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The History of Mexico According to
Diego Rivera

The Mexican Mural Movement of the 1920s reflected the changing realities of Mexico and its people. José Vasconcelos, the Secretary of Public Education, was an advocate of education through public art, and he commissioned the creation of murals on several public buildings. Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siquieros and Jose Clemente Orozco were the most renowned Mexican muralists and leaders in this movement. While their first
murals celebrated Mexican life and culture, Rivera,
in particular, began creating popular political murals that often
included attacks on the ruling class, the church, and capitalism.

In 1929, Rivera began work on a monumental project—the decoration of three adjoining walls that overlook the great staircase of the National Palace. Built on the former site of some of Moctezuma’s buildings, the National Palace houses many government offices, including the office of the President of Mexico. This mural was commissioned by the government at a time that Rivera’s popularity was at its peak, both at home and abroad. He worked on the project for several years, taking breaks for other work and commissions, finally completing it in 1935.

The result was an epic depiction of Mexican national history, which, as Rivera saw it, was a heroic struggle to rid the nation of the shackles of its colonial legacy. Although the mural itself is colorful, Rivera presents a view that is largely black and white. The defense of Mexico from exterior violation is portrayed as good and heroic, while negative events are unmistakably associated with invasion, subjugation and exploitation.

The mural is not organized according to standard, left to right, chronology. The central wall includes the period from the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1519, up to and including the revolution of 1910. The conquest is depicted in the lower central section, with the iconic eagle with the serpent—Rivera’s symbolic national heart—at the very center. At the base of this mural, Rivera has portrayed the foundation of Tenochitlán by the Aztecs. Above the images of the conquest, in the upper part of the mural, are many important historical figures: heroes of the Mexican War of Independence in 1810 including Father Miguel Hidalgo, Ignacio Allende and José Morelos; the beloved president, Benito Juarez who wrote the constitution of 1857 and the reform laws, which effectively created the separation of church and state; and important figures of the Revolution of 1910, including the dictatorial president Porfirio Diaz, his rival, Francisco Madero, and revolutionary heroes Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa.

On the right wall (above), Rivera depicted an idyllic pre-Cortesian world. This mural represents the Toltec period of Mexico, with the principal figure being the Plumed Serpent, Quetzalcoatl. On the left wall (below), Rivera presents a panorama of modern-day Mexico as he saw it, which was, in essence, a struggle between the classes. A rising sun in the top center, symbolizes the new deal of the working classes, in accordance with Marxist ideas.

Mexican Independence Day on September 16th, provides a great opportunity to introduce your students to the Mexican Mural Movement, the fresco technique, and the history of Mexico as it was portrayed by Diego Rivera in his famous murals in the National Palace. The murals also provide an ideal opening for a discussion of the differing viewpoints and interpretations through which any historical event may be viewed.


Discussion Questions:
Adapted from the poster series titled questionArte by Marilyn Stewart PhD, published by CRIZMAC (Item # 1000 $62.00)


• Do Diego Rivera’s murals suggest something about human beings as individuals? Do they suggest how human beings work, play, or suffer together?

• Do his murals highlight or raise questions about the way the world (or part of it) really is or about the way it ought to be?

• Do some things in his murals “stand for something else?”

• In what ways do artworks tell us the truth? If a painting shows us an image of something that never happened, can it still tell us the truth?

From the Teacher’s Guide of questionArte
“Talking about particular works of art, as well as about art in general, can be the most satisfying activity associated with learning about art and art-makers. Students gain new insights as they examine and investigate works of art and offer possible interpretations about meaning. Students learn from each other in the process of discussing important questions about art. They learn about their own art-making as they consider what they have accomplished through their efforts.