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Southland doctor uses Frida Kahlo paintings to recruit more Latinos to medical school

Frida Kahlo, Autorretrato con collar de espinas y colibri (Self Portrait with Torn Necklace and Hummingbird), 1940
Frida Kahlo, Autorretrato con collar de espinas y colibri (Self Portrait with Torn Necklace and Hummingbird), 1940
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin

In his effort to increase the number of Latino doctors, surgical pathologist Fernando Antelo organized his first workshop titled "Frida Kahlo - The Forgotten Medical Student” six years ago.

When he carries out the workshop on Saturday at UC Irvine, Antelo will show students the 1945 Frida Kahlo painting titled “Without Hope.”

““Without Hope” is a self-portrait of the artist lying in a hospital bed and it doesn’t look like a hospital, however, because in the background it becomes very desolate it’s almost like she’s lying in the bed in the middle of a desert,” Antelo said.

A huge funnel overflowing with food spills into Kahlo’s mouth, conveying the distress of her hospital stay. Antelo will tell students that Kahlo took biology classes in high school and wanted to go to medical school. He’ll ask students about the colorful, circular designs she depicted on the bed sheets. They’re not polka dots.

“She was opening medical books and she was drawing exactly the same, these classical, historical hand drawings of bacteria, of fungus, of spirochetes, of all these microorganisms on the bed,” he said.

Antelo is Bolivian-American. He credits his mother’s nightly stories from her pediatric nursing job as the foundation for his interest in medicine. He maintains that few Latinos make that kind of personal or cultural connections to medical careers.

That could be one reason why, by one count, Latino doctors are five percent of all the physicians in this country. That leaves many Latinos wishing their doctor spoke their language and understood their culture. While the number of Latinos applying to medical schools has risen sharply in recent years, Antelo still senses a need for his workshops.

His goal is to spark interest in medical school - or to help college students marshal their families’ support in the grueling road to an M.D. degree.

“This female student was saying how her dad, you know, doesn’t want her to be in college; he wants her to be at home. And she was asking the panel, ‘How do I talk to my parents about this?’ By using Kahlo as an example, it’s a talking point that students can use to talk to their parents, their parents are familiar with her,” he said.

Yelennia Palacios took Doctor Antelo’s Frida Kahlo workshop several years ago. She remembers that one Kahlo painting he displayed - with a detailed image of a heart at its center - jumped out at her.

“I was just in awe. I mean, the human heart is amazing and I think it’s one of my favorite organs. To see that, to see how she drew it, I was speechless. It was so beautiful and she put a lot of her pain and suffering into that as well,” Palacios said.

Palacios is in her second year at UC Irvine’s medical school. She feels a strong pull to help people like her Mexican-born parents improve their lives. So she hopes to practice family medicine.