By Eve R Stone Light
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You Are Always With Me: Letters To Mama

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Issue 440

Frida Kahlo was a prolific letter writer. At 16 she began writing letters to her mum, Matilde Calderon Kahlo. You Are Always With Me is a collection of some of these letters written by Frida, published for the first time in English.

The letters begin two years prior to Frida’s life-changing bus accident that left her bedridden for months at a time and in constant pain that she dulled with alcohol and pain killers.

Health (both her own and that of her mother) is a constant preoccupation in her letters. Frida demonstrates an obsessive anxiety about her mum: “Tell me everything you do and everything that happens to you, that way I’ll be happier here.”

Every letter ends with begging her mother to write back quickly: “Write to me…the day I get one of your letters is worth more than a party every day” (her mother’s replies are not included in the book).

Some of the earlier letters are hilarious but as she grows older one of the real joys is her colourful, often irreverent descriptions of the people and places she sees as she travels to the US with husband Diego Rivera. Letters from her family help her suffer the often lonely life she lives in the US while Rivera is working. She does mention her own painting at times but doesn’t go into great detail about what she is working on. Along with her often critical comments about “gringas” and hating everyone in America, she repeatedly asks her mum to send her jars of chillies because she can’t get spicy food.

Money is another fixation — many of the letters refer to the money Frida was sending home and to her hopes to sell paintings to help her parents out. Frida writes often, “My greatest fear is that you won’t have enough money, and I never hear about it.”

She is horrified by the divide between rich and poor in the US, and how hard people there have to work. While many of her letters are about parties and days out she does capture some of the darkness of the US in the 1930s.

Frida recounts a dance marathon: “You have no idea how interesting this spectacle was, but the most cruel and stupid; they chain the black people, a woman and a man; two died and an unfortunate woman became mad from walking.”

In 1931 Rivera got work in New York and Frida obviously felt happier there than in San Francisco. Amid stories about children playing in snowy parks and her trips to museums and galleries, Frida describes her horror at the lavish parties of the rich, “The high society here has the most stupid life you can imagine,” and finds the disparity between the rich and the poor revolting.

You Are Always With Me is a moving and beautiful book dotted with photos, paintings and postcards. At a time when Frida Kahlo’s politics are often glossed over these letters are a brilliant reminder of who she was: a complex, political, vibrant woman who loved her mum.

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