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The Art of Healing: Finding Strength Through Frida Kahlo

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Outdoor mural featuring Frida Kahlo

Outdoor mural featuring Frida Kahlo, Credits: In Confianza, with Pulso

This week on Making Contact we take a look at one of the most prolific Mexican artists, Frida Kahlo, and how she inspired the Latina artist collective “The Phoenix Fridas.”

Producer Anthony Wallace tells the story of Thania Betancourt Alcazar, a member of The Phoenix Fridas, in a piece brought to us by In Confianza, with Pulso. Alcazar discovered a lifeline in the art of Frida Kahlo and her artistic message of resilience and empowerment.

Alcazar shares her experience being a Mexican immigrant, her feeling of being an outcast, and finally feeling seen as she saw herself and her culture reflected in the rising popularity of Frida Kahlo and her art in the U.S.

Featuring:

  • Anthony Wallace, the host of this episode
  • Thania Betancourt Alcazar, a member of The Phoenix Fridas and artist
  • Celia Stahr, an art historian at the University of San Francisco and the author of Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist

Episode Credits:

  • Host: Anita Johnson
  • Producers: Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani, Amy Gastelum, and Lucy Kang
  • Executive Director: Jina Chung
  • Editor: Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong
  • Engineer: Jeff Emtman 
  • Digital Media Marketing: Anubhuti Kumar

In Confianza, with Pulso Credits:

  • This episode was produced/hosted by Anthony Wallace 
  • Editor: Charlie Garcia
  • Audio Engineer and Mixing: Anthony Wallace and Charlie Garcia
  • Executive Director: Liz Alarcon

Music:

  • Original Music Composed by Julian Blackmore and Anthony Wallace

Transcript:

Anita Johnson: 

Today on Making Contact we take a look at one of the most prolific Mexican artists, Frida Kahlo, through the lens of our friends at In Confianza, with Pulso podcast.

Frida Kahlo’s painted self-portraits have gained widespread recognition around the world. Younger generations continue to proudly lift up Frida Kahlo as a symbol of unapologetic feminism and artistic freedom. And while Frida Kahlo’s art has been widely popularized and even commercialized, it still represents bold self determination and strength in the face of crushing patriarchy.

Up next, we hear from producer Anthony Wallace about the story of Thania Betancourt Alcazar, a member of the art group “The Phoenix Fridas” who discovered a lifeline in the art of Frida Kahlo. By embracing Frida’s artistic message of resilience and empowerment. Thani would later find the inner strength to confront her own traumas and transform her pain into art.

Anthony Wallace:

Thania Betancourt Alcazar made a big choice in her mid-20s.

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: I decided to be child-free by choice because I think that’s my authenticity. Like me saying, “Hey, I love children, but they’re not for me.”

Anthony Wallace (NAR): In her world, this was a radical decision. And she was afraid to tell anyone about it.

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: All the women in my family have had children, so I’m kind of making my own path. 

Anthony Wallace (NAR): And in 2019, she was on a trip to LA with a new group of friends. They were in their hotel room crafting and painting together the night before Conchacon, an art festival dedicated to the brightly-colored Mexican pastries. And there she decided it was time to get the childfree thing off her chest. 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: And they were the first women that I shared with that I wanted to be childfree when I hadn’t even shared that with my, my family. And um, I’m sorry I’m getting choked up. But just to hear them, like, listen to my decision, and then for them to, like, be mothers and following a different path than I was but still saying, “hey, I support you and I back you.” And they’re not trying to change my mind. That meant the world to me.

Anthony Wallace (NAR): That moment — of deep empathy, of rebellion against cultural norms — It reflects the person that brought them all together. 

Her friends at the hotel that night were her fellow Phoenix Fridas. A Latina art collective dedicated to and named after the great Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

Most people, if they know Frida Kahlo at all, only know her face. But Thania and her fellow Phoenix Fridas have considered her life and art much more deeply — and it’s had a profound effect on them. 

Thania was born in Mexico, moved to the U.S. as a small child and when she started school, she didn’t know English. She was timid, shy, and afraid to rock the boat. 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: That’s something maybe I wanted to be more like, is like, express myself more. As a kid I felt like I couldn’t express myself the way I wanted to and I love that Frida Kahlo would do that. She would express herself and she didn’t really care what people thought of her. 

Anthony Wallace (NAR): Frida Kahlo was courageous, defiant, bluntly honest — a fierce defender of the underdog and a powerful political activist. Behind Frida’s famous unibrow is an inspiring and historic provocative story with the power to change lives. 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: Frida’s work inspired me to be raw, to be unapologetic, to be honestly a disruptor. Frida did whatever she wanted to. Not as long as it made her happy, but as long as she was true to herself.

Instrumental music: High energy music for an exciting life

Anthony Wallace (NAR): As a teenager, Frida Kahlo was physically impaled by a steel beam and broke her spine in a bus accident and her body never really healed. She was in constant pain and constant need of surgery — she needed more than 30 over the course of her life. But she never stopped living, dancing, painting, and pushing boundaries — sometimes in bed, with a cane, or in a full-torso cast. She wore a men’s suit in a formal family photo in the 1920s, and she was shamelessly bisexual before that term was really a thing. She studied biology, philosophy, and history at the top prep school in Mexico, where she was one only of a few dozen girls in a student body of 2,000. She found her own way into the upper echelons of the Mexican communist party, where she got to know her husband, the legendary painter Diego Rivera. Together they housed the Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, as Stalinist agents threatened to scale their walls to murder him. Diego’s lucrative murals led them to the United States, where they dined and drank with the Rockefellers and Fords, and used their power to subvert them. Diego painted Karl Marx at Rockefeller Center and Frida mocked the Nazi-sympathizing Henry Ford to his face at a crowded dinner table. Two of the people Frida loved most: Diego and her younger sister Christina, had an extended affair. She was broken physically, betrayed cruelly, and belittled by the press and the art world — not taken seriously as a painter in her own right. But she took all of her persistence, intellect, eye for beauty, and bloody pain, and infused it into her art. Her paintings are attention grabbing, sometimes shocking, but always deeply thought-provoking. 

music out

Anthony Wallace (NAR): Thania found Frida when she was a shy kid who felt she didn’t belong. Now, she’s a multi-medium artist and communications coordinator for a nonprofit that is working to give power to marginalized communities. She’s colorfully, passionately, and courageously fighting for what she believes in — just like Frida did. For Thania and many others like her, Frida Kahlo is a source of not only inspiration, but power. From Frida Kaho and the Phoenix Fridas, Thania found the courage to be authentic. But what she didn’t know crafting in that hotel room in LA with her newest and closest confidants, is that tragedy would soon strike the Fridas. And she would need all of the resilience and courage she could muster to get through it. 

Beat, Music

Anthony Wallace (NAR): Today, Frida is everywhere…

On thousands and thousands of products: T-shirts, tote bags, Hydroflask stickers. 

There’s even a Frida Kahlo emoji set and a strangely light-skinned Frida Kahlo Barbie doll…

But despite the fact that Frida’s been dead for nearly 70 years, her mega-fame is a relatively recent phenomenon. 

Celia Stahr: I first encountered her in an art history classroom in the 1980s and that time, she was not well-known at all in the United States. And I thought this, this is one powerful, powerful woman, you know, who is this? And I just, I wanted to know everything I could about her, but also about her art.

Anthony Wallace (NAR): This is Celia Stahr, an art historian at the University of San Francisco and the author of Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist. Frida died in the 1950s and for a while after her death, she was pretty obscure. Then, in the early 80s, a major biography about her hit the shelves and she started to pop up in mainstream culture. 

Anthony Wallace (NAR): During her life, Frida sold paintings for less than $200. In the 70s, you could buy one for $40,000. By 1990, they were going for well over a million. 

Celia Stahr: I’m starting to see in the nineties, it just keeps getting bigger and bigger and I really thought we had reached a point of saturation.

Anthony Wallace (NAR): The Frida-face T-shirts multiplied, people talked about “Fridamania.” But when it seemed like she couldn’t get any bigger, she did. 

Frida Trailer Archival: Behind the madness lies the mystery of one of the most seductive and most intriguing women of ours, or any, time. 

 (archival audio of “Frida” trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CTM7FcY1LE) 

Celia Stahr: And then of course we have the movie Frida come out based on the biography. And then Selma Hayek, really brings her to another level of fame in the United States. 

Anthony Wallace (NAR): The movie made over $50 million at the box office and sent Fridamania into full swing. When it came out, Thania was 10 years old. 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: I didn’t know much about Frida until the movie, my mom and I watched it and it was, like the first time we saw, a representation of our, of our country, our culture, right? Like on the big screen. 

Anthony Wallace (NAR): At the time, Thania and her mom hadn’t been in the U.S. for very long. 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: I was born in Mexico, in Chihuahua, Mexico. And then, my mom first came out to the United States, and then I followed.

So, um, yeah, I was three years old. So I’m a very proud Mexican-American.

Anthony Wallace (NAR): At first they lived in San Francisco, where Thania’s mom met who would become her stepdad. He was an immigrant himself, from Guatemala. Together, they made a lively household. 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: My dad’s side was more like merengue and cumbia my mom’s side was a little bit more rancheras and Selena, so it was two different worlds. But I am so glad that I was, I grew up in that.

Anthony Wallace (NAR): But of course, the transition to a new country was difficult. Especially when Thania started school. 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: I grew up knowing Spanish at home, speaking Spanish at home, and then having to switch to English in school was tough at first because I didn’t know the language. 

I was definitely very shy as a kid. Um, I moved schools often, so I was always the new kid. I dealt with bullying, you know, so I think I always, I always relate with outcasts. I relate with them because I-I feel like I was an outcast. I found solace in like Harry Potter, cuz he was an outcast as well. Very different, strange child.

Anthony Wallace (NAR): Frida was also a strange child, often forced into isolation. When she was 6, she got polio, which left her with one skinny leg and a lifelong limp. And when she was 18, the wooden bus she was riding home was shattered in a violent collision with a trolley car. Her spinal column, ribs, collarbone, pelvis and right leg were broken. A steel handrail impaled her, piercing her abdomen, damaging her uterus, and exiting out her groin. Doctors expected her to die. But — as she would do throughout her life — she defied expectations. From that point on she spent weeks and months at a time alone, debilitated and confined to bed. She developed a deep affinity for the forgotten people, the poor, the Harry Potters and outcasts of the world. Here’s Frida expert, Celia Stahr, again. 

Celia Stahr: Frida was somebody who was always for the underdog. You know, She was dealing with physical disabilities and, and as a woman, and as a bisexual woman, she often, was marginalized

Anthony Wallace (NAR): But the accident didn’t just make Frida more empathetic. It ultimately energized her and made her the Frida Kahlo we know today. She got a special easel connected to her bed and she started painting. Frida painted a self portrait called “The Broken Column.” In it, her torso is split in half vertically, and a crumbling Roman column is in the place of her spine. Nails puncture her skin all over her body and tears fall from her eyes, but her expression is stoic. Growing up, Thania also found solace in honest artistic expression. 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: I would just, like, draw and doodle. And then also I like to document my life too, like diaries, which is also a form of being creative. I feel like I’ve been a multi-passionate creative all my life. Uh, sewing, photography, video, so yeah. That’s a little bit about me.

Anthony Wallace (NAR): Thania’s family moved to Phoenix, her parents had two more kids (her little sisters) and she grew up. She started a YouTube channel with her husband and did some work as a photographer. She kept coming out of her shell and pushing the limits of her self-expression. But still, in her mid-20s, she felt like she was still missing the close group of friends she never made in school. 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: I have a very traumatic history of having female friends in my life. You know, I went through bullying and things like that. So, I think 2017 was a year that I really wanted to be surrounded by creative women, um, have, like, female friends more in my life. 

Anthony Wallace: And that’s where Mo came in. 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: My husband’s friend who became my friend, Mo, her name Monique, she was working at Tres Leches Cafe.

She hit up Jose and she was like, “Hey, I, I saw your channel and I, I wish you could like do a feature on, on our cafe.” 

Audio from Thania’s youtube channel.

Anthony Wallace: They went to visit and vlog at Tres Leches and Thania met Mo — who was a Phoenix Frida. At that point, the Fridas had been around for over a decade. They were a tight-knit group and highly respected in the Phoenix art scene. They didn’t let new people in all the time, but Mo saw something in Thania.

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: From that point on, we just started talking, like she saw my videos, Mo said that I should join the Phoenix Fridas. So they brought me on and I have friends for life. Like, I was honestly just so happy just to be a part of the creative group. And that they recognized and saw that. I was a creative woman in the community too, so I felt really honored by that.

Music fade in…

Anthony Wallace: The group put on joint art shows, threw an annual birthday party for Frida, did a pilgrimage to Frida’s house in Mexico City and talked a lot about Frida’s work together. The conversations brought them all closer to each other and and closer to Frida and made Thania bolder, more confident. 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: I created one of her self portraits where she chopped off all her hair. And my rebellion was that I dyed my hair blue because my mom would always be like, “oh, those are like crazy colors.”

You know? So for me, that was my rebellion. 

Anthony Wallace (NAR): One of the best new friends she made in the group was Luisa Leon, who was just a few years older than her. 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: You know, Lisa, she had very colorful hair, like very. I related with her in that and she was very colorful, just like her paintings. 

Anthony Wallace (NAR): Luisa was there when Thania told the group about her plans to be child-free. 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: She would tell me,“ I feel like you’re a mom already. You are a nurturer.” So she saw things in me that I didn’t see. 

Anthony Wallace (NAR): Luisa, Mo and the rest of the Phoenix Fridas quickly became Thania’s friends, confidants, and motivators. As they pushed her to become herself and be fearless creatively, she developed a pretty radical approach to social media. Especially with her autobiographical, second-a-day videos. 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: I started to not only turn the camera toward me, but also turn the camera toward myself when I wasn’t at my highest point of feeling the best I could be. And that is very similar to Frida. She, she documented a lot of her pain, her suffering. A lot of my one-seconds, um, do have that. Like they show when I’m crying or show when I’ve been distressed. Social media in a way is a form of art, right?

expression of, like, what is going on in your life. So, I think when I started being really raw and honest and documenting my life, um, at least on social media, I would get people in the DMs and be like, I completely feel the way you do. 

Archival audio from social media posts

Anthony Wallace (NAR): In her one-second videos she cries, dances, goes to concerts and does Zoom meetings. She sews, lays in bed, makes coffee and hangs with family. Recently she’s been kicking pads and playing games in karate class alongside a bunch of elementary school kids. In one post she opens up about being child-free by choice, in another, about her insecurity about being a light-skinned Latina. Her honesty is attention-grabbing, and the posts start conversations about taboo things people would normally keep inside. 

Anthony Wallace: How, how did it like, feel to be having these conversations?

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: I definitely felt I wasn’t alone anymore. I didn’t feel as isolated as I felt, especially like in the height of the pandemic, going through you know depression, going through just so many things, losing people in my life, I think I didn’t feel as alone.

Anthony Wallace (NAR): When the pandemic shut things down in 2020, the Phoenix Fridas did what they could to continue bringing color and life to the world — even remotely. Thania did a special quarantine photo series and her friend Luisa did Instagram live painting lessons for 100 consecutive nights. 

Archival audio of Luisa’s livesarchival audio of FOX10 news coverage of Luisa’s lives with some interview sound bites.

Anthony Wallace (NAR): But on top of the same isolation and fear of the virus we all felt — Thania was forced to stare at all of 2020’s horrible news all day long. She was a layout designer for a major newspaper company and it was taking a toll on her mental health.  And making things worse, her employer restricted her from responding to the news with her usual passion and honesty. 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: when, uh, George Floyd happened, the, you know, black Lives Matter, uh, demonstrations happened. 

You couldn’t go and like, hold a sign or nothing like that. That would be like under violation 

So I was like, fed up, I felt mm-hmm. , you know, like I couldn’t do, I couldn’t express myself the way I wanted to. 

Anthony Wallace (NAR): So she turned to her fellow Frida’s — Luisa specifically. 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: I was like telling her that I like, I hate my job.

She’s like, let’s get you a better job. she really pushed me, she really pushed me to like, find a better job.

Anthony Wallace (NAR): With Luisa motivating her, Thania got serious about finding a new job. But about a year into the pandemic– tragedy hit the Fridas. 

Music in…

Anthony Wallace (NAR): Mo was just 42 years old, but Thania said she had psoriasis and it took a bad turn during quarantine.

Thania Betancourt Alcazar:  it was February, 2021. Um, Mo had been struggling with her health, and her, her organs could weren’t working on by themselves anymore. So she unfortunately passed away. Um, she was, I wanna say she was 40 at the time, very young, you know, still, um, you know, I went to her funeral and um, some of the frida’s went, some of us. You know, we’re still very in the deep of the pandemic, so it was hard. Right. (exhale)

Anthony Wallace (NAR): Just a couple months later, Luisa .– who was just 33 — came down with COVID. 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: In July we got the news that she had gotten Covid and then, you know, we prayed for her. We, um, we thought, you know, she was going to be out of it, you know, just giving her age and all that. um, the following month she was gone. 

FOX10 Archival: Luisa Leon. Died in August of Covid 19, and she inspired many people during this pandemic as she taught hundreds of people how to paint online. And she did this for 100 days straight during quarantine, reaching people all over the world.

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: It was just very, very sudden. Um, and it was very hard for all of us. You know, I still remember us being like in a, in a room and just crying. It just, um, she really motivated me. She was very unapologetic. Something I very, I always admired about her. She always would see the bright side and things. Um, she just found a, a way to like bring light into darkness and I really miss her. She meant a lot to me.

Anthony Wallace (NAR): With Luisa’s encouragement and help, Thania did get that new job. 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: she was always like motivating me and I never got to tell her that I got a new job. I never got to tell her. And, um,  I know she’s with me. Like I’m even looking at that sticker on my, on my, um, on my water bottle. And she had blue hair, you know, and I, I know she, she shows up for me.

Whenever I, I, I wanna feel bold or unapologetic. I always try to channel her. I really miss her. I really miss, um, both her and Moe.

Anthony Wallace (NAR): And 2021 for Thania was a seemingly relentless barrage of emotional pain. 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar:  Oh, I think two things got me through difficult times. One was family and friends and then two, I think I really found solace and. My sewing machine, I would sew a lot. Um, I would make things for friends and I would just sit there and listen to podcasts or listen to music and I would just make things, you know? 

Anthony Wallace (NAR): And always by her sewing machine is a little picture of Frida Kahlo. 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: Yeah, that, that postcard I got into that of Mexico and I always, I always have her there as like inspiration.

Anthony Wallace (NAR): And she found purpose in the new job that Luisa inspired her to get. 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: I am a marketing and communications coordinator. I work for an organization called Inti Instituto. It’s based here in Arizona. It’s an organization that helps build political infrastructure with low income and communities of color here in the state. 

Anthony Wallace (NAR): During these last midterm elections she even knocked on doors and helped get a bill passed that allows DACA recipients who live in Arizona to get in-state tuition rates at college. And this political work, Thania also sees as following in Frida’s footsteps. 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: She was fighting for the working class. And then also like, her sexuality too. Like she was very outspoken about that as well, 

Celia Stahr: She was, you know, she was a very political person. She was, interested in, in communism early on before she meets Diego. Oftentimes, you know, people say, oh, it’s because of Diego that she got interested in communism. Not true. I mean, she called herself a child of the revolution. 

Anthony Wallace (NAR):  Frida sometimes shifted her birth year from 1907 to 1910 — the year of the peasant-led Mexican Revolution. Together, Diego and Frida helped create a new Mexican art and national identity — magnifying the poor, indigenous, and working people of Mexico.

Celia Stahr: By the time she gets to the United States, and it’s 1933, she’s seen a lot. You know, she has seen the, people who can’t afford to eat, lined up on streets and waiting. You know, to just to get some soup, but then at the same time, she’s hobnobbing with, you know, the Rockefellers. And there you have, you know, the exact opposite, right?

Anthony Wallace (NAR): She wanted authenticity, raw beauty, to stick up for the outcast and to expose hypocrisy. Frida loved MoMa and the jazz clubs in Harlem. She painted Black protesters in New York and dystopian smoke stack landscapes in Detroit. At one dinner party hosted by the mogul Henry Ford — an antisemite who Hitler praised in Mein Kampf — Frida played dumb. At a lull in the conversation she said “Mr. Ford, are you Jewish?” There was an awkward silence and then an uproar of laughter. 

Celia Stahr: She was incredibly bold for her time period. But she’s still bold today. I mean, that’s what’s amazing, right? Is that, is that the unibrow, for example, is still bold.

Anthony Wallace (NAR): After they lost Mo and Luisa, the Phoenix Fridas retired the group after 18 years. 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: Having the passing of our members too felt like a chapter closing. Mm-hmm. , like, it kind of felt odd to continue without them. Mm-hmm.  And I think the group had accomplished its purpose of bringing joy and love of Frida into Phoenix.

Anthony Wallace (NAR): Frida Kahlo and the Phoenix Fridas made their mark and changed their world. Thania was once timid and bullied, now, she’s courageously and creatively asserting herself, saying what others are afraid to. And while she was once new to the U.S., unable to speak English, now she’s a political force, making her mark on the country. As she’s evolved, she’s become more like her hero she first saw on a Hollywood movie. And the ripples of Fridamania are still flowing out everywhere. Yes, there is something ironic about Frid-as-a-brand given her feelings about capitalism. But even when you only see that unibrow out of context, it leaves an impression. Every Frida bag, every Frida drink, or pair of socks is just another chance for someone to a pause and wonder — who is that person really? 

Thania Betancourt Alcazar: Frida is a gateway to Mexican culture. Um, and she’s not just a flower crown.

She was political. Her, everything about her, struggles was like intersectional, right? Her disability, her politics, her sexuality. You have to take all parts of her, not just cherry pick, and I think she creates conversation to this day. And that’s what I really love about her is that she creates, she’s still stirring up drama, you know, she’s still stirring up controversy. And I think that’s just, that’s her. That’s her. 

Anthony Wallace (NAR): When she was 47, Frida’s always tenuous health took a turn for the worse and she came down with a bad case of pneumonia. Still, in July of 1954, she summoned what little life she had left and took to the streets of Mexico City by wheelchair to protest the CIA’s intervention in Guatemala. Less than two weeks later her funeral procession went down the same city streets. 

As Frida’s body was pushed into the crematorium, a strange thermo-dynamic phenomenon took place: the dead artist suddenly sprung to an upright position, her hair on fire and her mouth apparently smiling. 

Even her dead body defied limitations, as it arose and glowed with an infectious energy. And her power and influence continues to grow — making new generations of determined, bold, fighters for life and defiers of limitation. The year before she died, she had to have her leg amputated. In her diary she wrote: Feet, what do I need them for if I have wings to fly?

 

Anita Johnson:

Well, that is it for today’s show. If you liked this episode on Frida Khalo, and The Phoenix Fridas, visit our website radioproject.org for more information about Frida or In Confianza, with Pulso. I’m Anita Johnson. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.

Author: Radio Project

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