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Renowned muralista Juana Alicia makes Mission return with latest exhibit
Artist and activist Juana Alicia poses for a portrait inside Mission Cultural Center on April 19, 2019. Photo: Elissa Jiménez

I couldn’t have met artist, activist, and educator Juana Alicia in a more appropriate place. She and I sat amidst the Rebozos Mexicanos exhibit on display at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts on a warm Friday morning. The rebozo being a cultural symbol of the interweaving histories of feminine resilience and beauty—I found it perfectly serendipitous that I now sat here speaking to the very personification of what these works of art represent.

Juana Alicia has spent the majority of her life surrounded by art. Growing up near Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals at the Detroit Art Institute had a heavy hand in influencing how Alicia spent her time.

“I probably spent more time there than in high school,” she laughed.

Alicia’s lifelong vocation of art and activism really took off, however, when she met labor leader Cesar Chavez on one of his national tours and was recruited to come to to Salinas and work for the United Farm Workers (UFW) union in the 1970s. The posters Alicia made for the grape boycott would come to be some of her first political pieces.

Her contributions to the UFW speak to Juana Alicia’s perspective on an artist’s intrinsic role in the world. When asked about the responsibilities of an artist in today’s society, she goes on to quote another notable artivist of our time—Nina Simone; “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. [A]t this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when everyday is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved.”

Having also been heavily influenced by the Mexican Muralist Movement in which large-scale representations of cultural identity, history, and current events were made accessible to a population who were otherwise without the means to afford conventional education—one can say Juana Alicia’s approach to the arts has always been oriented toward social service, awareness, and accountability.

While Alicia’s works highlight are many themes, she makes sure to emphasize the severity of humanity’s negligence and mistreatment of our own kind as well as the environment we inhabit.

“I think the most pressing thing right now is the condition of the earth and working to change the way we live on it so that we can remain a viable species and not drag so many other species into oblivion as we’re currently doing,” Alicia said. “Wrapped up in our mistreatment of the earth is our mistreatment of each other, our mistreatment of women, our mistreatment of people of color, the global south, of our brothers and sisters, of our children and of our elders.”

A perfect example of how such themes intersect can be found on the corner of 24th St. and York in San Francisco’s Mission District. Alicia’s mural “La Llorona’s Sacred Waters” weaves together the stories of women in Bolivia, India, and at the U. S.-Mexico border. The mural depicts protesters in Cochabamba, Bolivia rallying against the Bechtel Corporation buying the water rights in their country; farm workers in Narmada Valley, India protesting in their flooded homes against their government’s destructive dam projects; and the protests in outrage over the unsolved murders of women in Juarez, México in the shadow of the Río Bravo and the maquiladoras.

“La Llorona’s Sacred Waters” is a favorite among the neighborhood and also happens to be one of the most fulfilling solo works that Alicia has done so far.

“It’s sort of my ‘Guernica’ in terms of the limited palette, urgency of the message, the condemnation of violence, and the exposure of cruelty and bravery at the same time,” Alicia said.

A mural entitled “Cenote de Sueños” created by Juana Alicia in collaboration with her students at Escuela Superior de Arte (ESAY). The mural celebrates the indigenous Mayan history of Yucatán, but is currently covered by a makeshift wall, which ESAY’s new art director had erected in order to provide a space for ephemeral student projects to be painted. Courtesy of Juana Alicia

Not everyone, however, is so easily enraptured by Juana Alicia’s obvious talent. She is currently in the midst of controversy in Yucatán, México over a collaborative mural done by her and her students at Escuela Superior de Arte (ESAY).

The mural entitled “Cenote de Sueños” celebrates the indigenous Mayan history of Yucatán, but is currently covered by a makeshift wall, which ESAY’s new art director had erected in order to provide a space for ephemeral student projects to be painted. Yucatán has had a long history of upholding an outdated caste system, which ultimately brings clarity to the ongoing controversy over Alicia’s mural highlighting indigenous resilience. She continues to fight the censorship, however, with the community’s support both in Yucatán and beyond.

Stateside, Alicia is busy prepping for her upcoming exhibit at Alley Cat Books at 3036 24th Street, “The X’tabay: A Contemporary Vision.” The show will display her most recent illustrations she’s been working on for a book her husband has written. The book is a collaborative project that will depict an ecofeminist telling on the Yucatec Mayan myth, La Xtabay.

All in all, it remains clear that Juana Alicia’s 40-year legacy of artivism has maintained its fierce momentum and shows no signs of slowing. Her involvement in her community both locally and across borders speak volumes of her commitment to spreading her message of enlightenment and empowerment of marginalized populations. And with her unbounded resilience and compassion, you can be sure that message will never be silenced.

“The X’tabay: A Contemporary Vision” opens June 1st, 2019 at Alley Cat Books, located at 3036 24th St, San Francisco.

Story by: Elissa Jiménez