My third day in Mexico City, a mild morning after a night of rain, we walk the colored streets of Coyoacán from our rented house on Avenida Francisco Sosa to a restaurant on the corner of a park named after the same man. A 19th century poet and writer, Sosa wrote in his poem, México:
Es ella quien cautiva, quien roba corazones,
Quien tiene para todos delicias y placer;
Es ella la que finge doradas ilusiones,
Deleites no soñados, amores del Eden.
It is she who captivates, who steals hearts,
Who has for everyone delights and pleasure;
It is she that feigns golden illusions,
Delights not dreamed, loves of Eden.
The delights of which can't be dreamed until experienced (and thereafter cannot help but return to dreams again and again) are placed down one by one on the small round table that sits between us. The plates are squeezed together: first, cafecitos of which I take black and Melissa with milk and sugar which come in its own clay and glass saucers; enormously fresh orange juice; a basket of sugared, fluffy pan dulce; for Meli, chilorio, a sort of chile pulled pork; and for me, enfrijoladas, a melty cheesy mixture of enchiladas sitting in a sea of refried beans. We leave Las Lupitas, admiring its bright blue walls, tiled floors, the colored paper flags that line the ceiling and an icon of the Virgin housed between large windows under an arch painted pink with flowers.
The owner we will meet the day after next, an abuela who sits at a table of her abuela friends and of the laughter and female gossip of a slow Friday morning.
Reading this poem again, that "she" who captivates, who steals hearts might well be Frida Kahlo, who sits in modern Mexican regard somewhere below the Virgin and above her husband, the painter and politician Diego Rivera. She appeared to me first seven years ago on the pages of a coffee-table book, all uni-brows, ferns and flesh. It was my second year in Shanghai, in Mr. Malcolm's seventh grade art class, somewhere in that bald man's bookcase. At that point, Frida had not yet been printed on to socks. She had not been made approachable by way of commercialization in stylish New York bookstore-gift shops. Her nakedness, ferocity, her impenetrable honesty were intimidating to a thirteen-year old who was freshly apprised of the shame a woman should bear over her body. I don't believe I loved her right away. I'm quite sure I wondered why she wouldn't pluck between her brows.
After Las Lupitas, we walk across the plaza of Parque Francisco Sosa to Capilla de Santa Catarina, a small, yellow Franciscan church trimmed in white paint which today, a Wednesday, now afternoon, is locked up. Turning the corner, we begin the short walk to La Casa Azul, where Frida Kahlo was born, raised and later, where after thirteen years living there with Diego, she died.
The cobalt blue walls are stained with last night's rain, making the color even deeper, all the more striking. That blue could make a person cry. As we walk room to room, the words exchanged between Melissa and I grow fewer. Some of the paintings on display are unfinished, those she had been in the process of creating when she died at the age of 47. How sad those are to see, the outlines of works that were never colored into, never fully realized. They are beautiful, but it is clear, surrounded by her finished pieces, that they would have become greater still.
The first room on the upper floor of the house show her paint tubes lined in even rows. Further in is Frida's bedroom. There is the bed, the mirror on the ceiling so she could paint herself when she was bedridden, the cast that once plastered her chest and back onto which she'd drawn the red hammer and sickle and below where it would have covered her stomach, a fetus. Her ashes are in this room in a clay urn. Her pillow reads, "No me olvides, mi amor. Do not forget me, my love." The words are a pang in my chest, her love for Diego so solemn and aching. Their love was complicated in part by each of their many affairs, his most famously with her sister and among hers, Leon Trotsky.
As we cross the courtyard, stepping around puddles, imagining what it might be like to live here, and enter the room where her dresses and shoes are on display, I begin to think that the most complicated love was the one Frida had with herself.
Often when I read my little diary notes, I know distinctly that they are too careful—that for fear of them being read I wrote differently, that I am afraid even to offend myself. This is a fear Frida didn't have, at least not in how she wrote, these frank declarations, sometimes somber, other times hilarious. "Me pinto a mí misma, porque soy a quien mejor conozco. I paint self-portraits, because I am the person I know best."
Maybe I too am the person I know best, but lack Frida's bravery to be unafraid of the uglier sides of that knowledge. I see the crafted remnants of the life she left behind, all she created, all that she loved and lived for, her damn defiance, her politics, her beauty and I shake my head at the girl who disagreed with Frida's eyebrows. That girl was the same one who wished to be tall and white and big-eyed.
Eventually, through the understanding that this enforcement of inferiority is by societal design, that anger at not being those things became an anger that I had once wanted so badly to be all those things and that I had felt and been made to feel ugly by their absence. I see now: the girl who didn't like Frida was a girl who didn't like herself. Frida once wrote in a letter: "No me caen muy bien los gringos. Son aburridos y tienen caras como bolillos sin hornear. I don’t like the gringos at all. They are very boring and all have faces like unbaked rolls." How I wish I had those words in middle school!
And here is this room, Frida's beloved blouses and skirts of the Tehuana tradition are hung up carefully in glass cases, worn practically (she carefully hid her leg under these great, embroidered skirts) but also symbolically, in a gesture of admiration to her country's indigenous. Her modified heel is here too, designed to even out a leg that was left shorter by childhood polio. I read that when she was in bed recovering from her terrible injuries, she looked up at framed butterflies.
It is my third day in Mexico and I want to be a part of everything. I want Frida to be my heroine. I want my tongue to memorize the slang. But that seems and really is dishonest to Frida, to Melissa, to myself to want to be what I am not, to try to own what does not belong to me. So in lieu of trying to be Mexican or trying to be Frida, I can be more truthful than that to myself, my experience, my Korean-ness that in my mind looks like a leaf full of crescent-shaped holes from the bites of caterpillars—and to honor those crescent-shaped holes as well.
Frida isn't the answer key at the end of the textbook. I get the feeling she wouldn't like being seen as some kind of solution, a caricature to be in place of being oneself, to pretend to be found in order to avoid feeling lost.
I have done that before.
This time, though, is different. The inspiration is not in Frida's braided bun or blouses or style of painting. Rather, the inspiration lies in the endeavor to be very honest with oneself, to be much braver, to continue down the rough path and stay on it for longer—perhaps to stay on it forever and endure.