CIES 2018 – learning from Mexico City – post conference reflections

Susan L. Robertson

With the CIES 2018 conference in Mexico City over, it is interesting to think about what the city itself is able to reveal about the conference theme – remapping South-North dialogue. We began the conference on Day 1 with a very provocative intervention by Professor Gustavo Esteva – on the ways in which the twin projects of capitalism and modernity have defined much of the trajectory for nations and their education systems over the past 100 years and longer.

There is a great deal to learn about the politics of development from Mexico City itself. Mexico’s famous muralist, Diego Rivera, was deeply concerned about these issues. His murals, some of which are featured below, spoke directly to these concerns.  Rivera was a member of the communist party in Mexico, and his murals, painted in the 1920s and 30s, depict what he sees as the excess of the world of Wall Street finance, the corrosion of social class as a form of societal organisation. the exploitative nature of capitalism, and the inequalities that follow.

Rivera 1 IMG_1179

Rivera was a very good friend of the Russian socialist revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, who was finally given  asylum  in Mexico  in 1936. Trotsky’s house in Mexico City, not far from Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s famous house (now museum), is a unique tribute to Trotsky.

The images below in the Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky show an early photograph of Trotsky, his smashed glasses on his writing desk following his assassination with an ice-pick,  his grave stone (with his wife), and a photograph of a gathering of  friends which includes Trotsky along with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo who sponsored his exile.


The year  2017 was of course 100 years since the Russian Revolution. What is something of a pity is that the CIES conference did not really pick up on the importance of socialism in the 1920s in Mexico, as a basis for building the new republic.

Rivera had a long and deep interest in the possibilities of  learning as the basis for a new society, as these murals below show. These are just several of many that line the walls of the Department of Education building in Mexico City.

These two images – both titled ‘Research’ – reveal a strong investment by Rivera in science and the learned arts as a means of development. Rivera’s murals are not only a lesson in history, political economy,  politics, sociology and the arts, all wrapped up together in one; they also show the importance of art as an enduring form of illustration, reflection and communication about ourselves and our society.

It is not possible to reflect on what one can learn from the city without mention of Frida Kahlo – wife of Rivera, an artist in her own right after her intention to study medicine was interrupted  by a serious accident when she was 18 years old, a committed activist and socialist, and more recently highly influential in the art world globally. Her paintings are highly personal and also highly political; they reflect on her disability, her inability to have children, her tumultuous relationship with Rivera, and her growing sense of her Mexican roots.

For much of the time Kahlo painted in a wheelchair (pictured above). Her paintings also reveal her wider politics; Marx, Lenin and others are featured. The 1920s and 30s were a period of great turbulence globally, as nascent Republics and new societies were struggling to emerge. Kahlo herself is also regarded in more recent years as a post-colonial artist, as well as an icon for the disability and LGBT movements.

Mexico City offers a cornucopia  of possibilities for learning about the past, present, and  the future. Like any city this size – some 20 million inhabitants – it is a place of vibrant contrasts,  possibilities and extreme forms of exclusion. Perhaps CIES 2019  San Francisco – with its focus on sustainability – might look around at that city and reflect on what it might offer as a site for learning, reflection, exchange, and possibilities  for a better future through out political actions. Now there’s a thought!