Bridging the gaps of language, culture and gender is a thrilling and difficult endeavor. The mural project that the United Electrical Workers Union proposed to me in 1998 was conceived as a way to connect communities of working people between Mexico and the United States. In this case, the content would focus on the current conditions, history and achievements of women in the labor movement. The labor of this work of art was to make visible the strength in our commonalties, and the richness of our differences as workers from two countries whose destinies have been deeply entwined. The mural, “A Woman’s Place…” also deals with these issues around the globe, but its particular focus is on the U.S. and Mexico.
As in nature, diversity in society is essential to the survival of the species. In order for us to create a just and peaceful world, which is also essential to our survival, workers in all countries need to practice citizen diplomacy, and come together to organize for the rights of all people. As an artist, I see my job as a midwife of visions. I work with communities to help unearth their highest values and their deepest problems, and give birth to an image that applies the wisdom of those values to the solution of their problems. I come from the Latin American artistic tradition of magical realism, among others, and my work as a painter is also in the role of community activist, organizer and teacher.
As with many other mural projects, I was not the only person creating the image for “A Woman’s Place…” The U.E. had planted the seeds for the mural in its various worker exchanges between union members in the U.S. and union members from the F.A.T. (Frente AutÈtico del Trabajo) union in Mexico. Delegations of men and women visited each other’s plants, factories, micro-industries and homes, often leaving their country of birth for the first time. Previous to the mural I was to paint in Erie, Pennsylvania, two other murals celebrating the friendship between these unions had been painted: the first mural by North American artist Mike Alewitz, in the national office of the F.A.T. in Mexico City, and the second one by Mexican muralist Daniel Manriequez at the U.E. local in Chicago. I proposed that the union sponsor a mural project specific to the history and role of women in the movement for international labor solidarity. The U.E. responded enthusiastically, identifying Local 506 in Erie as a strong candidate for the site. Many of the union’s membership employed at General Electric in Erie had traveled to Mexico, and had been active in building an international solidarity movement. Moreover, there were strong women in the union who had taken leadership with the men to build this cultural and political alliance.
I began to collect the individual stories of women’s lives through the use of a questionnaire, which the U.E. and the F.A.T. helped me to circulate in both countries. Among the questions were ” What was your first experience working outside the home, and what was your first struggle for your rights as a worker, “Why is the relationship between the U.E. and the F.A.T. important to you personally”, and “How do you want to participate in the mural project? By contributing photos, drawings, oral histories, writing, painting, cooking, doing publicity or fundraising?”
Women in both countries responded with more written and photographic material than I could include in the mural. I also received valuable photographic material from Lina Katz, Miriam Ching Louie and David Bacon. As part of my research, I traveled to LeÛn, Guanajuato, Mexico, to meet with workers and leadership in the F.A.T., notably with women strikers from Irapuato, a neighboring town. The stories about their ongoing strike against the packing plant Conjeladora del Rio (CRISA) are represented on one of the train cars. Union historians, organizers and archivists also sent me vital information, and I began to design the image. It was through the collaboration of many people that the picture came together.
The story that the mural tells is one of evolution, revolution and transformation. The central metaphor is the butterfly, whose metamorphosis symbolizes women’s coming of age in the labor movement. The growth and development of women’s power and leadership has required fierce, intelligent unity and persistence, particularly in the workplace. This metamorphosis has also happened within the family and our societies at large, as women have demanded full citizenship in every sphere of their lives. For this reason, the mural represents women’s lives inside of both the workplace and the family.
I have situated the “her” stories of women’s movements in labor struggles on the cars of two trains that meet at the symbolic border between our countries, the Rio Bravo (commonly known in the U.S. as the Rio Grande). These two locomotives, like those built at the GE plant in Erie, Pennsylvania, carry the history and destiny of the women into the future. The future takes the form of two young women, one from Erie, the other from Guanajuato, who each stand in front of a braking train, surrounded by dust clouds, insisting on the power of their own visions and goals. The young woman from Pennsylvania holds a soccer ball painted like a globe, with a map of the American hemisphere on its surface. The young Mexican woman holds a placard that reads, “We demand freedom for all workers”.
I have located the trains in their respective landscapes: the autumn hills of Pennsylvania and the arid, rolling earth of Guanajato, Mexico. The butterfly, seen as a transparent overlay at the center of the design, is also shown in all of the other stages of her life span, from chrysalis to cocoon to caterpillar. In the ancient and modern iconography of Mexico, the butterfly is synonymous with movement, and the symbol of the butterfly is expressed in many ways, from a simple “x” form to an elaborate drawing or print, called an “estampa”. The Nauhuatl (Aztec language) name for this pictograph is “ollin” and it is recognized as a sort of “yin yang” symbol of Mesoamerica: the movement that keeps the universe in balance. The two central figures, Linda Leech of the U.E., and Alicia Rosas, of the F.A.T., are sending their messages of peace and solidarity to each other, across the waters of the Rio Bravo. The words of Linda’s poetry and the doves Alicia is releasing, cross paths in the air at the center of the composition, creating a “zone of understanding” at the vortex of the image. The center is also where the histories converge and begin: at the opening of the twentieth century in both countries. Each car depicts women’s labor history during different decades, moving out from the center, from past to present. On the far left and far right-hand sides of the trains, we see present day international struggles against the global sweatshop.
Both men and women support the lives of women, actually and symbolically. The “truck” or base of the train is made up of the people that form the support structure for the changing times, and who carry the weight of history on their shoulders. They are everyday people, and pictured among them is the award winning journalist and current political prisoner, Mumia Abu Jamal. On the earth beneath the train, in the foreground of the mural, the imprint of history lives. Just left of the center of the mural is a tunnel, representative of the human transportation system that was the Underground Railroad. While living near Freeport we (the mural painting team) came to understand that Erie, Pennsylvania was one of the north-most sites of the Underground Railroad, where runaway slaves sometimes found shelter in tunnels beneath homes, or more often, hid in the dug-out shelters by the side of a ravine, waiting to be ferried across Lake Erie to safety and freedom in Canada. Thanks to the Erie Historical Society, and in particular to Karen James, I learned much about the Underground Railroad. One startling revelation was that more Black people sought refuge from slavery in Mexico than in the North or in Canada. This was another connection of the histories of working people on both sides of the border!
On the right side of the mural’s foreground, a modern day Zapatista-style graffiti artist sprays “Tod@s somos indi@s” (We are all Indians) on the earth. She paints a reminder that many of us, on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border, share an indigenous past, and that the places we currently inhabit are on Indian land. The landscape contains the scars and legacies of our migrations and struggles for autonomy, as workers, as women, and as people of all colors. We engrave our lives on the land, which bears testimony to our work in the health or disease of our environment. The intense beauty of Western Pennsylvania and Central Mexico is threatened by the uncontrolled contamination that is the result of industrial and maquiladora abuse of all living systems. On the left side of the mural, we see the GE plant in the background exhaling steam and smoke, and on the right side’s train car, a woman makes her way across the polluted Irapuato River on her way to the oppressive working conditions, under armed guard, at the Congeladora del Rio fruit packing plant.
The process of painting the mural was intense. We began the work on August 7, 2000. I was fortunate to have wonderful assistants: RosalÌa Mariz, who helped transfer my sketch to the wall, and three young women who assisted me for two high-pressure weeks. Tomashi and Rhea Vedro had been my excellent teaching assistants in Oakland, and Vaimoana L. Niumeitolu, a friend of Rhea’s, was a bonus surprise assistant to the project. During the cartooning (drawing the outline) and the painting, we worked fifteen-hour days, as a team of two to four women. Tomashi, like me, had traveled to Erie from San Francisco. Rhea and Vaimoana had ridden a Greyhound from New York City to join our effort. My daughter, Mayahuel, who was seven years old at the time, also assisted.
Our multiculti team of three Latinas, one Anglo woman, one Black woman and one Tongan woman made many friends in the union and in the Erie community, and people supported us by doing childcare, bringing meals, photographing the process, looking in on us at night, publicizing the project and planning the inaugural celebration, which took place during the U.E.’s national convention, during the last week of August. The mural appeared to be nearly complete at that time, and we were painting frantically behind the curtain five minutes before it was unveiled to conventioneers and community members. Union members from across the country and members of the local Latino community received the mural with great enthusiasm, with a wonderful party, complete with live music, eloquent words and great food. Nevertheless, I would continue to work on the painting for several weeks after that night. My assistants went home to their respective coasts, taking my daughter home too, and I remained to unify the styles in the painting and bring the work to completion.
Erie, Pennsylvania and Guanajuato, Mexico are a study in contrasts. As a U.S.-born Latina and former farmworker from California, these worlds were both familiar to me, and represented in many ways, the duality of my own cultural experience. The lifelong work of trying to make sense or poetry out of these contrasting realities fit perfectly with the nature of the project. How do we create understanding between these often-disconnected realities? How do we code switch in the language of organizing? It was through the worker exchanges between the women of the U.E. and the F.A.T. unions of the U.S. and Mexico that women from both sides of the border gained insight and compassion for the struggles and challenges of each other’s families and communities. I found that the people that had actually visited each other’s countries had the greatest insight into the strategy of international organizing and building solidarity across racial, cultural, gender and geographical borders. They are the citizen diplomats that can communicate to their compatriots, who can break down national stereotypes and media distortions. When we see that everyone loses when jobs move out of the U.S. and become slave labor in Mexico or other parts of the developing world. The workers from both sides who have met and experienced the other’s lives are forging an understanding that poor and working women all over the world need to unite in order to prevent the globalization of capital from devastating our human rights and environmental health.
These women have found a voice and an identity while resisting this devastation . They have gained a new respect for themselves, as well as from their families and co-workers. This has certainly come at a price, as reflected in the accounts of many of the women, who told stories of suffering beatings, ostracism, rape, sexual harassment, physical violence and legal persecution, at the hands of husbands, bosses, armed thugs, and the respective governments themselves. For these women, the work of labor organizing has been a difficult but rewarding path toward independence from many of those forms of violence. Many of these women also spoke eloquently of the transformation of the children and men in their lives, who were also positively affected by the women’s activism. In some cases, women found themselves isolated and abandoned, in others, men and families changed, inspired by the courageous and positive examples of women who risked much to struggle for the welfare of all. I was inspired by the beauty of these stories to create this mural and to make visible both the hardest battles and the most beautiful triumphs of these working women.
I thank the United Electrical and Machine Workers of America, in particular Local 506, for the opportunity to paint these stories.