The heartfelt letters showcased in this exhibition are from the last few years before Matilde Calderón de Kahlo’s death.The letters highlight the personal affection between Kahlo and her mother and showcase Frida Kahlo as the person, not the icon.
His art brought them to New York in 1931, where the Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective of his work. From there they later traveled to Detroit, where Rivera’s fame grew as he completed a successful fresco series. The shock Kahlo experienced at American culture and at being thrust into the limelight as Rivera’s wife may explain why these letters often express her displeasure about life in the U.S.
The letters in the collection are from some of Kahlo’s most formative years. While Kahlo painted throughout her life, her first one-woman exhibition did not take place until 1938: in her own time, she was regarded foremost as Rivera’s wife, rather than as an independent painter. Her life is now often characterized by her troubled marriage and the frequent illnesses she suffered after the famous bus accident that left her with multiple serious injuries.
Matilde Calderón de Kahlo was also quite ill during this period, dying September 15, 1932, after suffering from breast cancer and gallstones. Publications often mention that Kahlo was inconsolable after her mother’s death. This further raises the question of whether their relationship was truly strained, or whether it was a more typical bond between a headstrong, passionate daughter and a practical, determined mother.
Frida Kahlo and her mother shared significant qualities and life experiences: both had artistic husbands with difficult temperaments and troubling handling money, both had serious illnesses, and both were deeply devoted to their family. Even though Kahlo is often described as “her father’s daughter,” there seems to be more depth in her relationship with her mother than commonly believed. While no publication has yet focused on this issue, it would be an excellent avenue for scholarly consideration.
Yesterday I wrote you a little letter when I arrived here. It was a very small letter and you should have received it by now. In this letter, I’ll tell you more details about the trip and everything else.
The train was seven and a half hours late so we had to stay in Guadalajara a long time. I was able to see the whole city: the museum, the churches, and all the most important places. We ate dinner there and at six thirty we left for Nogales, Sonora.
The route is just spectacular. The train travels all along the coast through Mazatlan, Tepic, Culiacan, and so on, until it arrives at Nogales on the border with the United States. That famous border is just a wire fence separating Nogales-Sonora from Nogales-Arizona. But you could say that it’s all the same. On the border the Mexicans speak English “re-bien”  and the gringos speak Spanish “y todos se hacen bolas” . They check passports on both sides. They give you a medical exam and then the train leaves for Los Angeles. You get there, more or less, in a day and a night.
I found Los Angeles exciting, as did Diego. Well, it’s a city…
 Re-bien” means very well, but there’s a definite tone of irony in Frida’s letter.
 “Y todos se hacen bolas” is a Mexican idiomatic expression meaning confusion and wasted effort. “Everyone runs around in circles” might be a suitable translation.
…in a marvelous location. It has such fine buildings. The beach is magnificent, but the gringas look just horrible. The movie stars aren’t worth a Popsicle. Only rich people live in Los Angeles. The poor have a very hard life. Just imagine! A square meter of land in the center of the city costs 5,000 dollars, which is more than 10,000 pesos. The beautiful houses are only for multi-millionaires and movie stars. All the other houses are “pinchurrientas” and made out of wood . There are 3,000 Mexicans living in Los Angeles. They have to work like mules to compete with gringo businesses.
After Los Angeles you pass through San Jose and San Bruno and then you arrive in San Francisco. It’s an enormous city. Diego says it’s a lot like London because there’s fog during this time of year and the industrial neighborhoods—according to Diego—look just like the alleys in London.
Yesterday afternoon, we were invited for cocktails at the home of the director of the Stock Exchange, where Diego is going to work. They have a magnificent house and you can see all of San Francisco, the bay, and the lights of Berkeley (another city…
 “Pinchurrientas” is Mexican slang for “miserable, or of the worst quality.”
…across the bay) from their terrace. The director speaks Spanish better than I do and six or seven other languages as well. They have treated Diego very well and they like me very much.
I’m sending you one of the newspapers where they wrote about us. We have been in about six newspapers, but I haven’t been able to get copies of them all.
I’m writing this letter so poorly because I’m lying down. As usual, I’ve had some inflammation, but the wives of the other artists have been very good to me. One of them came and gave me a hot water bottle and the other one swept for me and cleaned up the whole house. One is French and speaks Spanish. Her name is Ginette. The other one is a gringa, but she’s very friendly and a good kid.
We live in the studio of a sculptor named Stackpole. It’s fashioned in Parisian style with one very large room, about three times as big as the living room in our own house in Coyoacán. There is a drawing table, a chaise longue, a sofa, a fireplace, and a small desk. Then there is a small room that serves as a kitchen/dining room with a big table, a water heater, gas burners and a sink for doing dishes. It’s comfortable enough.
Then there is a bedroom where Diego can’t sleep on the bed. It has a box spring and becomes completely deformed when Diego lies on it. There’s a small wardrobe for keeping things and a Mexican chair. There’s a warm shower and a toilet. All of this is on the top floor of 716 Montgomery Street or, on the other side, at number 15 Jessop Place. It’s best to write to Montgomery.
For now, we still go out for breakfast, dinner, and supper, but they will arrange deliveries of milk, bread, and butter to the house so we’ll only have to go out for dinner. Everything is on gas, and, since I won’t have to light the fire or anything else, there isn’t a lot of work for me.
We live very close to Chinatown. It’s almost around the corner. Chinese men and women go around as in the pictures wearing their authentic costumes. Up to now, I’ve only seen old Chinese women and children, and they are beautiful. I haven’t seen any young Chinese women. They sell wonderful things, beautiful robes and tons of other things. The loveliest here in general are the young children. They are enormous and beautiful. But the teenage girls are horrible and so are the young boys. I’ll continue this letter later…
…right now I’m going to eat.
Linda: I’m suffering from so much inflammation that I haven’t gone out at all today. It must be the result of such a long trip.
Dr. Eloezer (sic) is coming to see me today at five thirty. Diego wants me to see him about my back problems. By tomorrow, the swelling is sure to be gone and from then on I will be receiving injections regularly. The doctor is very friendly. I met him yesterday. He speaks the old style of Spanish very well and he’s very intelligent. I’ll write you later to let you know how I’m getting along with him.
I haven’t seen the Lunas yet. We’ve been so tired and I haven’t felt like doing anything. I’ll probably look them up tomorrow. I’ll be telling you all the details I’m forgetting now, little by little. Write to me please and tell me everything.
How is Papá? Is he working? Tell me everything. Whatever I can send you, I’ll send immediately. Also, tell me about Kitty and “la niña linda.” How are they? I want to know every little thing you are doing, detail by detail.
I’ll write Mati and Adri separately. I’ll also write to Aunt Bela and Carito, to Grandma and to everybody else.
Tell Papá that everything I tell you and write to you is also meant for him. Tell him I’m sending him lots of kisses, that he shouldn’t be so grouchy, and that he should remember me and write to me. Give my best to Herminia and Chucho.
Pet Shadow often and give poor Monroy the same attention. Don’t chase them out into the street, because I would like to see them again. As for the little yellow kitten, feed it more scraps than the others.
Mamacita, if you see Mr. Magaña, give him my address and ask Kitty to write a letter for him with everything he wants to tell us because he doesn’t know how to write very well. Write to me often. You, more than anybody, know how much pleasure it gives me to receive letters from all of you, and especially from you. So don’t quit writing to me. I’ll write every day if I can. A thousand kisses to Papá, Kitty, la nena, and everybody. And for you all my love, your
P.S. Don’t be sad. Everything is going to be fine with me. Diego is very good to me and besides, I’m going to receive much better medical treatment here than I ever would in Mexico.
Your letter just arrived at this moment. I don’t know what could have become of the letter with the money enclosed. I hope it isn’t lost. If it is, we’re really in bad shape.. I’m sure it’s just late. We haven’t lost any letters so far.
The problem is that the mail gets picked up here on a very irregular schedule. Pray to God that it gets to you. It was quite a chore for me to send it to you. Since I don’t manage the expenses, it’s very hard for me to get money when I need it.. Nevertheless, if it is lost, I’ll find a way to send you some more as soon as I can.
I’m very happy to hear everyone has been well. But I feel bad that you’re alone all day with Isoldita. She must have become a real devil, but a precious one. Am I right? I wrote Papá and Kitty yesterday. Has my poor Papá had any work?
I tried to make the crepes, but they came out like “drunkards’ vomit.” I made a mess of turning them over, and they were raw in the middle. It’s useless for me to try to dedicate myself to cooking. I do it so poorly and I ruin everything. I think the best cause of action is to wait until…
…I get back to Mexico and then you can teach me.
Diego is fine. He’s working day and night like a slave. But I think he’ll finish the first fresco soon. He’s deciding whether to leave when he finishes this fresco, and then come back later to do the other one at the School of Fine Arts here, or if he should paint that one now and we’d go back to Mexico in three months. I believe that, even if it takes longer, it would be better to finish the two in one long stretch rather than to have to come back later. That would be worse, don’t you think? In any case, we’ve been here for three months and during another three I would continue missing you very much.
I’m painting. I’ve made six pictures and everyone has liked them very much.
The people from here have treated us very well. The Mexicans who live here in San Francisco are real mules. You can’t imagine. Anyway, there are idiots everywhere. And there are some gringos who, God help us, are as “thick as bricks.” But there are some positives. They aren’t as shameless here as they are in our beloved Mexico.
When I get back, I’ll tell you a tremendous number of things. You haven’t told me yet if Sombra’s puppies are male or female. The little baldies must be very cute. Aren’t they? Take good care of the mother dog…
…and don’t let her get involved with another male. If you aren’t careful we’ll be creating a whole school house full of bald dogs and where will it end? Tell Kitty to ask Carlos Merida what has happened to the money. Unless she does that old guy will just rest on his laurels.
Dear Adri has been writing to me about all that’s going on with you. She says that she’s looking after you. That makes me feel better. You’re my one and only concern, Linda. You should know I love you so much that I don’t want you to suffer at all.
Tell Papá I’m sending him lots of kisses, and some for Cristi and that pretty little Isoldita.
The weather is much better now than when we arrived in San Francisco. There are flowers everywhere, and we have lots of sunshine. But the sea breeze is humid and I have a cough that doesn’t want to quit. My foot is fine and my back is better. I get tired all the time like before, but I don’t feel quite as depressed as I used to. At least I can paint.
Listen, Linda. Tell Cristi she should treat old man Hale very well. I want him to buy one of my pictures.
Write to me from time to time. Don’t be mean. You can’t imagine the happiness that arrives with your letters. How is poor Uncle Pepe coming along? Give my best to Grandma as well.
Mamacita chula, be sure to do what I’ve asked you to do. Take good care of yourself. Don’t stay alone for long periods of time and be sure to go out and have fun on Sundays, even if it’s only at the grubby little movie house in town. Otherwise you’ll get too bored.
Or, one Sunday, take Papá to Cuernavaca. It costs two pesos to get there and two to get back. A special car would cost ten, but then Cristi, la nenita, and one other person could go along. Cristi knows where the buses depart. You could leave in the morning and return in the afternoon. Tell Kitty that Gonzalez could take you. I’ll send you the fares so at least you can see Diego’s paintings in Cortez’s Palace.
Well, my Linda, I’m sending you millions of kisses and my enormous affection. I’m sending the same to Papá, Kitty, and la nenita. The girl in the picture you sent me looks a little like me and a little like Cristi, don’t you think? Take some photographs of the little newborn baldies so we can begin to know them.
Take good care of yourself and, meanwhile, your –Frieducha– sends you a million kisses.
Yesterday, a letter from Carito and one from Mati finally arrived. They tell me that you’re well, but if you could write to me yourself, I’d know exactly how you’re feeling.
I’m fine, up to now. I’m just really bored and I miss you very much.
Every day has been a battle with old Lady Paine, who’s been driving us nuts, along with her millionaire friends. But Diego and I just burst out laughing and we don’t pay any attention to her. Even so, it’s a struggle for Diego. After working all day, every day, he has to get dressed up in a tuxedo and go out to dine with a bunch of pensadores...
Everyone has received us very well. The Rockefellers invited us to lunch and dinner. The old man’s son is very intelligent and likeable, but, no matter what, one just can’t enter into this class of society, and as far as I’m concerned, I couldn’t care less.
The Covarrubias arrived yesterday. Miguel and Rosa have been great friends…
 This is a traditional Mexican “albur” (play on words). Frida uses the word “pensadores” (thinker or intellectual), but in substitution for the vulgar term “pendejo” (idiot).
…of ours since we were in Mexico. Cristi ought to remember their son, who used to go to Rosa Rouaix’s house. We ate with them and afterwards we went to Harlem, which is the Black neighborhood in New York.
We went to watch them dance. It’s beautiful, and there are thousands of beautiful mulatto girls. Nobody in the world dances like they do. We were very happy, but Diego woke up very tired this morning. I’m going to have to take him to see the doctor. He’s very nervous and his eyes and feet are swelling up. I think it might be a kidney problem, but whatever it is, I don’t want him to continue this way without getting treatment.
It’s unbearably hot in New York. You’d think we were in Veracruz. One is constantly sweating, day and night, and since the houses and apartments have very little fresh air, it’s dreadful. One must also have the electric lights on all day because buildings don’t have access to daylight. It’s a pain to live in a city like this because…
…the very tall buildings don’t let in enough light.
Ramon Alva was walking around looking up to see the tops of the skyscrapers when some soot fell in the poor guy’s eyes and he was in serious pain. I put some Murine eye drops in his eyes and he’s better now. He’s really funny, that Ramon. You can’t imagine!
Matita told me that they’ve hooked up your telephone. I’m glad, because now you can call las Gordas or whomever you want. That’s much more convenient for you.
How are Kitty and la nena and Antonio? Have you found a maid? Carmela told me that Timo was going to work for you. I hope that’s true. Even though you may have to put up with a few things, she’ll be good. She worked very well for me.
What’s Papá doing? Tell him to write to me. I’m sure he’s received my letter by now.
You can’t imagine how sorry I am to have lost one of my beautiful earrings. I’ll try to find someone to make a replacement…
…but I think it’ll be difficult.
Caro also told me that Antonio had stopped by. He’s the one from San Juanico who’s taking care of Diego’s land. If he comes back, tell him that Diego will send him money for the taxes one of these days. He’s a good person. You can trust him.
This hotel is good, but very expensive. We pay 175 dollars a month, but Diego prefers to pay a bit more rather than stay in some hovel, far from where he’s painting and I agree.
Thank el Güerito very much for the telephone and tell him I send a lot of kisses to la Chula, Carlangas, and to Sor.
If you need anything, let me know. Don’t be shy, Linda. No matter how often they tell me you’re just fine, I’m always worried about you.
I hope we won’t be going to San Francisco. If we don’t, we’ll be in Mexico in August. Whatever happens, I don’t think we’ll be here long.
I’m going to draw a picture of our apartment in the hotel so you’ll have an idea.
It’s on the 27th floor, so Central Park looks very pretty from here, and we have a little better air than other apartments do.
Inside the kitchen, the electric stove is wonderful. I don’t cook anything except breakfast. As you know, I’m a horrible cook. I make coffee and fried eggs, and we eat some fruit or gelatin or ham. This small breakfast costs about a dollar twenty five cents a day, which is about three Mexican pesos. One could eat a full day’s worth of meals for that in Mexico.
I have lunch for fifty cents in a restaurant, and so far, we’ve been invited to eat out every night. Afterwards, I’ll just have to prepare the same thing as in the morning. The maid makes the beds and does all the rest, but there are tips, tips and more tips.
Now, while I’m writing to you, I’m sitting next to the open window, so I won’t bake from the heat.
Well, Linda mía, don’t forget to tell me everything and to take very good care of yourself. Give thousands of kisses to Isoldita, give my greetings to Toño, and tell Kitty to write to me. Give Papá a kiss (when he’s in a good mood) and, as for you, don’t forget your Frieducha who adores you
Call Adri frequently.
Can you go check on how the house in San Angel is coming along?
Mi niña mía, mi Frieduchita (My darling girl, my Friduchita)
I can’t tell you how much I wish I could be as lucky as this letter and travel to where you are and kiss you and chat with you to my heart’s delight, but I hope that very soon we’ll be able to do that together. The time will come when we’ll be able to enjoy being together.
I remember so well when you said you’d be happy to live like a gypsy. Do you remember that night when you said that? Poor girl. You didn’t know what you were wishing for. Isn’t it very hard to find yourself all alone with no one who cares about you?
Linda, the photograph that I’m sending brings with it lots of kisses from me to you. Please make sure to be as happy as is possible.
Give my best regards to Diego.
Mr. Montenegro called today to say he’ll bring me the idols. I’m waiting for him.
Paco is still ill. Cristi and the children are fine up to now.
I hope you have a happy day in the company of Diego. Apologies for my poor writing, I won’t re-write it because I don’t have time. I have a gift for you here. I’ll give it to you when you return. I send you lots of kisses until I can give them to you in person.
Your mother who adores you
I received a letter from Kitty today. She says I shouldn’t be so lazy and that I should write you more often. You won’t believe it, but there are weeks when I don’t have a minute free to even scratch myself, morning, afternoon, and night.
There are always people pestering me with invitations. At night I just fall on my bed exhausted from so much going from here to there. And this week, after the opening of the exhibition, has been one of the worst. Everybody wants to invite Diego to parties and teas and dinners. And when he can’t go himself because he’s working…
…I have to go in his place.
He’s given some very nice lectures, one at Columbia University and another at the New York Public Library. The people were delighted. It’s useless to describe the other dinners to you; they’ve all been boring and tedious.
Every day more and more people have come to see the exposition. Nineteen thousand have seen it over the last nine days. They say there has never been an exhibition so well received here in New York.
Diego is painting portraits now, so we’re going to stay here through January. Then, according to Diego’s plans, we’ll go to Detroit. But the newspapers recently reported that the director of the Detroit Museum, where Diego is supposed to paint, has been fired, along with his entire staff…
…and all the other employees. So, it’s up in the air whether we’ll go or not. I’m sorry about that because Diego has the crazy dream of painting “the steel industry” there, and it makes me sad to think the poor boy might not be able to fulfill his dream. But on the other hand, it would be better, because we could return to Mexico much sooner. Well, who knows how the museum business will work out? Whichever way it goes, I’ll let you know in time what we will be doing in February.
Mati told me how pretty Isoldita looked dancing the Jarabe in her China Poblana outfit. When I read Mati’s description…
…I couldn’t stop crying, just thinking about you, la niña, and everyone. But I know that I have to live through this and there’s nothing that can be done.
Tell me, Linda, how you and Papá are doing. Luckily, I’m in good health. I’m tired of living surrounded by these ancient ladies and gents who are always so dolled up and idiotic. But at least Diego is happy here, painting away. And so far, he’s been well. He hasn’t been sick at all.
Time will pass by quickly and we’ll be back in Mexico as soon as we can. As far as making money, though, it’s been a disaster. So far, nobody has bought anything from the exhibition. I hope that there’ll be interest in the frescos later.
This trip has been extremely expensive for Diego. I hope his works will sell well. If not, it will be one heck of a calamity, don’t you think?
My biggest worry right now is Kity, but I think that if she takes care of herself everything will turn out all right. She says that Marin is charging her 250 pesos. That’s too much, don’t you think? I don’t think it’s right for him to overcharge like that. I’ll see if Diego can write him a letter, or I can ask him myself not to exaggerate like that. And if he doesn’t change his fee, there are other doctors who would charge less. I haven’t sent the layette basket I mentioned. I was going to see if the Consul here…
…could take it down for her to Mexico, but he’s not going to Mexico until March. So I’ll send the money instead so she can buy things down there. I did send the necklace for Isoldita, but I sent it very late so it may not arrive before the thirteenth of this month. I just couldn’t get it mailed earlier.
The weather in New York changes from one day to the next. There are times when there’s frost on the ground and others when it is pleasantly mild. But it’s usually cold at night. Is it very cold in Mexico?
I’m going to write a little note to Lupe Paul about what happened to her boy. Poor Manuelito must be in despair!
Lindita, if you could write to me—even if it’s just a very short letter—
…it would please me no end.
The person I see most often is Malu Cabrera. Up to now, she’s been very nice. I know she’s as fake as a steel penny, but at least she speaks Spanish so I have somebody to talk to. Besides Malu I see Rosa and Miguel Covarrubias, who are really good friends.
I have another friend who is a gringa and is about my age. We get along very well because she is simple, not at all pretentious, and a very good person. Her name is Wilma Cannon. Next month she’s going to China. She’s going to marry a man who is the consul…
…over there. Her father is going to accompany her all the way to China and deliver her to her fiancée. She’s very smart and has a happy disposition. She’s not pretty, but she’s a good person.
I hardly ever see that old she-mule–Paine. We barely exchange a word when we meet. I don’t trust her, and I can’t stand her at all.
There’s no more news. Everything’s the same. I like New York better than I did at first, but the only thing I really want is to go home to Mexico and see you.
Give lots of kisses to Papá, Kitty, la niña, Toño, and everyone else. And to you, mi Linda, I send thousands of them, your Frieducha, who adores you.
Mi niña linda mi Friduchita,
Usually you learn everything, but absolutely everything from my scribes, who never leave me much to say. That’s why you don’t usually hear much news from me. But this time I’m the one who’s writing. I’m going to begin by telling you about these last few days, which have kept me in a very anxious state. The day before yesterday we went to Mexico City in the afternoon, and had supper at Cristina’s. I noticed she looked tired, but didn’t pay a lot of attention to it because she had been on her feet a lot. The next morning the phone rang very early. It was Cristina. She said, “Mamá, I’m sending you la niña.. I’m going to the hospital.” I felt terrible, but there was nothing else I could do. That’s how it was all morning. At three o’clock they phoned to tell me the little boy had been born. At the same time, there was a knock on the door and there was your letter with the photographs. I started to cry with happiness, and I talked to you as though you were actually here.
I want to know how you are recovering from your bout with influenza. It has hit us very hard here in Mexico. You should see the doctor and take medications to strengthen yourself. Do take good care of yourself, all right?
Don’t worry about your compadre’s problems . He has received the money, and always asks me to pass on his greetings to you.
I’m sending you these cartoons so you’ll remember Mexico, where you are…
 A “compadre” is a Godfather, a relative or some very close friend of the family.
Mi niña encantadora (My charming little girl),
I’ll never be able to explain the wonderful sensation that I felt when I heard your voice so clearly and so well that it seemed as though you were right at my side. I gave thanks to God and to the man who discovered the power to speak over such a long distance. My words to you are nothing compared to the enormity of the feeling I experienced, for the first time in my life. That same day and at the same time we received the photographs that you sent. Of course, everybody wanted one so I had to give some of them away.
On Sunday, Mr. Allé came with his wife and children and I showed them the pictures. They liked one of Diego very much, and they took it with them.
El compadre (friend) from Ixtacalco was here as well. He says that the new tax bills arrived, and the taxes total thirty-five pesos. Tell me if I should take care of it.
An American woman came by with her fifteen year old son. She wanted to see Diego and ask if he could give classes to her son.
I was very pleased with the paper you so kindly sent to me, and which I’m using for the first time today. I send you my thanks and a kiss for doing this. It’s very lovely.
I was so pleased to see the photograph of Diego. It might seem incredible, but I feel a very great affection for him and I’m interested in everything he does. Tell him how much esteem I have for him and that I value him very much. And you, mi niña linda, receive all my blessings, from your mother who adores you
The selection of letters on view are a part of the Nelleke Nix and Marianne Huber Collection: The Frida Kahlo Papers donated to NMWA in 2007.
The collection consists of over 360 unpublished letters related to the artist’s life and work, ranging from 1930 to 1954 and most of the material dating between 1930 and 1935. A significant portion of the collection is a group of letters between Kahlo and her family. The heartfelt letters showcased in this exhibition are from the last few years before Matilde Calderón’s death.
The letters highlight the personal affection between Kahlo and her mother and showcase Frida Kahlo as the person, not the icon.
Mamacita Linda: Letters between Frida Kahlo and her Mother was on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts Library & Research Center May 1–July 31, 2012.