Mexicans mourn painter Francisco Toledo, defender of culture

FILE - In this March 11, 2004 file photo, Francisco Toledo, one of Mexico's most prominent painters, eats a corn tortilla in the city center of Oaxaca, Mexico, to protest the presence of genetically modified corn in the Mexican wild. The family of Toledo has announced on Thursday, September 5, 2019, the he has died. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File)
People walk up to a photo and works by the late Mexican painter Francisco Toledo, displayed during a memorial at the Bellas Artes Palace in Mexico City, Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. Toledo, who was well-known and respected in Mexico both for his art and his activism, has died, the country's president announced late Thursday. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
A man takes a photo of a photograph of the late Mexican painter Francisco Toledo during a memorial at the Bellas Artes Palace in Mexico City, Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. Toledo, who was well-known and respected in Mexico both for his art and his activism, has died, the country's president announced late Thursday. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
A kite with a message sent via twitter by Spanish Singer Enrique Bunbury that reads “Who will take care of Oaxaca?” is displayed at a memorial for the late Mexican painter Francisco Toledo, during a memorial at the Bellas Artes Palace in Mexico City, Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. Toledo, who was well-known and respected in Mexico both for his art and his activism, has died, the country's president announced late Thursday. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
People walk up to a photo and works by the late Mexican painter Francisco Toledo, displayed during a memorial at the Bellas Artes Palace in Mexico City, Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. Toledo, who was well-known and respected in Mexico both for his art and his activism, has died, the country's president announced late Thursday. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
People walk up to a photo and works by the late Mexican painter Francisco Toledo, displayed during a memorial at the Bellas Artes Palace in Mexico City, Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. Toledo, who was well-known and respected in Mexico both for his art and his activism, has died, the country's president announced late Thursday. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
People walk up to a photo and works by the late Mexican painter Francisco Toledo, displayed during a memorial at the Bellas Artes Palace in Mexico City, Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. Toledo, who was well-known and respected in Mexico both for his art and his activism, has died, the country's president announced late Thursday. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

MEXICO CITY — Mexicans left candles and flowers at impromptu offerings Friday for expressionist painter Francisco Toledo a day after his death at age 79, remembering an artist respected for his fights to preserve historic sites and green spaces.

In a country where politicians talk endlessly about defending culture and identity, Toledo actually did it. He gained a reputation for never yielding to power, money or influence, and became perhaps the most revered figure of Mexico's present-day art world.

His paintings were a celebration of the mystical world, the animal spirits and color of the indigenous cultures in his native Oaxaca. He fought battles to save green spaces and historic buildings, to make art accessible to the public and to oppose McDonalds' plans to open an outlet in his beloved Oaxaca city, considered the heartland of Mexican cuisine.

The cause of his death and final funeral plans had yet to be announced.

People erected impromptu traditional offerings of flowers and candles in his memory in Oaxaca and Mexico City.

A simple wooden table in Oaxaca City's Institute of Graphic Arts, which Toledo founded, held a photo of the wild-haired, bearded painter. Around it, on the ground, were bunches of flowers and candles.

"The streets smell of Toledo, the streets are Toledo," said Yesica Sánchez Maya, one of the mourners. "We see Toledo as the personification of dignity in the flesh and solidarity with everyone."

Writer and environmentalist Homero Aridjis wrote, "We have lost one of the great ones."

The artist's family confirmed his death on his Facebook page, but gave no further details.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador wrote in his Twitter account that "art is mourning." He called Toledo "an authentic defender of nature, customs and traditions of our people."

Alberto Soto Cortés, an art professor at Mexico's IberoAmerican University, wrote that "many of the politicians and business interests that mourn Toledo's passing were the very ones he combatted."

Indeed, even though López Obrador's 2018 election won almost unanimous praise across the left, Toledo still publicly opposed the president's plan to build a tourist train line through the jungles of the Yucatan peninsula. Toledo, along with others, argued that the environmental impact hadn't been studied enough and that the Maya indigenous communities hadn't been fully consulted.

Time and time again, when a green space or historic building in Oaxaca was threatened, Toledo was there, demonstrating in the street to save it.

He played a large role in creating botanical gardens at the former Santo Domingo convent in Oaxaca, and he founded art galleries and art centers in historic buildings at several sites.

"Though there will be many homages and the price of his works will go up, it is unlikely that the institutions, corporations and politicians will stop to reflect on the causes and demands that Francisco Toledo championed in life," wrote Soto Cortés.

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