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Five things to know about Frida Kahlo the communist
Revolutionary artist and socialist Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907 in Coyoacan, Mexico City, Mexico.
In today’s pop culture, Frida Kahlo is everywhere. From Barbie dolls (banned in Mexico) to a new Frida Kahlo Cosmetics Box Set, her likeness is used to market and sell everything. Corporate sanitization distorts Frida, but it is nevertheless a distortion based in a genuine global popularity and appreciation of not only Frida the artist, but Frida the political radical, trailblazer and unapologetic partisan of the world’s working and oppressed peoples. Her international appeal is rooted in her identification with revolution and resistance.
Similar to another heavily marketed Latin American communist revolutionary, Ernesto “el Ché” Guevara, corporate marketing departments and liberal movement-scenes alike seem to want Frida’s image, but not her politics. The substance of Frida Kahlo’s life of communist political activity can be even harder to excavate than Ché’s in many ways due to the fact that Frida’s life and politics is still only triangulated in relation to the life and politics of the men in her life, ironic for someone revered as a feminist icon.
In honor of Frida Kahlo’s birthday, here are five things you should know about this revolutionary political icon.
Before art, Frida was a gifted student and campus radical
In 1922, a 14-year-old Frida was one of the first girls admitted to the prestigious Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (National Preparatory School) in Mexico City, an elite high school. Of 2,000 enrolled students, Frida was only one of 35 young women admitted, a testament to her talent. She studied biology with hopes of becoming a doctor and became trilingual in Spanish, English, and German.
While attending the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, Frida became a member of “Los Cachuchas”, a campus-based radical group named after the style of caps they wore in rebellion against the dress code of the period. The group voraciously read Lenin, Marx, Hegel, Kant, Russian literature, and Mexican fiction. Frida, who considered herself a “daughter of the [Mexican] Revolution” (1910-1920) had profound and heated debates with her peers who came from the most elite families in the country. Los Cachuchas were known for playing pranks on conservative teachers.
Frida was a socialist organizer and active member of the Mexican Communist Party
Frida was a lifelong socialist and Marxist-Leninist. By the age of 16, she had joined the youth group of the Mexican Communist Party (PCM). In 1928, in her early 20s, Frida joined the PCM even though it had become outlawed (1925-1935).
Frida was an active organizer in the party. She wrote and gave speeches, attended meetings, and led union rallies.
After being expelled in 1929 for politically supporting the Left Opposition within the Soviet Communist Party, Frida would rejoin the PCM in 1948. She campaigned for peace against the U.S.-initiated Cold War, which had begun with the nuclear incineration of Japanese civilians, and aimed at opposing the Soviet Union, the worldwide communist movement, and all colonized peoples struggling for independence.
As a member of the party Frida collected signatures for the Stockholm Appeal, a 1950 peace initiative anchored by the Soviet Union promoting nuclear disarmament and opposing the first-strike “nuclear diplomacy” of the United States. Some 273,470,566 signatures were gathered worldwide.
Even when diminishing health prevented Frida from full party participation, she remained devoted. She was lauded for her diligence in paying party dues on time and for her seriousness when it came to self-study. Frida contributed substantial financial resources to the party in certain areas, such as the Communist Youth.
During her last years, Frida wrote in her diary, “I must struggle with all my strength to contribute the few positive things my health allows to the Revolution, the only real reason to live.”
Frida’s class politics sharpened after living in San Francisco, Detroit and New York City during the Great Depression
From 1930 to 1933, Frida lived in the United States, which she dubbed “Gringolandia.”
The experience was transformative. Frida was living in the United States at the height of the Great Depression and Jim Crow apartheid. While living in Detroit between 1931 and 1932, Frida became indignant by the city’s widespread poverty, hunger, and blatant racism, which she characterized as “absolutely medieval.”
In a letter home during this time, Frida summarized what she saw, “High society here turns me off and I feel a bit of rage against all these rich guys here, since I have seen thousands of people in the most terrible misery, without anything to eat and with no place to sleep, that is what most impressed me here, it is terrifying to see the rich having parties day and night while thousands and thousands of people are dying of hunger.”
By 1933, Frida and her husband Diego Rivera were in New York City. In another letter home she wrote about Fifth Avenue, where the “filthy rich” reside: “There is so much misery at the same time, that it seems incredible that people can endure such class differences, and accept such a form of life, since thousands and thousands of people are starving of hunger while on the other hand, millionaires throw away millions on stupidities.”
In 1931, while living in San Francisco, Frida spurned racist anti-Asian and white-supremacist social conventions, spending her free time in Chinatown, where most of the San Francisco Chinese community lived, and long before Chinatown became a popular tourist attraction.
A few months before Frida arrived, a former San Francisco Mayor and California representative in the U.S. Senate, James Duval Phelan, died. In his reelection campaign for U.S. Senate, Phelan’s slogan was “Keep California White” and he spoke of saving California from “Oriental aggression.” In 2018, “Phelan Avenue” was appropriately renamed “Frida Kahlo Way.”
Frida raised money for anti-fascists during the Spanish Civil War and aided refugees
The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), has often referred to as the “dress rehearsal” for World War II because it pitted European fascism on one side against the “republican camp” – which included communists and socialists – representing the interests of workers and peasants on the other.
Frida played a role in fighting for the rights of Spanish Republican refugees seeking asylum in Mexico. In 1936, Frida, along with other socialist organizers, founded a solidarity committee that fundraised money for the Spanish Republicans fighting against fascism. In this committee, Frida was responsible for helping refugees find places to stay and ensuring that they were able to secure employment.
Frida demonstrated against the 1954 U.S. overthrow of Guatemala’s democratically elected government
Eleven days before her death, Frida participated – in a wheelchair and against her doctor’s orders – in a July 2 protest against the United States’ intervention in Guatemala. Over 10,000 people in Mexico took to the streets to denounce the CIA-led coup of Guatemala’s democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz, whom the United States had decided was a communist and therefore must go.
The centerpiece of Arbenz’s program was land reform that distributed uncultivated land to landless farmers. This, as well as his unwelcome attitude toward multinational corporations, the expansion of social and labor rights, and his “tolerance of communists” made him a marked man. The United States installed a new government headed by Gen. Castillo Armas who celebrated by torturing and killing thousands of suspected communists, and overseeing decades of bloody repression.
These events would radicalize a young doctor from Argentina, Ernesto Guevara, who was in Guatemala at the time of the CIA coup.
Frida died on July 13, 1954. Hundreds escorted her coffin draped with the flag of the Mexican Communist Party to the ceremony. Just weeks later, Ernesto Guevara would arrive in Mexico City, the birthplace of Frida Kahlo, where he would eventually meet Raul and Fidel Castro and go on to help lead this hemisphere’s first successful socialist revolution.