Frida Kahlo has always decorated my life. In my childhood home, art books of hers sprawled across our coffee table, my stubby fingers plucking through those cherry-blossom pages, pouring over multicolored abstractions of self-portraits. Magnets with her iconic eyebrow and depictions of sacred hearts dressed our refrigerator, and pictures of her hung framed throughout our living room. Wherever you turned, whichever room you entered, some type of Frida paraphernalia could be found.
It wasn’t just her artwork that stood as a recurring monument in my memories — it was also Frida herself. I grew up believing that Frida was the guardian of my home, deified in vibrant surrealism. Her presence carried the same weight as the prayer hands my mother hung in doorways or the images of the Virgin of Guadalupe that were crystallized into protective pendants hidden in jewelry boxes. If an earthquake hit, we were safe as long as Frida’s framed picture didn’t fall. And if I lost sight of who I was, her artwork and her lasting energy grounded me.
So when an exhibit of photos from Frida’s personal collection came to the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California, I didn’t miss a beat when scooping up a ticket. This was not a collection of curated images or photographs meant to be art. Rather, these were family photos documenting Frida’s life from her childhood to her grandiose final years — and everything in between.
I had always known that Frida was mixed. But it wasn’t until I saw this exhibit in the flesh, stood small in front of the towering pictures of her life, that I felt a personal connection with her story. Before me were tangible representations of her mixed identity; in pictures of her standing in front of her father and mother, I saw myself standing in front of my own father and mother.
I imagined that Frida was a woman who grappled with the same identity struggle that I had been toying with my entire life. When my parents divorced, I was left to be taught my relative cultures in isolation from one another. With my father, chanchitos lined my dresser, my abuela called me Maisita and chicharrónes filled our stomachs. But it seemed that Frida was the only part of Mexico that made it into my mother’s home.
It was hard to not feel that I could only be Mexican when I was with my Mexican family. It was hard to not feel that I could only be one of my cultures at a time. Throughout school, I found myself drawn to Latinx women, wanting to be friends with people I connected with on a cultural level. But even here, I found myself constantly feeling like I was appropriating my own ethnicity and like I needed to prove I was Mexican. I realized that I hated one part of myself because it felt like a barrier to another part of me. I was drowning in a cultural limbo in which I was technically Mexican and white but felt like I didn’t belong in either category — or that I was not welcome.
Seeing Frida in a similar position in her childhood and being able to trace her journey from a young mixed girl to the most famous artist in Mexico, I began to come to terms with my own mixed identity.
Frida became not just a deity of Mexico, but one for me and my mixed experiences specifically. She became an inspiration while I was finding my voice as an artist; whether it be in writing or visual art, little glimpses of her bubbled to the surfaces of my works.
If I was struggling to resolve my identity struggle within a painting, my mind would trail to “Las dos Fridas.” I would ponder how she represented her own identity crisis in these calculated brushstrokes and ethereal shading. During my time as arts columnist last year, my mind would get stuck in a harsh drought of ideas, and I’d think of Frida’s “La columna rota” and launch into writing whatever narrative was sparked. Through my creative endeavors, Frida is an artist and a cultural figure I can always look to for guidance.
And now, Frida no longer fills just my home, but she is everywhere. But it’s not her incredible artwork that I see all over the place — it’s her face branded on tote bags and keychains, a pin bouncing on a backpack or earrings dangling in the wind. Frida, the symbol of my culture, an icon of Mexico, has become a fashion statement for many people who don’t understand her cultural significance.
It’s not my place to stand in the way of people seeking out Frida in their lives. She is a universally renowned artist, and her personal journey and lifetime of artwork are things that should be revered by all — not just those who are Mexican. I want Frida to decorate the lives of others as she did mine and maybe even save someone from struggling with their identity the way she did for me.
To me, Frida has been the guardian to my identity — and this is infinitely bigger than what can be represented on a keychain.
Maisy Menzies is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].