rebozo

Frida Kahlo with rebozo.

This is what the placard next to the painting says. Not Frida Kahlo with her bozo. Not Frida Kahlo with boozer. There is no one else in the picture. It’s Frida Kahlo with rebozo. And what you see is Frida Kahlo, the same face at the same angle as dozens of other Frida Kahlo pictures of Frida Kahlo, with no sort of painting or architecture around, just some clothing on her. What is a rebozo again? It sure sounds like some part of a gothic cathedral or its altarpiece or…

No, it’s that scarf, that shawl. That red wrap. You see it again and again; in the photos of her she’s wearing it very often. Sometimes she has it wrapping over and around her head and framing her face, as is traditional. But often she has it wrapped just around her shoulders and bust.

It says she’s Mexican.

Rebozos are most popular in Mexico. They were likely born there. The name is Spanish, with a proper Latinate pedigree. The immediate source is rebozar, verb, “muffle”; that draws from re plus bozo “cheek, mouth”, which comes from Latin bucca. The word shows up first in the 1500s, right around the time the Spanish colony of Mexico was coming into being, wrapping itself over the existing cultures, the Europeans smashing in like a cultural Chicxulub. But the cultures did not disappear; they contributed, or were taken from. There is likely indigenous influence in the design and fabric of rebozos, which can be solid-coloured or can have designs, either in small bands or as a pattern.

Frida Kahlo felt strong attachment to her Mexican heritage – from her mother’s side. Her father was a German photographer. Her name has nothing to do with Kahlúa, nor with Friday. She was a mix of imported and indigenous, exotic and domestic. She was a communist and wanted to identify with the salt of the earth of Mexico. A rebozo certainly wrapped her in that.

You know, since it’s Spanish, that the z in rebozo is, in the original, pronounced like /s/ (it would be different in Spain than in Latin America, but this is not a garment from Spain). But in English, we say it as /z/ because that’s how it’s spelled. It gives it a buzz. We are paying more attention to the externals as they seem to us rather than to where the word really came from. We’re very inconsistent about such things in English.

But this word, it looks somehow rakish or comic or otherwise exotic to us. The z is not an indigenous character for English; we didn’t treat /z/ as a different sound from /s/ until somewhere in the Middle English period, under French influence. Then we had to borrow the letter. Positioned between the o’s, ozo, it gives us an arrangement with rotational symmetry, a hint of ozone, a pair of eyes that call forth ojo (Spanish for “eye”), a z with two zeros flanking it, and something like a pattern to go on a robe or rebozo.

Romance languages are much more used to z. It shows up all the time in them. Words that end in o are also quite common in Spanish. This word may startle our eyes like Frida’s unibrow and moustache, but such things are not equally startling or exotic to everyone.

If you search rebozo on Google, you find quite a lot of references to its use for pregnant ladies to support their bellies, during labour as well, and then as a sling to carry an infant in. (I’m sure it’s a coincidence that Richard Nixon had a confidant, Charles Rebozo, nicknamed “Bebe.”)

Frida Kahlo had several miscarriages. Her rebozo is not filled with belly or baby. She wears it just around her upper body. It may be native Mexican, but hers has no Mexican nativity. It is just her, over and over again, sometimes with her husband, Diego Rivera. A piece of the past, not carrying the future. Just framing a gaze.

4 responses to “rebozo

  1. Monroe Thomas Clewis

    Those who lived through the Nixon years must be reminded of Charles “BeBe” Rebozo, Nixon’s leading confidante. Wikipedia has a little on him here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Rebozo

  2. When I first beginning reading this post (since I am of an the right age), I thought you were going to talk about a picture of Frida Kahlo and Bebe Rebozo (although I didn’t recall them being contemporaries!). Thanks for giving me the opportunity to use this beautiful word without thinking of “dirty tricks” and backroom politics.

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