San Francisco in the 60s was a place for music, art and revolution. While the Civil Right movement continued nationwide, a small group of young Chicana artists started a revolution on the walls of San Francisco’s Mission district.
Beginning in Balmy Alley, they painted murals throughout the Mission. Called Las Mujeres Muralistas, these women sparked off a female mural renaissance throughout the US and Mexico.
Eternal Queens was lucky to sit down with creator and co-founder of Mujeres Muralistas, Patricia Rodriquez. Currently residing in Oakland, Patricia developed the first Chicano Art History course at UC Berkley and has taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico. She gave us a tour around her new house where she will be holding workshops and open galleries. Sunny and bright, it was the perfect place to sit down and talk about the past and her hopes for the future of female artists.
EQ: You’re such an inspiration to us, how did it all begin?
PR: “I was born in Marfa, Texas, a little cow town in the middle of West Texas with magic lights that appear every night. Now, it’s a commune for artist and writers all over the world. I grew up with my Grandma and went to live with my parents and brothers when I was 9. In the 50s there was a huge migration of families working in fields. We past through many places. We went through Texas and picked cotton, we went through Mexico and picked Chile and then we got through California and finally landed in Ventura country.”
EQ: What interested you in painting and art?
PR: “When I was 11 I wanted to be an artist. I asked my mother to buy me a paint set. I went to painting classes at church and painted by numbers. But it was really the influence of my grandmother. In the evenings when I was growing up, she would sit at the table and write or sew and I was free to do whatever I wanted. I would go under the bed and cut out the figures from magazines to make my own dolls There was a moment of peacefulness and meditative time that was ours. My grandmother and I had this space. She really set a good constitution in me for discipline and learning.”
EQ: What was your experience like at the San Francisco Art Institute in the 60s?
PR: “I got through high school and graduated. I told my Mom I was going to college and she said, ‘You’re doing what? Mexican women don’t go to college.‘ But I got into SFAI because I had large portfolio of art. I was always painting, I didn’t know how, but I painted. So I got a scholarship and worked as a secretary at the college.
At the time, the teachers were really into the minimalist art scene coming out of New York. But I wanted to paint with a lot of color. I had one teacher who said, ‘ Well I see you’re trying to be Diego Rivera.’ And I looked at him and said ‘Who’s Diego Rivera?’. He said, ‘You don’t know who Diego Rivera is? Go up to library right now and look at his books.’ I left my paintings and went upstairs to the library. I opened up a book of Diego Rivera and I said this incredible. He’s political and he’s saying something about society. So I went back after two hours and class was over. I said to my professor, ‘Sir, I am Diego Rivera.’ The professor said, ‘ Good, you know who you are. That’s what matters.’”
EQ: How did Las Mujeres Muralistas form?
PR: “We were frustrated. Getting a scholarship to go to the finest art schools in California, I didn’t want to leave but the Civil Rights movement really shook things up. A lot of minorities left because of the prejudices, discrimination was really felt because we were coming in with our own set of ideas and ideas of art. Once the professors let me paint what I wanted to paint, there was only three Latinas left at the school. Graciela Carrillo, Consuelo Mendez and myself. Later on Irene Perez joined us. There was a lot of criticism of our work, always these little comments.. It effective us physically, emotionally, but we were trying to figure out how to stay because it was an opportunity to get our B.A.
I was already working in the community doing part-time jobs and I was at the Catholic Youth Organization when one of the priests said to me, ‘Hey you’re an artist. Do you want to do a mural in the hallway?’ He gave us the paint and he rented a scaffold.
It was a big job. So we opened it up to the guys. We invited Rene Yanez, Michael Rios, Tony Machado. The same guys who were already painting and said no to us when we wanted to paint with them. But we designed these trees and in between the trees was like a story, and the guys did things about Vietnam and drugs. We did things about children and art, being educated. It was a beautiful mural and that kicked up everyone to do more things. The guys got more commissions, we got more commissions and things took off right after that.”
EQ: What was it like creating a mural with a group of women for the first time?
PR: “Amazing. Like we were all tuned in the same station all at once. One of things we really emphasized was that we have to be a collective. A collective means that we agree. Nobody’s the boss. So we would agree on the design and divided it up. There was women who were much better in graphic and hard lines, that was Irene, and then Graciela was very beautiful in her paint and color. I had more of a mixture, Consuelo was very graphic. There was a lot of different things that we could together.”
EQ: It was the first time women, particularly Chicana women, were painting murals in San Francisco, how did people react?
PR: “After the Catholic Youth Organization mural, Graciela and I said ‘You know if we’re going to be out there, we got to test the waters. What if we’re not able to hang?’ We had already finished that indoor mural and it was hard. So we started our first outdoor mural in Balmy Alley and there was an interesting phenomenon. The guys would come by and give us a hard time. ‘Give it up, you’re never going to finish. You know you can’t do it.’ And they were our friends, boyfriends, who we just invited to help us with our other mural. Women friends would come and say, ‘We could do that too’. They would start something and not finish. You had to be tough. You have to be able to hall buckets of paint up a scaffold and everything hurts but we were able to finish the mural. And we felt great.”
EQ: You were painting in such an interesting time, how was the political atmosphere influencing your work?
PR: “The statements that we made were very feminine and we got a lot of criticism because we weren’t doing soldiers with guns, weren’t doing revolutionary figures. We were painting women. Women in the marketplace, women breastfeeding, women doing art. People got really angry that we were doing that. ‘How could you do this when there’s so much going on?’ but we were saying that being a women is a revolution in society.
Before us there were some women who wanted to paint murals in Mexico. Diego Rivera came in and had them removed. We were the first group of women who had the freedom to go up on the scaffolding and paint what we pleased. We did some stuff about drugs but it was already being said. Everything was being repeated.
So, in the work we did, culture was emphasized and the best compliments came from our community. We were talking to our own community, our own families. Women would come and say ‘You know I’ve been here working in the hotels and cleaning houses all my life and nobody’s ever thought about us. Thank you for depicting our culture.’ That was the thank you we wanted.”
EQ: Did you feel that this work was healing for you and the women of your community?
PR: “Yes. It was a dream come true, I always wanted to be a painter and the murals opened up doors. At the same time, we were learning about ourselves and what it meant to be Mexican-American, that we came from a beautiful, developed society. For me, it was what I was meant to do. That was what the healing process was for me and I didn’t realize that then. We did it because we loved it but didn’t have any other understanding besides it made us feel good. Later on, I realized that art is healing.”
EQ: Do you think that things are shifting for female artists today?
PR: “What we did as trailblazers was cut out a road so that women can walk through it. Mainstream is still very limited. If you do research on the number of women in a major show, it’s only about 3-4. It’s not often you see an all women’s show in New York or in the mainstream. A little later on a group of white feminists put together a show called “Whack” and asked me to participate. They invited me and then all of a sudden I heard nothing from them. I called and a women told me, ‘You’ve been wiped off the table.’ They were still only accepting that white feminist outlook, they haven’t evolved and didn’t recognize women of color. As women of color we still have to jump over a lot of hoops. To paint the murals or even just to go to school.”
EQ: Last question. Now when you walk down Balmy Alley it looks a lot different. What are your thoughts on the new aerosol work done by young people?
PR: “The alley is there for the young people to do what’s current. I don’t mind the spray art, I love it. But if I was teaching a mural class, I would focus on community. Who are the people in the community? What do they eat? What’s speaks to them? Kids need culture and social justice, because it’s a mural. It’s important to say something society and humans. Where we’re going and who we are. You have to speak to your audience, if you don’t, then it’s just graffiti.”
Thank you to Patricia Rodriquez for this amazing insight. Let us know your thoughts on female empowerment through art.