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Documenting herstory: Book captures the beauty, power of Iconic Maestrapeace mural

The seven original MaestraPeace Muralistas (back row from left) Yvonne Littleton, Edythe Boone, Meera Desai, (front row from left) Susan Cervantes, Juana Alicia, Miranda Bergman and Iene Pérez, pose for a portrait during a 2018 fundraiser for the book. Courtesy: Andrea Burnett

A majestic visual of the Mission’s revolutionary spirit, the iconic Women’s Building “MaestraPeace” mural—located on 18th Street between Valencia and Guerrero streets—speaks in colors of liberation. And in September 2019, a 224-page anthology, appropriately titled “Maestrapeace,” was published to preserve the herstories that came from this 65-foot tall, 192-foot wide work of art.

It was in 1994 when a collective of seven female muralists gathered to procreate what would come to be known as a mural holding many “teachers of peace.” Undoubtingly, one could spend hours, even days, soaking in every single detail. From the waters of life holding Yemaya, to the names painted on the ribbons curving through the entire piece, there is nothing else to do but admire, remember and be moved by the Black and Indigenous feminist world of our collective dreams.

This anthology frames every inch of the mural. Legendary activist and educator Angela Davis opens with an insightful forward, tethering together the narratives and contributions of the artists: Juana Alicia, Miranda Bergman, Edythe Boone, Susan Kelk Cervantes, Meera Desai, Yvonne Littleton, and Irene Pérez.

With gracious understanding, Davis affirms that “[murals] created to transform public space belong to the neighborhood, not only to the proprietors of the walls embellished by the painting.”

The book is divided into three sections: “Touring the Mural”; “Making a Monumental Mural”; and “Expanding and Restoring the Mural.” Each section holds sacred the commentary, poetry, and memories that the mural brought out of everyone who was involved. It calls upon all artists and weavers of the present and future to honor their creativity as a universal medium of resistance that paints the world’s urgencies from a palette of peace.

MaestraPaece book cover. Courtesy: Andrea Burnett

To hold this anthology in my hands is to hold close the promise that no story of any woman will go untold. It makes the details within this grand mural more accessible.

I can reflect, for example, on the power that it took to portray Maria Sabina’s hand. Sabina was a Mexican healer/curandera from Oaxaca who healed many people, and continues to heal those who see her depicted in this mural.

“The Maestrapeace mural speaks to this moment, when women’s resistance is so essential to combating and defeating white nationalism, male supremacy, gender violence, the poisoning of our planet, and endless war,” reads a passage from this book. Every single woman/person who painted and is painted on these walls understands the importance of motivating movements of healing. Edythe Boone, for example, shares that the reason her son was the only male depicted in the mural, was because at the age in which he was painted, he represented the future generations that would work towards healing their communities.

As I flip through this book, I think about how miraculous it is to hold a living pictorial codex, dedicated to documenting the vision of seven artists who united and painted the vivid revolution sparked by other female artists.
Seeing the mural in person, of course, is very different than viewing images of it. But flipping through each page, becoming familiar with every color in every inch that I would otherwise not be able to see up close, I can attest more intimately to the revolutions that were once dreamt out loud on Earth by every woman represented.

This anthology presents itself as a their/his/herstorical documentation of social change, environmental preservation, and Third World women’s liberation, a collective vision “universally grounded in the infinite specificities of culture.” What unites the women depicted from Sri Lanka, Oaxaca, Canada, and other parts of the world, is the fact that they all speak the language of peace.

The documentation of art-making is an art in it of itself. It details the stories behind the intention of using certain patterns and colors to remind us how much our struggles and victories are connected to each other—across borders, oceans and time. The stories that are told in this book are bewildering. It depicts the love that was mixed in with the paint.

Something that I would have liked to have read in this book however, is the story of each of the seven artists, how they felt before, during and after the process of painting. If there was any piece of the mural that they connected with the most. It would have also been interesting to learn how this mural impacted the lives and careers of each of these female artists.

Still, having a book filled with snapshots of this monumental beauty is medicinal to someone like me. My first exposure to the power of an impactful herstory was my abuelita’s face. She’d say, “Píntame la cara, mija.” Ready with an Alameda swap meet eyeshadow palette in one hand and a brush in the other, I’d paint between her coarse lines that were shaped by every time that peace was all a prayer could provide. A resilient conjurer that stands as tall as the women painted on the San Francisco Women’s Building, she preserved every cuento that explained the ancient wisdom on her face. She was my first maestra, a teacher that taught me how to trust my compass of peace.

Like the lines resting on my abuelita’s face, “Maestrapeace” shares stories that go beyond first glance. Soy Xicana, born in Lynwood, California. Raised in the heart of South Central Los Angeles where liquor store walls saturated with murals and graffiti were the backdrop for the funky, goofy, unbelievable-unless-you-were-there memories that expanded my mind to the possibilities of life, humor, and art.

Today, when I walk up, down and sideways on the streets of San Francisco, I see more art protecting me from the doubts in my mind. To me, art is an affirmation. Art is the loudest testimony to what happens in the twists and turns of any barrio.
I wish there was a book like this for every mural I’ve ever seen.

Story by: Megan Xotchilt Espinoza