Early last year, I recorded a podcast about the life of Tina Modotti. I had only just become aware of her because of her arresting look in a photo and was surprised to learn what a remarkable and ultimately tragic life she led: An immigrant to the United States, she moved to Mexico to pursue a relationship with Edward Weston, met the left-wing avant-garde of the time, joined the Communist party, fought in the Spanish Civil War, and eventually succumbed to a heart attack in a Mexico City taxi.
They gave her a huge burial, with Pablo Neruda writing a poem that was etched on her gravestone. When I found myself back in Mexico City last month, Rocío and I went on a quest to find the grave.
It turned out to be no easy feat on one of the largest cemeteries in the world. We found ourselves in a walled compound in the middle of one of the world’s largest cities, walking across high grass and fallen gravestones, past crypts and flower beds. Mexican graveyards, it turns out, exemplify the rest of the country: Somewhat chaotic, charmingly colorful, with a healthy if unusual relationship to death.
First we got lost, then separated. Confused, we relied on our phones’ location services to find each other again. While I had tried to find the grave myself, Rocío had tracked down a worker who knew where it was.
Tina Modotti’s headstone was located between a lot of unassuming graves, adorned by fresh flowers that were drying in the sunshine. The headstone was weathered, but you could make out an etching of her face alongside of the poem. With the heat beating down, we sat before the grave and just took it in: The unusually quiet environment, the dry weeds growing between the graves, and this sad but inspiring story, which suddenly felt a lot less abstract.