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Alice Driver | Longreads | August 2020 | 9 minutes (2,482 words)
“We need to see the name of the person. We need to know who you want to attract,” the vendor told me as he held up a handful of dried hummingbirds, their four bodies dangling from his fingertips by red pieces of string, feathers worn but shimmering emerald in patches as if clinging to life via sheer radiance. He wanted to know the name of a man, but I was thinking of a painting.
Frida Kahlo wears a dead hummingbird around her neck. She painted Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird in 1940 just after she divorced Diego Rivera and ended an affair with photographer Nickolas Muray. The dead hummingbird is considered a love charm in Mexico, and it is one that would endure and eventually be exported to other countries.
“There is such a lack of love that everyone wants them, young and old,” the vendor told me, agreeing to let me record his answers only if I didn’t share his name, before recounting the steps I needed to take for the hummingbird charm to work:
- Write the name of the person you want to love you on a piece of paper.
- Put it in a red cloth bag with the hummingbird.
- Bathe the hummingbird in the perfume or scent of the person you want to love you on the first day of each month.
- Repeat with a new hummingbird for each person you want to fall in love with you.
It had not crossed my mind that anyone would buy more than one hummingbird. But, as a vendor named Sansón explained, “Men want many lovers.” Both Diego and Frida had many lovers, I thought.
The vendors, excited by my line of questioning, seem to think I will be interested in the idea of trapping many lovers with many hummingbirds. That, in fact, is my idea of hell. It reminds me of past boyfriends, who, upon realizing the scope and frequency of my work travel, voiced fears that I had a boyfriend in every city I worked in. It is all I can do to make one person happy and understand them down to the story of every scar. Even then, it will never be the focus of all my energy.
As the vendor told me this, I was standing in a narrow passageway in the Mercado Sonoroa in Mexico City. There, you can acquire all kinds of animals — legal (cages full of chicks dyed pink, purple, yellow, and green) and illegal (puma cubs). It is one of the more dangerous places I’ve worked as a reporter, because in the areas where black market animals are being bought and sold, taking out a camera or a recorder is going to attract unwanted attention. The last time I worked on a project around the market, I was told that a photographer wandering around without permission got beat up.
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Anyone working in Mexico knows that permission comes in many forms, from the jefe of the plaza or the market or the street corner, usually a man who is hard to find, one who has many helpers lounging around and saying things like, “The jefe doesn’t have a schedule, but I’ll tell him you stopped by.” The only way to really get in and do interviews is to go with someone local, so I contacted my friend Luisa who lives in the La Merced neighborhood near the market, and she contacted a vendor at the market who would accompany us and who knew one of the hummingbird sellers and got permission for us to interview him. I went to the market to do interviews for CBC, Canada’s national public radio station, for a piece they were producing about a National Geographic article on the illegal hummingbird charm trade.
To get to the black market hummingbird charms, I passed through the section of the market dedicated to Our Lady of Holy Death, a skeletal saint fondly known as “the skinny one” (“La Flaquita”). The hummingbird charm vendors were lined up together in tiny stalls so stuffed with items that they hardly had space to move, each with different offerings: hummingbirds on a string for 40 pesos ($2), hummingbirds on a stick for 80 pesos ($4), hummingbirds bathed in honey and perfume for 290 pesos ($14), and mounted and pristinely preserved hummingbirds for 600 pesos ($30). All the vendors were men. Some refused to speak to me or let me take photos, aware of the risk that we both ran in documenting the hummingbird charm trade given that some of the hummingbirds were at risk of extinction. It was hard for me to accept that whether some species of hummingbird would live or die out was dependent on the need for love and the belief that it could be charmed.
As I stuck my head into the first vendor’s stall, I was confronted with a glass jar full of hummingbirds mounted on wire sticks, their wings frozen as if they were flying. Their feathers were the color of ash and only tinged green near where the heart used to beat 1,260 times per minute. Many were missing their needle-like beaks, which fall off when the hummingbirds dry out.
The vendor, perhaps sensing that I would not tell him the name of someone who I wanted to love me, explained that a hummingbird can also bring peace to a family. I understand that he believed that I, a woman, surely had a family. He explained that if, for example, a mother wanted her family to get along, she could buy a hummingbird and take the following steps:
- Sit the hummingbird on top of a red apple.
- Place the apple on a plate with honey on a table when all the family is present.
- The mother must rub the hummingbird in the scent of each member of the family before placing it back on the apple.
In this manner, he told me, a family could achieve peace. I didn’t tell him that I lacked a family, that at 38 — an age that everyone told me was already almost too late — I didn’t even know if I wanted one.
Women can want children — that is an acceptable ambition. But female ambition has certain parameters, and ambition that doesn’t include or prioritize ideas of taking care of others and mothering leaves us vulnerable to attack, to an evaluation of our selfishness.
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“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best,” Kahlo once said of her body of work, which includes 80 self-portraits out of 153 paintings. In my three years living in an apartment a few blocks from Frida Kahlo’s Blue House in Mexico City, I can’t tell you how many people have told me they are uninterested in Kahlo’s art because they find her self-portraits to be selfish, boring. A woman who is interested in herself, in her interior life, is still dangerous, a threat to our ideas about who and what is valuable and why. Kahlo may be popular, but people like to make the point that she is not liked, not truly respected. When Guy Trebay wrote about Kahlo’s work for the New York Times in 2015 in an article titled “Frida Kahlo Is Having a Moment,” he opened with this line: “She was a genius before she was a refrigerator magnet, an ace manipulator of society and media nearly a century before social media came into existence.” He admits her genius but immediately ties it to manipulation. Would a male artist ever be described in the same terms? I think we can all agree that Kahlo is having more than a moment.
Looking at handfuls of dried hummingbird charms — some of them species facing extinction — and hearing the men make their sales pitches to me, I thought of something my friend Susanna in Mexico City had said: Vivimos maternando a un montón de gente. (“We live our lives mothering everyone.”) She was neither a wife nor a mother but she and I both knew what was expected of us as women — that our instincts would be to care for others and to seek out love, often at the expense of our interior lives.
The last time I visited Kahlo’s Blue House, which is now a museum, the traveling collection of her clothes and personal items was there. Those items, in part due to a request by Diego Rivera, had remained locked away until 2004, and although I had visited the museum many times, I had never seen the collection. Looking at the steel body braces on display and her handmade embroidered boots, one with a heel much higher than the other to compensate for her shorter leg, reminded me of the extent to which she was trapped in her body. Kahlo had survived polio as a child and later, after a bus accident, broken bones, fractures, a crushed foot, and a pierced abdomen and uterus. Kahlo, so often betrayed by her physical self and defined by her infertility, found solace in her mind, in exploring iterations of her intellectual self. She used painting, fashion, and photography to control her own image, which apparently, to some, made her an “ace manipulator” rather than a woman trying to stretch the boundaries of patriarchal visions of womanhood.
I didn’t tell the vendor what kind of a woman I was, that I didn’t have a dog or a cat, that the only plants I cared for were cactus, and I had killed some of them. I remembered a quote by Anthony Bourdain from a profile by Patrick Radden Keefe in The New Yorker, one that I had written in my notebook and that had stuck with me both because it reminded me of myself and seemed impossible that a woman could get away with saying something like that: “I’m not there. I’m not going to remember your birthday. I’m not going to be there for the important moments in your life. We are not going to reliably hang out, no matter how I feel about you. For fifteen years, more or less, I’ve been travelling two hundred days a year. I make very good friends a week at a time.” Bourdain was beloved for his obsession with work (which made his personal life messy and complicated) in a way that I don’t think a woman can yet achieve because for us, obsession gets defined as selfishness. In the profile, Keefe went on to describe Bourdain, writing, “Long before he was the kind of international celebrity who gets chased by fans through the airport in Singapore, Bourdain knew how to arrange his grasshopper limbs into a good pose, and from the beginning he had a talent for badassery.” Kahlo also knew how to arrange her broken limbs, and yet so far nobody has described that feat as badassery.
I was in a relationship for a decade, six of those years married, and when my husband left, he said, “You only care about your own projects.” And he was right about that — I do care deeply, obsessively about my own projects, about the curiosity that brings them to life, their creation, planning, and execution. For a year or two after the break-up of our marriage, I debated my worth and what kind of a woman I was, wondering if I should — or could — change. But for better or worse, at my core — the cells and ideas and emotions that give my life meaning — are related to my creative projects which make me feel like a fully engaged participant in the world.
In a letter to her mother, who she addressed as Mamacita Linda, Kahlo wrote, “Painting completed my life. I lost three children and a series of other things that would have fulfilled my horrible life. My painting took the place of all this. I think work is the best.” The constant in Frida’s life and her sense of purpose was rooted in her painting. Love in the form of men and women came and went. All the while, Kahlo continued reinventing herself through painting.
I wanted to know where the hummingbirds came from. “They usually bring them from Guerrero, but they are from various parts of the republic,” the vendor said, describing how in the old days, kids would kill them with slingshots for pocket money; kill a hummingbird, buy a coke. I imagined that the international black market hummingbird trade had produced more effective ways of killing hummingbirds, but he didn’t elaborate. He did, however, mention that the week prior a vendor sold a baby panda at the market. I found it hard to believe but tucked that information away for later, for another reporting project.
I asked for specifics about the hummingbirds, but he spoke in generalities: “The hummingbird in essence is for love. No matter the size or color: there are some that have a little green breast and there are others that have a little blue one, but it is all the same.” I didn’t like his saccharine, trite or generalized descriptions of love or the way such language was used to sell things. I didn’t like talking about love or talking about seeking it, because seeking love — which is so often tied up with seeking approval — has always been defined as women’s work.
Researchers don’t know the size of the black market hummingbird charm market. Nobody can measure the lack of love in the world and the things that it drives us to do. We are a bundle of wants and needs and insecurities, and in the search for meaning, if the illegal wildlife trade is any marker, we will consume anything to live longer, to be more virile, to attract what we have been told is love.
As I left, a vendor sat in a stall, a cardboard shoebox full of hummingbirds on his lap, one hummingbird mounted on a wire in each hand. These hummingbirds were larger than the rest, their feathers maintained spots of iridescent glory. I imagined Frida, decades ago, in the same market, looking for the hummingbird that she would paint at a time when her painting and her affairs with women and her broken body were not accepted, at a time when she wrote Diego a letter she never sent that said, “I don’t give a shit what the world thinks. I was born a bitch, I was born a painter, I was born fucked.” I understood her rage and feelings of rebellion, for although the world has made space for more diverse women, we are still expected to fill the role of the one who wants to be loved, who wants to be a mother when perhaps we only ever wanted to paint, wanted to write, wanted to explore the world alone, on our own terms.
Alice Driver is a freelance journalist and the author of More or Less Dead. She writes and produces radio for National Geographic, Time, CNN, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, Las Raras Podcast and Oxford American.
Fact checker: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Editor: Krista Stevens