Natalia “Norka” Méndez knows a thing or two about being comfortable in her own body.
As the former Cuban model stood in front of a crowded room of students, instructors and media at Foothill College Oct. 23 on her 75th birthday, her composure offered glimpses of the confidence, perseverance and fiery attitude that helped her forge a place in history through the pages of international newspapers and fashion magazines.
Méndez gained international fame in the 1950s and ’60s as the favorite muse of renowned photographer Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez. Her success, she said, is all about being an “elegant and natural woman.”
Before blowing out the candles on her birthday cake, Méndez shared stories from her days modeling during Cuba’s golden age. With a Spanish father and an American mother, Méndez had a thin figure, a physical attribute that contrasted with the “thicker” image many in the Latino culture considered beautiful. It wasn’t in vogue for young women of her era to pursue creative careers, but her fate was sealed when she met Gutiérrez, the photographer behind “Heroic Guerrilla” – the iconic photo of Che Guevara the Victoria and Albert Museum identifies as the most reproduced image in the world.
“Being an artist was the last option to my family,” Méndez said.
Two artists, one heart
In what Foothill College photography and digital imaging instructor Ron Herman called the union of “two artists with one heart,” Méndez and Korda – the name Gutiérrez gave himself to mimic the sound and spelling of Eastman Kodak Co. – married and enjoyed success in the days before the Cuban Revolution.
But when Fidel Castro assumed power in 1959, extravagance and luxuries disappeared, along with fine fabrics and opportunities in fashion and modeling. After giving birth to two children, Méndez emigrated from Cuba to Germany, where she recalls struggling day-to-day to find work. She eventually made her way to Paris – fortuitously during a model strike, a circumstance that landed her the opportunity to model again.
In the years that followed, Méndez returned to Cuba to be with her family. Although many of Gutiérrez’s film negatives were destroyed in the Revolutionary Offensive of 1968, Foothill College Photography Department recently spent five months restoring some of the remaining images. It was during this process that the team organized Foothill’s “Korda Moda” exhibition, showcasing 30 of Gutiérrez’s couture fashion photos, including pictures of Méndez.
The exhibition is scheduled for display 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays through Dec. 6 in the Krause Center for Innovation Gallery at Foothill College, 12345 S. El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills. The gallery is closed Sundays and Nov. 11 and 28.
For more information, visit kordamoda.wordpress.com.
Cuban model "Norka" visist Foothill College - Photos by Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier