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Exploring Frida: The Sexuality, Gender, and Politics of Frida Kahlo

Exploring Frida: The Sexuality, Gender, and Politics of Frida Kahlo

H. Bradford


Each month, Pandemonium meets up for a discussion and pizza.  Pandemonium is a bi+ group in Duluth/Superior.  Past topics include bisexuality and domestic violence, different bisexual identities, bisexual poets, and other topics related to sexuality and gender such as homophobia and the plight of transgender prisoners.  This month, the topic is Frida Kahlo.  Frida Kahlo is an artist who captures the imagination of many women.  Like many people, I became familiar with her from the 2002 film starring Selma Hayek.  Perhaps she captures the imagination of women and feminists because of her iconic fashion, her relationship struggles, her rebellion against social norms, the personal nature of self-portraits, her physical and emotional pain, etc.  She captures my imagination because she was bisexual and a communist.  Because of my interests, the presentation will focus on her political, gender, and sexual identities.  The presentation itself draws heavily from Hayden Herrera’s (1983) biography “Frida, a Biography of Frida Kahlo.”  The nature of Pandemonium is to educate one another on a topic for the purpose of growing as a bi+ community and in these identities.  These presentations are peer to peer in nature and none of us our experts on the topics that we explore.  Hopefully the following provides some insights, but should be treated as an informal community presentation.  With that said, Frida Kahlo was a very political and sexual person and these two facets of her identity were both deeply intertwined, sometimes inconsistent, and often revolutionary.


Frida was born and died in the Blue House, a house build by her father in 1904.  Her father was a photographer who was a Jewish Hungarian born in Romania, but who grew up in Germany.  Her mother, Matilde, was a devoutly Catholic Mexican woman from Oaxaca.  Frida was born in 1907, but changed her birth date to 1910 so that she could shared her birth date with the year that the Mexican revolution began (Herrera, 1983).  The fact that she changed her official birth date indicates her nationalism, or love of Mexico, which was evident in her artwork and fashion sense.  Frida wanted to be associated with the Mexican Revolution.  The revolution itself stemmed from various classes who were upset with the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.  Diaz came to power in 1876 after decades of foreign intervention and warfare in Mexico.  He is credited with creating a powerful centralized government in Mexico and ushering in an era of capitalist development.  Mexican exports increased by six times under his rule, the country went from around 600 km of railroad tracks to over 20,000, and the money in circulation in the Mexican economy increased by twelve times.  Mining industries, oil exports, and banking saw explosive expansion during this time period.  At the same time, middle class Mexicans were frustrated by corruption, cronyism, and lack of opportunities.  While Mexico became much more developed under Diaz, 70% of the population was engaged in agricultural work.  The countryside was heavily taxed, denied regional or local autonomy, and often subject to corrupt governance which arbitrarily fined and punished the population, often with forced labor.  In 1883, a law was passed with allowed landed elites to easily buy commonly held lands or lands without official titles.  This denied peasants the ability to support themselves, turning many into renters, servants to landlords, resident laborers, and sharecroppers.  At the same time, the working class grew with the development of the country, but like all workers, suffered harsh conditions.  The workers were often paid in scrip and also suffered the same harsh taxes and arbitrary law enforcement that peasants did (Easterling, 2009).  The full history of the Mexican revolution is too complicated and lengthy to explore in depth, but basically, Portofino Diaz re-election in 1910 but was challenged by Francisco Madero, a reformist candidate from a wealthy landowning family who won the support of the liberal middle class.  Diaz feared Madero would win the election, so he had him arrested and went on to win the election.  Madero was sprung from prison and escaped to San Antonio, where he promoted a more revolutionary message that promised land reform with the hope of inciting an uprising against Diaz.  The call for revolution was taken up by rebels such as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, who organized peasant farmers to fight the regime.  In May 1911, Diaz resigned and later that year, Madero was elected.  This did not end the revolution, as Madero quickly befriended members of the old regime and expanded the military in the interest in maintaining the status quo and curtailing rebellion for land reform.  Later, he ordered the destruction of land through scorched earth policies and war against the Zapatistas, or followers of Emiliano Zapata.  The U.S. actively supported anyone who rebelled against Madero, hoping to return some semblance of order to the country.  A 1913 coup against Madero thrust General Huerta into power, but his regime was short lived.  He was ousted from power in 1914, while various rebel factions continued to fight each other.  The next six years consisted of fighting between Pancho Villa, Venustiano Carranza, and Obregon Zapata.  Carranza was elected president in 1917, created a constitution which tried to appeal to peasant demands, but was assassinated by Obregon in 1920.  Pancho Villa agreed to stop fighting after 1920, but fighting continued in various parts of Mexico until 1934.  In short, the world in which Frida spent her childhood was tumultuous and politically charged as various rebels and social classes vied for power.  This would have informed her early political views and shaped the opportunities available to her as a woman and artist.

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Painting of Zapata by Diego Rivera

Frida Kahlo grew up in a very political world, but had the privilege of growing up in a middle class family which encouraged her personal growth.  According to Herrera (1983) Frida enjoyed a close relationship with her father, who lent her books, taught her painting and photography, and encouraged her to learn about nature and archaeology.  Frida contracted polio at age six, so her father encouraged her to play sports such as boxing and soccer to strengthen her leg.  Her father had no sons, so it is possible that he looked to Frida to fulfill the role of a son.  Thus, she benefited from her father’s non-traditional expectations regarding gender, which allowed her to express herself through education and art.  Perhaps because of he lacked a son, Frida’s father encouraged her to attend the National Preparatory School.  At the same time, Frida benefited from opportunities in art and education that arose after the Mexican revolution.  Under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, Mexican intellectuals and leaders looked to Europe for cultural and economic inspiration and disdained indigenous Mexican culture.  The Mexican revolution sought to return Mexico to Mexicans through land reforms, nationalization of natural resources, and embracing native culture.  Frida attended the National Preparatory School just a few years after girls were first admitted.  While studying there, she was a member of The Cachuchas, a very loosely Marxist organization (Haynes, 2006).  This was her first introduction to socialism.  Interestingly, it was not art that she pursued as a student.  Rather, she studied natural sciences with the intention of becoming a doctor (Mataev, n.d).  While at school, she was described by her friends at the school as tomboyish.  Her closest friends were members of the Cachuchas, seven boys and two girls, who were interested in socialism.  However, they were better known for causing pranks at the school, such as bringing a donkey into a classroom and setting off firecrackers during a lecture.  The students were also voracious readers who discussed Hegel, Kant, Russian literature, and Mexican fiction.  This indicates that at a young age, she expressed her gender in non-traditional ways and was politically minded.  Her love life as a student also indicates the political nature of her early life.  While she was in school, she dated Alejandro Gomez Arias, the leader of the Cachuchas.  At the same time, according to her mythology, she was immediately smitten with Diego Rivera when he came to paint the amphitheater of her school.  Although she was a young teen, she told her friends that she would have his child and reportedly tried to trip him by putting soap on the stairs and stole a sandwich from his lunchbox (Herrera, 1983).  Rivera himself was a product of the time, a muralist who created political scenes of Mexican history, social movements, and workers.  If the mythology is true, Frida became infatuated with Diego Rivera when she was 15 years old and he was 36 (Collins, 2013).

In Herrera’s (1983) account Frida’s first relationship was with Alejandro Gomez Arias, but this biography offered scant details about her bisexuality.  Collin’s (2013) posited that Frida’s first sexual relationship was when she was 13 years old and unable to participate in phy-ed due to her earlier bout with polio.  Her health teacher, Sara Zenil, initiated a relationship with her, which was ended when Frida’s mother found her letters and transferred her to a different school (Collins, 2013).  This affair may have been true, as indeed Frida was suddenly transferred from a teacher preparation school to the National Preparatory School.  The letters indicate that Frida believed she loved the teacher and she was exited from the school.   Originally, her mother wanted her to attend the school as she wanted Frida to become a teacher, as it was a traditional job for women (Ankori, 2013).  According to an account from Alejandro, Frida was later seduced by a woman who worked at a library for the Ministry of Education.  Frida was looking for a library job to support her family, who had fallen onto harder times due to her father’s inability to find photography work.  Her parents found out about this and Frida reportedly told a friend that the experience was traumatic (Herrera, 1983).  It is possible that she was involved with two older women, both of which were discovered by her parents.  In both cases, her introduction to same sex relationships was embarrassing, traumatic, and unequal in power.  This history therefore isn’t a positive example of bisexuality, but an example of older women taking advantage of a financially and physically disadvantaged youth.

Trauma and suffering are prevailing themes in Frida’s life.  On September 17th, 1925, Frida was involved in a bus accident.  She was impaled in the pelvis with an iron rod and her spinal column was broken in three places.  She also broke her pelvis, some ribs, and fractured her foot and hand (Herrera, 1983).  She took up painting after the accident and said that she chose self-portraits because she felt so alone during that time period and because it was a subject she knew best (Haynes, 2016).  In reference to the trauma of the accident, she said she lost her virginity to the handrail.  She spent a month in the hospital and several months at home recovering.  During this time, she continued her relationship with Alejandro, but it grew strained as he accused her of being “loose.” In her letters, she admitted to kissing and dating others (Herrera, 1983).  This is an early indication of her flexibility concerning traditional monogamy.  During this time she dropped out of school due to her health and medical costs.  She began painting after the accident and her first painting was a gift for Alejandro entitled Self Portrait.  The two parted ways when Alejandro continued school and traveled to Europe.  Frida was briefly involved in a relationship with German de Campo, who was an anti-militarism and anti-imperialist student organizer.  He was president of the National Student Confederation and fought for academic freedom, a new exam system, but was killed while giving a speech in support of presidential candidate Jose Vasconcelos.  Germain de Campo introduced Frida to some of his friends, including Julio Antonio Mella, an exiled Cuban communist.  She became friends with Tina Modotti, a photographer, model, and communist friend of Mella’s, who later introduced her to Diego Rivera.  Once again, Frida’s love interests were often deeply political individuals.

In the 2002 film Frida, Tina Modotti was portrayed by Ashley Judd.  Frida and Tina shared a dance in the film.  According to DeMirjynn (2011), the audience, along with Diego Rivera’s character, watch the dance in approval, locating her sexuality within the male gaze.  The dance followed a drinking contest, which could be seen as a way to dismiss the legitimacy of her sexuality, as it was alcohol fueled.  The film highlighted her affairs with men, with little attention to her female attraction.  Diego Rivera actually played a larger role in the 2002 film compared to the 1983 Mexican film, Frida, Naturaleza Viva.  In the 2002 film, Rivera reacted negatively to Frida’s affair with Trotsky, but not at all to her affairs with women, rendering her queerness invisible or unimportant according to DeMirjyn (2011).   Herrera’s (1983) biography of Frida supports that Rivera indeed acted either indifferently or supportive of Frida’s affairs with women, but the book gives little attention to these relationships, also rendering that history invisible.  Rivera himself was amused by Frida’s lesbianism, as he called it.  Diego believed in free love and had many affairs, but he did not tolerate Frida’s affairs with men.  He encouraged or was open about her affairs with women.   Nevertheless, Frida did sneak men into her home, warning them that Diego might kill them.  For instance, Frida had an affair with the sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, but it ended when they plotted to get an apartment together for their rendezvous, but the bill for the furniture was accidentally delivered to Frida’s residence with Diego.  In Noguchi’s account, Diego threatened him twice with a gun and on one occasion he had to jump out of a window to avoid getting caught with Frida (Herrera, 1983).  Diego’s reaction Frida’s sexuality as well as how it is framed by some historians shows the trouble with how bisexuality is understood and treated in society.  Garner (2000) argued that men may not be threatened by female relationships because female sexuality is framed to exist for them or because women are inferior in society, they are not viewed as threats.  The relationships between women can therefore more easily be dismissed.

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The dance scene from the film, Frida

There is no denying the importance of Diego Rivera in Frida’s life.  Diego Rivera was a well known artist and communist when she met him.  Frida was a communist in her own right as well.  She was a member of the Young Communist League and while she is remembered for her feminine dresses, ribbons, flowers, ruffles, and indigenous styles, she actually had periods in her life when she wore more militant clothing.   After joining the Communist Party in the 1920s, she started wearing black or red shirts with hammer and sickle pins as well as blue jeans.  She also gave speeches, attended secret meetings, and attended rallies.  Diego actually depicted Frida as a communist militant in a panel of his mural Ballad of the Proletarian Revolution.  He portrayed her as a tomboy, with a man’s shirt with a red star on the pocket and short hair, handing out rifles and bayonets (Herrera, 1983).  This more masculine version of Frida demonstrates her flexibility in expressing her gender and openness about her political beliefs.  Her views of marriage were also less traditional.  Rather than a traditional ceremony, Frida married Diego in 1929 in a small civil ceremony in which she wore street clothes.  Her mother opposed the marriage, since Diego was an atheist communist and she was Catholic.  Her father supported the marriage, perhaps because Frida was his only single daughter, had massive medical bills, and the family could no longer afford their mortgage.  After the wedding. Frida moved into Diego’s mansion where two other communists lived.  Around this time, Diego had a strained relationship with the Communist Party over taking commissions for his artwork, relationship to government officials, his critique of communist trade unions, and his skepticism that countries would attack Russia.  His friend, Tina Modotti, who introduced the couple, remained a member of the Communist Party but denounced their friendship and called him a traitor (Herrera, 1983).   In a theatrical protest of his expulsion, Rivera attended the 1929 Communist Party convention, gave a dramatic speech, and smashed a clay pistol in a dramatic exit from the party (Morrison and Pietras, 2010).   Frida also left the party when Rivera was expelled.

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1929, the year that Diego and Frida married and left the Communist Party, was the same year that Stalin exiled Trotsky from the Soviet Union.  Diego sided with Trotsky and pressured Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas into accepting Trotsky into the country after the revolutionary had been forced out of Norway and no other country would accept him (Tuck, 2008).   Rivera presented Mexican president Cardenas a petition for Trotsky to have sanctuary in Mexico, provided that he did not meddle with Mexican political affairs.  However, due to Rivera’s poor health at the time, it was Frida who met the Trotskys along with Max Shachtman and George Novak on November 21, 1936.  Trotsky reportedly refused to leave the boat until he saw friendly faces.  Trotsky and company took a secret train to Mexico City to avoid the GPU.  The arrival was complete with a fake welcome party at Rivera’s home.  Trotsky did not speak Spanish, nor did his wife, so Frida served as an advisor and escort.  Cristina, Frida’s sister, acted as a chauffeur.  Frida also had several of her trusted servants serve her guests.  Frida’s father had the impression that she esteemed Trotsky, as she described him as a companion of Lenin and a man who made the Russian revolution.  Time magazine reported that Natalia had malaria in January 1937 and Rivera had a kidney ailment (Herrera, 1983).  Perhaps these illnesses provided the opportunity for an affair to grow between Frida and Trotsky.  Revenge against Rivera for his affair with Frida’s sister may also have been a catalyst for the affair.

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Trotsky’s secretary Jean van Heijenoort noted that Frida and Trotsky’s relationship was obvious to many around them.  They would meet at Frida’s sister’s home and Trotsky exchanged letters to her through the books he loaned her.  They spoke in English to one another, excluding Trotsky’s wife from the conversation (Zamora, 1991).  Frida attended the Dewey Commission and sat closely with Trotsky as he defended himself against the accusations of the Moscow Trials.  Aside from this, the Riveras and Trotskys spent a lot of time together, doing picnics and excursions.  Trotsky began collecting cacti and horse riding.  Trotsky trusted Rivera, who was one of few people he saw without the company of another.  Trotsky and Frida likely began their affair after the Dewey Commission.  During this time, Frida was reportedly left out of theoretical discussions between Trotsky, Rivera, and the surrealist, Andre Breton.  This may indicate that she was not taken seriously as a socialist or dismissed as a woman.  She said that she didn’t care much for theory and that Trotsky didn’t like it when she smoked.  The affair ended in July 1937 and Trotsky moved out of the house.  He may have felt that the affair might discredit him and it certainly depressed his wife of 35 years.  Frida visited him at the new residents, which again hurt his wife, but Trotsky underplayed the visit in his letter to Natalia (Herrera, 1983).

Trotsky moved outside the city for a time in July 1937.   In recognition of the twenty year anniversary of the Russian revolution and Trotsky’s birthday, Frida gave Trotsky a portrait on November 7, 1937.  The title was Self Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky- Between the Curtains.  (Zamora, 1991).   Herrera (1983) believed that this portrait was a gift to Trotsky after the affair and represented a shift in Frida’s vision of herself.  The painting is seductive, mature, and confident.  In it, she is depicted in a butterfly printed robe.  She also completed a painting called I belong to my owner which depicts a rose and dry prickly flowers.  Herrera (1983) suggested that this painting may also represent the affair and how despite her flings, Diego owned her sexuality.  The affair with Trotsky marked a new period in her life, wherein she became more independent as an artist.  In 1938, coincidentally the year that the 4th International was founded, Frida came into her own as an artist.  She made her first significant art sales, selling four paintings for $200 each.  Upon making the sale, she said that she was happy that she could travel without Diego’s support.  In 1939, she traveled alone to New York for her first exhibition and began an affair with the photographer Nickolas Muray.  She also traveled to France, where she stayed with Andre Breton and became involved in the surrealist art community.  Despite the fact that she and Trotsky were no longer a couple and she never officially joined the 4th International, Frida attended Trotskyist meetings in Paris as a representative from Mexico.   She also had an affair with an unknown French Trotskyist.  It is also during her time in Paris that she met Trotsky’s future assassin, Raul Mercador (Herrera, 1983).

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Frida’s aversion to Trotskyism may have been more practical than political.  Herrera (1983) suggested that this is because the Trotskyist movement in Mexico was small, poor, and active in trade unions.  No one joined it unless committed to working for it full time.  Rivera joined the movement, but this may have actually strained his relationship with Trotsky.  There are several accounts of how Trotsky and Rivera had a falling out.  According to an account from Alfred Bildner, who stayed with Frida when she was hosting Trotsky and did some translation work for him, Diego and Frida had violent arguments with Trotsky in 1939, as they had adopted Stalinism.  Trotsky left their residence and moved a few blocks away (Bildner, 2004).   In another account, Rivera worked with Trotsky and in February 1938 signed a manifesto for the creation of an International Federation of Revolutionary Writers and Artists, for the purpose of resisting Stalinist domination of the arts.  In this version of the history, the political disagreements between Rivera and Trotsky were over the 1940 presidential election in Mexico.  Rivera supported Juan Almazon, a right wing candidate backed by Mexican fascists.  Rivera denounced Cardenas as an accomplice to Stalinists, which upset Trotsky, who did not want to antagonize the president who had offered him asylum.  The argument caused Trotsky to move out.  Yet, Trotsky described Rivera as fair minded and artistically genius, despite his political shortcomings (Tuck, 2008).  In Herrera’s (1983) version of their falling out, Trotsky sent a private letter to Frida asking for her help.  He said that Rivera was upset with him because he had suggested that he focus on his art rather than politics.  Trotsky had suggested this because Rivera wanted more responsibilities as an organizer, but did not answer letters or other mundane responsibilities needed in party life.  In the letter to Frida, he asked her for help in mending the relationship as he felt that Diego was an important part of the movement.  It is plausible that Rivera, who had a big personality and ego was personally offended by Trotsky’s lack of faith in his political abilities.  Whatever the case, Rivera’s relationship with Trotsky deteriorated.  He even gave Trotsky a sugar skull with Stalin’s name on it.

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Rivera and Frida’s marriage deteriorated not long after.  In November 1939, the two of them divorced.  This may have been due to Frida’s affair with Muray or any number of their affairs.  Frida returned to Mexico, painted prolifically, but also suffered from bad health.  In May 1940, Trotsky was attacked in an attempted assassination.  Following the attack, Rivera fled the country with the help of some friends, moving to San Fransisco.  On August 21, 1940, Trotsky was assassinated and Frida spent two days in jail with her sister Cristina.  They were believed to be suspects in his assassination.  Indeed, Frida had met Raul Mercader twice, but police did not find evidence of her involvement in the assassination (Herrera, 1983).  Following the assassination, she phoned Diego and said, “They killed old Trotsky this morning,” she cried. “Estupido! It’s your fault that they killed him. Why did you bring him?”  (Rogers, 2014)   A month later, Frida traveled to San Fransisco for medical treatment.  She later moved to New York and began an affair with a twenty five year old art dealer named Heinz Berggruen.  The two spent two months living together in a hotel.  Meanwhile, Diego Rivera proposed to Frida several times, wanting to remarry her.  In December 1940, she married him and returned to Mexico, as both of them had been cleared as suspects in the assassination of Leon Trotsky (Herrera, 1983).

Despite her initial upset over Trotsky’s death, Frida became increasingly pro-Soviet as World War II progressed.  At the same time, Stalinists shunned Rivera for his previous association with Trotsky.  Rivera tried numerous times to rejoin the Communist Party.  He applied again with Frida in 1948.  Frida was accepted and Rivera was rejected.  Rivera remained embittered against Trotsky and even asked Frida to sign her membership paperwork with a pen she had given Trotsky.  Frida refused to do this.  In her diary, she said that denouncing Trotsky was unthinkable, but she denounced him publicly anyway.  She called him a coward and a thief.  Diego even boasted that he only invited Trotsky to Mexico so he could be assassinated (Herrera, 1983).   Rivera’s connection to the assassination as been a matter of some controversy.  Rivera was friends with David Siqueiros, a fellow muralist who attempted to kill Trotksy in 1940.  It is also suspicious that Diego Rivera went into hiding following the attack.  He framed it as though he feared for his own life.  Rivera may have been a collaborator with the United States, according to research by Professor William Chase of Pittsburgh University.  According to FBI and State Department documents, while identifying as a Trotskyist, Rivera provided the United States with lists of communists and communist activities.   It is unknown if Diego actually collaborated with the FBI, but it is known that he was wire tapped by them while he was staying in San Francisco (Davidson, 1993).   In any event, the shadow of suspicion hangs over Diego Rivera, though Frida has not been identified with historians as complicit in Trotsky’s murder.

The remaining years of Frida’s life were marked with profound illness and a stronger association with communism.  Frida began teaching art and leftist theory to students of the Ministry of Public Education’s School of Painting and Sculpture.  She was said to treat her students as equal and recommend Marxist texts to them.  Some of her students were called Fridos and went on to found the Young Revolutionary Artists.  In 1944, her health continued to erode and she was diagnosed with syphilis.  In 1945, she wore a variety of medical corsets and could not sit down or lay down in them.  In 1950, she spent a year in the hospital.  As she grew more closely connected to the Communist Party, her art style changed.  She began painting still lifes and adopting realism.  She said she wanted her art to be useful and even boasted that she was a better communist than Diego, as she had been in the party longer and always paid her dues (Herrera, 1983).   In 1953, Frida had her first solo exhibition in Mexico, but was so sick that she had to be taken there in her bed.  Her leg was amputated later that year, which brought her tremendous despair.  She attempted suicide numerous times after her amputation.  Diego continued to have affairs with other women, including Raquel Tibol, whom Frida tried to kiss when she visited her bed.  Tibol was shocked enough to push Frida away.  At the same time, she developed a very close relationship with her nurse, Judith Ferreto.  Judith would sleep in her room, lay beside her in bed, hold her cigarettes for her, and sing her to sleep.  While the relationship may not have been sexual, it was one of her closest relationships during the time period, since her mental health, suicide attempts, pain, anger, and abuse of others alienated her loved ones (Herrera, 1983).   Frida created a painting called Marxism will give health to the sick, which was one of her last paintings and never fully completed.  The painting depicts her in her leather corset, near two large hands, an image of Karl Marx, a dove, and a hand around the neck of Uncle Sam.  Towards the end of her life, she tried to be more overt in the political content of her paintings.  The painting is meant to represent the healing power of Marxism, as she is holding a red book instead of crutches and healed by two large hands.  The original title of the painting was Peace on Earth so the Marxist Science may Save the Sick and Those Oppressed by Criminal Yankee Capitalism.   (Marxism will give health to the sick, n.d.).  Frida also painted a portrait of Joseph Stalin and became distraught when he died in 1953.  On July 2nd 1954, Frida attended a protest of 10,000 people against the U.S. supported coup against Jacobo Arbenz, the democratically elected president of Guatemala.  Diego pushed her in her wheelchair through the crowd, where for four hours, she shouted “Yankee assassins, get out!”  She said that she wanted three things in life: Diego, to be a communist, and to paint.  The demonstration taxed her health and she died on July 13th (Herrera, 1983).

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When Kahlo died, her coffin was covered with a red flag with a hammer and sickle imposed on a star (Helland, 1992).  The International was sung at her funeral along with The Young Guard, the song played at Lenin’s funeral (Herrera, 1983).   Her life and death leave many questions.  She is remembered for her femininity, but she also wore her hair short and dressed up in suits and the clothes of workers.  After her divorce with Rivera and after he cheated on her with her sister, she cropped her hair (Herrera, 1983).  At the same time, her masculinity should not be attributed simply to the emotional states caused by Rivera.  After all, she had been remembered as a tomboyish child.  She was a girl who wanted to be a doctor and who enjoyed politics and her father’s company.  She wore men’s clothes in a 1926 family photo.  Thus, her gender expression was more than shadow puppetry in the darkness Diego created in her life.  While she is more well known for her affairs with men, she also loved women.   In her diary she wrote a love letter to the painter Jacqueline Lambda (Haynes, 2006).   Frida also had relationships with actresses Dolores del Rio and Paulette Goddard.  Frida flirted with Georgia O’Keefe at Stieglitz’s gallery.  Diego Rivera reportedly supported Frida’s affairs with women, but felt threatened by those with men.  Garber (2000) suggests that this may have been because he was turned on by the idea of two women together or because he was insecure that he was twenty years older than her and could not satisfy her sexual appetite.  Whatever the case, her sexuality is always understood in the context of men.  In her own words she said, “Men are kings.  They direct the world (Herrera, 1983, p. 250).”  Trotsky and Rivera were certainly give more attention in this research.  They were masters of the world of politics and art.  Further, Frida’s relationships with women are less known.  They are left out of the narrative of her life for lack of information.  After Frida died, her friends edited and destroyed parts of her diaries.  It is possible that this aspect of her life was destroyed or edited out of history or because of biphobia and homophobia, for decades it was underplayed and under researched.  Beyond sexuality and gender, is her troublesome association with Stalinism and her affair with Trotsky.  She denounced a man who she both slept with and offered safety to.  While it seems that her political decisions were certainly connected to Diego, she was a communist before she met him and it insults her intelligence to suppose that she blindly followed him politically.  Surely he influenced her political life, but she had enough agency to declare herself a better communist and paint Stalin from her deathbed.

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Haynes (2016) noted that one theme from Frida’s life was duality, which is seen in both her art and her life.  An example in her art is the painting, The Two Fridas wherein she depicts two versions of herself, each sharing a heart.  They are dressed differently and in different poses to represent her European identity and the other her Mexican identity, as she was the daughter of a German/Hungarian Jew and a part Native American catholic mother.  The image also represents her emotional side and rational side.  Frida’s gender expression and sexuality may also be described as “in between.”  While her clothes are often feminine dresses, her unibrow, facial hair, and stern expression may be seen as masculine.  As a young adult, she wore suits and after a split with Rivera, she cropped her hair and resumed wearing suits (Haynes, 2016).  Frida actually depicted herself as more masculine during the 1940s, darkening her mustache in portraits of that era (Garber, 2000).  Another duality is her bisexuality, or betweenness in regard to her attraction to men and women.  Bisexual themes have been interpreted in Frida’s art.  For instance, Two Nudes in the Forest, depicts two naked women in the forest.  A darker skinned woman has her hand on the neck of a lighter skinned woman, as a monkey watches from the forest.   The painting was created for Dolores Del Rio, a Mexican actress, around the time she was going through a divorce with Rivera (Collins, 2013).  Delores Del Rio, like many of the women in Frida’s life, was powerful, beautiful, non-conventional, and pioneering.  She was the first Latina actress to become famous in Hollywood, though less political than many of Frida’s other love interests.  Josephine Baker was another love interest, and again, a pioneering woman.  She was the first Black woman to become a world famous entertainer.  She had communist sympathies and performed in Cuba on the 7th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution and later in Albania and Yugoslavia.  She also was a leader in the NAACP and an organizer in the Civil Rights movement.  Certainly, Baker more politically interesting and historically important than Diego Rivera.  But, specific details regarding their relationship is harder to find, likely owing to the fact that they lived in a world that was hostile to same sex relationships.  Finally, in a way, Frida’s relationship to Diego might be seen as a relationship between two gender non-conforming individuals. Diego Rivera was woman-like in Frida’s eyes.  He was a large man and Frida said that he would have been welcome on the island of Lesbos.  She said she loved his large breasts and pink, oversized underwear, which he wore due to his enormous girth (Herrera, 1983).

Image result

Politically, Frida’s life was full of duality.  Not only was she at varying times pulled between Trotskyism and Stalinism, according to Helland (1992) she was pulled between Marxism and nationalism.  Frida lived in a time where Marxism and Mexican nationalism were both popular.  Mexican nationalism consisted of an idealization of Aztec culture, an interest in Mexican history, mixed with anti-Spanish and anti-imperialism.   Kahlo used Aztec inspired images in her artwork, such as hearts and skeletons.  Unlike Rivera, she did not identify with the internationalism of Trotskyism and did not create as many traditionally socialist styled pieces of art.  Nationalism may have been why she identified with Stalinism.  Many of her paintings critique the United States, such as her Self-Portrait on the Border Between Mexico and the United States, wherein the United States is depicted as highly industrial and robotic, and Mexico is depicted as agricultural and and pre-industrial.  Frida died with an unfinished portrait of Stalin on her easel and near her bed were pictures of Marx, Mao, Stalin, Lenin, and Engels (Helland, 1992).  While she did not overtly call herself a feminist, feminists admire Kahlo because of the themes of female experience in her paintings, such as birth, miscarriage, and unhappiness in love.  Frida might be looked upon as a feminist for her experiences with abortion.  While she later described the incident as a miscarriage, in 1932, she wrote in her diary of a self-induced abortion using quinine.  She also sought a medical abortion due to concerns for her reproductive health after her accident and experienced a miscarriage.  She was denied an abortion, so she sought to self-perform one.  Dr. Pratt informed her that she could have a child and deliver it through c-section.  Interestingly, her abortions have been reframed by historians as miscarriages.  While she is believed to have regret not having children, she may have cultivated this belief in order to conform to social norms of the day and because motherhood was central to Mexican woman identity at the time.  Her poor health may have been used to legitimize this decision.  Abortion was illegal in the United States and Mexico at the time (Zetterman, 2006).  A duality was her longing for reproduction, her love of children, but her inability to have them.  Finally, she is quoted as saying that she detested surrealism as bourgeoisie art, but she also rejected the socialist realism sanctioned by the Soviet Union  (Helland, 1992).  Thus, her art is another duality.  She was embraced by surrealists, but also had elements of realism.  Finally, her art itself contrasts with her politics, as she was a socialist who was deeply interested in herself or own individuality.

Frida Kahlo was a complicated and fascinating person.  The magnetism and mystery that drew people to her in her own time continues to attract audiences to her art and history.  There are so many facets of her life and personality to uncover.  This piece barely explores her political life, faintly reviews her sexual life, and only hints at her gender.  Like others, this research makes the mistake of focusing too heavily on her relationships with men.   Of course, bisexuality does not necessarily mean equal attraction to men and women.  The emphasis on her male relationships is not a problem with Frida’s sexuality or does not in anyway diminish her bisexuality.  Rather, it is a problem with the male focus of society and by extension, historians.  As a bisexual Trotskyist, I was certainly interested in that aspect of her life.   But, this focus runs the risk of creating a narrative that relationships with women or women themselves are unimportant.  Despite these shortcomings, it is my hope that it offers a few tidbits of insight to those who attended our monthly meeting and raises new questions about her.


Ankori, G., & A. (2013). Frida Kahlo. London: Reaktion Books.

Bildner, A. (2004). Diego, Frida, and Trotsky. Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies.


Collins, A. F. (2013, September 17). Frida Kahlo’s Diary: A Glimpse Inside Her Tortured, Scribble-Happy World. Retrieved April 06, 2017, from


Davison, Phil. “Diego Rivera’s Dirty Little Secret.” Independent 25 Nov. 1993


DeMirjyn, M. (2011). “The Queer Filming of Frida”: Creating a Cinematic Latina Lesbian Icon. Praxis, 23(1).


Easterling, S. (2013, March). Mexico’s revolution 1910–1920. Retrieved May 18, 2017, from


Haynes, A. (2006). Frida Kahlo: An Artist’In Between’. In Conference Proceedings–Thinking Gender–The NEXT generation.


Helland, J. (1992). Culture, politics, and identity in the paintings of Frida Kahlo. The expanding discourse: Feminism and art history, 397-408.


Herrera, H. (1983). Frida, a biography of Frida Kahlo. New York: Perennial.


Garber, M. B. (2000). Bisexuality and the eroticism of everyday life. New York: Routledge.


Mataev, O. (n.d.). Frida Kahlo Biography. Retrieved May 18, 2017, from


“Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick – by Frida Kahlo.” Frida N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Apr. 2017. <;


Morrison, J., & Pietras, J. (2010). Frida Kahlo. New York: Chelsea House.


Motian-Meadows, M. (n.d.). Kahlo As Artist, Woman, Rebel. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from


Rogers, L. (2014, April 30). Frida’s Red Hot Lover. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from


Tuck, J. (2008, October). Rebel without a pause: the tempestuous life of Diego Rivera. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from


Two Nudes in the Forest. (n.d.). Retrieved May 18, 2017, from


Zamora, M. (1991). Frida Kahlo: the brush of anguish. Tokyo: Libroport.


Zetterman, E. (2006). Frida Kahlo’s abortions: With reflections from a gender perspective on sexual education in Mexico. Konsthistorisk Tidskrift, 75(4), 230-243.


White Lies: Another Poem


I wrote this poem when I was trying to catch some sleep in Charles de Gaulle Airport.  I had just experienced an 11 hour flight from Johannesburg and everything around me was becoming whiter and whiter as I returned to Minnesota.  I closed my eyes and could hear the conversations around me.  It was the banal banter you’d expect in an airport.  The interactions between white middle class parents and their children played as a chorus around me.  A few lines popped into my head as I dozed off.  I jotted it down into a poem.

White Lies

White shirts

White sheets

White shoes that don’t leave scuff marks on the gym floor.

When did everything get so white?

When you became a mother?  When you became a wife?

White schools,

ones without crime, with good teachers and extra curriculars

White parents

with organic snacks and time to volunteer on field trips

and field days.

White Christmas,

with snow and gifts,

once a year in church,

and resolutions for more moderation.

White power,

with friendly police,

responsible choices,

long, healthy lives,

fortified isolation,

feigned ignorance,

polite conversations,

sterile politics,

two child fertility,

and all the other

white lies.


Commie on a Cruise

Commie on a Cruise

I learned long ago that people judge the way one travels. I had a history professor who asked the class if anyone had been out of the United States. I said I had and he asked me where I had been. I told him, but he scoffed and dismissed me when I said it was a two week bus tour of Europe. At the time, I worked as a housekeeper at a hotel. The trip was something extremely expensive. I nearly ran out of money on the trip itself. But to him, it wasn’t an authentic experience because it was a lowly bus tour and only two weeks. He said, “Oh, you went on one of those whirlwind tours.”   I went from feeling proud and happy to feeling embarrassed. The man called himself a socialist but was oblivious to his own privilege and elitism. (In another instance he chastised me for playing video games, saying that it was better to spend time reading.)

This spring, I went on a cruise. I am embarrassed to talk about it for a variety of reasons. On one hand, from an environmentalist perspective, I may as well tell people that I traveled around on an oil spewing toxic waste barge. From a socialist perspective, the workers on the ship work long shifts with miniscule pay. The workers are hyper exploited. Beyond this, it is seen as something old people do. So there is a little bit of ageism. It is also viewed as tacky and inauthentic. When it comes to cultural capital, cruises (at least on the mainstream cruise lines) are viewed as a tasteless way to travel. Middle class liberal sorts prefer long term travel, study abroad, conferences, retreats, socially conscious travel, or self-catered travel.


Well, I went on a cruise. I’ve gone on one before. There are many reasons why I have gone. The previous time it was with my boyfriend who hates travelling. So, it is a way to travel that appeals to the people that I know. I always travel alone. Even if I join up with a group tour, I end up alone. As for my previous cruise, I was actually meant to travel with a companion, but it fell through. Thus, for me, a perk is the potential to bring someone with me. None of my friends or family are really into travel.

But, even going alone, another incentive is that the price is pretty low. It is a great way to see some countries for a fairly low cost. When I went on a cruise this spring, I bought the cheapest room. I didn’t gamble. I don’t like shopping. I don’t drink alcohol. So really, once I was on the ship, I spent almost nothing. Spending nothing was a fun little game (well, I did buy excursions). This is a super deal for someone like me who isn’t lured in by the overpriced…everything…on the ship.

Finally, cruising is pretty easy. It is fairly hassle free and generally relaxing. Even having the cheapest room was better than having and FINDING my hostel in Minsk. There is no stress of finding accommodations or food, since it is all right there on the boat. And since the ship is enormous, visible anywhere on most islands, it seems fairly impossible to get lost.


With that said, here is a communist’s experience with a Carnival cruise:

I chose to go on a 10 Day Carnival Cruise to the Southern Caribbean. The cruise included Barbados, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Kitts, Tobago, St. Thomas, and Puerto Rico. This seemed like a pretty good deal because a.) I really wanted to go to Grenada because of its brief history of socialism. b.) When I was 19, I told myself that I would one day go to St. Lucia after I read Omeros by Derek Walcott. c.) It was a new island each day! d.) I was curious about learning more about the other Caribbean countries on the itinerary.

I chose Carnival because it was fairly inexpensive and because I like that it attracts more diverse vacationers.

With that said, I began by cruise by walking from my hotel in San Juan to the cruise pier. I didn’t want to pay for a $40 transfer, so I walked. I felt proud of this as navigating the cobblestone streets with my bags made me feel strong and capable. When I arrived on the ship, I found that almost everyone on the cruise was from the U.S., with a smattering of Europeans who appeared to be either from Germany or Scandinavia. Most of the passengers were retired, but there were people of all ages and even some college aged individuals. From the conversations, it seemed that these people had more working class backgrounds. There were teachers, nurses, police people, truck drivers, fire fighters, etc. but most were retirees. The majority of the cruise passenger population was from the Southern United States, overweight, and white. However, I believe that about 10% of the cruise passenger population may have been people of color, including a few large African American families that were travelling together. In this sense, the cruise was not at all an elitist adventure. My impression was that it was everyday people who had been saving up to go and treating themselves to some pseudo-luxury. The people looked like the people you might meet at Walmart or Old Country Buffet. Of course, there were better dressed, fit, middle class people, but for the most part, the people on the ship reminded me of my mother or people who might be friends with my mother. Just average Americans. I don’t mind that since I live in a communist bubble (speaking mostly to socialists and feminists). It is interesting to be around people who have no qualms with going Black Friday shopping, going to church, and eating at buffets. (By the way, I do like buffets. I like salad bars and as a vegetarian, I have a much easier time finding food at a buffet. I often pick healthier meals when I eat at buffets. My main gripe is that the food quality is never awesome).

As soon as I got on the ship, the buffet was open and passengers immediately took to stuffing themselves. I have read that cruise passengers gain 1-2 lbs a day, which seems impossible. However, buffet for every snack and meal, plus drinks could easily result in this. I also read that cruise passengers drink eight times the amount of alcohol they normally drink. Well, just as I was going to buck the trend by resisting the spend, spend, spend mantra of the ship, I decided that I was going to avoid gaining weight by eating sensibly. In the end, I actually lost two pounds on the cruise! Yes, I have work to do in becoming a fat positive feminist. Still, there is something a bit unnerving about watching people eat so much and thinking about the enormous amount of food waste. It is an environment wherein consumption of all sorts is encouraged.

The consumption was one of the more bizarre aspects of the ship. The ship is a cashless economy. The room card doubles as a charge card. Thus, each time you do a fitness class, buy a soda, or purchase a souvenir, you just hand over your room card. You receive a bill at the end. A person can check their balance at a kiosk, but the ease of spending and the high prices surely results in some unpleasant surprises.   Beyond the bizarre shopping mall feel of the ship is the shopping while at port. Upon disembarking from the ship, passengers are handed a map. However, the map is devoid of landmarks or tourist attractions. It is a shopping map. The shopping map is entirely useless as a navigational tool as it is minimally marked. The map tells passengers where to shop for the best deals on watches, jewelry, and souvenirs. Passengers are also warned not to leave the shops near the pier. Thus, passengers really don’t see the country. They see the weird, strip mall-esque duty free zone by the ship. I went on ship sponsored excursions, but I also ventured beyond the piers into the cities to explore on my own. I found very few tourists who ventured far from the ship. For instance, I explored Bridgetown, Barbados for a few hours on my own and only saw three cruise passengers in the city. It was very similar on the stops in Grenada and St. Kitts. Passengers really didn’t explore beyond the thin belt of shops near the ship. But, everyone travels for different reasons and everyone has different comfort zones. If passengers don’t explore, it is probably due to mobility issues and the fact that the ship itself seems to discourage it.   Of course, if passengers were empowered to explore on their own, the ship would not make money off of the excursions or deals that it has with various shops.


(A busy shopping street in Bridgetown, Barbados. No cruise passengers to be seen)

On the ship, most of the food service and housekeeping staff appeared to be Asian men, with the Philippines representing most frequent country of origin.   Bar staff, child care staff, and program staff tended to be young and white. Desk service staff appeared to be female and Eastern European. So, it was interesting how there was a racial, gender, and ethnic divide in the work. The most visible staff were always white, young, and English speaking. Because of the cashless economy, tips are charged at the end of the stay. However, I wondered how the tips were divided among the staff or if the staff even received the gratuities. Because of this, I left a little extra in my room for the housekeeping staff. Actually, I felt bad that everyone on the ship had to work so hard. To mitigate this, I kept my Do Not Disturb sign up for two days. I figured that I really didn’t need daily housekeeping as I had plenty of towels and could tidy my own room. Despite my efforts to create less work for the staff, the head of the security came to my room to check on me. He demanded to know if I was alright, as I had left my sign up for two days. Oops! I explained that I had left it up because I didn’t need room service, but after that, I just let the housekeepers do their thing.

                (The handiwork of an overworked housekeeper)

Another curious aspect of the cruise atmosphere is the social construction of fun. The word fun is thrown around all of the time. Everyone having fun? We have another fun show coming up this evening! Even the daily newsletter/schedule is called “The Fun Times.” There are various activities to keep passengers entertained. These include various musical performances, magic shows, mini golf, the pool, the water slide, contests, comedy shows, etc. I decided I really wasn’t interested in any of them. Instead, I spend my time reading, writing, or walking on the fitness track. Each night I made a ritual out of watching the sun set and doing some star gazing. Because I was only 8 degrees above the equator, I desperately wanted to see the Southern Cross.  I actually spend some time doing writing and research while on the ship, as I was finishing my Master’s Degree in Teaching. Time on the ship provided ample time to finish the 80 page paper I was working on. But, I also spent time in one of the six Jacuzzis on the upper decks. I enjoyed doing this at night while star gazing. The only problem was that the ship creates an enormous amount of light pollution. As such, it is hard to star gaze. The night sky should be dark and clear in all directions, but the deck lights block out the stars. As a whole, I felt alienated from the fun. I was alone almost the entire time, but enjoyed eaves dropping on my fellow passengers to get a peek into their lives and world views. Unfortunately, Carnival’s idea of fun is not nerd friendly. So, I made my own fun. However, I did participate in trivia! This was a highlight of my time on the ship. I even won a trophy for winning at trivia. I had a proud moment wherein a won a trivia game as a solo player against various teams. From then on, when people saw me, they said, “there’s that smart girl.” It was very flattering and lots of fun, of course.

(Fun for everyone.  Except me.  Though, I do regret never trying out the waterslide)

The only other thing I will note is the pseudo-luxury. Now, I got the impression that no one on the cruise was really rich. Rich people probably wouldn’t go on a Carvival Cruise. They would go on a more exclusive yachting trip. Even the upper middle class have would probably pick a different cruise line. The passengers had money to spend, so they weren’t the poor. To me, they really did seem like my idea of average Americans. The original goal of Carnival and other mainstream cruise lines was to make cruising affordable. So, while it is affordable, it is still presented as a luxury. This is why passengers are encouraged to buy expensive jewelry and watches. It is why they are told to get spa treatments. It is why there are formal dining nights wherein passengers must dress up if they want to eat in the dining room. There was even an art sale. All of this is a packaged way to sell the idea of luxury to everyday people.  I think it is a way for working people to ape the lifestyle of rich people. In a way, it is also an escapism from social class. Thus, I think that for many passengers, the cruise is more about a vacation FROM class than it is an escape TO a destination. For a moment in time, and in that space, the passengers get to experience spending without consequence (until they get their credit card bill). Of course, people are still divided by the expense and location of their rooms, but I am sure there are many others like me who retire each night to their tiny interior cabins.

I enjoyed my time on the islands, but I will discuss them in a future post, as I would like to write about what I learned about each of them. While the visit to each island was brief, I stuffed my days and tried to make the most of my short time. I do believe that I learned quite a bit about each of them and that it further piqued my curiosity about the Caribbean.

So that was my experience. It was a lot of consumerism. It was a lot of complaining older adults. It was a lot of exploited workers. It was boot camp for the ideology of fun and spending. It was lonely. I felt isolated and alienated. But, at the same time I enjoyed it. I made the experience my own by reading, walking, star gazing, playing trivia, doing school work, and making the most of my time on the islands. If I did it again, I would prefer to have a companion. Can I justify the ecological damage? The banal hedonism? The Donald Trump supporters and offensive t-shirts? I find it all kind of fascinating. People may judge me for it, but I would go again.


What is to be Danced? The Belly Dance and Cultural Appropriation Question


What is to be Danced? The Belly Dance and Cultural Appropriation Question.


“Oh no, someone let an uncomfortable feminist argument out of the bottle!”

I am going to be honest here. I love to travel. I love to try new things. Historically, I have collected hobbies like some people collect Dragon Ball Z Action Figures, stamps, and nail polish colors. Wait, I’ve collected those too. I am curious about the world and cultures. I have worn clothing that was inspired by ethnic styles. In the late 1990s, I wore a bindi a few times, as it was the trend then and because I imagined that it made me look like I was a superhero that could blast magical magenta lasers from the gemstone. I drew a comic book wherein I did exactly this. I suck.

So, when I talk about cultural appropriation, it is not because I am riding on some high horse looking down on people. It is because I have a carbon footprint that looks like Godzilla walked by. It is because I want to partake in cultures. It is also because I don’t want to be a terrible white person who stomps on people of color. There is already a lot of stomping in the world.

Thus, this leads me to my latest quandary. Is belly dancing a form of cultural appropriation? In 2014, Randa Jarrar, a Palestinian American writer, wrote a controversial article for Slate, wherein she argued that it was cultural appropriation. Jarrar expressed frustration that white women were basically performing Arab drag by dressing up in costumes that caricatured Arab women. She said that growing up in the Middle East, the belly dance (Raqs Sharqi) clothing she remembered was more conservative and women who perform belly dances professionally were looked down upon. She viewed belly dancing as a performance of women for women, done at parties and weddings. When men were present, the dancing was less playful. Because of the stigma of public performance, she observed that white women were being hired to perform in Egypt. In all, she mostly felt angered by the shameless Arab face performance of white women, who she said sometimes adopted Arab sounding performance names and Arab inspired costumes.

In response to her opinion, the internet exploded with articles and blog posts defending cultural appropriation, cultural borrowing, and belly dancing. This is not a literature review of those articles, but in reading some of responses I saw a jumbled discourse of the power, privilege, and entitlement on the dismissive end of the spectrum and appreciation, art, expression, and feminism on the apologetic end of the spectrum. For the most part, it was hard to find many voices who agreed with her. Roughly, here are a few common arguments against her argument:


Impossible to Avoid Argument: On this side, it seems that a theme was that cultural appropriation is hard to define and no one owns culture. Cultural borrowings are a part of all societies. If a person were to try to avoid cultural appropriation, it would involve extremes like avoiding coffee, potatoes, and algebra. The merit of this argument is that the world is so interconnected by globalization that it is impossible to avoid appropriation. The outcome of this would be extreme isolation between peoples and the policing of cultural boundaries. Main Critique: This is true, but this also evades tough questions about racism, imperialism, and entitlement.

It’s Art Argument: On this side, dance is art. Art is creative and expressive. The rules of cultural appropriation do not apply to art. If belly dance is performed well and taken seriously as an art, then women will grow in their respect of Middle Eastern cultures as they deepen their knowledge of dance, instruments, language, and dance history. Critique: This is true, who wants to censor art and learning? But, art is not inherently benign. Art is political and promotes meaning. What if the art sends the message that imperialism is okay?

It’s Feminism Argument: Belly dancing empowers women by allowing them to express themselves, explore their identities, accept their bodies, spend time with other women, etc. Some pagan feminists believe that belly dancing is an ancient form of dance that celebrates the feminine divine. Belly dancing builds community and sisterhood. Critique: Wonderful. I truly want this for women. But, what if some women feel that the dance does not respect their culture? What if they feel mocked or marginalized? Feminism isn’t about community and self-actualization of some women at the expense of the community and self-actualization of other women.

Unfortunately, what is lacking is a Marxist feminist answer to cultural appropriation. Here I am…a Marxist feminist, trying to make sense of what is a very difficult question. In the spirit of Lenin I shall ask…

What is to be danced?

I have mulled it over and I don’t think that Marxism can really take a position on dance. Dance is part of the superstructure, or the culture that sits on the economy. Dance evolves over time as society changes. It is entirely possible that the pagan feminists are right and there have been gyrating dances since the dawn of time. These early dances might have celebrated fertility, women, female power, etc. This sort of dance might have been characteristic of a matriarchal or matrilineal society wherein women were valued and equal. But, this is capitalism. This is the heart of the beast of capitalism: the USA. Capitalism has reached all over the globe. In doing so it has subjugated other cultures as it has integrated other economies. It is no wonder that in our globalized capitalist society that we would have a taste for the foods, cultures, dances, and languages of other places. We have had a long time to become exposed to these things through imperialism and colonization. Historically, the West has had the power to discover and take. At the same time, we are oppressed by capitalism. We want to escape. We want to travel. We want joy and fun. We want to celebrate and dance!

Without capitalism, we wouldn’t really know about belly dancing. We’d be feudal peasants who perhaps know only of our own village. In the 18th and 19th century, Europeans travelled to the Ottoman Empire and saw dancers perform. Harems really captured the imagination of Europeans. Now, in our Orientalist imagination, harems are places where women dance around for sultans. In my understanding, harems were places for women. Here, women danced for women and most of them never met the sultan. Harems were guarded by eunuchs because men weren’t trusted. Really, it was a female space. To varying degrees it was a way for women to exert some measure of control over the sultan. But, this shouldn’t be idealized as feminist space or power. The women were trafficked from across the empire. Around the same time that Europe was exposed to belly dancing, it was exposed to many things as it expanded into new territories. This era saw a rise in Orientalism, or art, music, literature, and ideas which popularized certain images of the East. The east was exotic and erotic. Having this vision of the east probably made it easier to conquer it, as it was a backwards place, yet exciting places, with strange values.

Belly dancing as an art is deeply connected to capitalism’s global nature. Belly dancing became popular in the United States in the late 1800s through our World’s Fair, at a time when we were just sinking our milk teeth into global imperialism. It appealed to orientalism. Even at that time, it was performance for an orientalist audience rather than a traditional folk art. The dance shimmied across the globe. It was shaped by U.S. Hollywood movies, returned to Egypt, repackaged, returned to the United States through immigrants, and reshaped. Modern belly dance draws from many cultures. It is a simulacrum. That is, a copy of a copy of a copy. A simulacra, according to Baudrillard, is something which has no origin or is a caricature. Of course, real people contributed to the development of belly dancing through teaching, shaping, performing, and costuming of the dance. Some of these people were indeed Arab American.

As workers were are alienated from the production of things. We don’t control how things are made. We buy them in the market place, where they appear magically from far off places. Where did that coffee come from? Who grew it? How was it roasted? What is the process? So it is with the thousands of things we consume. Since capitalism is so global and everything just appears so magically, it is no wonder that there are so many international things to consume. At the same time, being American is also pretty frustrating. For a progressive person, America is a place of religion, racism, inequality, Donald Trump, endless war, professional wrestling, snow mobiles, and Happy Meals. A taste for international foods and activities seems like a lovely alternative.

This leads to the problem.   Miss Progressive doesn’t want to learn square dancing and eat corn dogs at the county fair. These things represent America. OR, maybe she feels bad about her body. Belly dancing liberates her from the fat shaming. She feels sexy again. Or, maybe she meets some friends. It sure is lonely taking care of the kids. And, these women are fun and cool. They have tattoos. They aren’t afraid of the Middle East. They might even deeply respect the dance. Women are oppressed. All women are oppressed. In the land of plenty and scarcity, there is a tendency to escape or try to escape our oppression through consumption and identity. Dance is an escape. Can we blame women for wanting some joy in the world?! My god, if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution. Thanks for the perfect quote, Emma Goldman.


Okay, so Lenin asked the classic question, what is to be done…not what is to be danced. This is about forming a vanguard party for the purpose of spreading revolutionary ideas to workers. I am not sophisticated nor creative enough to tie belly dancing to the vanguard party. But, I can tie this argument to a basic question which revolutionaries must ask themselves. The question is: how do I make a revolution?

This probably sounds bloody and terrible to my readers. So, maybe a less dramatic sounding question is how do I make significant change in society? From a Marxist perspective, capitalism just has to go. To this end, workers just have to be organized. This is because the entire economic is run by workers and would cease to function without the consent to work. Because of our service economy, maybe workers don’t seem that powerful. Oh nooos who will make the hamburgers?! Think instead, who will run hospitals, schools, drive trains and buses, harvest food, ship the food, can the food, make the weapons, remove the garbage, purify the water, and so on and so on. No other group in society wields the power of workers. But, not just workers. Ties must be made to social movements. A socialist revolution must also be a revolution that wins the hearts and minds of all oppressed people: women, gays, lesbians, transgendered people, ethnic and racial minorities. Capitalism depends upon racism, sexism, and homophobia to function. These things divide people. This divides workers.

Relating to oppressed groups isn’t always easy. There is a lot of false consciousness or bad ideas in the world. I am a product of society and as such, my head is full of a lot of society’s bad ideas. But, if there is one rule of being an ally to these groups it is probably: don’t be a dick.

How do you avoid being a dick?

  1. Listen to oppressed people.

Okay, sounds good. But they say different things! Some don’t even think racism exists any more.


  1. Listen to the vanguard of oppressed people.

Listen to the people who you think are in motion. Who are the activists? The radicals? They probably can give you some clues about how to treat them with dignity and be true allies.


  1. What if they say that I can’t belly dance? Or Celebrate the Day of the Dead? Or wear dreadlocks?

These are personal choices. There is no golden rule to what is and what is or is not cultural appropriation. But, listen to the arguments. Consider the offense it may cause. Consider how it shapes your relationship with this group of people. If Arab women feel that belly dancing is appropriation, then consider how you could work with them to make it better and more just. Isn’t that the nice thing to do?

  1. Weigh/Learn about the issue:

In the end, Jarrar issued another statement. In this, she said belly dancing isn’t that important. The really important thing were things like the appropriation of Palestinian land. She was upset that her article was given so much attention when she had written more substantive things. The appropriation of a dance is far less important than the detainment of thousands of Palestinians who protest Israel’s occupation of their land or the collective punishment of Palestinians who cannot leave Gaza and the West Bank.


  1. Consider Oppression

Since there are no hard and fast rules about how to live one’s life and politics should not be reduced to personal choices anyway, the big question is the movement. The big picture is not the food you eat, clothes you wear, or hobbies you participate in. It is the oppression. The oppression of women must end. To do this, we must build a feminist movement. This is a circle. To build a movement, we need allies. To have allies, we can’t be jerks. We are all oppressed. We all have to work together. It is easy to think that feminism means freedom and choice, but the heart of feminism is ending the systematic oppression of women. This means that some of our freedoms and choices do impact others.



Belly dancing is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. I wrestle with it. Knowing what I know, or thinking what I think, should I do it as an activity? Having been raised in the United States, I like to think I can do whatever I want. I have freedom to choose. The world is a marketplace. It is hard to shake off that consciousness. I don’t want an austere, colorless life that lacks culture. I think the worst offense is probably the racialized costume. In this sense, perhaps I would be comfortable taking classes or practicing it at home, but would not want to wear a costume. I can’t shake the desire to learn and explore. The imperialist urge to sample the world.  I have tried to be involved with a local Palestine group and with an Islamophobia action that happened in Superior. The boundaries of my life are to think about my actions and do the best that I can to be an ally to women. I will do what I can to be the best that I can in those respects. I will dance in the revolution, but my steps will be cautious and thoughtful.

Guerrilla Girls Review


(Image from Feminist Art Project at Rutgers University)

Today I went to check out the Guerrilla Girls at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Founded in 1985, the group consists of anonymous feminists who wear guerilla masks while trying to raise awareness about racial, gender, class, sexuality, etc. inequalities within art. The members of the group are named after dead female artists and have chosen to wear masks so the audience can focus on their message, rather than their individual identities. The group has promoted awareness of inequalities in art (and the media) through posters, stickers, lectures, interviews, and artwork. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the event. I am all for trying to be creative and using costumes to make protest more interesting and vibrant. After all, at one time I wanted to start up radical cheerleading and clowning groups. Really, I had a fun time for the short while I did radical cheerleading. However, I was cautious that perhaps the event would be more artsy, silly, and performative than factual and substantive. I also know very little about art, so I was uncertain if the event would speak to me or my experiences. Finally, because the group was founded upon post-structural ideas, I thought that there might be aspects of the event that I didn’t agree with. My misgivings were entirely unfounded and I found the event to be excellent.


The event consisted of a slideshow and lecture about inequalities and art. The presentation was conducted by two women in gorilla masks. As silly as this sounds, it was engaging, and the masks were not at all distracting after the first slide or two. The masks and dark colored clothes indeed helped me to focus on the content rather than the speakers. I did not take notes during the event, but to summarize some of the main ideas the speakers were upset with the treatment of gender (and race) in art. Most artists featured in museums around the world (above 90% in all museums surveyed) are male. The museums themselves are named after men. And, among the human bodies depicted in modern art, 85% are female. Furthermore, the pay gap between male and female artists is many times that of the regular pay gap. For instance, the highest selling piece of art by a female was sold for 12% of the price of the highest male artists. The lecture also had information about race and class. I was impressed that the Guerrilla Girls made mention of how enslaved guest workers were being used to build the new Guggenheim museum in Abu Dhabi. The exploited labor used in the construction of a museum seems like something that could easily be missed by an art historian.  Class was also mentioned in their discussion of wealthy art collectors, auction house owners, and museum directors, who help to shape the prices and unequal value assigned to art. In terms of race, the presentation mentioned how the Minneapolis Institute of Art only features one piece of work by a Hmong artist and Somali artist, even though Minneapolis has the largest Hmong and Somali population in the U.S. Overall, the lecture was focused more on gender than race and class, though the intersectionality between them was mentioned. A plethora of other statistics were presented during the lecture, but the general idea was that within our already sexist society, there is a particularly strong gender bias in art. While I had some awareness of this, I had really never stopped to consider it nor did I realize just how big this problem was.


Beyond discussing the history of women in art and various inequalities therein, the larger media was also explored. The Guerrilla Girls also discussed their own history and gave us a sneak peek at their newest installation at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. They said that they wrestled with their new-found acceptance by the art community and invitation to show their work around the world. They have decided to use these opportunities as a platform for spreading their message and critiquing the very museums they are shown in. The Guerilla Girls also discussed some of the main ideas from a book they wrote on the history of hysteria. In all, the presentation lasted about an hour, but was engaging the entire time. The use of images, costume, humor, questions to the audience, singing, etc. made the lecture lively and engaging. I think that young audiences, people with ADHD, and people who dislike lectures would benefit from this kind of educational event, since it is attention grabbing and stimulating. In this sense, I feel that their ability to present history, sociology, art history, activism, and politics appealed to many learning styles. I feel that I personally learned from the presentation. The presenters certainly met the educational mission of the Fabian motto, “educate, agitate, organize!”


Just as the Guerrilla Girls educated the audience, they also met the slogan’s mission of agitation. This agitation was in the form of their subversive art, poster and sticker campaigns, research, and critique of artistic institutions and norms. The art often consisted of appropriating famous works of art, replacing the head with a gorilla, and pairing this was a statistics. Another interesting piece of art was a movie poster from La Dolce Vita, used to critique putting women’s art in the basement of an Italian museum. Beyond this, their research interested me. For example, they went to museums to conduct a weenie count, counting how many male and female nudes were on display. They also counted the number of female artists compared to male artists. I appreciated this do-it-yourself research. I felt that if I visited a museum, I would want to conduct a count. So, I imagined myself revisiting art museums, such as the ones I visited in Ukraine and Belarus, to do a count. I like the idea of using research in non-conventional ways or the idea that anyone can do research.


I think that the only area where the Guerrilla Girls failed was the organize aspect. They critiqued art, drew attention to their findings, and were excellent educators. However, they had no message how others might organize. Their organizational tactic seemed focused on their own group and activities. However, they did not say that anyone could start up a Guerrilla Girl group or that they welcomed new members. In fact, they skirted a direct answer about hierarchy within their group and their group’s organization. Based upon Wikipedia information, the group is by invitation and there has been lawsuits against unauthorized use of their image when the group split in 2003. And while they promoted feminist ideas, they did not provide suggestions of how to build a mass feminist movement or their relationship to mass movements. In fact, they said that their group is really about critique rather than answers. I feel that this is a bit of a cop out. It is the kind of things that teachers may say to their students to uphold some ideal of neutrality or avoid indoctrination. However, this answer can make people feel rather directionless or that there are no solutions, only questions and critiques.  There are certainly ways that artists could organize, beyond donning masks. Although the art economy is not as stereotypically wage oriented as other sectors of the economy, artists might benefit by joining or creating unions. Other demands could be more public funding for underrepresented artists, expansion of art programs in public schools (to create jobs and show a value of art), free tuition for art school as part of a demand for universal education, worker/artist control over museums, etc. Thus, this is my main critique of the presentation. Otherwise, I found it educational, important, and entertaining.

Sexuality and Socialism: Book Review


Sexuality and Socialism by Sherry Wolf was candy.  I devoured the book in less than 24 hours.  I didn’t expect the book to be as good as it was.  Judging by the title, I thought that it would be a little dry.  Instead, it was engaging, accessible, and humorous.  The book was good in that it was a fast read that approached sexuality from a Marxist perspective.  Grounding sexuality with materialism is something that I don’t often encounter as the dominant discourses around sexuality tend towards matters of biology and identity.   The book offers a fascinating history with a critique of popular paradigms of sexuality.

One highlight of the book is a chapter on the Russian revolution and Marxist thought regarding sexuality.  I was previously unaware that following the Russian revolution, there are some medical records of rather primitive attempts at sex changes as well as instances of same sex marriages.  This is quite astonishing how a relatively backwards, peasant based, monarchy could in the advent of revolution come to frame sexuality as a matter of public health, privacy, and scientific inquiry, rather than morality and crime.  So, Wolf’s chapter “The Myth of Marxist Homophobia” was refreshing.  Wolf very clearly elucidated the idea that Marxists do not view sexuality as secondary to social class, but rather that solidarity between workers hinges upon ending sexual oppression as well.  In this perspective, homophobia is not vastly separated from class oppression, but a means by which workers are divided.  It is itself an outcome of the material conditions of capitalism which require a nuclear family and rigid gender roles for the reproduction of workers, division of laborers, gender based unpaid labor, and privatized responsibility for children.  This materialist perspective shows the connection between oppressions.  The same chapter is also useful as it speaks about the specific failures of various communist countries and movements.  For example, while Cuba has moved towards more just treatment of sexual minorities, it has a dark history of putting homosexuals into work camps and denying LGBT activists entry into the country.   I visited Cuba in 2008 and was impressed that the country offered sex changes for free and was very pleased with my visit to the CENESEX (the national center for sex education).  In fact, the year I visited was the first year that sex changes were offered for free and the first year that there was a Pride Festival.  I was not aware that the Pride Festival was shut down due to the participants asking for an acknowledgement of past wrongs.  Nevertheless, the book is a bit hard on Cuba, as Fidel Castro has called this history a terrible injustice and most people supportive of LGBT rights would view Cuba’s reforms over the last decade or so encouraging (even if there is debate or cynicism regarding the purpose of these reforms.)  Yet, it is important to acknowledge an entire history rather than some hopeful reforms.

Another highlight of the book was a chapter on how the Democratic Party has been an enemy at worst and fair weather friend at best, when it comes to LGBT rights.  High lights, or low lights, of this history include Clinton’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, Howard Dean promoting civil unions over marriage, Obama being pro-state rights on the question of same sex marriage, Dukakis advocating against a gay caucus within the democratic party, and other instances in a long history of betrayals.  These tidbits appealed to me out due to my deep and terrible disdain for democrats that comes from watching flames of social movements or the sparks of social movements burn out in the stifling, airless environment that is electoral politics.  Another interesting part of this chapter was about the marketization of gay identity, or how the media portrays the LGBT community as wealthy, leisurely, and white.  This creates an identity based upon consumerism (for people to aspire towards through buying), but also ignores the experiences of LGBT individuals who are working class or people of color.

The working class is something that the book pays special attention to.  Despite media myths, gay men actually have a lower annual income than straight men (though lesbians make more than straight females-perhaps because they may not leave the labor market to raise children).  The book also mentioned that some early LGBT rights activists were also involved in the labor movement, such as Harry Hay, the founder of the Mattachine Society and IWW organizer.  The connections between labor and LGBT history is important in building solidarity but also viewing sexuality based oppression as built into our economic system.  There is perhaps a stereotype that the average blue collar worker is a homophobic white man. Many workers may very well be homophobic.  Yet, the stereotype that workers are particularly homophobic blames workers for sexual oppression rather than grounding it in capitalism and ideologies that benefit the ruling class.  The liberation of working people hinges upon their ability to unite.  I liked reading about examples wherein workers saw the connection between oppressions, such as the book’s example of Teamster’s uniting with San Francisco’s LGBT community in a boycott against Coors. In a similar vein, African Americans are often stereotyped as being more homophobic than white people.  I appreciate that the book addresses this as a racist myth that ignores that most conservatives are white and that the majority of African Americans have voted in favor of same sex marriage and expanding rights to LGBT people.  Finally, I enjoyed the insight about same sex marriage.  Many leftist activists pointed out that same sex marriage was not really an accomplishment to celebrate, as it reinforces monogamy and marriage, which are cornerstones of capitalist patriarchy.  Another critique is that there is a conservativism in the demand to marry, as it is an attempt to be just like normal, heterosexual people.  However, a person can be against monogamy and marriage and still for the extension of rights to oppressed groups.  There is nothing to lose by extending these rights as it challenges discrimination and can be a springboard to more radical demands.  In this same way, a person should support voting rights for women even if a person doesn’t necessarily believe in the electoral system or the right to serve in the military for LGBT people even if they don’t believe in imperialist war.   A person can remain principled against monogamy, marriage, war, the two party system, etc. but also believe in extending basic democratic rights to oppressed groups.

The book spends some time picking apart Queer Theory, identity politics, and Postmodernism.  I feel that the attention given to this critique was a little bit overzealous.  While postmodernism can certainly be critiqued for its lack of solutions, academic jargon, pessimism, and over emphasis on language, I think it is also useful to see what can be salvaged from some of the insights offered by postmodernist thinkers.  Since social movements do use language to frame arguments and slogans, language should be viewed tactically and anything postmodernism offers on this front, a possible weapon for social change.  Likewise, discourse is distilled reality, so I find nothing wrong with trying to determine how to most powerfully express material conditions. But, language can be a tar pit.  Focusing too much on it or over emphasizing its power just leaves a movement stuck in the muck…left to slow, fossilization.  As for Queer Theory and identity politics, I think that these theories are meaningful to LGBT people and that it is wise to tread lightly when critiquing ideas that oppressed groups find valuable, meaningful, or important.  Identity is a pretty important part of the lives of people, even if identity is shaped by consumerism and capitalism.  But, the book’s critique is not so much about focusing on identity as it is the tactics of certain groups (which shunned mass movements).  Honestly, a group should have the autonomy to chose its own tactics.  While some tactics may not be traditionally as effective, they might be coupled with mass movements or used creatively to attract people to more massive actions.  As for queer theory, I cannot weigh in on the book’s criticisms as I am simply not knowledgeable enough.  I had a positive view of queer theory as an attempt to unite at LGBTQIAH…people under an umbrella of queerness and for trying to dismantle false dichotomies between gay and straight or queer and not queer.  Although the theory is not a class based analysis, in my limited understanding, I appreciate attempts to deconstruct what is taken for granted as truth about sexuality.

A more satisfying section on the book is about the dominance of biological determinism in the discussion of LGBT people.  This has been a personal pet peeve of my own.  Biological determinism has been useful to activists, since it legitimizes LGBT identities and experiences through the notion that people are born that way.  From my own experiences, I don’t feel that I was born bi, female, male, heterosexual, asexual, or any sexual/gender identity really.  I don’t view my life as a long narrative of unchanging desires or orientations.  In high school, I was uncertain about my sexual orientation and even at this moment, I am uncertain of my gender identity. To others, this might seem inauthentic.  Somehow biology makes something authentic, whereas choice does not.   The book emphasizes the social aspects of identity/desire/orientation and the interplay between biology and environment.  Even if some choice is involved in gender and sexuality and that the meaning of these things changes with changes in material conditions, this does not justify oppression.

As a whole, I enjoyed the book.  There are some things I didn’t agree with, but I largely enjoyed the book for its attempt to root LGBT issues and history within capitalism.  I can’t imagine a work on this topic, from a materialist perspective, that is more accessible and fascinating.  My review is far from comprehensive, but documents my impression of the book and some of the arguments therein.

Che of the Dead: My adventures at All Souls Night

Last year, I wrote a blog post about my concerns regarding Duluth’s All Souls Night and the potential for cultural appropriation.  This year, I decided to check it out for myself.   According to the Facebook page: “Today is our 8th annual fall arts event celebrating life: honoring our ancestors, our pain for the world, and our determination for the future with local spectacle arts and community of all ages and backgrounds. Samhain and Mexican Dia de Muertos representations are popular, however, respectful offerings from ALL grieving traditions are welcome. That is why we have reclaimed the title of ALL Souls, lighting up the Night!  Consider dressing in black, or as a skeleton character, or a larger than life puppet!”

Well, alright then.  All grieving traditions.  I don’t really have a grieving tradition, but I am a socialist.  How would a socialist celebrate All Soul’s Night?  As we don’t believe in souls or that liminal time of year where the dead are nearer to us, I think it would be appropriate to celebrate the dead who have struggled for social change.  They may be dead, but their ideas and movements live on in the hopes and actions of activists today. Hence, I attended the event as “Che of the Dead.”

DSCF2382 DSCF2379 DSCF2381

This was a fun costume.  It was fairly simple, as almost everything was from my existing wardrobe, spare the glowing skull shirt I bought for $1.50 on after Halloween clearance, the clearance face paint, and light up skeleton glove.  I wondered if there were any issues dressing up as a Hispanic male, but I believe that because Che is part of a pantheon of socialist heroes, the costume did not highlight ethnic features such as skin color, and I am not aware that his image is used to promote any racial stereotypes, that this should be alright.  In any event, the idea was to wear a costume that represented remembrance for dead revolutionaries.

I arrived at the event at about 6:30 ish and watched some belly dancers.  80% of the crowd was not in any costume or face paint.  There was also a strong spread of ages, with children and elderly, along with families and singles.  The event was free, which was nice, as there are few free events for all ages.  Among those in makeup, some people wore ordinary skull makeup and others wore sugar skull makeup.  Now, I have found evidence that Mexicans and Mexican Americans do feel that the sugar skull face paint  has been marketized and taken out of context.  I do think that the organizers of All Souls Night must have been somewhat mindful of this as they tried to highlight the spirituality of the event, made it very clear that it was not Mexican Halloween, and tried to offer face painting rather than have people go out and buy makeup or facial temp. tattoos.  Most people were not using the makeup in a sexualized or cartoonish way, so I think it is another gray area.  However, I will note that the event did not feel like Mexican Themed Halloween or an excuse for white people to party.  It did feel like a celebration of life and death and from my observation it appeared there were many ages, races, and social classes in the crowd.  Perhaps the fact that it was free and not very focused on buying things, more diverse demographics could attend.  (The only buying was food from a truck and t-shirts).  I appreciated this.

The highlight of the event and part that attracted me was the funeral for bad ideas.  We did a march around the block to the sounds of a brass band.  Then, we threw pieces of paper into a fire.  On the paper, we wrote bad ideas-which were announced by the emcee.  99% of the ideas were political and progressive including war, animal abuse, domestic abuse, pollution, oil, and my own addition-capitalism.  A good portion of the crowd actually clapped when capitalism was announced. There was also a spiral dance, which I declined…as it seemed chaotic and I wasn’t sure of the meaning.  I guess it is a pagan/Samhain tradition.  This was followed by fire dancing.

My original post on All Souls Night may have been a bit curmudgeonly. Having attended, I see that it does seem to have some meaning for attendees and that participants can choose how they celebrate.  There was some definite borrowing from Mexican motifs, but there were also local variations on the theme of death-such as moose and smelt skeletons.  I believe that the organizers made some effort to avoid cultural appropriation.  As a whole, I think it was a fun event and I am glad I attended.

Travel and Worker Rights


When I was young, I dreamed of traveling the world.  In high school, I was nominated to be part of a People to People exchange, once to Ireland and another time to Russia.  However, it was far too expensive for my family to afford.  I went to an information session and my mother very honestly told me that we couldn’t afford it.   During my first year of college, I met many students who traveled.  They went all over the world, spending their summers in Greece or service trips to Central America.  I didn’t have any class consciousness.  Somehow I figured that they were simply lucky or even better than I was to have such marvelous adventures.  My limited experiences were framed as personal failure, rather than the outcome of growing up in a town of 250 people to a teen parent and working class family.  In any event, hearing about these adventures made me hunger for travel even more.  It was an obsession.  I did travel.  When I was 19, I went to Paris and London on my own with money I saved from the three jobs I was working at the time (housekeeper, waitress, Headstart classroom helper).   I also went to Mexico that same summer.  That was the first time on an airplane.  It was my first passport and first times outside of the country (aside from Canada).  And, I did it entirely alone (at least the London and Paris trip).  The airport in London was far larger than the cities and towns I grew up around.  I am proud of my 19 year old self (a small town girl with many anxieties) for the bravery.

I have traveled a lot since then.  There was a great deal of longing and desperation for travel.  There was saving and creative financing (such as donating eggs to help pay for a trip to Cuba).   I’ve seen some amazing things.   I saw Hugo Chavez (the deceased former president of Venezuela) speak to crowds of socialist youth.   I’ve seen Lenin’s embalmed body.  I visited schools and universities in Cuba, even learning about the Cuban approach to sex education.  I spent a semester in Ireland living in a cottage on the sea.  I’ve been to Chernobyl and Hiroshima.  Ukraine.  Belarus.  North Korea.  The Great Wall.  The Acropolis.  Mayan Ruins.  The Colosseum.  Auschwitz and Baba Yar.   Bosnia and Serbia.  Albanian bunkers and Jeju Island.  I love lists.  Let me tell you, I make lists all the time.  Not to brag or bring others down, but I love to remember and organize those experiences.

Despite the travel, it wasn’t until about a year ago that I began to think of travel in relation to the rights of workers.  In my mind, it was always a precious luxury.   I think this is how most people from the U.S. view travel.  For most Americans, this is true.  Most people don’t travel unless they are college students or retirees.  In my observation, this is not the case elsewhere.  For instance, last year I spent a month travelling around eastern Europe and the Balkans.  During my travels, I met many Australians.   The majority of the Australian men I met worked in construction, mining, carpentry, engineering, or generally speaking, in areas connected to trades.   Not only were they working in largely blue collared jobs, they were taking extensive vacations.  My month off was enormous by American standards, but many were traveling for two or three months.  Some for more.  I thought it was quite astonishing that these Australian men could partake in such fabulous vacations, vacations that would seem impossible to the average American worker.  In the United States, many blue collar jobs still pay rather well, at least compared to many other jobs.  So, monetarily, it would be possible for U.S. workers to do the same.  The big difference though is vacation time.

1 in 4 Americans get ZERO days of paid vacation time each year.  The federal government does not required to provide even paid holidays!  So, many workers do not even get paid extra for working Christmas or Thanksgiving.  In contrast, EU nations receive a minimum of 20 paid vacation days.  Austrians receive 38 paid vacation/holidays.  Brazil provides 30 paid vacation days with 11 paid holidays.  France 30 days.  What would you do if you had a month off of work and it was paid?  Even a lower income worker might be able to travel around the United States, go to Mexico or the Caribbean, do camping trips, or spend more time with their family in their community. (This data is based upon 2014  Mercer’s Worldwide Benefit And Employment Guidelines and the Center for Economic and Policy Research)

This summer, I traveled again and this time, I observed the same trend of blue collar Australian men travelling, but also observed some people from the service industry traveling.  For instance, I met two cashiers while traveling.  In the U.S., those are minimum wage jobs.  Rent can barely be paid at those wages, yet, elsewhere, even service industry workers can expect to travel.  Both individuals traveled extensively, though on a budget.  I thought that was wonderful.  Even without the paid vacation, perhaps if our service industry employees made $15 an hour, the dream of travelling would be realized.  And yes, I do idealize travel.  I do understand that it can be wasteful and damaging to the planet (in terms of green house gas emissions from planes and the commodification of nature).  But, I don’t know that travel must be inevitably damaging and that some of the negative consequences could be remedied by greener, mass transportation systems.

I think of the Bread and Roses song.  The labor movement typically demands bread, or at least bread crumbs.  Of course, this is the most basic thing- safety, security, wages, benefits.  But, maybe those things that make us more human and alive get forgotten.  It is hard to imagine travel or extensive paid vacation as a legitimate demand when there are so many other demands to be made.   At the same time, those who have it are so much better able to live full lives outside of work.  Travel also, in a way, helps people to see how things can be different.  For me, it helps me see myself as a part of a wider world, rather than just an American.

I feel guilty for my travels- as many people are strapped down by poverty (well, I have endured poverty as well for most of my life), children, responsibilities, jobs without benefits, part time work, a patchwork of full time work consisting of various part time jobs, etc.  I am privileged in many ways.  But, why can’t we all enjoy these things?  What would need to change?  The countries that offer paid time off differ in some ways.  It seems that they have Labor Parties and more aggressive labor movements.  My own job does offer several paid holidays and some rather flexible vacation time (I had three weeks off this summer for my vacation).  We also have a union.  I think then, that while the demand for more vacation time seems trivial compared to the more pressing demands of living wages, any expansion of unions, labor movements, and alternatives to capitalist political parties could potentially work towards this cause.  There is also no reason why workers couldn’t start organizations that make legislative demands for more vacation time or raise awareness of this issue.  I am not aware of any such organizations or movements, except Take Back Your Time, which seems to be driven by the tourist industry rather than workers themselves.  Since workers of the tourist industry (hotels, cruise ships, shops, resorts) are highly exploited, I am suspect of this industry’s self-serving promotion of vacation (without accompanying worker rights).

In the Republican debates the other night, Jeb Bush accused Marc Rubio of his “French work week” senate attendance.  It made me laugh inside.  If only we were so lucky.  But, there are so many myths that prevail.  Somehow economies with vacation are inferior or less productive, as if productivity is the sum of human existence.  8 of the 10 highest GDP countries have fairly generous paid vacations (well, Japan only offers 10 days).  Only Chinese workers on this list have fewer paid vacation days than us.  Of course, GDP isn’t everything.  If 40% of the food we grow is wasted- the GDP would appear high, but would not account for wasteful economic activity.  If there was a natural disaster, again the GDP might grow as more resources must be used to fix the problem- but again, this doesn’t mean that society would be better off.  Anyway, productivity and growth are not necessarily good things. Even if a person accepted this as truth, vacation doesn’t necessarily get in the way of productivity.  I would like to work like the French, the Australians, the British, or the two dozen or so economically developed countries that offer paid vacations.  I only regret that it took me so long to connect my love of travel to a larger issue of social class and worker rights.

Sinking in a Sea of Cultural Appropriation

It seems that this past year when I go clothes shopping, I find that most of the clothes are inspired by cultures that are not my own.   Aside from the Halloween costumes of gypsies, Native Americans, Mexicans, Hawaiians, etc. are the everyday fashions that seem quite popular now. I have seen a proliferation of “South Western” prints (those inspired by the Native Americans of southwest), as well as feather and dream catcher motifs. Leather, beads, fringes, turquoise, and other Native American inspired materials and patterns are also common. African prints on pants and dresses seemed popular last year. In a way, shopping seems like navigating a mine field of stolen artifacts.

I don’t have a clear litmus test for if a particular clothing item is cultural appropriation.   Different patterns, materials, or motifs may mean different things to different people in different contexts. Some may be sacred and some may be shared. At the heart of the issue though is power.   The most obvious example are the Halloween costumes, which are often a racist and sexualized caricature of an oppressed racial, ethnic, or cultural group. The group that is represented benefits in no way from these costumes, as they perpetuate a hateful image that the oppressed group is not in control of. They dehumanize oppressed groups by making them into a joke, sex object, or even non-existent. For instance, a gypsy costume renders real Roma people as non-existent by depicting them as a fortune telling character of fantasy.

Most things are not so obvious. Fringes, leather, beads, turquoise, etc. may not be uniquely Native American but culturally associated with them and may have specific cultural meaning. Stripped away from their cultural context, it is hard to know what this meaning is. They are just cool, trendy items that look vaguely earthly. Again, power is important. Within capitalism, nothing is sacred. Because we, as workers, do not control production (that is, we are often estranged from the source and process of production) consumer goods appear to us as both mysterious and meaningless. A neon patterned Navajo printed poncho may have been sewn in Bangladesh. The dye and cotton may have come from other countries. The design for it by someone in an office. By the time it reaches Target or Ragstock, it is just one item of many- as mysterious and meaningless as any other.   The pattern may not be recognized as even Native American or southwestern in origin because the history, art, and culture of Native American is not a social priority.  Capitalism functions better if history is disjointed and people are atomized. Even if it is recognized as inspired by Native American motifs, this may not be seen as problematic to the white consumer. Why not? Well, a person could justify that in a global society there is so much exchange that the lines between cultures are blurry. A person might also think that it is a way to express appreciation for a culture. While this isn’t entirely false, the invisible force is power. Why are these things sold in Target or any other store? Why is it popular now? Why is it made in Haiti or Sri Lanka instead of by an actual Native American? How do Native Americans feel about it?

I can’t speak for how Native Americans may feel about the trendiness of cultural motifs. There are some things that have received a lot of attention, such as head dresses and Halloween costumes. So, clearly these things have been identified as either racist, disrespectful, or cultural appropriation. The general trendiness of patterns or materials that may not be specific to a particular tribe or tradition (a generic Native American-ness) gets less attention. However, as an outsider, I feel cautious about these items because A. Native Americans certainly aren’t benefitting from them (at least not when they are bought from mainstream stores that profit white people) B. They aren’t in control of fashion trends. C. It reinforces an idea that looking Native American is cool, but does nothing to actually promote social justice or end prejudice against those who actually look Native American-because they are. D. Culture becomes a fetish (i.e. meaningless and mysterious).

Still, shopping is a mine field.  A solution from some environmental minded, do-it-yourself people would be not to shop and just make your own clothes or thrift (though, these items also appear in thrift stores). Education is perhaps another solution. However, quite honestly, even the best historian probably does not know the history of every material, pattern, or motif (as this would require an extensive knowledge of many cultures over many time periods). Nevertheless, it might be useful to educate yourself if a particular design catches your eye. Another option might be to buy things from Native American producers. This at least connects a person to the production process and supports the livelihood of that producer. Still, these are individual solutions that rely on consumer sovereignty to solve social problems- like racism. Social problems need social solutions.

Focusing on the individual or the product is often difficult because there is no universal meaning on particular cultural items. For instance, there might be some Native Americans who are happy that fashion is popularizing certain designs. There are others that may even partake in selling sacred items in order to make money. These examples can then be used to justify cultural appropriation. The truth is, among any group there is disagreement, as everyone experiences their culture and oppression slightly differently.   Beyond this, because there has been both cultural exchange and cultural appropriation for so long, it is hard to see the difference between the two. For example, does this mean that white people can’t take belly dance lessons, yoga lessons, karate classes, eat tacos, eat sushi, believe in non-Western religions, etc?  What about eating pumpkins, chocolate, or owning Chihuahuas? Some people would argue yes. Some would argue yes for some and no for others. Really, has anything been exchanged or given freely? European people have a long history of colonization and imperialism. Even when things are given, as long as there is unequal power the exchange is at least somewhat coerced.

That leads back to the same question, if so many things have been taken (many so long ago that there is no longer memory or resistance to it) then why bother? Why care? Again, this matters as much as a person wants to build better relationships with oppressed people and wants to promote social justice. With that said, if these are important goals (which I believe they are) then a person should be mindful of how their presentation of self and consumption may dehumanize or render invisible others. And while there is no perfect road map of what to wear and what not to wear or what to eat or what not to eat, mindfulness is important. But, mindfulness is individual. Another idea is to take cues from social movements. What do Native American or African American social movements say about particular items or behaviors? Finally, there is the building social movements component.   Social movements that promote worker rights, environmentalism, indigenous rights, anti-racism, feminism, etc. can each work to solve the problems that cultural appropriation is symptomatic of. We need to know history. We need to be connected to production. We need to be connected with one another. The more that African Americans or Native Americans are treated like full human beings whose lives matter, they less they will be erased by fashion trends, Halloween costumes, police, disease, and poverty.

(As a side note, I don’t proclaim to be perfect on this issue.  I am sure that many of the things I do or wear may be stolen without even noticing it.  Also, while this piece uses Native Americans as the example, it should be extended to any oppressed racial, ethnic, or cultural groups)

Duluth Day of the Dead: When is Cultural Appropriation Appropriate?

The short answer is never.

Duluth has a celebration for the Day of the Dead, though it is called All Soul’s Night.  I have not attended, so I am not certain if it is cultural appropriation.  Certainly, it seems gray.  Here’s why:

1.  To my knowledge, Mexicans are not involved in the celebration or planning process of this event.  While Duluth does not have a large Hispanic population, I think caution should be used when adopting images and elements of a holiday.  This is especially true since Day of the Dead, though Catholic, also draws from Aztec beliefs about death and worship.

2. Europeans celebrate All Soul’s Night, but images such as sugar skulls or artifacts such as ofrendas are not a part of this celebration.  Mexicans do not traditionally paint their faces like sugar skulls for Day of the Dead.  This face paint is inspired by the skulls, which are used to honor the deceased.  While these designs look interesting and exotic, what does it mean?  Why is it done?  If it is only because it is artsy, exotic, fun, or interesting, then perhaps it should be considered more deeply.

3.  All Souls Day and Day of the Dead are both similar in that both are holidays that synchronized polytheistic beliefs with Christianity.  This makes the celebration a bit gray.  Duluth, a predominantly white community could celebrate, the former drawing elements from European paganism rather than Aztec/Mexican images.  The Duluth celebration is meant to be mindful of death and put a positive spin on it.  This is not uniquely Mexican.  However, some of the images are Mexican.  In that case, why are they used?  What meaning do they have for white Duluthians?

4. Some areas in the United States do celebrate Day of the Dead and some Mexicans have supported the export of this holiday.  For instance, tourists are allowed to visit Oaxaca during the Day of the Dead and participate in the celebration.  Therefore, it does not seem to be a closed holiday.  Likewise, the Mexican embassy has supported and promoted the celebration of this holiday elsewhere in the world.  Yet, the Duluth celebration, to my knowledge, is not supported or promoted by any Mexican communities or institutions.

5.  Some Mexican American activists are offended by how this holiday has been appropriated.  This year, I saw sugar skulls and Mexican inspired motifs sold in Target.  The meaningless consumption of this holiday does concern some activists.  Others view it as innocent fun and others may think there are more pressing issues (such as immigration and drugs).  So, I am not aware of a united movement against white people celebrating this holiday.  Nevertheless, I think that extreme caution should be used when celebrating it.

6.  I think that Duluth could have a celebration of Day of the Dead or All Soul’s Night, but I think that there needs to be a LOT of transparency and communication on how it is NOT cultural appropriation.  A visible involvement of Mexicans or Mexican Americans might be a start.  I think that perhaps the celebration comes across as a fun time with some artsy and spiritual undertones.  While there is nothing wrong with being expressive and having a good time, it might be more meaningful if it addressed a social issue.  For instance, perhaps it could help fund raise for families or individuals who DIED while crossing the border or who DIED as undocumented workers involved in hazardous jobs.  In this sense, death would be connected to social issues and the celebration wouldn’t consist of artsty, spiritual, fun times…but an attempt at solidarity with Mexicans.

7. The Facebook page for the event mentions that the celebration draws from many traditions.  While I think that celebrating cultures and diversity is good…and it is also good that the point was made that this is not a specifically Mexican celebration, it leaves me with the question, when is it okay to borrow?  I admit it.  Somehow white celebrations and traditions seem boring.  They are familiar.  Even the exotic ones seem to involve too many starchy root vegetables and pickled things.  Where is the color?  Where is the spice?  But….do we have permission to borrow and draw from other traditions?  The world is globalized and society is pluralistic.  The exchange of ideas and culture is almost invisible….but then, so is the theft.  Like the liminal lines between life and death on Halloween (metaphorically speaking) there are liminal lines between exchange and theft (especially when power is hard to see).  Since we are the ones with power….we have to be pretty careful that the exchange is welcome.

I really am curious about the celebration.  I would like to attend.  I have not missed it for any political reasons, but out of a busy schedule.  Because I have not attended, I cannot say with any certainty that it is truly cultural appropriation.  However, it does seem a bit gray and it is something that should be taken seriously.  I want to have fun and I want to celebrate cultures, but….I don’t want to do it in a way that is thoughtless or hurtful.

So, do you think that Duluth’s Day of the Dead is cultural appropriation.  Why or why not?

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