This Artwork Changed My Life: Frida Kahlo’s “My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree)”

Alex Temblador
Oct 13, 2020 3:51PM

Frida Kahlo, My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree), 1936. © ARS, NY. © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art.

Elephant and Artsy have come together to present This Artwork Changed My Life, a creative collaboration that shares the stories of life-changing encounters with art. A new piece will be published every two weeks on both Elephant and Artsy. Together, our publications want to celebrate the personal and transformative power of art.

Out today on Elephant is Claire Marie Healy on Bill Henson’s Untitled #20.

The painting isn’t large by any means. On the left side is a rendering of the artist’s mother and maternal grandparents. They are darker in skin tone and hair color compared to the pair of people who sit on the right—the artist’s paternal grandparents and father, a man of Jewish and German descent.

In the center, a child holds both sides of her family together by a red ribbon. The child is Frida Kahlo.

When I came across Frida’s My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree) (1936) at the Museum of Modern Art in 2017, something about it resonated with me. After reading the wall text I realized why: The image felt like home. Frida was Mixed—Mexican and white European, just like me.

I was in New York City to celebrate a book deal for my debut novel, Secrets of the Casa Rosada. I thought I’d explore the city and return home content, but Frida’s painting had other plans for me.

My father is Mexican American, and my mother is white European American, a mix of English, German, and Swedish peoples. Just as Frida holds the two sides of her family together by a red ribbon, so too, have I, and it is because of that experience that Frida’s painting changed my life.

In 1935, the Nazis passed the Nuremberg Race Laws, which prohibited marriage or sexual relations between Jews and Germans—and later any interracial relations that would produce “racially suspect” offspring, such as those between “German or related blood” and Roma, Black people, or their offspring. Plenty of countries had such legislation at the time, like the United States, where laws against interracial relationships weren’t declared unconstitutional until 1967.

My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree) was Frida’s response to the Nuremberg Race Laws. In true Frida fashion, she stood proudly in her Mixed heritage, letting the images and the colors of her painting speak out against discrimination towards interracial relationships.

Nearly 100 years later, I initially felt a sense of pride at seeing Frida’s painting. Interracial marriages continue to rise, and because of that, there are more people who identify as Mixed, Biracial, Multiethnic, and Multiracial. But when I left MoMA and began walking the streets of New York City, something inside me stirred. In seeing Frida hold her brown and white sides together with a ribbon, I suddenly realized I felt the strain of holding my own.

Though I’ve always felt a slight tug between my brown and white sides, the red ribbon began to slip from my hands during the 2016 election. Many of my white family members supported Trump and some, emboldened by his discriminatory speech, said racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and sexist things, the likes of which they had never openly stated before.

For most of my life, I had only identified as Mixed, and as I pulled away from the white side of my family, I started to identify as Latinx more. Yet I was surprised that the Mexican American side of my family didn’t denounce Trump or his ideas with the vigor I expected. Sure, plenty of those relatives made jokes about him, but I wasn’t sure they understood the danger his words posed to our community. And, later, I discovered that a few had supported him.

During the election, the red ribbon lost its silky luster and turned into a coarse rope that burned and dug into my hands. I began to turn down opportunities to visit my hometown. The rare times when I did return home, I sometimes excused myself from family gatherings to sit alone in the safety of my childhood room. I did everything to turn conversations to anything but politics. And if I couldn’t, I argued and debated with people I loved, but the intense anger I felt at having to even argue against Trump’s rhetoric sent me stumbling over words like a child melting into a tantrum.

Some days I felt ashamed to be white. On others, I felt frustrated with my Latinx community. And then there were the days where I felt alone—I had very few Mixed friends to discuss the experience with and it never seemed like they were going through what I was going through with my family. I constantly questioned myself: How could I like these family members and their xenophobic, sexist, racist, homophobic biases? And how could they love me—a Mixed, Mexican-and-white woman whose brother is gay, and sister born with physical and intellectual disabilities—and still support Trump?

The red ribbon slipped through my fingers with each question, until I stood between two sides feeling alone, feeling like a failure.

Frida’s painting made me realize that I’d buried those questions after the 2016 election. And after I saw it, I wanted to confront them. I left New York City with a burning desire to write about how I felt and to understand where I came from and the people who made me who I am. I wanted to know if I could love and understand my white and brown families, and those two sides within me.

More importantly, I wanted to find a place between the two sides where I was whole, where I didn’t feel like I had to hold everyone together and be the cultural bridge, a job so often laid on the shoulders of Mixed kids. I wanted to accept my Mixed identity again, no matter what that meant.

I asked and answered these questions in the only way I know how, through writing. In the few months following my trip, I wrote Half Outlaw, a novel that features a Mixed protagonist who goes on a journey through her family’s past to answer the same questions I had.

The answers to my questions weren’t always satisfying, and yet they gave me hope. Half Outlaw was acquired by a publisher this year (and set to release in 2022), and with it, I’ll be sharing a story that helped me view my red ribbon in a new light and find some acceptance in my Mixed identity once again.

Frida’s husband, Diego Rivera, once said, “Never before had a woman put such agonized poetry on canvas as Frida did.” And this is true of My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree), whose poetry sent me on an agonizing journey to understand that so many good and bad things can be true within my Mixed identity. Thanks to Frida’s painting, I’ve come to accept that.

Head to Elephant to read its latest story in the series, Claire Marie Healy on Bill Henson’s Untitled #20.

Alex Temblador