My Hero is Someone Else's Villain

My Hero is Someone Else's Villain - student project

Hi, all! I worked on this piece during the workshop timeline and scheduled it to be pitched at the end of this month. I'll be sure to update and let 'yall know how it goes!

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Frida Kahlo is ubiquitous in pop culture as an unconventional feminist feature: often for her unibrow, sometimes for her colorful and flamboyant dress, occasionally for her torrid and riveting love affair with Diego Rivera, rarely for her radical political ideologies but ultimately for her unorthodox presence in 20th century art. Knowing nothing about her, it’s easy to admire Frida. Knowing literally anything about her, it’s easy to love Frida.

As a queer, disabled person I unabashedly adore Frida Kahlo. To me (and to others), she is, as Jessica Kellgren-Fozard eloquently puts it, the bisexual artist who changed the world from bed.

Frida is something of an icon in disability and chronic illness circles for her perseverance and unapologetic visibility as a polio survivor (and, depending on who you ask, a person with spina bifida) and vehicular accident survivor (which left her with a permanent spinal cord injury). She spent a good portion of her life wearing surgical corsets and prosthetics, many of which she famously painted or commissioned to be designed in rich, vibrant designs reflecting her identification with communism and her affinity for east Asian motifs.


Frida painting in bed, anonymous photographer, 1940. Frida Kahlo Museum.

For the woman who famously declared:

“I am my own muse. I am the subject I know best. The subject I want to better.”

It was apparent that “bettering” herself did not mean suppressing her disability.

Frida, who was often bedridden and who modified her workstation to accommodate her needs, would not shy from presenting her pained and debilitated body in her self portraiture. Rather, she projected her disability as an autonomous and standalone component of her whole self. In Arbol de la Esperanza (Tree of Hope), Frida is laying in the sun with her surgical scars visible. Beside her is also herself, illuminated by moonlight and holding her counterpart’s unbuckled medical corset (she is also wearing an identical one under her huipil). Both are seated atop the same hospital gurney, and the moonlit Frida is holding a flag encouraging her sunnyside self “Mantente firme,” to “stay strong”.

But even the strongest of pillars can have cracks in their foundations. While Frida was very forward and brutally honest about her disability, she was also forthcoming about attributes that were misguided in their best of intentions and dishonest in actuality.

Like when reports debunked many of Frida’s claims to Hungarian Jewry.

Frida’s Jewishness was no small time pub trivia factoid, either. Frida’s Jewishness was something she spoke openly and proudly of, especially between the years of 1936–1945. She was also embraced among historians, rabbis and kinfolk. Her works were proudly featured in the Jewish Museum in New York and on the covers of Jewish art history tomes. But by rising to relevance in the art world at the same time as the rise of fascism in the old world, some have whispered that Frida invented a Jewish identity to align herself with revolutionary people’s politics, the politics of Lev Davidovich Bronstein, better known as Leon Trotsky (who would later find haven with Frida and Diego), and to obscure any possible connection to European genocide.

I was gutted — after I was in denial. (Still am in denial?) I desperately want to hold out for Frida. Frida, who kept a copy of a book detailing the antisemitic torture by the hands of the Inquisition in 16th-century Mexico. Frida, who may have been privy to some secret knowledge that her father’s family, who shuttled across eastern Europe for several generations before emigrating by way of Germany, may have been hiding in plain sight as conversos. I especially want this to be true, because my own father’s family shared a similar itinerary before finding their freedom in the mountains of Puerto Rico.

As a Sephardi who eagerly saw Frida as a self-professed latine of Jewish heritage, and proudly so, I relished this connection. I’m saying this as someone who was ecstatic to find out through 23andme that I was second or third cousins with my Ashkenaz friend’s Sephardi friend who lives across the country from me. I would be positively verklempt to be tangentially related to someone I admire and feel kinship to as profoundly as Frida.

While Frida maintained a Jewish connection on her father’s side, for her, her mother was a beacon of Oaxacan indignity. Frida would source her mother, a mixed Spanish and indigenous woman, as a lifeline to the Zapotec communities. But Frida’s mother, an upper class Catholic woman, never lived in these indigenous neighborhoods, and neither did Frida. The closest that Frida came to the indigenous villages of Oaxaca was in her parents’ employment of Tehuana women as household servants, such as the ones she depicted in Dos Mujeres (Two Women) or, more egregiously, in Mi Nana y Yo (My Nurse and I), where the indigenous woman’s face is obscured by a pre-Columbian funerary mask (allegedly because Frida could not recall this woman’s actual appearance).

Frida is famous for her Tehuantepec dress (especially the huipil and skirts), which is much beloved by the world, including her spouse, Diego Rivera. Diego embraced his indiginismo, his passion for indigenous Mexico, which often was a recurring theme in his murals, where he would intertwine pre-colombian iconography with contemporary revolutionary events. He was also a prolific collector (or, perhaps more accurately, a hoarder) of pre-colonial Mexican art and artifacts. Undoubtedly, Diego took great pride in his partner being a living example of intentional decolonization. Meanwhile, unlike her claim to Jewishness, Frida consciously knew (and admitted) that, political alignment aside, her indigenous dress was performative:

“I’ve never been in Tehuantepec, nor has Diego ever wanted to take me. I have no relationship at all with that people, but of all Mexican dresses it’s the one I like the most, and that’s why I dress like a Tehuana.”

The whole-bodied embrace of Mexico without Spain’s colonial influence was invigorating to Frida’s and Diego’s romantic ideology, and it was also aesthetically appealing in the art world. She found international popularity as an exotic surrealist, featuring in shows as a solo artist and among others in the United States and France, and as the flamboyant guest of honor (or perhaps main event) when Diego’s craft as a muralist would be commissioned. In San Francisco, she stirred a sensation with her reputation as a “colorful Mexican woman,” a reputation that would come to precede her and to leave a permanent impression:

“The gringas really like me a lot and pay close attention to all the dresses and rebozos that I brought with me, their jaws drop at the sight of my jade necklaces.”

Frida not only personally found profit and success in her Tehuana dress and iconography, she became an outright brand beyond her own self, all while modern indigenous communities struggled with chronic poverty and all its trappings.

When Frida would scoff at the Parisian surrealists in their cafés, professing how she would “rather sit on the floor in the market of Toluca and sell tortillas,” Nahua women were doing just that. If viva la Frida is forever, by the means of her larger-than-life persona, then so is the tenacity of Mexico’s indigenous peoples, by means of tequio. Tequio, opposite to Frida’s fixation on the solo, is the Mixtecan-Zapotecan concept of the cooperative. Individuals in provincial Oaxaca (the state) relied on one another, and not Fridamania’s commercial tourism to cosmopolitan Oaxaca (the city), to survive, even against the odds of the 21st centuryFrida may have aligned herself in life with indigenous peoples in her art and in her ethics, but she did nothing to ally them, and neither does her legacy.

Frida cast herself as a polarizing figure in her art and in her persona. Her artistic subjects were center-focused and her words were always pointed. She cast herself as the hero to the people, the people she would wear as her heart on the outside, such as in Las Dos Fridas (The Two Fridas), and juxtaposed herself as the villain to western industrialism, which she dubbed ‘Gringolandia’ and its inhabitants ‘bitches’. But the reality is more complex than that.

Frida is a hero to disabled people like me who are reflected in her image, an image that conjures strength from within rather than pity from the outside looking in. But she is also a villain to the people who she wore as costume to bolster her relevance and power as a public figure. One can’t be separated from the other. And as a person who knows that about her, it makes the love and kinship I felt for her complicated — compromised.

Ugly Coyote
queer, disabled Jewish writer