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Remembering the Mission: A Reflection

September 20, 2007
Remembering the Mission

Juana Alicia in front of Las Lechugueras Mural, photo by Tim Drescher

Sitting in a café in downtown Mérida, remembering the Mission, I long for it. Here in the land of jaguars, hipiles and outrageously expensive cell phone costs, the globalization of Latinoamerica that we have fought in our struggles of the last several decades rears its ugly head in unavoidable contrasts and contradictions. I am living here on a Fulbright grant, a cultural emissary from 24th Street and York, representing the Chicana/o mural movement and a social history that is unknown to most in these parts. The sleepy tropical air is heavy with scent of limonaria flowers, and the suffering of the jornaleros waiting for work on Cesar Chavez Blvd. is distant rumor here, where the Panista, the right wing party, politics of repression work with the Catholic Church to perpetuate the myth that “aquí no pasa nada”.

But we who haunt the streets and hiring halls of el norte know better. And so do the Mayan people of the pueblos, who struggle to maintain their fast-disappearing language, culture and property, as international real estate and maquiladoras threaten to gobble up what has been chipped away at for years. The howl of a hurricane blows through the Mayan pueblos, sending the male population north to seek its fortune and leave the social structure like a dust bowl. North American dolares come home to lose strength as pesos, to pay for casas de bloque, replacing palm roofs with cement beams and stones, buying wide screen T.V.’s and indoor plumbing. Children grow up barely knowing their fathers, but a material prosperity supplants the pre-NAFTA familia. Scenes for a new mural?

Since I first arrived in the Mission from Salinas in the 1970’s, I have felt at home. Having grown up in center-city Motown, I teethed on Aretha Franklin and Last Poet records and learned to draw while cutting class to hang out at the Rivera murals at the Detroit Art Institute. As a young recruit to the United Farm Worker Movement, I made posters to boycott grapes and A&P, and got pulled into field organizing when I met Cesar Chavez on one of his many national tours. A train trip across Canada and hitchhike down the coast took me to Salinas, where I came of age in the lettuce fields and the strikes of 1973 and 1976.

I made my permanent move to San Francisco in the early 1980’s, after teaching and making murals with migrant students in Salinas and Watsonville for several years. My first San Francisco mural was Las Lechugueras (The Women Lettuce Workers) an autobiographical and piece about the lettuce machines, pesticides and la migra (the INS). Each of the subsequent twenty or thirty murals that have poured out of me since then have been a mix of personal story, community history and testimony to the moment in which they were created. I am indebted to the people and cultural institutions of the Mission that have given me the space to develop a voice to narrate the scenes I have witnessed, and that I have imagined, both as an individual and as a member of various collectives.

As I sit here in Mérida, where all cultural institutions with any funding or success are run by the government, and artists are subject to the political whims of the current sexenio (six year term), suddenly the non-profits and grass-roots institutions that have suckled several generations of artists, appear utopian. La Galería de la Raza and Studio 24, the Mission Cultural Center, Artists TV Access, the ghost of La Raza Graphics, and many others, although fraught with their contradictions, seem like models for many communities.  The rapid gentrification of the Mission threatens to wipe out the vibrant culture that still oozes from all of its overcrowded apartments and thumps beats from open windows and passing rides.

I feel that I was born as an artist on 24th Street, selling my work at the 24th Street Fair, showing my work at the Galería de la Raza, painting there as performance at René Yañez’s invitations, experiencing the street side courtship that would lead to marriage and family with Emmanuel C. Montoya. While I painted the Lechugueras mural and Emmanuel painted the Mini Park in 1983, we began an artistic relationship that would create prints and paintings and home and community and familia. Although the marriage ended in 2001, we had a long and fulfilling run as a collaboration that derived much of its juice from the Mission. In turn, we loved it back.

Swaying to the beats of low-rides, boom boxes, bars and street festivals, I’ve walked through the neighborhood for decades, feeling like it’s a my home, an epicenter. Every time I emerge from the guts of the 24th Street BART Station, with its tamale vendors, sidewalk musicians, drunks, junkies, bible thumpers, yuppies on their way to Noe Valley or their new Mission condos, and political organizers, I feel reborn, like I have arrived. It’s the same way I feel in the Zócalo in Mexcio City, where 500 years of history are on decade-by-decade display. I am mesmerized and absorbed, and could draw there for days at a time.

And my relationship with the Mission continues, like a never-ending love affair. Of the thirty-four murals I have painted to date, the greatest concentration of my work is in the Mission District. Some have been destroyed, others replaced, others restored, but I consider the Mission to be the holy ground on which I have been able to live and thrive as a painter and as an activist. Some of these works are individual efforts and many are collective. They include:  Las Lechugueras (1983); Para las Rosas (1985); Te Oimos Guatemala (1985); A Letter to the Future (1986) ; Balance of Power (1985); Alto al Fuego(1987); New World Tree(1988);  Silent Language of the Soul; four student murals at Cesar Chavez Elementary School; Si Se Puede; MaestraPeace(1995 and 2000); Una Ley Injusta(Homenage a Oscar Romero, 1992) and La Llorona’s Sacred Waters (2004).

The Silent Language of the Soul/El Lenguage Mudo del Alma, Juana Alicia and  Susan K.Cervantes. ©1990.
Photo: Tim Drescher

We were evicted from our apartment on Hampshire Street in the mid 1980’s, and continued to camp out in the Lower Haight until rents drove us across the Bay in the mid 1990’s. I still insist that I’m in economic exile from the Mission, dreaming of moving back like an immigrant in a foreign land, always longing to return home. The neighborhood is not the same as when I painted the Mime Troupe Mural, For the Roses/Para las Rosas, in 1985. Working half time in a flag factory, I shared my sweat shop position with my homeboy Herbert Siguenza, visual artist, actor and dramaturg of Culture Clash. That same year, we both painted murals on Balmy Alley as part of the eclectic PLACA Collective.

“Para las Rosas/For the Rosas”, Juana Alicia ©1985,
photo by Michael Bry.

Balmy Alley, the site of the PLACA Murals, was also the birthplace of Chicano murals in the Mission during the 1970’s, when Ray Patlán and the Mujeres Muralistas first began to claim the walls of garages and fences in the thin artery between 24th and 25th Streets. The artistic revival that was the PLACA “collective” birthed a series of thirty murals by more than forty artists. WildMy own mural, Te Oimos Guatemala was the first of two I would paint on the same spot. Te Oimos Guatemala was inspired by the movie, “When the Mountains Tremble”; in particular the scene of mourning in a small village after the massacre of most of its male population. A blood-chilling howl emanates from the women of the town, seen kneeling and crying implacably by the bodies of their sons, brothers, companions. That scene provoked the image of retablo   style mural: a Guatemalan woman in traditional clothing, kneeling and crying over the body of her beloved deceased, with the roof-tops of the Mission in the background, and a ribbon floating above them with the words, Te Oimos Guatemala /We Hear You Guatemala.

Balmy Alley, the diverse streetscape that critiqued U.S. aggression in Central America was filmed in a video, and sent to the then-Minister of Culture of Nicaragua, poet Ernesto Cardenal. I was part of that rowdy and wildly differing collective of painters, all opposed to U.S. intervention, and the revolutionary government of Nicaragua requested that we create similar murals in solidarity in that gorgeous and hopeful land. The following year, four members  of the PLACA Collective took off for Managua to create a monumental work for the Casa ANDEN, headquarters of the national teachers’ union, located in El Parque de las Madres. Our homies from the Mission community held benefit dances and auctions at The Farm to raise the funds for our paint and airfares. The Mission launched us on an incredible journey that would contrast the petty internal turf wars of our own community with the far more tragic and massively violent Contra War on the Nicaraguan Revolution. But in some ways, the experience of painting El Amanecer in the center of Managua also illustrated to me that we live in a war zone in the Mission, connected by gangs, police violence, immigration, the AIDS epidemic and economic injustice to the millions  of our southern cousins in Mexico and Central America.

On this journey, one of the most moving experiences of my life, I was privileged to participate in the second line of defense of the Nicaraguan Revolution: international solidarity. For three very intense weeks, we labored in collaboration with the National Teacher’s Union, the National School of Muralism and the merciless heat to create a mural celebrating the role of the teacher in social revolution. Entitled “El Amanecer”, the mural is one of a very few that has survived to date the assaults of subsequent right wing governments and their grey paint. The mural is documented in the book, Murals of the Nicaraguan Revolution . I’ll never forget the all-nighter Miranda Bergman and I pulled, guarded by two teenage lesbians, all of us armed with machine guns, working in spite of the threat of a U.S.-backed Contra attack. We were given a short course in the fundamentals of those weapons in case their use became necessary in the event of a gringo invasion. Living and working in revolutionary Nicaragua was also one of my greatest lessons in gender equality. This was a society where no one messed with you, knowing you were very possibly armed. I had never felt so safe and respected as a woman, able to walk down the street at any, hour day or night, without being harassed. Clusters of men on the street in front of a bar at midnight never ventured more than a polite, “buenas noches, compañera.” As my girlfriend Chilo Quiroz Barrios once said to me, after the fall of the Sandinistas, “La revolución fue la única cosa que se preocupaba por la mujer”.

EL AMANECER, a collective mural project with Miranda Bergman, Hector Noel Méndez, Ariella Seidenberg and Arch Williams. 700 square foot acrylic mural on the facade of ANDEN (Asociacíon Nacional de Educadores de Nicaragua-National Teachers Association of Nicaragua), in El Parque de las Madres, Managua, Nicaragua. Photo: Juana Alicia

The mural we created in 1986 for the National Teachers’ Union was much more than an aesthetic contribution: it was a deep expression of love and appreciation on both sides of the international exchange. The Nicaraguans that hosted us treated us like familia, and our experience reflected the saying we cited in our mural, “La solidaridad es la ternura de los pueblos” (Solidarity is the tenderness between peoples/nations). It was incredibly moving to create a work of art for a society struggling to create a sovereign alternative to capitalist imperialism and fight a war at the same time. We observed first hand the fate of teachers who went into the war zones to implement a curriculum of cultural, ethnic and political equality: ambush, rape and death. We saw many young people wounded in war. We were witnesses to the toll of alcoholism on a nation that lost one third of its population to the violence wrought by our own government. Returning to the Mission in the fall of 1986, I was a changed person.

For many months I turned to portraiture of the people I was close to, having been shaken by the presence and impermanence of the war zone I had visited. In the spring of 1987, David Solnit, an activist for Central American solidarity, for a poster design. David was organizing events at the Concord Naval Weapons Station to protest U.S. shipments of weapons to the wars in Central America. I created a red, black and white illustration of guns pointed at a Nicaraguan child with his book bag, standing in front of the mural we had painted. Two large hands in the foreground of the image hold the guns away from the child. On September 1, 1987, at the Concord Naval Weapons Station demonstrations, a munitions train would run over one of the protestors, a decorated Vietnam veteran named Brian Willson. He lost both of his legs in that disaster and became a symbol of struggle for the international peace movement. This tragedy, combined with the U.S. invasion of Honduras that same year, angered me and inspired the mural “Cease Fire/Alto al Fuego” at the corner of Mission and 21st Streets. The communities of both the Mission and World College West, where I taught, came together for a fundraiser at a gallery, with music by Enrique Ramirez and poetic offerings by my compadres Juan Felipe Herrera and Margarita Luna Robles. We auctioned off my original drawing and one of my students won it. The party provided the funding for scaffolding and paint, Nidal of the Café Nidal provided the wall and the people waiting for the bus at that corner provided the moral support for creating that piece. As I was finishing it, the antiwar community organized marches down Mission Street to protest the ongoing invasion of Honduras, and the mural became part of that street theater. The mural that I had thought of a pure protest endured untouched for many years. In 2002, when it had begun to peel and get small tags, I decided to restore it. I repainted most of the piece, this time a little darker, in more chiaroscuro tones, given the ongoing nature of its theme. The wars in Central America had ended, but the U.S. government continued and continues to wage war in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq. Unfortunately, it is a piece whose time has come and gone and come again.

The Mission Pool and   Playground at 19th and Linda Streets has been a gathering place for the neighborhood since the 1930’s, when it was called the Nickel Pool, dubbed for its entrance price. Heavily graffitied in the 1980’s, it received a recreation center addition under the auspices of then-mayor Diane Feinstein. On the day of its inauguration, a neighborhood organizer got her on tape, promising to fund murals for the neighborhood if it respected the walls and desisted from covering them with graffiti. . In 1985 I collaborated with Emmanuel C. Montoya, Susan K. Cervantes, several other artists, community organizers and two rival neighborhood gangs, Happy Homes and 19th Street, to create the mural on the Linda Street façade. In 1988, I also collaborated with Susan K. Cervantes and Raul Martinez to paint the mural on the 19th Street façade of the Mission Swimming Pool. When we approached the City’s Park and Rec Department to sponsor and fund the 19th Street mural, they stipulated that they wanted a pastoral image, devoid of the multitudes of human figures depicted in the previous mural. We designed the “New World Tree” piece in the form of a traditional Mexican ceramic tree of life, full of birds and animals, Adam and Eve and their children. In the center of the composition, the jade eye of Tlaloc, the Aztec rain god, radiates light across the entire surface of the work. In the background, and surrounding the tree, the San Francisco Bay is pictured, with native wildlife and human inhabitants at peace in their environment. Our intent was to create a peaceful outdoor temple for the park, the street. The Aztec symbol for the heart is painted on the door to the swimming pool. New World Tree is an ode to connection of all human bloodlines, to water as the source of all life and to the natural beauty of the Bay Area. I remember listening to the Iran-Contra hearings in the U.S. Congress as I stood on the scaffolding, painting, appalled at the ongoing violence in Central America and the secret government that had been created to support the trading of guns for drugs. The distance between the Mission Swimming Pool and the ¡Cease Fire! piece is two blocks, the distance between utopian vision and war zone.

NEW WORLD TREE OF LIFE, 69′ x 25′ acrylic Politec and Nova Color mural at the Mission Pool, 19th and Linda Streets, San Francisco, California. Designed and executed in collaboration with Susan Cervantes and Raul Martínez. Photo: Tim Drescher

In 1989, I lost my brother to the AIDS epidemic. An artist, teacher, dancer and writer, Daniel Roberto Barela was one of thousands of casualties in our community, in San Francisco. The Mission lost many talented and brilliant souls to this plague, another sort of war zone. Among them were dramaturges and directors, including Rodrigo Reyes and Hank Tavera, whose artistic legacy and sexual honesty set the stage for the current waves of gay and lesbian theater artists in the Mission community. On a personal level, this era was marked by a sort of frenzied production, which was a response of both mourning and rebirth. Sometimes we are moved to greater heights of creativity when our world seems most threatened to collapse. I did two murals outside of San Francisco, in San Jose and Santa Cruz, before the birth of my daughter Mayahuel in 1993. Three months after her birth, I found myself on the scaffolding of the San Francisco Women’s Building in the company of six other remarkable women, and over one hundred volunteers, in the process of creating the monumental work of MaestraPeace. Described as a “standing ovation to women’s liberation” by sister muralist, Miranda Bergman, the five-story work took us eighteen months to complete, and became a testament to collaboration between women, as well as a visual history of women artists, organizers, scientists, deities and unsung heroines. I continue to feel that this work of public art was the most fulfilling experience of its kind in my lifetime. The dream of projecting positive, life-affirming, powerful and revolutionary images of women for the sake of the Mission community, on an undeniably significant scale was vindicating in so many ways that I never could have predicted. It is a kind of “knocks-you-out” piece where the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. MaestraPeace is the true fulfillment of a mural for me: that the skin of the architecture reflects the soul of its function. I am eternally grateful to the organization, my collaborators, the volunteer and passersby who gave me the opportunity to feel this power.

One of the greatest ironies after the completion of the MaestraPeace project was the fact that I could no longer afford to live in San Francisco. I had raised my son there until the late 1980’s, but by the time my daughter was born, gentrification and the boom had impacted the economy to such a degree that I could no longer afford to pay my rent or other expenses at City prices. I moved to Berkeley in 1995 but continued my long-distance love affair with the Mission, restoring the ¡Cease Fire! and MaestraPeace murals and painting a new piece at the same site as my first mural, Las Lechugueras. The original piece had deteriorated to the extent that it was not restorable. In order to return it to its original state, I would have to remove it from the wall and repaint it from scratch. Instead, in spite of the protests of some, I decided to create a new work for that wall. The new work, entitled La Llorona’s Sacred Waters, is the daughter of the first mural, and address the themes of women’s labor and environmental justice in a new way.

MAESTRAPEACE, mural on the San Francisco Bay Area Women’s Building, front (north) and side (east) facades, each 150′ x 60′. Acrylic on stucco. Juana Alicia, Miranda Bergman, Edythe Boone, Susan Cervantes, Meera Desai, Yvonne Littleton, and Irene Perez. San Francisco Mission District, 18th Street @ Valencia ©1994

1994   MAESTRAPEACE, mural on the San Francisco Bay Area Women’s Building, front (north) and side (east) facades, each 150′ x 60′. Acrylic on stucco. A collaboration with Miranda Bergman, Edythe Boone, Susan Cervantes, Meera Desai, Yvonne Littleton, and Irene Perez. San Francisco Mission District, 18th Street @ Valencia

In 2001, I taught a class at U.C. Davis, entitled “Latinas, Politics and Public Policy”, and many of the projects, discussions and research that arose while designing and teaching that class led me to issues of water. La Llorona, the seminal Medea myth of Mexican women, wherein the bereft indigenous mother of mixed-race children drowns them in sorrow, insanity and revenge when jilted by their father for a Spanish noblewoman. As Latina feminists have reclaimed her and removed her blame-the-victim status, replacing it with a critical analysis of conquest and patriarchy, I wanted to do the same in making her the protagonist of my mural. The painting is a large waterscape, composed of rivers, ocean waves, cascades, lakes and marshes. Composed in blue, red, grey and black, it is my Guernica, a somber message regarding the urgency of our environmental, economic and gender crises that threaten to destroy the world at the hands of greed and violence. Not water or fire, but greed and abuse of power are the sources of our undoing. The mural focuses on four sites of environmental, labor and immigration struggles: the Narmada River in India, Cochabamba, Bolivia, Mexico City and the U.S. Mexican border. It stood as the eerie predictor of the tsunami floods of 2004, and its significance unfolds within the ever-growing contexts of environmental devastation involving water. It was on this same corner that a new partnership and love came into my life, in the form of an old friend, a comrade in the struggles for art in the streets and on the shirts of everyone from the Mission to Managua. Tirso Gonzalez aka Araiza, painter, sculptor and master of silk screen of Mission Gráfica fame, helped me prepare the wall at 24th and York Streets again, this time to receive La Llorona, and my life turned that same corner in a new sense.

LA LLORONA’S SACRED WATERS Acrylic mural on stucco, 30’ 60’. 24th and York Streets, San Francisco Mission District, Juana Alicia ©2004

Three years later, we have collaborated on a life together, in the Bay Area and in Mérida, Yucatán, and have just completed a one and a half-ton bas relief sculptural mural is cement and steel, for the Universidad Tecnológica Metropolitana (the Metropolitan Technical University) in that beautiful, ancient city. My work took a new turn as I learned to become a sculptor under the brilliant, scorching skies of the Yucatecan rain forest.

GEMELOS, mural in cast cement and steel, Juana Alicia and Tirso F. Gonzalez Araiza, Universidad Tecnológica Metropolitana/ UTM (Metropolitan Technical University), Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico, ©2007.

Over the last three decades I have developed as a muralist, and as a person, fed by a community that loves, ignores, disdains and nourishes me. I learned how to be a public artist through my work within it, to flee its internal struggles for international challenges, to return with new perspectives, and to use those lessons to create new works in many other places. But I am always drawn back to the Mission, to the streets that hold the best of my secrets, desires and memories, a cultural birthplace that has allowed me to paint my life’s story, and the collective stories of our community.

Detail of Lechugueras Mural photo by Martha Edwards


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