Why is Frida Kahlo Important?
Did you know that Frida Kahlo had a one woman show in New York City in 1938? Why is that astounding? A woman showed up in the heyday of giants like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, when art was a man’s world. Beyond that, she showed up in traditional Zapotec dress out of Mexico. She became a heroine celebrating the indigenous as equal to the colonist. We are all on the same planet. We all are given one heart, and one brain. She celebrated all people and most especially women.
Framed another way, why is Frida Kahlo important to poetry? Raúl Sánchez has given us a beautiful duet of poems as a tribute to the legendary artist. He has elegantly expressed why she has become so important to so many people. They are both posted at the end of this article.
Who is Raúl? You can view more about him at the link above. We're grateful he is working so hard at his craft. Raúl has done a great deal for poetry in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. He was the poet laureate for the city of Redmond. He has written lyrics to an opera. He has been on the faculty of LitFuse in Tieton Washington. He is a strong voice for the indigenous and Mexican people that make their lives here, whether in Seattle or in Yakima. Please check out his book:
Brown-Skinned Angels. Frida is such an angel. Angels of all kinds offer hope and strength in many cultures. We talk about halos and harps from our European mythologies, but in any culture, we personify angels to add power to our poetry, and art. Frida gave credence to that fact with her artwork and life. A Spanish speaking Mexican person as an equal to an English-speaking person in her eyes. Two languages. Angels in both. Frida was an angel in both.
Raúl gave us his tribute to Frida in Spanish and English. Are all poems in two languages a translation? That depends. Raúl helps us see the subtle difference. We feel compelled to translate poetry because it exports the influence its influence in one culture to another linguistic group. The export of language is one of the greatest tools humans have in creating a better world.
Poems, however, hold a special place in that export, due to their precise use of a native tongue. When you travel, you can get away with gesturing and butchering the pronunciation of the second language to get your point across. We communicate that way because of the multiple context clues we get in everyday speech. Gestures, facial expressions, grunting, laughing, bad pronunciation. Let's face it. If you don’t speak someone’s language, there is a great deal of random pointing in a bad game of charades. A poem, however, has one context. The words on a page.
Translations, in general, illuminate different cultures in a binary fashion. For instance, Red Pine, a modern poet translated The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain from Mandarin into English. It is a bilingual book with each page being a linguistic mirror. It is fascinating to toggle between the two languages and explore the nuances of culture while the poem’s meaning is maintained. However, the experience can become binary. Personally, I don't speak Mandarin. I have loved my passionate study of the poems, but what I can get out of the second language is limited. The translator is my guide across the bridge into another world. Two different worlds. One side the bridge for each culture. One side of the bridge on each bank of the river.
On the other hand, when the poet is bilingual and bicultural (like we have in the treasure of Raúl Sánchez), the binary element fades, and the poem is stronger in both languages. The guide across the bridge, in some ways, becomes a giant, straddling the river, with a foot firmly on both banks.
Translation means “to transfer from one location to another.” A translation of words is taking a linguistic unit and moving it to another linguistic unit. A character. A word. A sentence. An idiom. This has the translator, simply carrying your pack across the bridge, like a mule. (Granted a translator is the most educated mule you will find. Hope no offense is taken.) As the reader, if the translator has done their job, you don’t pay attention to the mule. You just want the pack carried over, so you can enter the new location. Extract meaning from the new language.
The bilingual and bicultural brain writes the poem from a different tack. The bicultural person is a giant and has no need to hoist the pack on their back. The bridge is irrelevant to them. To them the linguistic elements are seamless. There is no direct transfer, or movement among linguistic units. It a different perspective that is not immediately apparent. Some people (like goslings) are imprinted with a monoculture and learn the second. That could be a monolingual reader, or even a formal translator. They become proficient in the second language and move forward. Others are imprinted with two cultures and learn how to exist in both from an early age. They are proficient in both with equal facility. Raúl is one of many in that category, and his gift is to give voice to them all.
Let’s push metaphor further out of the abstract. The region around the border (on both sides) of Mexico and the US is called La Frontera. It speaks to the subculture that develops for a bicultural person. People on both sides are impacted both in lifestyle and thinking. Even if they only speak one language, they live in two worlds. When they speak both languages, the metaphor is strengthened. Raúl is the giant that has both feet on the banks of the Rio Grande. His poetry speaks to a larger subculture. That’s why it resonates in the same way that Pablo Neruda’s did with his work The Heights of Macchu Picchu. Raúl helps us glimpse into that challenge of people from Mexico living in a new culture and how they have to straddle two banks of the river in their mind to survive and thrive in the US.
Yes, but why Frida is important to bilingual poetry and translation? It’s worth repeating that Frida was a bicultural angel. Frida, as a person and artist, elevated the indigenous person of Mexico into a beautiful, transcendent soul. That soul held dignity and power as being a person of the earth. She has become an angel. That is crucial to many people living in the legacy of negative cultural attitudes toward Mexican people. Raúl has done it with poetry. He has done with his tribute to Frida. Hopefully Raúl’s poetry will inspire you to explore bilingual poetry so you can deepen your craft.
Frida has touched many people and inspired many poets, writers and artists. One of Raúl’s counterparts in Seattle, in the visual arts, is Alfredo Arreguín. He has painted Frida, multiple times, using her much the same way as Raúl does in his poem. You can view a few of them on his link. You can view those and more of his work in his book World of Wonders
She is an angel.
She inspires bicultural angels.
She is a brown-skinned angel.
As Raúl reminds us in his book
One final irony is that angel is spelled the same in both English and Spanish. It doesn’t happen often between languages unless there is a transliteration. That’s where one language doesn’t create a new word. Kindergarten is such a word, originating in German in 1840 when the modern elementary school was invented. English speakers are great at begging, borrowing, and stealing words from other languages. (This can be why it is such a challenge to master as a second language.) Part of that reflects the fact that in the US, especially, we have been an overlapping of cultures for many years.
All of that said, it means that we need to understand that all cultures have angels. When we stop tolerating another person’s ideas, we lose this notion of what an angel personifies. When we stop tolerating people simply because they are different, we have no angels. They fade away. They go where they are wanted, and we lose their light and hope. Hold onto your angels, wherever you are in life.
Remember, an angel is the same in both English and Spanish.
That is why Frida Kahlo is important.
Encarnada Para Frida Kahlo Encarnada con labios de rosa piel de la tierra ojos de luna nocturna flores en su cabello como una reina estrella deslumbrante aguamarina amarilla emergiendo de la tierra como una fuente de aliento, de vida, de calor, color arte de ojo a ojo de ceja a ceja y después al universo nacida y creada entre mazorcas y el maíz, crecida de la tierra morena como el color de su piel Incarnated
After Frida Kahlo
Incarnated with rose petal lips
earth colored skin
eyes like midnight moons
flowers on her hair
like a star queen brilliant
emerging from earth
a fountain of hope
life, color, heat
art from eye to eye unbound
from eyebrow to eyebrow
born and created into the universe
among corn plants, husks
grown from the ground, our earth
brown as the color of her skin