For those who don’t know, La Malinche was the young woman-child and slave sold to Hernan Cortes on the Maya coast of Mexico in 1521. She was traded by the Chontal Maya along with 19 other 12-year olds. Her narrative is complex and formidable. An exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum examines her role as survivor, interpretor, and companion. In viewing the exhibit and knowing of her story, I continue to ask myself, Why was she so maligned?
In contemporary history, as interpreted by Mexican writer/poet Octavio Paz in his 1950 essay Sons of Maliinche, he defined La Malinche as a traitor responsible for the Spanish conquest of indigenous Mexico. This is an interpretation that has stuck and is only beginning to be questioned and debunked.
Mestizaje, the mixing of Spanish and indigenous, is the origin story of modern Mexico. It factored prominently during the Mexican Revolution when political leaders were trying to establish a new identity for the re-imagined nation, one based on honoring indigenous roots. And, yet, La Malinche continues to be denigrated as the ultimate betrayal. To be known as a Malinchistas is a derogatory slur applied to those who favor anything foreign.
To understand Mexico is to understand the context of the Spanish conquest and Aztec (Mexica) dominance. The Aztecs controlled the territory from Tenochtitlan to Nicaragua for over 150 years. Heavy tributes were collected from indigenous tribal groups and the Aztecs were hated by many. La Malinche recruited indigenous allies, some of which included the Zapotecs, the Tlaxcalans, and those from Texcoco (surrounding Tenochtitlan) who aligned with the Spanish to defeat the Aztecs. With this backdrop, La Malinche emerges as the negotiator, interpretor (she learned Spanish and knew Nahuatl, language of the Aztecs), facilitator.
Her images are depicted in the codices of the time — the painted pictorials that told the story of the Spanish expedition in Mexico. She wears a red and white huipil, her hair is tied in braids around her crown (sign of a married woman). She sits with Cortes and tribal royalty to broker the alliances that would destroy the Aztecs. Why is she depicted as evil, as the traitor?
it wasn’t until the Chicano movement of the 1970’s that La Malinche began to be reinterpreted as heroine, representing the sacrifices that women made for family and community. Women have culturally had no voice, are controlled and dominated. This is evidenced by machismo, and we see even more of behavior now in the United States with the reversal of Roe v. Wade and the dominance of conservative, repressive values that have migrated into our legal system.
There is no better time to talk about La Malinche as symbol of survival and intelligence. It is also the time to talk about missing and murdered indigenous women in Mexico and in Navtive American tribes of the United States. Domestic violence against women rose signficantly during the pandemic.
In modern Oaxaca, La Malinche survives in the Dance of the Feather. Her duality as an indigenous girl and a convert to Catholicism (legitimate) and baptized Doña Marina is depicted by two distinct individuals, as if one could be separated from the other. Dance as historical interpretation exists in New Mexico, too, with the Dance of the Matachines, depicting the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. La Malinche plays a prominent role here, too. As a resident of Oaxaca and New Mexico, I find this overlap fascinating. The exhibition concludes with contemporary photographs of New Mexico indigenous villages celebrating the Dance of the Matachines.
As I exited the Albuquerque Museum, I could help but make these observations and a list:
- Men determining the fate of women
- Women without choices
- Women without voices
- Women without rights
- Women as slaves and chattel
- Women who are powerless
- Women as evil, bearing the Garden of Eden legacy
- Women as temptress, sexual object
- Women objectified in fashion, film, photography
I found this exhibition to be provocative and gave me pause to think about the fate of La Malinche and all women who are enslaved in traditional roles with few choices and little chance for escape. This is why this exhibition is so important. I hope it comes to a city near you.
Details, Another View of Frida Kahlo at Casa Azul
In the last three years, I’ve probably visited Casa Azul, where Frida Kahlo was born and lived with Diego Rivera, over ten times. I come because I organize the art history study tour, Looking for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
Frida Kahlo Calderon, daughter of Jewish Hungarian father and Oaxaquena mother
Can you get to Mexico City next weekend?
On this latest visit last Friday with a group from Australia and New Zealand, I served as a consultant for their leader who wanted a one-day quick immersion into Frida’s life for her group.
Frida’s father and mother, her portrait of them
I wondered: How do I continue to take photos of the same iconographic details of Frida and Diego’s life? The paint brushes. The photographs. The furniture. The folk art collection.
Detail of studio paint brushes, her strokes became weaker at the end
The pre-Hispanic ceramics and lava rock sculpture. The clothing. The frog urn that contains her ashes. The paintings she created out of pain. Reverence. Disappointment. Courage. Commitment to love and family. Passion.
Watermelons. Celebration of Life. Finished just before death.
Go to the details, I told myself. Captures the parts, not the whole. Focus on the brush strokes. The lace. The color. The shadows and reflections. The images of the men and women she loved.
Colored oil crayons, still neatly boxed, waiting. Ready.
Go to the details. Find the ribbons. Find the ribs of the plant leaves. The shape of flowers. The accoutrements of the corsets and built-up shoes to hide her deformities. The textures and reflections.
Palm ribs in the expansive garden, Casa Azul
She put such a strong, uplifting face to the world despite her injuries — physical and emotional.
She called Diego “Toad” and “Panza” — ashes contained within the frog jug.
This trip to Casa Azul was different for me and I used the experience to examine the infinite, small parts of life that we often scan over to take in the big picture.
Visceral, the insides of a gourd, like a fertile womb ready to give seed. But she couldn’t.
If you want to join me in Mexico City, Thursday, July 29, for a July 30 morning start to a three-day immersion into the murals, paintings and lives of Friday and Diego, there is a space for you. It’s so easy to fly in and out!
Lover, sculptor Isamu Noguchi, in Mexico
Why is Frida Kahlo an icon? Perhaps you would like to help me answer this question.
Supported by a frame, a corset, exposed, bare and barren.
What does she represent for women who aspire to be independent, strong, feminine and vulnerable?
Painting from a wheel chair, Casa Azul
She hid her misshapen body beneath glorious hand-woven and embroidered dresses, put her best foot and face forward. Persevered and thrived.
Loved by photographer Nicolas Murry. She was devoted to Diego.
Today, she is more famous, more revered than Diego Rivera because she exposed herself and revealed the internal, damaged self.
Frida refused to let her polio define her, though she wore a brace, sturdy shoes.
Andre Breton called her Mexico’s surrealist painter. She is more than that. Surrealism conjures up Salvador Dali and the distortions he saw in life. Frida reflected on her own distortions and created beauty from them.
On the bus, a fateful day of destruction and a lifetime of reconstruction
Would Frida have become the painter she did without having suffered the trolley car accident that sent a metal spear through her uterus?
Frida Kahlo, 1907-1954
Self-portrait, through Frida Kahlo’s looking glass
Sometimes courage requires that we each put one foot in front of the other to move forward, despite set-backs. We love Frida Kahlo because through her story she teaches us that life requires risk, innovation, and that being afraid is part of our existence.
Painted gourd adorns kitchen table in Casa Azul
When Frida died, Diego Rivera wanted to establish a museum to honor her. She was not yet recognized. He convinced his friend, Dolores Olmedo, to invest in purchasing Frida’s paintings and Casa Azul.
Closet where Frida’s belongings were sealed for 50 years
But, he made her promise not to open the green closet door, where clothing, diaries and photos remained secreted for fifty years.
In 2006, the closet was opened and art history was rewritten.
The garden at Casa Azul
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Mexico City, Workshops and Retreats
Tagged art history, Diego Rivera, feminism, Frida Kahlo, icons of womanhood, life, Mexican painters, Mexico City, study tour, Women