The vivid blue house on a quiet street in the cobblestoned 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 currently being depicted in "Frida," a Hollywood film already showing in the United States and which had its premiere here Friday.
The film 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. The artist's 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 Frida stuff as possible.
Shopkeeper Abraham Zedillo doesn't need to hear that twice. He has already stocked up on Frida, hanging wooden reproductions of her self-portraits outside his shop in San Angel, a neighborhood near Coyoacan, and putting a life-size Frida mannequin on the doorstep.
"I stock Frida stuff because it's good for business," he says. For years, Frida memorabilia has sold well, particularly to foreigners, he says. Now with billboards all over Mexico City promoting the new movie, he says, "I expect to sell more."
The star of the Frida movie, actress Salma Hayek, surprised Zedillo last year when she appeared at his shop door looking for Frida coasters, which he sells for $7 a set.
"She said she wanted to see what Frida items I had because she was making a film about her. Then a lot of people started crowding around and she left," he says. Unfortunately, he didn't have the time to make the pitch for the $220 Frida statue and his $18 Frida key chains.
San Angel and Coyoacan, two pretty neighborhoods on the south side of this enormous city, are known as Frida country because she and Diego Rivera lived and painted there. Now an artistic hub, the side-by-side neighborhoods have many houses painted iridescent purples, blues and reds, and, like Frida's house-turned-museum, have tiled kitchens and inner courtyards.
Mexican art in general is enjoying growing popularity from New York to London to Prague. But no one's right now 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.
It hasn't always been this way. Her work was largely ignored in Mexico before her death in 1954, and 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 -- Madonna is said to be a big collector -- 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 -- than 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.
The film is being received here with mixed feelings by the many people who admire Kahlo. The movie has been good for tourism and for introducing Kahlo and Mexico to moviegoers who might never have thought much about either before. But to some here, it is jarring to see the pro-Communist (she counted Leon Trotsky among her lovers), pro-Mexican icon speaking English on the big screen.
"It just seemed fake," says Guadalupe Loaeza, a prominent social critic here. Loaeza said the dynamic Frida suffers from a mediocre performance by Hayek, who is also Mexican-born.
Loaeza says Kahlo, who dared to wear Mexican indigenous clothing when the sophisticated set frowned on it, would be appalled if she heard Hayek, as Frida, telling Rivera in English to eat his enchiladas.
But even Loaeza says the movie will be good for tourism and is already triggering Frida hysteria.
"It's going to be quite crazy," she says. The interest in Frida will only be heightened, she said, by the debate over authentic Frida vs. new Hollywood Frida.
Mexico City officials are already preparing for an onslaught of Fridamania when the movie opens to the general public Nov. 20. The quiet street outside her house-museum in Coyoacan is being repaved in anticipation.
Carlos McKinley, a Mexico City tourism official, says 2.5 million foreign visitors come to Mexico City every year. That figure dropped off after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, but it is now on target to reach its old levels again this year.
In Kahlo's house one afternoon last week, tourists from the United States, Europe and Asia wandered the gardens and peered at the kitchen, bedroom, and the studio where she painted. Her old wheelchair is still pulled up to an easel, where her portrait of Joseph Stalin sits unfinished.
But the most emotional draw in the house is Frida's tiny bed off her studio, where the remains of a body cast she wore lie, still decorated with the artist's colors. Frida was horribly injured in a bus accident when she was a teenager, and the pain she bore for the rest of her life was a central issue in her painting. Many of her famous self-portraits were sketched out while she lay on her back in bed, largely immobilized, looking up at a mirror.
"A lot of women start crying when they see it," says Mariana Mendez Valdez, who works at the museum.