Peter Rodriguez was never one to let the impossible stand in his way. When there were no classes to nurture the young Chicano’s budding artistic talents, he taught himself. And when he found no museum that understood, valued and displayed the aesthetic expression of Latinos, Rodriguez again took that upon himself and created one.
Born to Mexican parents who escaped the Mexican Revolution and its devastation, Rodriguez founded the Mexican Museum in San Francisco in 1975—the opening date landing on the 65th anniversary of the revolution.
In many ways, the museum was the first of its kind.
“I used to go to museum exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art and I noticed there weren’t any Hispanic surnames,” Rodriguez said in a 2004 interview with Nora Wagner of the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art Oral History Program. “I said, ‘Well, the only way we’re going to turn that around is start our own museum,’ which really prompted me to do that. And I felt that until we exhibited our own art and the people that we appreciated that we wouldn’t be able to get ahead.”
Born in Stockton, CA in 1926, Rodriguez—who will turn 88 at the end of this month—first began displaying a natural artistic talent in elementary school. He eventually found his calling in abstract art, using oils and acrylic.
Prior to 1954, Rodriguez had never seen his parents’ homeland. During his first trip to his mother’s hometown of Guadalajara, the beauty of the colonial churches astonished Rodriguez. He returned to Mexico at least 40 more times, exposing himself to the works of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Their experiences would influence his work and artistic viewpoint for the rest of his life.
“Peter is a visionary,” said Miguel Bustos, who joined the Mexican Museum board last December. “He valued Latino art before it was all the rage. He recognized the beauty of our art and brought it to the world. He believed that our art tells our story in all the colors that make us unique. Peter saw that before anyone else did.”
Rodriguez moved to San Francisco in 1969 and quickly became a part of the effort to establish Galeria de la Raza. By this time Rodriguez had already begun to conceptualize the idea of a museum that would showcase the work of Mexican and Chicano artists.
But Rodriguez found little support for that idea among the city’s museum establishment. And the reception fared no better in the Latino community where some people thought the idea was elitist. Eventually he was backed by the San Francisco Foundation, which awarded him a $50,000 start up grant. Rodriguez served as the museum’s director until 1984.
It was important to Rodriguez that the museum represent the full spectrum of the Mexican aesthetic, including the folk art of the pueblos, the Spanish Colonial influence and the work of contemporary Mexican and Chicano artists.
“He invited unknown Mexican artists to the U.S. to promote their work,” Bustos said. “They would then give him a piece of their work. He believed in them before they believed in themselves.”
And he didn’t just help Mexican artists.
In the early 1980s, Rodriguez befriended Linda Wilson, a long-time Mission District resident who’s served as a photographer, archivist and curator with numerous agencies.
Wilson invited him to join her on an artist exchange between San Francisco and Czechoslovakian artists in 1991.
“Peter was the oldest artist in the group but he managed to go dancing every night and learn more about Prague than the rest of us,” she said. “He was a man who was constantly educating himself. He even learned a few Czech words. He was a force of nature.”
Rodriguez was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease several years ago. Birthday cards and well wishes can be sent to the Mexican Museum at the Fort Mason Center at 2 Marina Blvd., building D.
For more about the history of the Mexican Museum read El Tecolote’s Mexican Museum companion profile.