For the love of kistch
By Tess Thatcher Original Print Publication: March, 2008
Astrid Hadad’s Roma Norte home in Mexico City is like an overflowing dress-up chest. “I’m baroque in my work, and in my house,” says the cabaret star, waving a dancer’s hand at the bright walls, cluttered floor-to-ceiling with her collections. Hammered-tin hearts from all over Mexico fill an orange wall, and papier-mâché puppets from a past show hang above a window. Woven cows and crocodiles from Chiapas dangle above the stove in the kitchen, joining racks of carved wooden spoons, stacks of baskets, and hand-painted cabinets. Other rooms are home to grinning ceramic dolls and colorful dioramas of traditional rural scenes, and in one, paintings lean three-deep against the walls. A crown and wand, resting on a spangled pillow near an enormous mirrored crystal ball, complete the sense of being backstage before an elaborate show.
“It’s mostly all gifts, from friends and from designers of my costumes. I tell them it’s enough, but they keep bringing things!”
The problem comes with Hadad’s popularity. The dueña of this three story haven on Calle Córdoba—part of a grand, Art Nouveau town house with a baby blue facade and a great curlicued wrought-iron gate—has earned international fame for her alternative cabaret. Her reinterpretations of classical Mexican ranchera and bolero songs celebrate the tradition while poking fun at the macho language. Mixing song, dance, theater, and art, the show gently teases what Hadad calls Mexico’s “great appetite for kitsch,” and employs sharp irony to take on national myths.
Perhaps it’s her verve more than her voice that’s made her name, admits José Mario, program director at La Bodega in Colonia Condesa, where Hadad has packed houses for over a decade. Crowds also come for her far-out outfits, stitched references to Mexican iconography: Tequila, pyramids, cempazúchil flowers, Frida, Lucha Reyes, and the Virgin of Guadalupe have all featured in her costumes.
INSIDE MÉXICO: Is your home another theater set?
ASTRID HADAD: More than another set, it’s a pleasure. Here I can create my own worlds, and give a rest to my head, which never stops! I’ve often had ideas for my next production while moving things from here to there or rearranging a certain corner. It’s my meditation.
IM: Do you ever long for a bare, minimalist room?
AH: I stay in hotels all the time on my travels, and they’re all bare and empty. I love to arrive back to this place so full of life, and of love. These are gifts from all over Mexico, from all over the world. So it’s about friendship.
IM: Is this a social place, or your private sanctuary?
AH: People are always coming by. I love to cook, and my friends tend to gather in my kitchen (or “kitsch-en” as she jokes). How many people would you say fit around this table, five? We’ve had more than ten, many times! I try to keep them in the sitting room, but they end up in here. The kitchen is the warmest part of the house.
Especially this one: Hadad believes electric heaters are bad for her voice, so in winter leaves the rest of the house cold. “I cart in my computer and all my piles of books and photos to the kitchen, and work in here.”
As the tour continues, I begin to understand that these brimming rooms are as much an anthropologist’s archive as a personal collection: each artifact has a social history. Hadad shows a ceramic sculpture from Ocotlán de Morelos, explaining the tradition of the craft. A wall of ornamental hearts is presented as an important symbol in both Catholicism and pre-Columbian religions. “It’s a very syncretic icon … Plus, there’s a saying: in Mexico, the only value that never falls is love.”
As for Mexico’s “great appetite for kitsch”, Hadad glances at metallic campesino dolls dancing on a shelf near a swooning saint in a bulb-bright shrine: “Of course my point of view is a bit critical, but it’s also loving.”