Mexico gripped by 'Fridamania'

— The vivid blue house on a quiet street in the cobblestone neighborhood of Coyoacan has never been busier. Nearly 2,000 people a day are filing in on weekends - double the usual number - and, like Debra DeGraw, many are pilgrims from the United States.

"This was the reason I came to Mexico: to see where Frida Kahlo lived," says DeGraw, an artist from Mendocino, Calif., standing inside the colorful house where the legendary artist was born and died.

Kahlo's life story - with its vivid chapters of physical torment, extraordinary love and world-class glamour - is depicted in "Frida," a Hollywood film already showing in the United States that premiered here Friday. It has triggered a new wave of "Fridamania," prompting thousands of people to come to Mexico to see where this country's most famous female icon lived until her death nearly 50 years ago. Kahlo's face stares out from calendars, posters, dinner plates - just about anything with a price tag, including underwear.

Though initial reviews here show that some Mexicans are disappointed with Hollywood's rendering of their beloved artist, twice the wife of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, businesses are delighted. Tour operators are devoting entire trips just to Frida, as she is known to all here, and owners of restaurants and Internet cafes are painting over the signs above their doors and renaming their establishments for her. Her face is even being etched into furniture and lamps.

"It's the buzz right now," says DeGraw, recounting an e-mail she received from a friend in Los Angeles who urged her not to leave Mexico without buying as much memorabilia as possible.

Shopkeeper Abraham Zedillo has already stocked up on Frida, hanging wooden reproductions of her self-portraits outside his shop in neighboring San Angel and putting a life-size Frida mannequin on the doorstep.

"I stock Frida stuff because it's good for business," he says, noting Frida memorabilia has sold well for years, particularly to foreigners.

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AP Photo

Salma Hayek plays the title role in "Frida," a Miramax release depicting Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. The movie has generated increased interest, both foreign and domestic, in Kahlo's life and work.

Mexican art in general is enjoying growing popularity from New York to London to Prague. But no one's is hotter than Frida's. Her self-portraits, which sold for thousands of dollars 25 years ago, now sell for millions.

Last year, Kahlo became the first Hispanic woman honored on an American postage stamp.

Before her 1954 death, her work was largely ignored in Mexico. It was only after the world started taking note that Mexicans took a second look. When her works started selling for enormous sums at auction, Mexico began adoring and protecting her legacy.

It is now illegal to take Kahlo's paintings out of the country. Her works of personal pain are now considered as important - some say even more so - as Rivera's epic murals of Mexican history.

Independent and proud, passionate and feverishly nationalistic, Kahlo is a symbol of the feminist movement as well as of Mexico.

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