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.”