Eating head tacos in a Manet painting

Last night we ate head tacos under the walls of Templo de Santa Cruz, the site of Manet’s painting of the execution of the Emperor Maximillian and two of his generals in 1867. You can still see the bullet holes.

It was a beautifully warm night, unseasonably warm for February. We were with James, our son, Perla, our daughter-in-law, and Alexander, our grandson and the most delightful child in the world. The moon was nearly full, and after drinking margaritas we had been taking it in turns to scat sing while wearing our one straw hat. Alexander, who is two and a half, wore the hat low and was as good as any of us.

I’d been fascinated by the idea of tripe tacos, and Perla knew where to get head tacos—from a stand under the walls of Temple de Santa Cruz. There were five stands, including the one selling tacos and one beside it selling jellies (which are big in Mexico) and what looked like crème caramel. An elderly woman seated at the jelly stand in her dinginity and grandeur resembled an Aztec goddess. The taco stand was much the busiest, and we bought 11 tacos between us. A head taco is a taco filled with meat from every part of the head of the cow—brain, tongue, cheeks, everything. Each taco had two small tortillas, and a smattering of coriander and parsley over the meat. You added your own salsa. The tacos were delicious and cost 6 Pesos (about 25p) each.

Across the road an elderly Mexican with a grey Viva Zapata moustache was playing the guitar and singing a mournful song. Everywhere in Mexico there is music, and I imagined the song was the one I read about in Under the Volcano, “I say suffer because your lips say only lies and they have death in a kiss.”

It was a very Mexican scene, with us the only three gringos. I felt privileged to be part of something so Mexican and magical.


But at the same time my European mind was turning to Manet’s painting and deciding that I needed to get the story and the provenance of the painting right. Maximilian was sent by Napoleon III to Mexico to establish a French republic. He made progress but eventually was defeated by the army of the Mexican republic. His last stand was in Queretaro, and once captured he was condemned to death. Despite appeals from Victor Hugo and Garibaldi he was executed. When facing the firing-squad he spoke only in Spanish (so Wikipedia tells me) and gave his executioners  gold not to shoot him in the head so that his mother could see his face. His last words were, “I forgive everyone, and I ask everyone to forgive me. May my blood which is about to be shed, be for the good of the country. Viva Mexico, viva la independencia!”.



Manet painted the execution five times in the two years after the execution. One of the pictures, which is incomplete, is in the National Gallery, and I see it regularly. The picture is closely modelled on Goya’s picture El tres de mayo de 1808 en Madrid, which was painted in 1808 to display Spanish resistance to Napoleon during the Peninsula War. It’s one of the great paintings of the horror of war, and I’ve seen it in the Prado.


Queretaro is full of history as well as tacos. It is one of the “cradle cities” of the Mexican revolution, and the Mexican Constitution was signed here on the 5th of May 1917. The Mexican president came on Sunday to celebrate the centenary.

A warm night, the moon, tacos, sad songs, history, and great paintings: who could ask for anything more?



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