Oaxacan artist and long time San Francisco staple Calixto Robles' art will be on display at Acción Latina’s Juan R. Fuentes Gallery, beginning with an opening reception on Friday Nov. 18 from 6-8 p.m. at 2958 24th Street in San Francisco.

When Calixto Robles told his parents that he wanted to study to be an artist, they urged him not to. ‘Become a doctor, or an architect,’ they suggested. So instead, he studied Industrial Chemistry at the Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca, and upon receiving his degree, he decided to migrate to the United States. Leaving his home of Jalatlaco in Oaxaca behind in 1983, Calixto and his passion for art led him to Mission Gráfica. He’s been creating art ever since.

Known for his vibrant use of colors and supporting grassroots movements, Calixto’s next show, “Prints for the People,” showcases 25 mixed media screenprints of varying techniques that highlight various political causes and solidarity movements. The posters will be on display at Acción Latina’s Juan R. Fuentes Gallery, with an opening reception on Nov. 18 from 6-8 p.m. at 2958 24th Street. We sat down with Calixto, who is of Mixtec and Zapotec ancestry, to learn more about the exhibition. 

Tell us about this exhibition.

Firstly, I’d like to thank Acción Latina for the opportunity to share my work with the community. And I’d also like to thank the San Francisco Arts Commission for supporting this project. The title of this exhibition is called “Prints for the People.” It’s a project that was inspired by everything that is happening in our community and in our world. There are many topics. For example COVID, homelessness, gun violence, mass shooting. Some of my work also focuses on Native Americans, for example the unjust imprisonment of the Lakota leader for more than 40 years, Leonard Peltier. I also did some work on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada and Alaska.

And also some work on mother earth, with the hope to raise awareness about these issues. My idea is that when people see these posters, maybe for a minute or perhaps longer, they think a little about what is happening. I also did a piece on women and reproductive justice. They have the right.

Tell us how your career as an artist began.

Since I was a child, I’ve always liked to make art, drawing at home. I remember that when it rained, I lived in a very big house of my grandparents. And there was a big patio. There was dirt. So when it rained, big drops formed on the ground. I liked to go and draw figures in the earth. Living in that big house was also a man who had an oven where he made pottery. I remember that sometimes we went to see him work, firing plates or cups, and all of that stayed with me.

When I came to California in 1983, I worked like any other migrant. In restaurants, in construction, moving furniture. But in my little room, I was always drawing, painting with watercolors and acrylics. And then I learned of the Mission Cultural Center in 1986, and thanks to my teacher René Castro, who at that time was director of Mission Gráfica, the center’s screen printing workshop. He invited me to visit Mission Gráfica. I was amazed to see the screen printing technique and that’s when I started doing my art.

My work at the beginning was very related to my roots: Aztecs, Mayans, Zapotecs, Mixtecs. But I always saw what was going on in the community. The farmworker strikes with César Chávez, the struggle of immigrants. I didn’t make many posters at that time because I didn’t know the technique very well. But little by little I began to make posters supporting unhoused people, speaking up against gentrification here in the Mission. This is how I mix my work with the internal, which is spiritual, and lately I’ve been focusing a little more on the Native American issues, creating protest posters.

What was your reaction to seeing the art here in the Mission?

I would walk through the streets and the murals caught my attention. But something else that caught my attention when I arrived at Mission Gráfica, were many protest posters on the walls. For example, there were posters to end the embargo on Cuba. There were other posters supporting Cesar Chavez. There were other posters against Apartheid in South Africa, other posters supporting El Salvador, there was war in El Salvador. That had a big impact on me too.

I liked it a lot because in Oaxaca, it’s a state where there is always a lot of protest. And when I was in Oaxaca, the students and peasants were always making their demonstrations in the city demanding support, because if they didn’t do that, the government wouldn’t support them, especially in those times when the government was ruled by the PRI and the PAN, those parties that have been stealing from the country for more than 50 years. In those protests, we students would sometimes get involved and I saw how the walls were covered with protest posters, posters of the struggle. All of that influenced me a lot. When I saw the posters in Gráfica, I said, ‘This is like Oaxaca. This is the place.’

You touch upon many subjects in this exhibition. Was it difficult?

It was a bit difficult at first. I already knew the subject, but getting the imagery was difficult. But my wife, Alexandra Blum, told me, ‘Don’t worry, you’ve done a lot of political work. You do it almost every day supporting some movements.’ Then, little by little, I started drawing the images. What’s beautiful about this project was that I worked with my daughter, Cecile Altagracia, who is now 15 years old. She helped me out with some of the art, with some ideas and also sometimes with painting, or sometimes correcting some of my drawings. I’m not much of a drawer, and she would tell me that this is more or less the angle. And so I really liked that collaboration.