“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it's true I'm here, and I'm just as strange as you.”
- Frida Kahlo
I was born into an invisible conflict. I would not learn it until I was much older, but my mere existence was a direct challenge to social constructs and stereotypes of social identities. Because of this, my conflict was both internal and external, in many ways very simple but too often incredibly complex. My mother is a white woman, born and raised in the United States with an upper-middle class upbringing and an educated background. My father is Latino and an immigrant from Costa Rica, where he was dirt poor and the first of his family to make it past high school. It was from these two people that I was created, and thus where my conflict started. On one hand, I have relatively fair skin; I am within white privilege, a structural aspect of United States culture that continues to hold tightly in modern day. But on the other hand, I am also Latina, a racialized and stereotyped identity. In dominant United States rhetoric, a Latina is a “wetback,” an undeserving freeloader, and a victim to her volatile emotions and poor life choices. These socially constructed ideas do not go hand in hand; rather, they contradict each other almost completely.
After my parents divorced, I lived with my mother in a low-income town in New York state. I visited my father every week at his nearby small apartment. My mother was now a single mom of three, and my father was completely alone and depressed. It was at this time that I met Frida Kahlo. My mother had lived in Costa Rica and loved Latin American culture and art. She kept prints of paintings by Frida Kahlo around the house and owned several books. One day, bored and curious, I opened up a book of Frida’s paintings. It was that day I became infatuated. Before my gaze were paintings of not just life and beauty, but of pain and confusion, two concepts I surely had felt deeply but had no idea how to express. I traced my fingers along her paintings and in a strange and juvenile way I understood her pain.
Frida Kahlo was born in Coyocán, Mexico, in 1907 to a German immigrant (her father), and a Mexican mestiza (her mother). Frida’s inherited background became a critical point of connection as my fascination of the artist grew. Like me, she was a mix of clashing cultures, an “impure” woman plagued by confusion over herself and her identity. Frida’s short life was filled with misfortune, from her childhood diagnosis of polio to a bus accident, in which she was impaled; this accident would cause her pain for the rest of her life. But she lived on with her canvas becoming her voice as she expressed her emotions and pain.
At the age of 7, my family moved to New Hampshire, to a wealthy town that was safe and primarily white. It was in this town that I would grow into the world, a place where my notion of self would be continually challenged. In second grade I started to feel different, like a misfit. I had unexplainable episodes of running away from my friends randomly, as well as persistent anxiety. In third grade, as my anxiety progressed, my mother decided to show me the movie Frida, a modern depiction of the life of Frida Kahlo. As I watched the film, I remember thinking how beautiful Frida was. She was in pain and miserable, but her features were soft, her eyes were open and shining, and she was eloquently crude and realistic (Frida was a big smoker and drinker, and was known to cuss). It was through this movie that I first comprehended that life was not meant to be easy, that bisexuality existed (Frida Kahlo was bisexual), and that perseverance is possible through anything life can throw at you. Rather, I would say that Frida taught me these things.
As I continued to grow older, my life became complex. My mom was remarried and pregnant with my new little sister. My father had moved farther away. I continued to be conflicted by my identity, and tried to exert control in any way I could. I lived in a homogenous environment that gave me little opportunity to celebrate my Latin roots. Thus, for picture day, I wore a beautiful traditional dress, and I walked to the bus proud. But, as soon as I reached my classroom, I felt embarrassed and ashamed. My friends questioned my “funny” outfit. And, in a simple sentence that shattered my understanding of myself, my close friend said to me “I mean, but you’re not really Latin American. You don’t talk like someone who’s from there, you don’t look like it, and you don’t even really speak Spanish.”
After that day, I felt lost. Who was I, if I was not really Latina? I started to look to movies and media to understand what I was missing, what fateful parts of me kept me from my Latin American identity. I had my father buy me spanish books so I could speak more. I clipped magazine pictures of what “real” Latinas looked like. As I got older, the conflict grew, and I was constantly re-inventing myself to fit my new knowledge of what I should be. By middle school, I was consistently dyeing my hair darker to change my appearance. By high school, I had developed an eating disorder and started wearing stereotypical “Latina” accessories, such as long fake nails, too-tight jeans, and big hoop earrings. I practiced my pout in the mirror every morning, trying to underscore my thicker lips and make my face sexually appealing (“feisty” seemed to be the word that appeared in magazines the most). It was a constant battle every day, and the more I changed myself the deeper my confusion and depression grew. Eventually, I had to get away and completely remove myself from my environment.
I was oblivious to the sick and twisted game I had put myself in. While I did not realize it at the time, the comments of my peers did not make me any less Latina than I actually was. Instead, their comments highlighted a deeper yet subtle racism that continues to permeate dominant culture today. I am paler than the stereotypical Latina, I don’t “speak” like a Latina (read: I sound more educated and do not have an accent), I don’t dress like a “true” Latina, and I’m from Hanover (a wealthy and elite town), so how could I possible be Costa Rican? My young friends were reinforcing the same stereotypes about Latinas that had been taught to them. Thus, in their minds, I couldn’t be Latina; I was too educated, too rich, and too white.
By trying to alter my appearance to fit their stereotypes, however, I was playing into the same structure of domination. I was validating their stereotypes by trying to fit myself into them. My personal white privilege allowed me to do this; since my Latina identity was not always salient, concerns of discrimination were relatively rare, and many of my ideas of being Latin American were romanticized bullshit that often comes out of a 96% white community. My deep state of depression and anxiety was understandable because I was committing acts of self-hatred towards the very identity I thought I loved.
It was at my lowest point that I reconnected with Frida again. Frida, who had suffered greatly throughout her life, had also struggled with her identity. In fact, as a reaction to a lifelong sense of inadequacy, Frida continually invented and reinvented herself to keep others interested. Frida felt lost, yet in the end she persevered. She continued to live until her health failed her. Later in her life, she matured and grounded herself, using her canvas to express her most intimate emotions. She accentuated her unibrow and moustache because she wanted to, despite common notions of beauty (my friends were quick to point out these “ugly” attributes). Amidst the confusion that plagued her, Frida lived her life to the best of her ability, pushing herself as an artist and a human being. She was not concerned about fitting into the identity boxes others presented to her. In her work and her life story, I found evidence of a way out of the hole I had felt trapped in for so long.
And now, here I am, a student, a daughter, a sister, and also a woman of color. I recognize my own privilege, and I recognize that there is no one “Latina” identity. Today, I still think Frida Kahlo is a beautiful human being, and I have finally realized that I AM a Latina, despite not fitting into the stereotype so many want to push me into (or push me out of). Despite feelings of inadequacy (or lack of Latina-ness), I joined La Unidad in the fall of my first year at Mount Holyoke, and I have been treated with the utmost respect in regards to my identity. Exposure has allowed me to see the varying ways Latin@s choose to express themselves. I finally recognize that I can come from an upper-middle class background, speak the way I do, act the way I am, and still be my father’s daughter. Latin@s are not a simple laundry list of abused stereotypes, and to try and push people into that category (or to criminalize those who are lower class/not as educated/darker skinned) is a domination tactic meant to keep Latin@s in the lower echelon of white society. I no longer live in an either/or world, where I must drop one aspect of who I am to accommodate for the other. Instead, I appreciate my strange and conflicting identity. In the end, Frida Kahlo became the strange person who I felt was just as strange as me.