Day out in Mexico City: the Mexican Suitcase

It seems that I have just been going to a round of dinners and lunches but it hasn’t really been like that, or at least not all of it. I have been walking a lot, practicing yoga, reading, and clearing out loads of cupboards and sorting papers. I have more to do but I have made a very serious start and feel quite pleased with myself.

We had a really wonderful day out in Mexico City last Sunday, which is worth relating. It’s always a good time to go to the city when important holidays are happening as everyone seems to be on the beach or elsewhere. The traffic was wonderful and we got to the historic centre with no trouble at all. We were going to the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso to see an exhibition.

San Ildefonso, which dates from the 16th century, is regarded as a jewel of colonial architecture. It was a school originally, set up by the Spanish, and has survived to this day under the care of the national university (UNAM), the city and other authorities. It is a museum now and home to some important Orozco murals; it is used to house important exhibitions and that was our reason for visiting it. 

We went to the exhibition called: La Maleta Mexicana.

El Pasado Revelado, La maleta Mexicana. El redescubrimiento de los negativos de la Guerra Civil Española de Capa, Chim y Taro. Octubre 9 2013 a febrero 9 2014.

That is the full title and it translates to:
The past revealed, the Mexican Suitcase. The rediscovery of the photographic negatives taken during the Spanish Civil war by Capa, Chim and Taro.

It’s an extraordinary story. These negatives of photos taken by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and Chim had been lost since 1939. It wasn’t until 2007 that they were rediscovered in Mexico City, totally unexpectedly; they were actually 3 small boxes of negatives, not really a suitcase. What’s important about these photos is not just that they are an extraordinary photographic comment on the war, the people, the dreadful suffering of the Spanish, but also are considered to be the forerunner of modern war reporting. Taro actually died in the Civil War, Capa died in Vietnam during the war there and I forget where Chim died, but all died taking photos. Apparently it was Capa who said, if you can't get a good picture it's because you're not close enough. Being close enough ended up in their deaths....

The International Center of Photography (, which is co-hosting the exhibition, says this: The Mexican Suitcase gives the public an opportunity to experience images drawn from this famous collection of recovered negatives. In December 2007, three boxes filled with rolls of film, containing 4,500 35mm negatives of the Spanish Civil War by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and Chim (David Seymour)—which had been considered lost since 1939—arrived at the International Center of Photography. These three photographers, who lived in Paris, worked in Spain, and published internationally, laid the foundation for modern war photography. Their work has long been considered some of the most innovative and passionate coverage of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). Many of the contact sheets made from the negatives are on view as part of the exhibition, which look closely at some of the major stories by Capa, Taro, and Chim as interpreted through the individual frames. These images are seen alongside the magazines of the period in which they were published and with the photographers' own contact notebooks. The exhibition is organized by ICP Curator Cynthia Young.

It was fascinating seeing these remarkable photos, all in black and white of course, showing what happened and when. These 3 photographers were closely involved in the battles and worked with the soldiers showing their passion, their desperation, their commitment to a cause trying to save their country from fascism. They were up against Franco and his troops supported by Hitler and Mussolini, it was a hopeless battle really, that happened before the second world war, setting the scene for what was to follow.

Many thousands of Spaniards came to Mexico during and after the Civil War, escaping from the oppression and making this country their own.  Many of them were intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, professors, businessmen and they all contributed in no small way to the development of Mexico in terms of culture, education and commerce.  What made the exhibition particularly interesting to us is the number of people we have come into contact with over the years whose families formed part of this exodus. We were five friends seeing this exhibition and among us A is the son of Spanish parents who escaped the dreadful repression of the Republicans who were systematically killed by Franco’s troops. His father escaped to France and there was put into an internment camp. This camp was guarded by cruel Senegalese soldiers and the conditions were appalling. We saw photos of the soldiers marching to the camp and could imagine A’s father among them. Fortunately, he was able to leave the camp after several months thanks to his father and spent the war living in Bordeaux. There he met A’s mother, they married, A was born, and it was in 1947 that they came to Mexico. Since that day they only once returned to Spain, when an amnesty was called, and after visiting what was left of their families they never returned to Europe again.

I realised that I know nothing about the Spanish Civil War but at the same time felt I learned a lot. These photos are truly extraordinary; some had been published in magazines including Life magazine and Picture Post but the negatives never found, until now.  For A it was an emotional experience, he told us afterwards. Over lunch he told us how his father escaped, which is why I am able to share this above.

Whenever we go on trips my compadre LA always thinks about the possibilities of where we should eat, and on this occasion he had 6 restaurants lined up. We eventually tossed a coin to decide where to go and El Casino Español was the final choice. It seemed fitting after a dose of Spanish history. The building of the Casino is another jewel of colonial architecture, right in the middle of Mexico City, and we had a truly delicious meal. It might look empty in this photo here but it soon filled up.

It filled up so much that people were even sitting outside on the balcony to have lunch, one of the inside balconies or patios. It is a stunning place. 


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