Recently Completed: Interview with Juana Alicia
Juana Alicia’s journey as a muralist begins at the intersection of her activism and her art. Her pencil began dancing on the pages of political posters, and later traced her path through the educational system and to the walls of the San Francisco Bay Area. One of Juana Alicia’s first big mural projects, Las Lechugueras, depicts female workers and their battles against working conditions and pesticide poisoning in California. Her experiences as a farm worker and organizer for the United Farm Workers (UFW) informs the mural’s creation as much as her painting style and her research do. Las Lechugueras (The Women Lettuce Workers), went up in 1983 on the corner of York and 24th Streets in San Francisco’s barrio, the Mission. Three years ago, the artist was given a 90-day warning that the mural would be destroyed because of water damage to the wall. Ironically, a focus on water and damage would be the mural’s next evolution. Starting from scratch, versus painting from who I am now? Juana Alicia insists that she must create in the living moment. And this moment is one where women are leading environmental struggles and carrying the weight of poverty on their backs and in their bodies, which are made mainly of water, Juana Alicia reminds us.
La Llorona (The Weeping Woman), Juana Alicia’s latest mural project, picks up where Las Lechugueras left off. This time Juana Alicia takes a look at environmental struggles involving women around the world. The new mural takes its title from the much-debated Mexican myth of the woman who allegedly drowned her children and is damned to weep for them. La Llorona weaves the stories of women in Bolivia, India, and at the U.S. Border together. It highlights Bolivians in Cochabamba who have fought to keep Bechtel Corporation from buying the water rights in their country; Indian farm workers in the Narmada Valley protesting in the flooded waters of their homes against their government’s irresponsible dam projects; and the women in black protesting the unsolved murders of women in Juarez, in the shadow of the Rio Bravo and the maquiladoras (sweatshops).
Juana Alicia believes that globalization is not inherently bad, but when it takes the form of corporate forces trying to sell people their own water, or when it begins to spread poverty through women, then she must raise her brush in protest. Collaborative mural projects, such as Maestrapeace and Si Se Puede, demonstrate how Juana Alicia participates in a communal and politicized artistic praxis. Seven muralists researched, designed, and painted, Maestrapeace, the mural that colors the sides of the Women’s Building. The artists completed the year long project with 100 other volunteers from the community, and from this effort, which began in 1993, sprang an artists’ collective, Maestrapeace Art Works. Many of the muralists who formed this collective around the motto that art is a catalyst for social change are also educators have presented lectures about the process behind and the history reflected in the mural. In just one section of the wall, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rigoberta Menchu holds Yoruba and Aztec deities in her hands, and her face can be seen shining above many buildings in the city. With this project, the artists colored outside the lines of who can be an artist and what history lessons get told. In 1995, together with local artists such as Susan Kelk Cervantes, Juana Alicia collaborated, on Si Se Puede, the mural on the front of Cesar Chavez Elementary School in San Francisco. For this project, the school community participated in the planning process and youth from the surrounding community lent hands while together they painted life into its walls.
With her eye turned towards the international connections between peoples’ and women’s struggle, Juana licia continues to ask the question of what the tangible results of her art are. Making murals, especially in groups, enables participants to gain valuable research and technical skills and enhances their abilities in communication and team work . Certainly it is not only the participants that gain, but residents often experience a heightened self-consciousness to the environment that promotes pride and ownership of their neighborhoods, and perhaps even of themselves. As she admits the difficulty of making a case for the tangible results in movement politics, she credits hip hop as the model. The hip hop generation gets it. True that. This generation is making art political and politics artistic in a way that previous generations have not been able to, and this is one of many sources of inspiration for Juana Alicia.
Painter says to writer,
spoken word is the vital water of revolution.
hip hop artists know
spoken word is the vital water
Writer says to painter
your informed images of the past
brought to us in a bold bright palette
are the vital waters
Perhaps, the immediate effects of her long list of mural projects are not easily measured, but they certainly have an impact. Many of those painted walls, such as Las Lechugueras and Cease Fire/Alto Al Fuego have been published as movement text, in films, and have defended ideas, as part of the new vocabulary that forms arguments for change. Juana Alicia sees a dialectic between her art and the language for change. The language to name ourselves, our movement, our goals, is a deep source of power. The education and altered reflection that her murals offer certainly participate in the construction of this visual language. A pedestrian learns a history lesson by walking into a painted building, a protester in the street passes the faces and images behind her cause, a child knows from the get-go who Rigoberta Menchu and Cesar Chavez are–art makes a difference, no doubt.
This is my Guernica. If Picasso’s testimony to war challenges the heroic and victorious concept of war, then Juana Alicia’s La Llorona challenges the idea that women cannot be heroic or victorious. Chalchiuhtlicue, Mexica goddess of lakes and streams who wears a skirt of jade, towers in the center of the mostly transparent blues of the mural. La llorona, a big woman whose limbs are drawn in strong lines, holds a child and her tears are not sad, but seem to nourish and comfort. La pintora limited her palette to shades of blue under a red sky in the interests of preservation. The mural’s color scheme is also part of the transparency and liquidity that characterizes Juana Alicia’s painting technique–transparent colors that emphasize layers. Water, her element of choice, has always provided the spring from which she sees and paints. She uses transparency to show the invisible woman or man, to paint what is underneath the surface of things.
Juana Alicia is not just a painter, but an investigator, so as a researcher and our teacher, she uses paint as the medium for communicating a critical perspective, a revised interpretation, of what she sees in this case, the state of the world’s ecology. Yemaya, the spirit of a woman, holds the weight of middle passage in the folds of her skirt, Oshun, the spirit of a woman, washes our skin, residue from the fingertips of restless dead leaving faint tattoos. The spirit of a woman, la Sirena’s currents guide desperate rafts leaving El Caribe and ghost ships that sail from China. Wandering souls are thirsty for their stories. The clear commitment to multiculturalism that comes through in the hues and topics of her painting is natural to this artist who’s ancestry hails from Odessa, Russia and Odessa Texas, a Jew-xican. She grew up amidst the language of Motown, hearing three languages at home–Spanish, Yiddish, and English. The inspiration that colors Juana Alicia’s palette ranges from the words of Eduardo Galeano, Genny Lim, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Francisco Vazquez to the paintings of Betty Mora and Alfredo Zalce to the bold strokes of the Maestrapeace artists. Listing so many influences that names don’t fit on the page, Juana Alicia demonstrates her perspective regarding art. Everyone has a hand in it from beginning to end. It isn’t only hers; it belongs to everyone.
La Llorona, is another example of her communal approach to art; the project began as a collaboration. Odilia Galvan Rodriguez wrote words for the initial drawing of la llorona, and then came the rest flowing like the waters of Lake Texcoco that move along the seams of Chalchiuhtlicue’s jade skirt. Two years ago, Juana Alicia received a commitment to funding from Mayor Willie Brown’s Neighborhood Beautification Fund for La Llorona, and she continues to raise funds for the project that is due to be completed by the Spring of 2004. This project falls within a tradition of rewriting the Mexican mythology of women ongoing since the 70′s by Chicana artists and writers such as Yolanda Lopez, Martha Cotera, Ana Castillo, Cherrie Moraga, and Gloria Anzaldua, to name a few. This archetype of the weeping woman is being recast in a celebratory manner; her open hand extending towards Bolivia, India, and to all of us. Juana Alicia’s brush aims to counter negative images of women and show the truth about our strength and accomplishments. Funny that Juana Alicia mentions that Chalchiuhtlicue was said to be a consort of Tlaloc. I think back to la Siguanaba and at how this artist is rewriting many more stories than she even imagines. Her palette frees the spirit of women from roles as monstrous creatures of folklore to warrior women of history. The waters of Juana Alicia Montoya’s paintings cleanse us, give birth to us.