During every major disaster, there is often one image that is iconicized as a symbol of struggle or hope. “Soldaderas,” a powerful mural painted by artist Yasmin Hernandez in New York that shows Latin American heroines Frida Kahlo and Julia de Burgos holding hands as their flags rest still and jointed behind them, may be that image for the catastrophes that rocked Mexico and Puerto Rico last week.
On Tuesday, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck central Mexico, killing 331 people and damaging 11,000 homes. Rescuers are still digging out bodies — some alive, many dead — trapped under the rubble. The next day, Puerto Rico weathered Hurricane Maria, the worst storm to hit the Caribbean island in more than 80 years; at least 16 people have been pronounced dead, towns have been left homeless and much of the island is flooded and without power.
Since these disasters, the gripping, almost-prophetic, mural has been shared across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as a symbol of accord between both countries. It’s a testament to the uniting and healing power of art. But in the present social media landscape, where stirring images become empathy memes, it’s crucial that the meaning of “Soldaderas,” and the current plight of the woman behind it, is not lost.
To prevent that from occurring, here are a few things you should know about Hernandez and her powerful mural.
1. Hernandez currently resides in Puerto Rico and is one of millions directly impacted by Hurricane Maria.
While born in Brooklyn, New York, Hernandez currently lives in Moca, Puerto Rico, a small town in the northwestern region of the island. According to Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, the destruction in Moca is “massive.” While there have been no reported deaths, homes there have been destroyed and the town lacks diesel for machinery, potable water and food. Hernandez has not been active on social media since early Wednesday morning, likely because there is no electricity, but a sibling has stated that she and her family on the island are physically well. No details on the status of her home or belongings have been given. Those who appreciate and have been sharing Hernandez’s piece can consider supporting her work over on Etsy.
2. Hernandez painted “Soldaderas” in East Harlem, New York in 2011.
The Nuyorican artist first pitched the idea for the mural back in 2008, but the project, supported by Art for Change, Hope Community, Inc and El Barrio Arts Cluster, began in 2011. She started working on “Soldaderas” on June 3, 2011 and completed it on July 6 of that same year. Since then, the mural, located at the Modesto Flores Community Garden on Lexington Avenue between 104th and 105th streets, has captivated residents and visitors of El Barrio, the nickname of the historically Latino neighborhood.
3. Hernandez painted the mural to unite the Puerto Rican and Mexican communities in El Barrio.
Working on a hand-painted enhanced print of my soldaderas for a Chicana/ Boricua professor. Honored to have these mujeres bless my studio. https://www.etsy.com/listing/464704633/soldaderas-mural-frida-kahlo-julia-de?ref=shop_home_active_1 #soldaderas #yasminhernandezart #fridakahlo #juliadeburgos #mexico #boriken #elbarrionyc #eastharlem #vecinas #brownpower #hambredelibertad #1848 #1898 #undotheconquest #aztlan #artisaweapon #decolonizelove
At the time Hernandez painted the mural, there was growing tension between Puerto Ricans who long called the neighborhood home and Mexicans who were beginning to move in en masse. To foster a sense of unity, the mural, which includes two of Mexico and Puerto Rico’s most prominent heroines locking hands, symbolizes the joint struggle of both communities and calls for political solidarity. The piece itself is largely inspired by Kahlo’s painting “Las dos Fridas.” In Hernandez’s design, however, Kahlo is sitting beside Puerto Rican poet de Burgos rather than herself.
4. Frida Kahlo and Julia de Burgos were feminist contemporaries.
Kahlo, a painter, and de Burgos, a poet, were both barrier-breaking artists working in the early twentieth century. In their portraits and writing, the two women pushed forward bold feminist ideals, embraced revolutionary thought and shared a deep love for their respective countries. In their lives and work, both women came up against, and overcame, similar battles, from miscarriages and intense romantic relationships to gender and racial discrimination. Like the title of the mural, Kahlo and de Burgos truly were soldaderas.
5. The earthquakes in Mexico and hurricanes in Puerto Rico have brought new meaning to the mural.
In 2011, Hernandez created “Soldaderas” to remind the divided Puerto Rican and Mexican people of East Harlem that they share common histories of struggle. The mural attempted to highlight a connection between the countries that many in the neighborhood did not realize existed in hopes of creating unity. With the ruin in Mexico and Borikén, the shared suffering — in loss of life, homes and infrastructure — is evident. Instead of informing people of a communal struggle, Kahlo and de Burgos holding hands at a community garden in El Barrio shows us that we are already in accord, and, together, we will survive these devastations.