get her portrait painted by his friend Diego Rivera. She was woven into our story three years after Gershwin’s untimely death, while Diego and Frida were still divorced. However, she was the “other woman” to model Nieves Orozco, Diego’s fiancée. If Paulette hadn’t shown up, another outcome might have ensued. In a June 11, 1940, letter to Diego, Frida complained bitterly about how she was treated since they divorced,  “…..all of the other people treat me like their trash since I don’t have the honor to belong to the elite of the famous artists and above all because I’m not your woman.” This points to a possible alternative trajectory for Frida had she and Diego not remarried. All these threads need to be woven into the greater narrative to add color to the warp and the weft.


Becoming Frida, the 3-part BBC2 documentary is playing in the UK. Our friend, past CCSF Fulbright scholar Luis-Martin Lozano, a principal authority on Frida and the series consultant, wrote me that he thought I’d like it. However, our mural didn’t make the cut. Hopefully, that means that there’s lots of juicy information on Frida and our mural’s tangential Frida connection wasn’t enough. We await scheduling for US viewing.


SFAI filed for Chapter 7. A new SFAI Legacy Foundation + Archive (SFAI LF+A) has been created and the San Francisco Art Institute Archives have been relocated to the Crown Point Press building at 20 Hawthorne Street, very near SFMOMA. Hopefully, The Making of a Fresco, Showing The Building of a City will re-open, otherwise, too soon, all three Rivera murals may be publicly inaccessible.


Photo: courtesy of Vita Paramo

Our CCSF Olmec head, a gift of the Mexican state of Veracruz, has graced the Frida Garden since 2004. Recently, CCSF Counselor Vita Paramo had some classes convene there.

“I facilitated three closing ceremonies at the Olmec head for Amber Straus’ LERN 50 College success class…

I explained the history of Señor Olmec and the history of Olmec colossal heads. I shared that the Olmec’s believed that one’s spirit, emotions and intentions lie within your head, hence why they built colossal heads vs. bodies. We all stood in a circle holding our rosemary and we shared an intention, a goal, a dream we have for ourselves, our community, or another person and then we would plant our rosemary/intention around the Olmec head. It was beautiful to watch each student participate in their own way, some are non-verbal, some are just learning English, some are experiencing a lot of trauma, but they all found a way to show up as their true selves and plant their seed of intention.”





February 2023

Photo: Jean Franco, June 17, 2018, at Brava Theater

Dear Friends of Diego,

Doctora Guadalupe Rivera Marin passed away on January 15, 2023. Born in 1924 she was Diego’s last surviving child by Lupe Marin, his first Mexican wife. In 1999 Julia Bergman, Masha Zakheim and I met and recorded an interview in her Mexico City office, when she was still a politician. She had also been a law professor. In May 2006 Dra. Rivera invited Julia and me to participate in an Encuentro Internacional de Pintura Mural (International Muralism Encounter) in Mexico City with 200 exponents of muralism arts. The following year we went to support her at the opening of a Mexican graphics show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She was our guest of honor in 2008 at the unveiling of the 8’ Pacifica statue model in the Frida Garden next to the mural at CCSF. Over the years she visited San Francisco, and we visited her in México.

On her last San Francisco visit (photo above) for Father’s Day 2018 at the Brava Theater, I gave her a print of a photo of her as an 11 year old and her 9 year old sister Ruth with their father Diego in front of the cactus fence at the Casa Estudios.  Composer George Gershwin took the photo during his November 1935 visit. Over the years Dra. Rivera did much to keep her father’s legacy alive world-wide by giving talks and writing many books. She would especially have been proud that the Pan American Unity mural, which celebrates accomplished women, was recently the background for a ceremony welcoming 40 sci-tech women as new U.S. citizens. We will miss her and her smile.


L.D. Kirschenbaum recently posted important videos on YouTube. They are full of the figures Diego loved; it’s like seeing México through Diego’s eyes:

Film 1: Diego Rivera & Alfred Honigbaum, 1936

Film 2: Alfred Honigbaum tours Mexico, 1936


Jean Franco was stunning as Frida in our performance of Frida: Interview March 1941 at SFMOMA, Dec. 8, 2022. The full-house audience had wonderful things to say about Jean and the celebration of Diego’s birthday. The event was recorded, and we await the posting on-line.

Photo by Darrel Hess

Just received missives from México from dear friends Elena Durán and Dr. Michael Emmerson. Michael alerted me that the three-part BBC series, Becoming Frida Kahlo, is set to air next month. An article on the series speculates that Diego helped Frida in her “transition.” The theory is supported by Diego’s grandson Juan Coronel and curator Luis-Martin Lozano with whom Julia and I worked in 2005 on Taschen’s definitive book on Diego’s murals. The BBC crew interviewed me at SFMOMA in April 2022 and the thoroughness with which they prepared, impressed me. Will pass along more specific info next time on how to see the documentary.

Michael also had wonderful news, “I am delighted to let you know that Elena will be returning to give a concert in the Bay Area as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival on Sunday, 18 June @ 6pm in the BRAVA Theater, 24th Street, San Francisco. She will be playing a wonderful Mexican program with Nicholas McGegan [piano] and accompanied by video clips from the great movies of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. Elena, a world-renown flautist, was born in East Oakland, but has long resided in México. She has been a great friend of the mural, having performed at City College’s Diego Rivera Theatre on its behalf in the past.


The mural’s panel 5 has generated a lot of discussion. Rivera curiously captioned it “The Creative Culture of North Developing from the Necessity of Making Life Possible in a New and Empty Land,“ a terra nullius, and a wagon train enters the mural in the upper right-hand corner. The title has been criticized for omitting the fact that there were already peoples in this “new and empty land.” Why did Rivera not address the issue?

Was Rivera trying to ingratiate himself with this country as he emerged from the artistic exile imposed on him by the debacle at NYC’s Rockefeller Center in 1933-34? As SFMOMA’s recent “Diego Rivera’s America” exhibition demonstrated, though Diego could make a living doing portraits, his heart craved making murals. The less-lucrative mural business in Mexico was drying up and he lost opportunities in the US beginning with General Motors cancelling their contract. The gas suited figure sacrificed on barb wire in lower panel 4 was originally destined for GM’s mural at the Chicago World’s Fair. It’s use in the mural might also refer to Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), which was banned by Hitler, but was shown at the GGIE. (Remarque would become Paulette Goddard’s last husband.)

But, maybe, the wagon train signifies something more, if you look a little to the left and towards the top at a tree being felled. In June 2018 I had previously written about an image of the árbol quebrado (broken tree) from the Códice Boturini, which documents the 200 year peregrination of the Mexica (Aztecs) from Aztlan to Tenochtitlan (Mexico City). Rivera’s depiction of a toppling massive redwood tree has two figures comically trying to restrain it with a rope. But the idea of a wandering people also has parallels to many cultures looking for a sign, from the Vikings to nomads. In the case of the Mexica the sign was an eagle perched on a cactus with a snake in its beak. The Mexica’s “new and empty land” was unfortunately previously populated by the city-state Culhuacán.

The ability to finally see the mural from a distance as it was intended is one of the great features of SFMOMA’s display. Simultaneously seeing both the rich, idealized indigenous life in panel 1 and the stark absence in panel 5 is Rivera’s statement. The sole indigenous person in panel 5 is akin to Ben-Hur as a galley slave. His mandate is to “row and live.” The “cigar store Indian,” disguised as another example of folk art, is a not-so-subtle rebuke for the sad state of indigenous peoples in this country. A thick plaster patch on the chest of this figure probably covers a comment that Diego’s more prudent side decided to obscure. Someday we’ll x-ray this area and find out.

So why was Diego being subtle? When Rivera got to the US in June 1940, Hitler was racing, basically unchallenged, through Europe. Diego’s beloved Paris fell not long after he arrived in San Francisco. It was only a matter of time before Hitler was victorious over the continent as both Collier’s magazine and Mexican political cartoons suggested. Rivera thought that once Hitler won in Europe, he’d turn his malignant eyes to the America’s. This Mexican political cartoon depicts the Führer “discovering” America.

HOY Octubre 12 Num 190

Hoy magazine cover, Oct. 12, 1940

Rivera was a Mexican Paul Revere, shouting that the “Nazis are coming, the Nazis are coming.” In Panel 4 he articulates that it is the US which must stop the Nazis by showing a hand with a swastika tattoo and dagger being restrained by a massive arm draped in an American flag. This was his paramount agenda. Any blatantly controversial images in panel 5, would have only distracted from his main thesis. Already, some German sympathizing San Franciscans had taken him to task for damaging the psyches of our impressionable youth with his less than complimentary depictions of Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini. There were many nefarious plots afoot to benefit the Nazis (and the Soviets) by maintaining US “neutrality.” At the time the “America Firsters” were a strange brew including communists and Nazi sympathizers. But the communists would bail after Hitler invaded the USSR in June 1941. After Hitler declared war on us on December 11, 1941, it was hard to find an “America Firster.” Henry Ford would make armaments for us and all was forgiven. Charles Lindbergh wouldn’t have such an easy transition.


Diego Rivera’s America at SFMOMA closed after drawing big crowds. In its closing weeks, visitors were alarmed to find out that many days were already sold out. For many, the icing on the cake either after or before seeing the exhibition was the Pan American Unity mural. The Diego Rivera’s America exhibition moves on to Crystal Bridges Museum (Bentonville, Arkansas), opening on March 11, 2023.

The looming “elephant in the room” is the question of what is going to happen to Pan American Unity when it is de-installed at SFMOMA in January 2024, a little over ten months from now. City College’s new Performing Arts Center will not have yet had a groundbreaking. There are few options given the constraints of mural size, duration of the “layover,” and the great cost to move the masterpiece. Any suggestions are welcome!



Irene Bohus enlarges photo of diver Helen Crlenkovich taken at the Fairmont Hotel’s Terrace Plunge, now the Tonga Room. WPA Photo.

Bari Lee, daughter of mural diver Helen Crlenkovich, came by for a visit and had some stories. In 1940 Helen was the best diver in the US and was again the national champ in 1945. The woman in the white bathing suit with her back to us (Panel 2) may be Bari’s aunt.  Bari was only seven years old when her mother passed away. Here is Bari speaking at her mother’s induction into the Croatian-American Sports Hall of Fame.

Actor Owen Wilson came by to visit the mural.

Dr. Clayborne Carson founded Stanford’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute in 2005. He was selected by Coretta Scott King in 1985 to organize MLK’s papers. We had a nice visit about historical research and then had lunch. Here is Dr. Carson’s interview of Bernard Lafeyette, “When I get Grown”. Thanks to Lauren Lee for the hook-up. Here is a Library of Congress Magazine – November/December 2022 (  article (page 21) on a map of lynchings.


More Remembrances

Jim Guthrie has passed away. A structural engineer, he participated in the 2011 preliminary mural move analysis and had generously designed the Olmec head tie-down.

Nathan Zakheim has passed away. He oversaw the conservation of the Frederick Olmsted fresco secco murals in the lobby of architect Timothy Pflueger’s Science Building at CCSF. Nathan was the son of Coit Tower muralist Bernard Zakheim and brother of Masha Zakheim and Ruth Gottstein.