The hottest ticket in my neighborhood these days is the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. One of the most arresting images in a show filled with startling images is a 1932 painting called “Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States.” Like all of her art, “Self-Portrait” is about Frida. But it’s also about immigration, and for me, at least, it sparked a question I hadn’t thought about before: if Latin American culture suddenly became trendy in the United States, how would this affect the immigration debate?
In “Self Portrait,” an elegant, outsized Frida stands at the boundary between two worlds: a larger, Mexican side on the left filled with exotic flowers, ruins, and strange idols; and on the right, an American side dominated by machinery, skyscrapers and technology. Frida is dressed in a gorgeous, pale pink dress with white lace gloves, attired as if for a formal society ball. Her seeming homage to American social life is subverted, however, by several small details: the cigarette she holds discretely in one of her demurely crossed hands, and the small Mexican flag she holds in the other. It is the kind of vivid, haunting, faux primitive imagery one associates with another self taught painter, Henri Rousseau.
However ambivalent Frida’s feelings toward America were, America’s cultural elite greeted her and her husband, Diego Rivera, enthusiastically in the early 1930s. For American intellectuals and artists, Mexico seemed, as my wife Sharon Skeel has written, “a modern-day Eden, a purifying retreat from America’s supposed egocentrism and machine-driven madness.” Diego was commissioned to paint murals in Detroit and by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. for the Rockefeller Center in New York. Archibald MacLeish followed Cortez’s route by foot and mule for his poem "Conquistador," which earned the 1933 Pulizer Prize. A young Martha Graham starred in the Aztec ballet "Xochitl". All things Mexican were in vogue. Yet, at the other end of the social spectrum, the migrant workers surging from Mexico into California were viewed with disdain by many Americans, much as today, prompting calls for a crackdown on immigration.
The Mexican vogue seems to have altered immigration politics, although it is difficult to tell for sure. In 1928, the Saturday Evening Post ran a widely read series of articles that denounced the “constantly increasing flow of chocolate-colored Mexican peons,” claiming that their seamy lives and high birthrates made them a burden on American taxpayers; yet the Hoover administration resisted calls for new legislative restrictions. On the other hand, the government did start strictly enforcing the existing laws, including tough literacy requirements that had been on the books since 1917, and had deported nearly half a million Mexicans by 1937. The artists’ influence was similarly complicated. Rivera lent his name and reputation to his compatriots, co-founding an organization that helped Mexican immigrants in the 1930s. But his communism created increasing friction with his establishment patrons, culminating in a famous 1933 standoff with Rockefeller over Diego’s refusal (reputedly at Frida’s insistence) to excise a portrait of Lenin from the Rockefeller Center murals. (Many of these details come from "The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican," by Helen Delpar, the best historical treatment of this cultural moment I have seen).
While Latin American culture doesn’t have the same grip on the American imagination that it did in the 1930s, this may be changing a little. Not only has the Kahlo exhibit been a blockbuster success, but last weekend alone both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times Magazine ran major articles spotlighting other Latin American artists. If American eyes were to look south for cultural inspiration, what might that mean for today’s immigration politics? I doubt even a new Latin American vogue would truly transform the current debate. Many of the intellectuals and artists (indeed, even the modern day industrialists– at least the ones who use immigrant labor) are already expansionists when it comes to immigration. Any direct preaching would thus be mostly to the already converted. But a new Latin American vogue might put Mexican culture in a more positive light, and make it harder for both sides to treat immigrants, even the illegal ones, simply as faceless pawns in the debate. If that were the result, I for one would gladly join the macarena line.