By Candy Alexandra.
In 2015, I had the chance to experience the FRIDA KAHLO: Art, Garden, Life exhibition at The New York Botanical Garden. It was the first time I met her in person. I embarked on the long, sweltering train ride to the Bronx alone. That trip was just about us--me and Frida. As I stood in a room full of visceral self portraits detailing her ailments, I understood that the pain I felt in Frida’s narrative was brushed onto each canvas by lucid hands. I was puzzled and astonished that she was able to immortalize broken bones through such clarity and beauty.
In his introduction to The Diary of Frida Kahlo, Carlos Fuentes also wonders about Frida’s ability to coherently render lived pain in her portraits. He asks the question: “How did Kahlo transform personal suffering into art--not impersonal, but shared?”
I reiterate: “Not impersonal, but shared." It’s been three years since that meeting with Frida--I am now more focused on learning to share my personal suffering, which is not an easy undertaking for a person who learned to grieve in private. This piece is a step in that learning process.
A year after meeting Frida, I had an accident of my own. It was unexpected and unwelcome, especially since it fell in between the first and second year of my MFA program. I was using papermaking equipment I’d used dozens of times before, but accidents don’t need more than a second to alter the course of a life.
tender flesh surrenders
Virgencita, ¿qué me pasó?
to unrelenting steel
Virgencita, ¿qué hago?
r u p t u r e
Virgencita, dáme fuerza
sutures etched to skin
dáme fuerza, dáme fuerza
unbreakable meets frail
protégeme, cuida mi mano
f r a c t u r e
ten piedad de mí, protégeme
bone turns to dust
quítame el dolor, quítame el dolor
surprise turns to unmitigated pain
dáme fuerza, dáme fuerza
confusion to shame to confusion to pain to
pain to confusion to shame to panic to
no me dejes caer
I tried to wake up.
While I only came into art-making midway through college, I’ve always been confident in my manual dexterity. As a kid, I excelled at crafting, teaching myself to draw and sew. With the help of Food Network Stars, I taught myself to cook, bake, and decorate cakes. When I took my first formal drawing class halfway through college, I felt as if I’d been touched by a higher power. Who would I become if I lost my ability to use my dominant hand?
While in the ER, I vividly remember being consumed by the fear that my right hand would not recover functionality. In that moment I thought about Frida. Pies para qué los quiero, si tengo alas pa’ volar. Pies para qué los quiero, si tengo alas pa’ volar. In her diary, Frida says, “Feet, what do I want them for if I have wings to fly.”
I gratefully regained full functionality. Puckered seams live on my fingers as a reminder that my prayers were heard. Yes, the breaking of my bones were indescribably painful—though in what I believed to be the height of my pain, I longed to arrive at my time for healing. I did not expect that healing would be equally as painful as the breaking.
My relationship with pain and healing has always been messy, at best. I am a first-generation immigrant, Latinx femme, raised by a warrior whose method of healing from trauma is to work herself numb. According to Maria, mi mamá, there is no time for depression when one is working. Her logic is that physical exhaustion stifles emotional suffering. Less than a month after my cast was removed, I returned to Philly to finish grad school. After all, I am my mother’s daughter. I slowly savored the victorious moment I returned to my grad program. I thought my studio practice would be the perfect antidote to the stiffness in my fingers. At first, it was. In the months after my accident, I focused on healing physically in order to return to my life. I was eager to move forward.
My ability to empathize with telenovela and movie characters’ suffering is often cause for teasing from my family. However, I’m a llorona that prefers to suffer in solitude. This is the result of deep socialization that taught me to believe that tears are a sign of weakness and lack of self-possession. These two attributes are typically associated with femininity and, as someone whose natural instinct is to push back against stereotypical tropes of femininity, I learned to suppress tears of personal, emotional trauma as often as possible. After my accident, I recounted a sanitized version of the story to each person who just had to know what happened. The more I spoke of it, the more I minimized the emotional impact the accident left buried within. My healing process became a performance and I, a method actor. I told myself--and those around me--that I was fine so often I began to believe it. After all, I am my mother’s daughter. The world must not know how much I hurt.
I descend from
a long, resilient line
of women named
Maria, who hide
their pain in the crease
between their brows
who only cry
in the dark
who carry the worry
of their familia on their backs
who have become hunched
by the weight of it all
who wear lying smiles
in the face of every challenge
in front of their children.
I wear that smile too often.
A crack is growing
at the corner of my mouth.
My instinct to seek isolation in the face of adversity is alarmingly strong. Before my mind registers that I am about to cry, the parchedness in my throat and shortness of breath has triggered my eyes to search for refuge. If that fails, I bow my head down or look away, retreat to a headspace awash with shame. Allowing myself to be vulnerable in front of others is difficult and counterintuitive, and I know I’m not alone in this. We adopt these attitudes of propriety from a tender age. Cry baby, cry baby, cry baby! ¡ Llorona! Boo hoo! Big girls don’t cry! ¡Para de llorar! Grown ups don’t cry! We begin to internalize this language before we even set foot on a playground.
I spent the moments in which I most needed solidarity from my loved ones accompanied only by my own shadow. I eventually came to writing as process of healing. I wrote my chapbook Process because I could only ever be honest about my trauma with my writing journal. I don’t blame myself for closing off and putting up a front during my recovery. I felt like I had something to prove: that I couldn’t be knocked down. As a woman, especially as a woman of color, I didn’t want to allow others to minimize my trauma. I thought I could beat them to it. Oh, it’s not that bad. You’re lucky; it could have been worse. I was still given these unwelcome judgments on how I should be feeling. So, why deny myself the nourishing warmth from the compassionate people who offered it?
Since reading Angela Davis’ Freedom is a Constant Struggle, I can’t stop thinking about the extent to which Western society’s internalized ideas of individualism and expectations of individuality contribute to systems of oppression. Throughout the book, Angela Davis reminds us that none of us are free until we are all free. She reminds us that individualism is often a capitalist, white supremacist tool used to prevent an oppressed majority from coming together to work towards collective liberation. I mention Angela Davis’ teachings because ideas of individualism bleed into our understanding of how we should experience pain and healing. We’ve learned to build walls that both prevent us from reaching outward and discourage others from reaching inward. In the past, I have kept instances of struggle to myself because: I do not want to burden others, we all have shit to deal with, I assume others won’t understand and empathize, I am afraid I will be perceived as weak, etc. I repeat, I know I am not alone in this. Unlearning these toxic ideas that I have inherited and internalized is hard work. I am currently in the process of divorcing every instinct that drives me to isolation in moments of suffering. Inspired by Frida, I've determined that, for me, that process begins with sharing.
Candy Alexandra is a Latinx papermaker, printmaker, book artist and young poet from Miami, Florida. She began writing creatively during a letterpress workshop in 2015, where she was encouraged to write for her visual work. After resisting and eventually giving in to gentle encouragement, she wrote her very first poem and loved it. In her visual and written work, Candy captures the essence of her experiences as a first generation Latinx immigrant in the United States. She received her B.A. in Romance Language and Literature from Mount Holyoke College in 2014, and her M.F.A. in Book Arts and Printmaking from The University of the Arts in 2017. You can keep up with her on Instagram @candy_alexandra1.