Migrants of a Different Kind

Anti-Mexican sentiment in the US has been around for a long time, as this ungrammatical poster from the 1950s attests.

Today is Cinco de Mayo, which in the US (at least in the northern parts where I live) means a day for grocery stores and women’s magazines to suggest fifty things to do with salsa. Many people don’t know that this is not “Mexican independence day” (which occurs in September) but a day to celebrate the defeat of a European colonial army (the French) by an outnumbered, ill-equipped Mexican army in 1862. The French did not quit Mexico after their defeat—they simply moved on to a different part of Mexico, where they remained until 1867. But El Día de la Batalla de Puebla, as it is known in Mexico, proved that the imperial forces trying to control the country were not an inevitability.

The French eventually left the country, in part because the US took Mexico’s part in a show of North American anti-colonialism. Unfortunately, this solidarity was not lasting—the US had plenty of its own colonial plans south of its border—and today, while we celebrate Cinco de Mayo by eating Mexican food and downing tequila or margaritas, its people face disdain or mistrust from many US citizens. The image of Mexico for many US citizens is a place of danger and drug lords on the one hand, and poor migrant workers pouring across the border (a sentence like this is frequently concluded with a term normally reserved for animals, such as “in droves” or “in hordes”). I don’t think it would be too great a stretch to say that people in the US do not normally associate Mexicans with intellectual or scholarly achievement, because too often we see them only as criminals or migrants. Books for children, such as Cynthia deFelice’s Under the Same Sky (2003), often reinforce this image even when attempting to humanize migrant workers; deFelice’s book concerns a sulky white teenage boy who has to work with the migrants on his father’s farm in order to earn the money for his motorbike. Joe, the main character, learns how hard migrants work, and how hard it is to have to flee (more animal words) from the Immigration and Naturalization Service because of the way you look. But Joe only learns the latter through observation; he is able to leave manual labor at the end of the summer, and decide on what teenage trend he will spend his earnings. The migrants move on, and new ones come to the farm; there will be more where they came from. Books like these underscore white privilege, and create an image that equates Mexicans with poverty and transience.

So today I’d like to showcase a different kind of Mexican migrant found in children’s books, one that—in some ways—provides an alternative image of Mexican people for child readers: the traveling artist. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo spent time traveling through the US for their work, but they are not typically regarded as “migrant workers”—even though Rivera went from city to city, wherever the work was, and was paid by the piece for his work, like migrant workers today. Rivera painted murals in cities like Detroit, New York, and Chicago of workers. Many of his paintings depict agricultural workers in positive images of strength and beauty. Kahlo traveled to New York City in 1938 for her first solo exhibition. Her work is more personal and autobiographical than that of her husband Rivera’s, but both were active communists at a time in history when the Communists were seen as the defenders of the working people (Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, and WEB DuBois were all associated with the communist party of the time). I mention this because for Kahlo and Rivera, their politics placed them among not just the artistic, but the intellectual scene in the United States.

There are some lovely children’s picture books of the artists that highlight the artistic achievements of Rivera and Kahlo. Jeanette and Jonah Winter’s Diego (1991) indicates that “the murals that made [Rivera] famous . . . told the story of the Mexican people” (n.p.). Yuyi Morales’s unusual Viva Frida (2014), with its simple text and photographed doll illustrations, uses strong verbs in English and Spanish to highlight Kahlo’s creativity and heritage. Both of these books provide good introductions to the creative contributions of these two Mexican artists for young readers.

However, other aspects of these books suggest what can and cannot be said about race, politics, and the art world. First, both these books and others about the artists (including the 2009 Diego: Bigger than Life by Carmen Bernier-Grand and Amy Novesky’s 2015 Me, Frida) refer to the artists by their first names and/or show them as children on the front cover illustration. This is not typically the case for artists in children’s books: there are no books about Monet titled Claude or about Picasso titled Pablo; the only European artists referred to by first name regularly in children’s book titles are Michelangelo Buonarroti and Leonardo DaVinci, but they are also often referred to in this way in adult books. The books also highlight the artwork at the expense of the politics. Frida, in Viva Frida, “knows” and “understands”—but she does not know and understand the events of the day. She understands that she “loves, and so I create.” Diego does mention that “he helped poor people fight their war for equality. They were fighting for fair wages and a better life” but the illustration shows Rivera as separate from the fighters, an observer rather than a fighter himself.

Mexicans shoot at a train for no apparent reason while Rivera, in a suit, sketches them calmly.

Mexicans shoot at a train for no apparent reason while Rivera, in a suit, sketches them calmly.

The combination of first-name referral and removal of politics from Kahlo and Rivera suggest that the artists are more like “us”—separate from and better than the nation of migrants and fighters from which they came. And yet, is this how these artists would choose to be portrayed? I suggest that by viewing Kahlo and Rivera as artists and as Mexicans (even as Mexican migrants), people in the US might begin to be able to see other Mexicans as humans, rather than just a problem.


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