Last Day Reflections

Today, the last day of our trip, we are energized by the Borders and Identity Unit that we have built and will use to launch the year with our students. We are flooded with all that we’ve seen in our seven cities. We are entrenched in the creative part of teaching, the part that involves being an interesting, engaged individual to better support the interesting, engaged individuals in our classrooms. The part that means we learn something new in order to teach something new. The experience of being a learner better prepares a teacher to teach, and this summer was an opportunity for us to authentically learn about murals on different borders, to confront not knowing and to investigate, to use art as a lens into community.

This trip made space for us to be learners. After the 12th grade, those opportunities almost always come with one (or many) literal costs. And Fund for Teachers (along with the school year calendar) gave us the time, space, and finances to learn more in a way that will support our students, but also in a way that sustains us as teachers, professionals, and individuals. It made it possible for us to end the trip feeling rejuvenated rather than depleted. There is a constant push for teachers to continue professional development; it is indeed essential. But driving this profession development experience (and literally driving more than 900 miles) meant that we could pace our learning and reflection, and that we could intentionally choose meaningful experiences that hit our “zone of proximal development.”

 

This month, we immersed ourselves in adult project-based learning. We’ve tried lots of new things, from food to cloud-mountain hiking to driving to places we’d never been (while blogging) to talking about art from sunrise to sunset. And we’ve done the whole thing together. Often, in our classrooms, we create groups that we believe will benefit from the individuality of each member. We build in scaffolds meant to allow the group to discover each individual’s strengths and to make empathy a non-negotiable. Though we embarked with empathy and respect already in place, our twenty-six days together have illuminated the strengths and areas of growth (thanks, BPS, for the language) of our partnership. We both value efficiency, and, in the face of less-than-such (e.g., when the internet goes as turtle-pace, when people get motion sick, when you walk up the wrong side of the mountain, etc), we have learned much about each other. That knowledge has made us better collaborators and better friends.

In San Francisco, where we started our trip, we were oriented to the idea of looking. This was not just because there was so much to look at in The Mission, but also because we did our first day with a guide, who was able to re-frame what we had seen and interpreted in the context of history and community. Carla made us cognizant of how much we needed other people’s knowledge and understanding to build our own. The Pacoima (L.A.) murals added a layer of “looking around corners” to that concept. On the hottest day of our trip, we spent the majority of it seeking out art on the walls of automotive dealerships and in the parking lots of community centers. It wasn’t always going to be all in one alley. In San Diego, a park once occupied by people and now occupied by art, had us looking for four hours and not seeing enough. We returned home those nights googling Aztec symbols and stories, trying to learn enough to know something.

Tucson and Dr. Acosta gave us yet another frame through which to experience our learning. Freedom of education does not mean freedom to learn about the American Revolution and the Civil War through a lens of whiteness. Precious Knowledge, to our generation of “urban baby teachers,” is a reflection of our intentions. Though we (the generation of “urban baby teachers”) are in no way united in our vision or our understanding of social justice, the power of conviction in ideas, history, and lifting stories and voices drove us into the work of education. We wonder if he knows how many teachers who are only five or six years in are tracking his legal battle and celebrating his victories.

 

In Santa Fe, we absorbed the International Folk Art Market, how artists envision and reimagine, how tradition can morph modern and can accommodate the present day without reneging its roots. This mirrors the murals we’ve seen and the art of Frida Kahlo, taking symbols from the past and bringing them to life in the now. In Mexico City, we saw so much. Teotihuacan, Frida, Diego, the Anthropology Museum, street art, the culinary art of Pujol, the stained glass and craters of Toluca. With American eyes and feet, we navigated the city, and learned all that we still had to learn.

It is hard to classify this trip, and even harder to know all that it will bring to our classrooms. It falls somewhere in the vicinity of sabbatical–an intentional, purposeful break that brings new insight–but also touches the realm of professional development, continuing education, and creative project. We vision a unit with three parts. First, with our students, we will read several memoirs that broadly address the topic of borders and walls, thinking with our students about potential barriers and how to scale them. Second, we will all generate and share memoirs from our own lives on the same topic. The author of each memoir will formulate his or her own theme about the topic, communicating a piece of knowledge gained from navigating–either adeptly or crudely–a border. Finally, after examining many primary sources collected on our trip and within Boston, students will co-construct a mural combining the themes of their memoirs to create a community creation.

The idea of “insider and outsider” has been, in many ways, the crux of our travels. We asked questions and navigated our identity as visitor, as white visitor, as American visitor. In our classrooms we are often the the outsiders to the communities in which we teach. However our ethnicities and upbringing reflect the dominant histories and tools that are demanded from dominant culture. In this unit, we hope to illuminate these walls, supporting students to name them, scale them, and ultimately paint them. As humanities teachers, we believe that providing students vocabulary and time to think and discuss the world and its issues leads to a brighter, more creative, and smarter future than the two of us can imagine. Solutions lie in the writing, in the art, in the conversations, and in the relationships that students create. Just as we wrote in our FFT proposal, students must see themselves reflected in curriculum, in physical space, and in pedagogy in order to be successful. Because we do not physically reflect our students’ identities, we think constantly about how to make all other facets of our teaching affirming. This unit and this project will be a launching point for discussions about personal identity, community, and what comes next.

In Solidarity,
Kat + Alice

Thank Yous:

To Jenn, for extending opportunities and providing support to those who choose them; to Erica Herman and Pauline Lugira, for being principals who support and encourage teacher learning and leadership; to our families and hosts along the way, thank you for your support, trust, and generosity while we adventured; and to the Writing Is Thinking team, whose Mission, Vision, and Foundational Beliefs propel collaboration and innovative teaching.

Teotihuacan, or What We Don’t Know [Yet]

Our first day in Mexico City was a Monday, which is the day that most museums are closed. We decided to spend that day touring Teotihuacan, ruins located in the Basin of Central Mexico. After visiting Chicano Park and seeing so many symbols for Aztlan and Aztec history that we didn’t have schema for, we knew we had to learn much more. Teotihuacan is one of many places housing the historical knowledge essential to the unit we are planning.

We entered the archeological site of Teotihuacan near the San Juan River and the first thing we saw was a large statue of Chaciuhtlicue, the Aztec water goddess. Our guide explained that the original statue is in the Anthropological Museum, but that this goddess was a foundational part of daily goings-on in Teotihuacan. We started our tour in the Citadel, then walked down to climb the Sun Pyramid, and then climbed half-way up the Moon Pyramid. 

As we went through Teotihuacan (and actually since we left Mexico City at 5:45 that morning), we were led by Gersom, our fearless guide. He led in us English and Spanish, and UDLed his tour, using a whiteboard and marker to draw the concepts he most hoped we would understand. For example, each pyramid is actually five layers of pyramid, one on top of another. He also illustrated for us several of the sacrificial rituals believed to have been a part of the city’s daily routine. One of the principles we were left thinking about, however, was Gersom’s insistence that everything we would read on a sign at Teotihuacan was outdated and false. He told us that, since they had been posted, several large anthropological studies proved the signs inaccurate. He spoke of teams coming in from other countries and excavating, all at once discovering new truths and destroying the site. While it is often true that to gain knowledge, one must destroy a little, it caused us to question how the Mexican government is vetting international exploration, especially that which causes the Moon Pyramid to be so unstable.

To complement our trip to Teotihuacan, we went to the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. To say that it was informative would be an understatement–there was enough in that museum to occupy two or three days of learning without stop. We spent the majority of time in a few rooms including “Introduccion de la Anthropologia,” “Poblamiento de America,” “Teotihuacan,” “Mexica,” and a few others, doing our best to learn the what and the how of ancient life in the places that eventually gave life to murals we had seen.

While visiting Teotihuacan and in the museum alike, it was clear to us how much we didn’t know. Teachers spend quite a bit of time knowing, being the authority on a subject or a book. Spending this time as learners, we acknowledged just how much we did not know, and how much we wanted to understand but didn’t yet have the tools to get.

In Solidarity,

Kat + Alice

A History in Pictures

One of the types of murals we’ve seen again and again during our travels is a mural that tells a linear history, from left to right, of a culture or civilization. In San Francisco, it was the mural on St. Peter’s Church (described in this blog post). In L.A., we saw a mural chronicling Filipino history beginning with Lapu Lapu who fought Migellan and colonization. Right as one enters Chicano Park, there is a mural beginning with dark tones of colonization and illustrating the changes and triumphs of Aztlan culture. In Albuquerque, a fresco depicting the history of the world (sorry, no photos allowed), is housed in the National Hispanic Cultural Center. In Mexico City, one of the largest collections of Diego Rivera’s murals, found at the Secretaria de Educacion Publica, fill two court yards, three levels high. Along the ground floor, these murals share the plight of the worker.

St. Peter’s Mural

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Gintong Kasaysayan, Gintong Pamana (Filipino History Mural, A Glorious History, A Golden Legacy)

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Chicano Park, Aztlan History Mural

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Diego Rivera, Secretaria de Educacion Publica

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These murals often begin with the roots of a culture, whether they be figurative or literal. For example, the St. Peter’s mural (which actually reads right to left) shows bodies underneath a field of corn, fertilizing the growth of the culture. In contrast, the murals in L.A. and San Diego begin with more historical representations of figures and events. The middle of the this type of mural usually depicts the battles–literal, civil rights-oriented, social, and otherwise–that the group confronted. In the final panels of these murals are the successes and the community’s visions for the future. In three of the five (L.A., Chicano Park, and San Francisco), the mural also featured little portraits of celebrity community members with little name plates floating underneath.  

When confronted with the Filipino mural in L.A., we were struck by how little we knew about Filipino history and Filipino-Americans today. Besides recognizing one or two figures in the more “present day” section of the mural, we were pretty ignorant of the contributions and impacts that Filipinos and Filipino-Americans have had on the country we live in. For us, it highlighted how much cultural knowledge it takes to read one of these murals. They are so rich, nuanced, and deep; even the two of us, college-educated women with a focus in American Studies/Literature/History, knew only a surface amount of these populations’ historical narratives. We were clearly outsiders entering to examine murals, and the feeling of illiteracy stuck with us (spurring us to check books out of the library and do quite a bit of googling to better understand what we saw, which has yet to be satisfying).

These murals exist in neighborhoods that the people represented in the murals fought to establish and maintain. After seeing these murals in many different neighborhoods, we are left wondering: What role they play in the continued preservation and maintenance of these neighborhoods as the generational gap between those who fought for them and the youth widens? In Filipinotown, as we looked and photographed, there were five young children playing in the park near the mural. Is the mural a talking piece that parents and grandparents use to engage children in stories about their history? Do kids internalize the experience of seeing their culture on the wall in a most familiar space? Are they inspected and seen often, or are they a backdrop as the community works, plays, and lives? Do they play a role in preserving communities that are under threat of gentrification? While we don’t have the answers to these questions (and expect that no one really does), the asking makes us look again and again and again, working to unearth the knowledge “written on the wall.”

In Solidarity,

Kat + Alice

Take Us Back to Mexico City

When first planning our trip, Mexico City was not on our itinerary at all. However, as we began to plan more in depth, we realized it was a place we had to go. It held too much history, too much wealth about murals and Chicano art. It was and still is home to too many progressive artists, activists, and thinkers who are the roots of this project. We learned so much in our six days there that we will incorporate into our classrooms in September.

While in Mexico City, we walked more than 50 miles with at least two (usually three or five) destinations a day. While most every place we went contributed to our learning, below we want to highlight some of the brightest spots–places we found unexpected friendship or beauty or knowledge–below.

First (and without which many of the stops below could not have happened), The Red Tree House. This bed and breakfast where we stayed for the first four nights was the perfect way to orient ourselves to the city. Besides beautiful rooms, a garden, and cheerful common spaces, the staff, smiling and full of advice, took an interest in our project and in us. They helped us plan outings (such as our private tour with Street Art Chilango, our tickets to Friday Kahlo’s home, transportation to Toluca, and even reservations at Pujol) recommending and prioritizing places we should go. Huge thank yous to Alex, Jose, Victor, Craig, Yaya, and Carlos! In addition to the staff, The Red Tree House hosts breakfast and happy hour, which we attended each day we were able. In those exchanges, we learned from other visitors about where to go, what to see, and shared our days (mistakes and all) with them.

On our first full day in Mexico City, we visited the ancient city of Teotihuacan with a group of people and a guide, Gersom. The name of the city translates to “birthplace of the gods,” and its vast layout, including two pyramids (the Sun Pyramid and the Moon Pyramid), the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, and the Avenue of the Dead, gives credence to such a majestic name. The ruins reach about 8 square miles and archeologists estimate that, at one time, the city was home to 100,000 people. Gersom, our animated guide who described things in Spanish and in English while simultaneously illustrating concepts on a white board (very UDL), told us right at the start not to believe the things we read on signs about Teotihuacan. Recent technology has debunked much of what is written at the historical site. Archeologists are always discovering new things, disproving previous beliefs. Thus, at each sign, he would carefully point out everything that was untrue, righting the wrongs of archeologists past.

Gersom’s sentiment about “righting” historical claims followed us for the rest of our trip, especially to the Anthropology Museum, where we learned more about the ancient peoples who inhabited Mexico. There is a post about Teotihuacan and this museum in the making.

We took a day trip to Toluca. Our original aim was to see Cosmovitral Jardin Botanico, a building that was originally a market, but is now home to a botanical garden. It features 48 stained-glass panels by Tolucan artist Leopoldo Flores. As we have been studying large works of art, this place fit the purpose of our work. Our Red Tree House hosts mentioned that, while in Toluca, we should consider a hike at Nevado de Toluca, a stratovolcano that is either the fourth or fifth highest peak in Mexico City, depending on who you ask. After having hiked Tent Rocks in Santa Fe, we were eager to do more climbing. Little did we know that we would be hiking down (and up and up and up) a virtually unmarked trail in a cloud. We could not see more than a yard in front of us, and on three occasions lost the path. We had to listen for other hikers’ voices to find our way back to the car after making it to the crater lake, and when we got back to the car, we immediately started laughing, mostly out of relief–there were moments we thought we might never see it again. All in all, though, it was an adventure that, with slightly more attention to the weather, we would both attempt again.

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Other points of interest in the Mexico City leg of our trip were: the Museo Frida Kahlo, Secretaria de Educacion Publica, the Diego Rivera Mural Museum (which houses exhibits related to Rivera, but not much of Rivera’s own art), Museo de Bellas Artes, Diego Rivera’s mural at the Olympic Stadium at the University, (there are several other extraordinary murals on campus as well), and several restaurants including Pujol (a restaurant known for its modern interpretations of Mexican dishes with an emphasis on local and indigenous ingredients including chicatana ants and maguey worm salt, as well as its 1334 day-old mole), Rosetta, Alipus, and El Moro, famous for its churros. Plus, lots of el pastor tacos! We are already planning our next trip to MXDC.

In Solidarity,

Kat + Alice

Thank Yous:

To The Red Tree House staff, we would have be lost without you and your suggestions and your maps; to Abril, our knowledgeable and hip Street Art Chilango Guide; to Gersom, our Teotihuacan illustrator and guide; to Ricardo, our driver and guide to Toluca; to Cait, for her suggestions and can’t-miss stops; and to Grant, Viv, their kids, Paulina, Susan, and the other Red Tree House guests–your fellowship is much missed.

Street + Art (en Roma, Cuidad de Mexico)

What are the differences between murals, street art, and graffiti? And do those differences matter? While walking Mexico City (and we have definitely walked it–the Fitbit tells us we’ve walked 48 miles in the last five days), we’ve seen all kinds of work, from tagging to fully painted blocks of buildings. After our tour in The Mission District, we really recognize the value in having a tour guide when looking at street art in new cities. Our knowledgeable hosts at The Red Tree House directed us toward the organization Street Art Chilango, which did not disappoint. When we met our tour guide Abril Trejo, she started the tour by stating three defining characteristics that separate street art from graffiti.

Chilango heart
Kat and Alice in front of an original Street Art piece by Street Art Chilango Artist in residence Franc Mun (2017) where we met our guide Abril.

The first, she told us, is material. Graffiti artists use only spray paint. Street artists, on the other hand, may use spray paint, paint brushes, markers, and other types of tools to put art on the walls. She mentioned that, though many street artists are former graffiti artists, others come from graphic design, architecture, or even illustrating backgrounds and thus have less experience with spray paint cans. Second, while graffiti is mostly word-based, street art is image-based. The image allows for more interpretation of art, whereas graffiti is literal whether the viewer understands it or not. And third, street art is created legally. Business and property owners in Mexico City often ask street artists to design on the walls of their buildings because otherwise they will be full of tagging. Graffiti artists suppose that, by tagging a space, they are taking what is rightfully theirs. In contrast, street artists make arrangements with owners to legally secure a space to work.

During the tour, our definition of street art expanded as we thought more deeply about the interaction between street and art. We learned from our tour in The Mission in San Francisco that murals are less likely to be defaced or tagged if the community respects the art on the wall. This is also true in Mexico City, but our guide gave us even more to think about. We saw the tension between street and art, in which the art pushes on the street, and, at times, the street pushes back. We saw mutual respect, lack of respect, and one benefitting the other. We learned that street artists in Mexico City are often commissioned to do advertisements or more directed work, which in turn supports their ability to do their own designing and artistry on walls around the city. Another facet of the interaction between street and art is that sometimes art groups encourage taggers to come over to “the good side,” finding them walls to paint themselves rather than tagging over others’ work. However, these invitations are not always accepted.

As Abril led us through the streets of Roma, Mexico City’s hipster neighborhood, every piece we encountered added nuance to our understanding of street art in this city.

Abril explained that when an artist has a wall, it is expected that the artist invite a colleague or two to share the space. In this way, artists get on many more walls. Plus, they work together, styles mixing. One of the first pieces we saw was a collaboration between Martin Ferreyra, an Argentinian artist, and Revost, a Mexican artist whose name is a combination of revel (rebel) and ghost. Revost only paints animals that are or were considered spiritual, and his contribution to this wall is the dragon on the left that wraps around the human-esque figure on the right. This work is a stellar example of artists melding styles to share a wall. It is also when Abril began to tell us about identifiable styles. Since street artists do not always sign their names, tracing their style (material, kinds of images they paint, etc) is a reliable way to identify an artist. It is also a reliable way to recognize taggers or bombers (tagging is usually thin letters noting the tagger’s identity, whereas bombing is much larger, often bubble letters perhaps accompanied by an icon). This piece of artwork has been bombed by a few, but the most notable is the cat-shaped signature in the middle.

In 2014, ten works of street art were painted as part of Roma’s Art Walk. Artists were brought in from other countries, including Aaron Glasson, originally from New Zealand, now living in San Diego. Glasson’s work most broadly addresses his lived experiences, including the pieces that cannot be seen or explained. Abril told us that instead of a heart inside of the horse (titled Ano tel Caballo), he inserted a moon to illustrate the connection between the universe and living things on Earth. She also pointed out the rectangle that is slightly darker near the bottom in the background of the work. The work was tagged previously, and the neighbors decided to restore the background, in effect to remove the tag themselves. This is one example of neighbors defending the beauty of street art.

Another example of street and art interacting to add beauty is a red and pink mural that says “La vida esta completa cuando se comparte”/ “Life is complete when you share.” This work was done as a community project, and it is based on the broken window theory. The theory states that when a place is nice, the community and passersby keep it nice, but when there is already a broken window, litter, crumbling buildings, the community and passersby leave trash and add to the mess. In an effort to make this corner a cleaner space, the community painted the wall. The same group is in the process of putting up two more works in the Roma neighborhood for the same purpose.

Ericailcane, an Italian artist sponsored by Galeria Fifty24, came to Mexico City and painted this work, titled “The Bunny and the Fox.” With the help of one assistant, it took him one week to complete. The artist did not volunteer the meaning of the work to the community, so, like much street art, it is up to the community to interpret what they see as they walk by. Our guide’s interpretation, based on her understanding of Ericailcane’s previous work and politics, was that the bunny represents small business, and the fox represents large banks. The fox is pleading with the bunny to let it go, making promises of kindness. However, it is in the fox’s nature to eat the bunny. The viewer watches the interaction between the bunny and the fox literally unravel, as the bunny eats the ropes that bind the fox, anticipating the harm that will befall the bunny once its work is done.

Street art also provokes a sense of nostalgia from the community. These two pieces, painted side-by-side by the same artist, Noble, evoke memories. Looking closely at the woman wrapped in the blanket, we could see that the blanket has fifty white stars set on blue, just like the American flag. Instead of red and white stripes, however, the blanket is a Mexican print. Designed by Nacho Becerra, this flag and the street art resulting from it, are reminiscent of a time in which US-MX relations were better. (Note how the caption reads Estamos Unidos Mexicanos, just one letter off from Estados Unidos Mexicanos.) Next to the woman wrapped in the blanket is a separate work by the same artist depicting the green taxis that used to flood the streets of Mexico City before they were deemed unsafe and not energy efficient (they had only two doors, and often a whole family would get into a cab, sit the children on the floor, and go to the park on a Sunday afternoon). They have been replaced with pink CDMX cabs. Above the cab is the phrase “I [broken heart] D.F.”, alluding to the moment in January 2016 when the capital city’s name was officially changed from Distrito Federal to Cuidad de Mexico. There is no more DF to love.

BlanketTaxi

Neither the cab nor the woman in the blanket have been tagged at all. When Noble signs his art, he signs “NobleKFC.” KFC stands for Kings Forever Crew, a graffiti crew in Roma so large that other artists do not tag over their work in fear of retribution from one of KFC’s members. Noble’s art is protected by his old graffiti crew, keeping his artwork, for the most part, clean.

Below are several other pieces of art Abril showed us. Many of the artists were brought in by galleries for exhibitions and painted one piece on the street so that the community did not have to pay to benefit from the artist’s presence. Scrolling through, so many artists’ styles are evident.

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Walking the streets of Roma with Abril, we saw more evidence of artists interacting with one another and the community than we ever would have on our own. We now know what to look for–be it the material, the specific tag, or a technique or style of a particular artist–when we come across art on our own. Abril mentioned at the beginning of our tour that graffiti art has an inside crowd. It doesn’t care if other people get it or not. Once doors started opening to allow us to understand the interaction between the art, the street, and the artist, it is impossible not to want to know more.

In Solidarity,
Kat + Alice

P.S. After we left our tour, we went to Holly Waffle, a Belgian Waffle storefront run by Bue the Warrior, one of the street artists whose work we saw with Abril and then several times more on our walk toward breakfast. Abril mentioned jobs of street artists ranging from musician, Coachella poster designer, clothing designer, label-maker for a Mezcal company, and graphic designer. She emphasized that the talent of these artists cannot be confined to street art, but instead enriches the city’s culture in multiple ways. Look out for a new Holly Waffle location in Guadalajara coming soon.

Los Secretos de La Casa Azul (y Los de Frida Kahlo)

They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality. -Frida Kahlo

Kat + Alice La Casa Azul.JPG

La Casa Azul holds many secretos and juxtapositions, the boldest of which is color. Kahlo’s most famous works, self-portraits such as Autoretrato Las dos Fridas/Selfportrait The two Fridas, Autoretrato Diego y Yo/Selfportrait Diego and I, and Autoretrato Pensando en la Muerte/Selfportrait Thinking about Death, are done in earthy tones, the background often an olive green, steely gray, or rich brown. In contrast, her living space is the brightest blue. Her clothing was reds, yellows, pinks, and greens, leaping from the fabric. She surrounded herself with bold, vibrant color. Kahlo’s extensive biography is available on the web, in books, and in traveling exhibits. Walking through the space that she and Diego created together, however, opens a sensory way of learning about Kahlo’s art, her pain, her relationships, and her eccentricities. Touring La Casa Azul is perhaps the most intimate experience a tourist can have with Frida Kahlo.

Frida Kahlo’s identity is complex. Born to Guillermo Kahlo, of Hungarian-German descent, and Matilde Calderon, of indigenous and Spanish descent, Kahlo’s artwork and fashion show her navigation of two ethnic identities. She also stretched boundaries of gender, sexuality, and ability. When Kahlo was six, she contracted polio which resulted in one of her legs being underdeveloped. She wore three or four socks on that leg, as well as a platform shoe, to even her stance. At eighteen, she was impaled by a railing during a serious bus accident, breaking her spine and resulting in a long hospital stay and a back brace that she wore most of the rest of her life. Her living space, La Casa Azul, illuminates those complexities, celebrating the effects they had and the choices they inspired. As teachers, we want our students to see and understand Kahlo’s ability to negotiate layers of identity and personal relationship through art.

Stepping over the threshold into the four-room art exhibit, a focus on self and individual relationships jumps from the oils and photographs. Kahlo is most famous for self-portraits that exhibit deep pain and reflection, and these first four rooms contain work that is more typical of a Kahlo exhibit, including portraits, self-portraits, and a few stills. These four rooms also contain quotations, photographs, and pages from Kahlo’s diary. The fourth room has a label on each wall, indicating four points of genesis for Kahlo’s creative work: passions, inspirations, family, and photography. (Kahlo’s father was a photographer, and she was surrounded by portrait photography as a young person.)

The fifth room is filled to the edges with Mexican popular and pre-Hispanic glassware and pottery, which Kahlo and Rivera valued for its traditional artistry. The couple loved entertaining, and the volume of dishware proves that they were ready to host tens of guests at a time. This is one of the first rooms where Kahlo’s compartmentalization of her pain is glaring. She jovially hosted artists and political figures including Georgia O’Keefe, Leon Trotsky, Jose Clemente Orozco, and Edward Weston, saving her pain for her art.

After peeking into Diego’s bedroom and the kitchen, we walked up the stairs into Kahlo’s studio. Her wheelchair is parked right in front of the easel, which sits between two work tables. One of the tables holds her paints, brushes, and sparkling stones that she used in her painting. On the other sits the mirror she used when painting her self-portraits. One wall is entirely glass, letting in glorious light and a view of the garden below, while the opposite wall is entirely bookshelf, displaying Kahlo’s collection of books, photographs, and diagrams of the human body used in her work.

Next come Kahlo’s two bedrooms–a day bedroom and a night bedroom. Most obvious in the day bedroom are the mirror affixed to the canopy top that her mother put there after her accident and Kahlo’s death mask. In the night bedroom, affixed above the bed is a panel of butterflies, a gift from an American painter. The room also houses a collection of dolls Kahlo created of herself in different styles including a Chinese doll, a Japanese doll, and a Mexican doll, as well as a pre-Hispanic urn that holds Kahlo’s ashes, which sits on her dressing table. The urn is shaped like a toad, a reference to Diego’s self-assigned nickname, el sapo-rana.

In her private spaces, such as her bedrooms and her studio, we saw evidence of both her physical disability and the mental anguish it caused her. The two beds strongly indicate that Kahlo spent much of her time horizontally, and the wheelchair demonstrates a life-long struggle with mobility. These physical signs of pain are exclusively on the second floor of the house, making them less visible to Kahlo’s friends and guests who frequented La Casa Azul.

After walking through the beautifully curated, lush garden, we arrived at the exhibit behind Kahlo and Rivera’s home, Appearances Can Be Deceiving: Frida Kahlo’s Wardrobe. According to Circe Henestrosa, the exhibition curator, the exhibition “displays these objects for the very first time and is a study of Kahlo’s construction of her own identity. Themed into five rooms, the exhibition focuses on the construction of Kahlo’s style through disability, tradition, fashion and dress, showing the original ensembles and objects drawn from the museum’s collection. It also shows how Kahlo’s personal style remains a source of inspiration for international artists and designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Dai Rees, Comme des Garcons, and Riccardo Tisci.”

When we walked into the exhibit, the first things we saw were Kahlo’s crutches and six different forms of back brace, offset by one of the corsets that she decorated. The next two rooms display what Kahlo’s true wardrobe including long skirts that hid her shrunken leg and the blouses of Tehuana style with elaborate embroidery, drawing the viewer’s eye to the top part of her body away from her legs. On the walls in these rooms are photographs that Kahlo altered with scissors and a page from her diary that elaborates on her feelings about her worsening physical condition. Finally, in the last two rooms, stand several examples of avant-garde fashion pieces inspired by Kahlo’s style, including one top and skirt set belonging to Kahlo herself. She painted the top in great detail, the colors beautifully matching the long green skirt.

Kahlo’s ability to take ownership of a challenge and turn it into art is obvious throughout La Casa Azul. The museum beautifully displays Kahlo’s multiple representations of her identity through painting, diary pages, homemade dolls, quotations, fashion choices, and the items she surrounded herself with day and night. We hope that, as our students progress through the Borders and Identity Unit we are currently building, they can learn from these multiple representations of identity, mimicking Kahlo’s genres of expression and finding their own. Just as Kahlo used her clothing as a tool to empower herself through disability and pain, we want our students to see art and literature as tools to navigate identity, borders, and challenges in their own lives.

In Solidarity,

Kat + Alice

San Diego to Tucson to Santa Fe in Six Days

Now that we’ve left the country, we are having a hard time remembering all that we are thankful for in our last three US stops–we did so much! We visited San Diego, Tucson, and Santa Fe in six days, which was quite a bit of driving and quite a bit of seeing in a short amount of time. As we got closer to the physical border dividing the US and Mexico, we took note of the many ways that the cultures on either side come together to create food, architecture, art, and language that display the richness of synthesis.

In San Diego, the main event was Chicano Park, which we would recommend to anyone visiting the city. A deep sense of community ownership and pride pervades the space, and the art takes on gentrification, displacement, climate change, and so many more social justice issues, connecting the struggles a community has faced in the past forty years with the power that has sustained Chicano culture for the past thousands. We also visited Tourmaline Beach (so many surfers) and La Jolla Beach for some reading and some processing time, and had a fabulous meal at Yakatori Taisho. We stayed in BTR Cohort 9 member BLee’s apartment, though ironically he was in Boston at the time, and the spirit of creativity, teaching, and joy that he brings to his classroom was ever-present in our San Diego learning.

Six hours in our car (dubbed Dusty Rose after so reliably driving through so much desert) and two blog posts later, we arrived in Tucson. The main event was a meeting with Dr. Curtis Acosta, which cannot be described in a single blog post, though we tried valiantly. The ideas that came up in our conversation continue to germinate as we see more and more in our travels. We also saw several murals in Tucson, the most striking of which was Joe Pagac’s mural on the side of the Epic Rides building in downtown Tucson. The mural has so much movement, as if the five characters are going to cycle right off of the wall and burst into the city itself. We also had a delicious dinner with Alice’s Aunt Mary, a long-time Tucson resident and hilarious conversationalist. After our meet up with Dr. Acosta, she added a resident’s perspective on the political climate and happenings, especially around immigration, in Tucson.

Our final US city was Santa Fe. It took us about eight hours to get there, and during our trip, we crossed borders in and out of Native territories. For the last hour or so of our drive and the first evening spent in Santa Fe, it poured. We had dinner at Izanami, and then headed to bed. We started our first full day with a green chile and bacon breakfast burrito at El Chile Toreado, which we ate on the way to hike El Diablo Canyon. The four-mile out-and-back hike took us to the edge of the Rio Grande. While hiking out, we crossed under a green fence with a sign that said “Property of the United States: All persons are prohibited under penalty of the Law from committing damage.” The signs did not tell us to keep out so we kept on the hiking trail, but all the while we wondered whether we were under surveillance of some kind.

The next day we went to Tent Rocks before our visit to the International Folk Art Festival, a three day gathering of more than 150 artists from 53 countries. Not only is the Festival a space in which artists can make money to take home to their communities, but the mission of the festival is one of economic opportunity and social change. Artists who come to the market often go home to “build schools, bridges, wells, and community centers, purchase milking cows and medical supplies, and fight political dislocation, gender inequity, and other forms of social and economic oppression.” Besides the economic benefits of the Festival, its spirit is one of celebration as so many join together to display the most beautiful pieces from their homelands, made with care and tradition. At the festival, the feelings of fellowship, curiosity, and creation surround the crowd, making crossing borders–negotiating language, asking about method, and discovering newness–possible.

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Now, off to enjoy the rest of our time in Mexico City!

In Solidarity,
Kat + Alice

Thank Yous:

To BLee (and Kiana!!), for the generous use of their apartment and the great San Diego recommendations; to Dr. Acosta, for his time,  his wisdom, and his willingness to share–we are keeping track of what is happening to MAS from the road; to Aunt Mary, for the dinner recommendation and the conversation; to Sam Keamy-Minor, for directions to breakfast burritos; and to Luke, our fabulous Air BnB host in Santa Fe.