A Message of Love and Pain, with Frida Kahlo

Sunday Spotlight

I used to work at Borders Books & Music in San Francisco, attached to a mall and close to a university. Having just come back from a trip to the Philippines where I tried to hold and maybe rekindle the type of young love you read about, I was more than happy to be buried and surrounded by books.

It was here where I first discovered Frida Kahlo. I don’t remember the first time I started learning about her, but I do remember buying a book of all her paintings. I didn’t know much about Frida, but her work resonated with me immediately even before I knew her story or the stories behind her paintings.

A decade later, I was standing in front of La Casa Azul in the beautiful neighborhood of Coyoacán, about half an hour away from Mexico City. I’ve wanted to visit Frida Kahlo’s home-turned-museum for a long time and standing there, in the middle of the lush foliage and blue walls of the compound I felt like I’ve truly achieved something.

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La Casa Azul, June 2017

Stepping into La Casa Azul felt a lot like stepping into a dream, into the world of Frida. It took me a while to believe that I was really there and I wanted to see everything and do nothing at the same time, for the sheer joy of being in the space. It felt sacred.

There were people in the courtyard, sitting on benches and talking, people milling about, people taking photos. There was also an area off to the side where there was a film showing, as more folks trickled in and out of the space. We headed straight to the museum which led to what became Frida and Diego’s home for awhile.

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These were some of the first few paintings I saw: an unfinished self-portrait sketch made in Detroit, Frida and the Cesarean (also unfinished) and a painting called “Marxism will bring health to the sick” which features Frida wearing a leather corset and a Tehuana skirt.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of Frida’s paintings in person, so seeing these was an ultimate gift. Most of her paintings are also all over the world — in prestigious institutions like the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, in universities, in private collections and with close friends of hers and Diego’s like Dolores Olmedo. I was planning to visit Olmedo’s museum to check out more of Frida’s work but at the time, the exhibit was under construction.

Throughout her paintings — unfinished or completed — Frida’s lust for life was evident. In spite of her illnesses, the numerous miscarriages she had and the heartaches she’s  had to endure from Diego, she radiated what she painted in the simplest, but also grandest terms: Viva la ida.  Long live life.

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After her (and Diego’s) paintings were also photographs of Frida herself, with eyes that pierced and a stance so bold, so fearless. I stared at one of her photos for some time, one from Lucienne Bloch’s series. In the photo, Frida is looking straight into the camera, her necklace dangling from between her lips. It was evocative, but firm. A quiet, unyielding strength. There’s also photo of her plaiting her hair, naked from the waist up. In another one, she’s on a boat leaning down against the rail, her fingers playing with the water.

Tender, bold and playful at the same time. I thought to myself: How many of us are actually living our lives? How many of us are actually brave enough to stray away from our routines and focus instead on creating our own maps, no matter how arduous?

Eventually, the photos gave way to Frida’s study where her books were (still in their glass shelves), her paint, tools and figurines preserved as if Frida herself would come any minute to paint.

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There were still many people outside in the courtyard even though it was already half past five (the museum closes at 5pm). There were even more people inside the museum still, all of us eager to get a glimpse of the rest of Frida’s house. The line moved an inch and in a few minutes, I was standing in front of her day bed, which was in direct view of the courtyard. I imagined Frida, in her later years, still filled with love, hope and longing, looking out into the sun and the sky.

While I started taking photos of every detail, I realized that she had also put up a series of photos of the most important political theorists of our time: Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong.

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Frida’s political involvement started early as I recalled reading about The Cachucas, children of the revolution that Frida was a part of along with seven boys and one other girl. Their ideological cocktail was composed of Socialism, Romanticism and nationalism although their passion for poetry and literature overshadowed their politics.

In her diary, she wrote an entry dated 4 November 1952:

Today more than ever I feel a sense of companionship. For 20 years, I have been a Communist. I know. I have read conscientiously [crossed out] the principal origins mixed up with ancient roots.

I have read the History of my country and of almost all other nations. I already know their class struggles and their economic struggles. I have a clear understanding of the materialist dialectic of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Tse-tsung. I love them because they are the pillars of the new Communist world.

As I walked out of the museum, down the stairs which led to an outdoor hallway of her and Diego’s collection of native artifacts, I was overcome with a thousand emotions. I was sad and excited at the same time. I felt small and grand.

Frida was as big as life itself, and I had mine to live fully.

“Pies para qué los quiero,
si tengo alas pa volar?”

(“Who needs feet
when I’ve got wings to fly?”)

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La Casa Azul – Museo Frida Kahlohttp://www.museofridakahlo.org.mx
Calle Londres # 247, Colonia Del Carmen, Coyoacán Delegation, CP 04100, Mexico City

A Return to Sacred Land, With Rosario Castellanos

Book Reviews, Fiction

“All moons, all years, all days, all winds, take their course and pass away. Even so all blood reaches its place of quiet, as it reaches its power and its throne.”
— From the Chilam-Balam of Chumayel, an ancient Maya manuscript 

It’s the last night of my trip to Mexico City (Distrito Federal of Mexico), and I was curled up with Rosario Castellanos’s The Nine Guardians (Indiebound) in a little house on Atlixco, in the neighborhood of Condesa.

I didn’t know about Castellanos prior to my trip to the DF, but a little research on the web told me that I needed to be familiar with her work. A few days before my trip, I dropped by Green Apple Books in San Francisco and picked up The Nine Guardians along with a book by Octavio Paz. I needed a little schooling on Mexican literary greatness.

Back in the bedroom in Condesa, I felt myself loosening up a little. The last few chapters had stayed with me so intensely that I started to feel like all the spirits Nana, one of the characters in the book, was referring to were with me in the house.

Set in the state of Chiapas, the book centers around the Argüello family during the presidency of Làzaro Càrdenas. It was during the time of Càrdenas that the Mexican Revolution was “consolidated” and that agrarian reform started taking place.

Told from different viewpoints, the book tackles the onset of agrarian reform from the Mayan organizers who tilled the farms, slaves to mestizo Spanish families or ladinos like the Argüellos.

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A Tzeltal woman in Bachajón (Source)

The story opens from the viewpoint of the family’s eldest daughter, usually accompanied by Nana, her nanny of Mayan ancestry.

Does Nana know I hate her when she combs my hair? No, she doesn’t. She doesn’t know anything. She’s Indian, she doesn’t wear shoes, and has no other garment under the blue cloth of her tzec. She isn’t ashamed. She says the ground hasn’t any eyes.

The unnamed seven-year-old narrator grows up with Nana, who explains the ways of her people to the curious child, knowing the complications of their own relationship. The wounded, taking care of the master’s child. Nevertheless, Nana stays warm, is tender. A refuge from a life she herself could barely understand.

One day, the family receives unsuspecting news:

“A law has been passed by which proprietors of farms with more than five families of Indians in their service must provide facilities for teaching, by establishing a school and paying the salary of a rural master.”

June’s Reading List 

Fiction, Sunday Spotlight

Ah, June — the beginning of summer, of sun-kissed bare shoulders dotting sandy white shores, the season of the infamous beach reads. But before I get into the nitty gritty of that, here are this month’s reading list:

Lualhati Bautista’s Desaparesidos, timely because of the Philippines’s current situation (martial law declared in the southern region); The Nine Guardians by Rosario Castellanos, Mexico’s most important women novelist of the century as I just concluded an insightful trip to Mexico City; Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, a 2015 novel of an author I’ve been curious about for awhile now; and Oscar Lopez Rivera’s Between Torture and Resistance, a book I recently picked up at an event celebrating Oscar’s freedom after being jailed as a political prisoner.

I looked up at the sky this morning, felt my feet planted on the earth, my heart in place with gratitude for the day. It’s another week of days at the workplace, of meetings building up a brighter future, of 30-minute breaks spent in hospital corners with one of the titles above.

Some days I feel like I’m just drifting along a sea of timelines / guidelines / deadlines, floating mindlessly in a world I’m trying so hard to recreate, a place that extends beyond what I know as home.

And so I come back to reading. Page after page, title after title. On days when I don’t exactly know what to do, I know there will always be books.

#GetLit: Una Vida con Libros (A Life with Books)

#GetLit

To you — my dear readers — an apology is in order: the blog has been quiet as of late, but I haven’t forgotten. It’s been a week since I last wrote (another #GetLit post nonetheless) and here I am, about to publish another one. I have a good excuse, I promise.

Over the weekend, I flew to Mexico City / Ciudad de México and explored the Latin American metropolis, in awe of its people, its culture, its art, its architecture. I brought three important literary pieces with me: Rosario Castellanos, Octavio Paz and Audre Lorde. I’ll save the stories for another post, but here is something that I know you’ll appreciate:

 

Biblioteca Vasconcelos

The photo I took above is none other than Biblioteca Vasconcelos, Mexico City’s megalibrary. The floating bookshelves are no joke, and I marveled at the architectural prowess of Mexican architects Alberto Kalach and Juan Palomar. The five-on-one library is dedicated to José Vasconcelos, a Mexican philosopher and figure.

I have more stories and photos to share from my too-short of a trip to CDMX, so hang tight. In the meantime, here are a few things that to #GetLit about:

On the 100th birth anniversary of Gwendolyn Brooks, a “Chicago as hell” video of the making of We Real Cool:

Gwendolyn Brooks is immortal because she impacts and influences other poets and writers and others who influence poets and writers and others. Her genius and personality increase exponentially. Teachers taught students who in turn taught students about her work. Often anthologized, “We Real Cool” became one of the most well-known American poems. It is a part of the American heart, or should be, because it is so often taught. (Lithub)

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I love me some Roxane Gay, but I also love me some Steph Curry and Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors. 

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Trumpacolypse is still upon us. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about saving the National Endowment for Arts (#SavetheNEA) to try to gather support for the arts. Specially for the work of women artists. Question: What does abolishing the NEA mean for women artists? Read on.

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A timely poem about martial law from poet Jose Lacaba titled Prometheus Unbound:

Mars shall glow tonight,
Artemis is out of sight.
Rust in the twilight sky
Colors a bloodshot eye,
Or shall I say that dust
Sunders the sleep of the just?

Hold fast to the gift of fire!
I am rage! I am wrath! I am ire!
The vulture sits on my rock,
Licks at the chains that mock
Emancipation’s breath,
Reeks of death, death, death.

Death shall not unclench me.
I am earth, wind, and sea!
Kisses bestow on the brave
That defy the damp of the grave
And strike the chill hand of
Death with the flaming sword of love.

Orion stirs. The vulture
Retreats from the hard, pure
Thrust of the spark that burns,
Unbounds, departs, returns
To pluck out of death’s fist
A god who dared to resist.