The Tzotzil Mayan activist Comandanta Ramona has become an iconic figure in the struggle for Indigenous women’s rights, as an officer of Mexico’s Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), which was one-third comprised of women, and as a drafter of the Revolutionary Women’s Law which set out an uncompromisingly feminist agenda for self-determination, equality, and reproductive rights on behalf of the Indigenous women of Chiapas. Comandanta Ramona was also a founder of the National Indigenous Congress of Mexico, and led an EZLN delegation to the First National Congress of Indigenous Women in Oaxaca. In San Cristóbal, dolls of Comandanta Ramona are sold, while posters of her are a shorthand for revolutionary Indigenous feminism, comparable to the use of Che Guevara as the shorthand for wider revolution.
The iconic image of Ramona seems, from a Euro-American perspective, unusual: the combination of a revolutionary’s balaclava with a long, floral, traditional dress. In Euro-American culture, the floral dress tends to be viewed as a symbol of traditional femininity, alluding to female submission and domestic dependence. To find a long, floral dress combined with a militant image like a balaclava, representing a feminist ideology like the Revolutionary Women’s Law, may seem contradictory from other cultural perspectives. It declares that Indigenous feminism is an evolution and reclamation of Indigenous culture, not a revolution against it. Ramona’s floral dress expresses the traditions of a specific Mayan culture whose women had their extensive agency undermined by Spanish colonization. The costume is political; it is the visual shorthand and physical embodiment of Ramona’s Indigenous feminism.
If that is true of the iconic image of Comandanta Ramona, it is equally true of the even more iconic image of another famous wearer of Indigenous clothing: Frida Kahlo.
Granddaughter of the Indigenous Purépecha photographer Antonio Calderón Sandoval, daughter of a mother who befriended and aided Zapatista rebels, Frida Kahlo joined with her husband Diego Rivera in the Mexicanismo movement, which sought to reintegrate Indigenous culture and pre-Columbian heritage into the national identity of Mexico. Kahlo, probably the most significant female representative of Mexicanismo, focused on embodying the philosophy through her wearing of Indigenous clothing, particularly Tehuana dress, and its celebration in her painting. This was not merely an aesthetic choice or desire to be “exotic”: writers such as Brasseur de Bourbourg, and the Mexican educator José Vasconcelos had declared Tehuantepec to be a matriarchal society, and Frida’s choice of dress thus serves as a visual shorthand for her support of the matriarchal values that the Tehuana were famed for. Although Tehuantepec is no longer considered a true matriarchy, as its women were traditionally excluded from political power, Tehuana women did achieve a large degree of economic independence as market-traders, and were celebrated for their outspoken and sexually liberated manner. At the start of the 20th century, the Tehuana Juana Cata Romero became a revered power broker, entrepreneur, landowner, and a sexually liberated woman known for her affair with the Mexican president Porfirio Diaz, all while promoting traditional Tehuana costume.
With such precedents, Frida Kahlo’s decision to wear Tehuana dress makes a political statement of Indigenous feminism: the embodiment of female emancipation as a natural evolution of reclaimed Indigenous culture, rather than as a colonial import. It is a gesture stripped of its vital meaning if removed from the context of Tehuana (Zapotec) culture, reduced to flowery exoticism when interpreted from a Euro-American viewpoint.
For that reason, it is unfortunate that the most famous and Oscar-nominated cinematic account of Frida’s life, 2002’s Frida by the Euro-American director Julie Taymor, revels in the colorful Tehuana costumes of Salma Hayek’s Frida without providing a single line of dialogue to address their significance or the matriarchal values that they represent.
Kahlo’s Mexico was a culture of assumed hierarchies: the superiority of the European over the Indigenous, of the rich over the poor, of the masculine over the feminine. In her specific choice of peasant garb from a matriarchal Indigenous culture, Kahlo wordlessly resists each of these hierarchies simultaneously. She is, as Andre Breton described her, “a ribbon around a bomb” against a complicated, interconnected kyriarchy of oppressions.
Kahlo’s sense of kyriarchy permeates her work. “Two Nudes in the Forest” is a queer-positive work that visualizes nature as a space of lesbian eroticism, but it is equally and simultaneously a representation of solidarity between Indigenous people and cultures and European people and cultures. In “Portrait of Lucha Maria, a Girl from Tehuacan,” an Indigenous Tehuacan girl, whose very name means “struggle” in Spanish, clutches a military plane as her toy, suggesting she must be raised in preparation for battle rather than domesticated with dolls. By her military plane’s juxtaposition with her traditional costume, Kahlo’s “Lucha Maria” resembles the iconic image of Comandanta Ramona. In “My Dress Hangs There,” a chaotic collage of the decadence of Euro-American civilization is dominated by Kahlo’s Tehuana dress, hanging as a flag of mute resistance. In her most famous work, “The Two Fridas,” Kahlo celebrates the strength and wholeness of her Tehuana self, in contrast to an alternate self in colonial dress who is bleeding and has her heart torn open, associating European values with romantic weakness and dependence. The image of the empowered Tehuana, either as a disembodied dress or as an aspect of Kahlo’s dual self, continued to evolve throughout her art.
Kahlo’s sense of kyriarchy, in which the tension between Indigenous culture and European imperialism is a core aspect of her multi-faceted narratives of oppression and resistance, is simplified in Taymor’s film towards a more Euro-American feminism, focused on Kahlo’s struggle for artistic recognition and romantic fulfillment as a woman, to the exclusion of her ethnic struggle. Frida’s communism is acknowledged, but not her admiration for Stalin’s cultural nationalism, which formed the subject of several of her paintings. The political beliefs of Kahlo, and of Mexican communists generally, are left largely unexplored by Taymor’s film, or reduced to a naive admiration for the imported ideals of foreign revolutionaries such as Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush).
Another major Indigenous aspect of Kahlo’s work is its integration of Aztec and Mayan cosmology into artistic landscapes defined by the mythic Aztec struggle between light and dark, and peopled by a pantheon of pre-Columbian gods and heroes. Here again, feminism plays a key role in the emphasis that Kahlo lays on the pre-Columbian female divinities, in contrast to the wholly masculine trinity of the Christian worldview. The snake-headed Aztec goddess of birth and death, Coatlicue, sits atop the pantheon of heroes and deities in “Moses,” while in “The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego, and Señor Xolotl” the motherhood and fertility goddess Cihuacoatl cradles Kahlo, mirroring Kahlo’s own maternal pose like a universal alter-ego.
Indigenous mythology serves as a source of strength and inspiration to Kahlo, through which she envisions a distinct feminine life-force within a complementary parity of male and female energies. This aspect of Kahlo’s art is entirely absent from Taymor’s film, though it does depict a visit by Kahlo and Trotsky to pre-Columbian pyramids. For a filmmaker with Taymor’s brilliant visual sense and gift for surreal sequences, this is surely a missed opportunity. What might Taymor not have achieved with a vision of a scarred earth transforming into the heaving bosom of Cihuacoatl, or a moon that shelters a sacrificial Mayan hare, or a writhing and devouring goddess of skulls and snakes who embodies the fearful ordeal of birthing life from death? There is no doubt that Taymor’s film is vivid and captivating, but could it not have been more so, if it had delved deeper into the brutally beautiful mytho-poetry of Kahlo’s painted world and the richness of the Indigenous heritage that informs it?
Paul LeDuc’s 1983 film Frida Naturaleza Viva, starring Ofelia Medina, is slow in pace and bleak in tone, more a collage of impressions and immaculately posed images than a coherent account of the artist’s life or work. Nevertheless, it does place Kahlo and Rivera at gatherings of Indigenous Mexicans, commemorating Emiliano Zapata through folk song and celebration, and thereby representing the political roots and ideological leanings of the artists themselves.
Julie Taymor’s 2002 work is a far more satisfying film, dramatizing a coherent account of Kahlo’s life, and a vibrant portrait of her will to succeed as a bisexual woman with a disability. Frida is saturated in Mexican music and the beauty of Mexican culture, and filled with visual references to Kahlo’s art that are a treat for fans to spot. It fails, however, to provide any context for Kahlo’s political convictions as a Mexican cultural nationalist, her identification with folk art, or her profound interest in pre-Columbian culture. Surely, the purpose of an artist’s biopic is to explore the beliefs and experiences which have shaped their work, to give voice to what was silent on the canvas? Kahlo’s images live in Taymor’s film, but the animating beliefs and Indigenous feminism behind them remain unspoken. In the opening sequence, Kahlo with a mobility disability is carried to her final exhibition in her bed and she’s accompanied by her sister Cristina and an Indigenous peasant woman, who smiles at Kahlo in affection but whose relationship with her will never be explored, and who will never even utter a line of dialogue. Her voicelessness seems to sadly typify the film’s continual use of the Indigenous as silenced accessory.
On one of the film’s posters, Kahlo’s painting “The Two Fridas” is restaged with dual Salma Hayeks clasping hands, one in a male suit and one in a Tehuana costume. The duality is now between her masculine and feminine selves, a tension of gender identity and sexuality, rather than the original painting’s tension between European and Indigenous models of womanhood, that is a distinctly Mexican cultural tension. The alteration appears to reflect the film’s wider purpose of universalizing Kahlo’s story of love and physical suffering. Are Mexican struggles to decolonize really so threatening or so difficult for international audiences to relate to? By reinforcing the impression that a “universal” and relatable story of a woman’s struggle must be a story in which specifically Indigenous concerns are silenced, Frida perhaps unwittingly contributes to the marginalization of Indigenous feminism, depriving it of a potent international icon. While an excellent film in many aspects, it could have been much more. It remains to us as viewers to put back the meanings that are left unsaid.
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Brigit McCone has a passion for all things Frida Kahlo and Salma Hayek. She writes and directs short films and radio dramas. Her hobbies include doodling and memorizing lists of underrated female artists. Brigit McCone is an extremely boring dinner party guest.