Back to the Beginning

Rebellion, Estrangement, and Return

There is a famous photo of the celebrated Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo (pictured here on the left) at 17 years old, wearing a man's three-piece suit. Looking at this photo, there really isn't a hint of the woman who, world famous, will come to grace the cover of Vogue dressed in traditional Mexican costume. Kahlo became a legend known for her culture's colorful dresses and skirts, adorning herself in traditional beads and jewelry, flowers in her hair, brazen unibrow above her eyes. Kahlo is known for much—her lifestyle, her paintings, her style, her suffering—and all of it is inseparable from her heritage. What we do see in this photo is a flash of the spirit of the legend-to-be: confident, independent in thought and will, self-expressive.

Many of us, especially as teenagers, weave through a phase where we try to distance ourselves from who we are, under the guise of trying to find out who we are. In my early 20s, obsessed with American country and folk music, as well as the literature of the South (William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers) I took an internship at a literary magazine in Arkansas. True to my Italian heritage (without making the connection at the time, of course) I passionately dove into Southern life. What was supposed to be a three-month stay turned into a three-year one. I dated a country singer. I started a country band. I wrote songs about whiskey and heartache and being lonesome. I amassed a beautiful collection of cowboy boots. But all the while, some part of me, like a whisper in the ear, told me that this life was not my life, and that these traditions and customs were not my traditions and customs.

Some people reinvent themselves. Bob Dylan, for instance, the musician Gram Parsons, Marilyn Monroe. They leave behind families, hometowns, and cultures to live as something independently formed, as if they were clay, molded by their own hands.

My show, "Bella Figura—The Tradition of Living Beautifully," is not for these people. "Bella Figura" is for the Frida Kahlos of the world. For those of us who may have, for a time, defiantly believed connection to our ancestral culture was unnecessary, a thing of the past, that we were wiser, now, in our three-piece suits, more sophisticated, more aware than our parents and grandparents could ever be.

We fly out, like homing pigeons, into the world, looking for an identity we can assume, only to circle back home. We circle back to the beginning. Those of us who have ventured away and fumbled through figuring out who we are and how we want to live, trying on different hats, different outfits, as if identity were something found in an old trunk of stage props, are familiar with the internal buzz, a kind of electrical humming, that stems from separation from our roots. The identity that, much like Dorothy's home in The Wizard of Oz, was inside us all along. So that we hadn't any need to go looking for it. We had only to look in our own backyards to find The Majesty of the people, the culture, the traditions and stories that shaped and belong to us.

Frida Kahlo became the legend when she embraced her ancestral culture, not blindly, but with an understanding of its confines, especially as they pertained to women, and she was brave enough to break through those confines while not feeling that, in order to do so, she had to turn her back on the culture altogether. She found, through her heritage, a place from which to enter art and to enter the world. She found her starting point, and her identity and work bloomed from the return to that stamp of land that belonged to her by birthright, by blood, by choice.

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