“If someone wants to learn about their people’s history, it’s here on these walls,” artist Juan R. Fuentes says, gesturing out to the gallery before him.
At the May 5 opening reception of Mission Grafica’s latest exhibition at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts (MCCLA), decades worth of posters and prints fill the room, all contributing to Grafica’s iconic legacy of artistic activism.
The air is thick with the coterie. Old friends, some who have frequented MCCLA since its inception, throw their arms around each other’s shoulders. Laughing children playfully weave in and out of the crowds. Some people dance to the music, others remain so swept up in the art before them that they remain oblivious to the celebration that has erupted around them.
The scene is a reflection of the community that has allowed MCCLA to flourish in the Mission as a hub of artistic expression for over 45 years.
“[These pieces] are going to be relevant to people hundreds of years from now, their relevancy doesn’t go away,” Fuentes said. “There’s unemployment, housing issues, immigration, incarceration issues that are still impacting our people. The work that’s here symbolizes resilience and resistance to those things.”
The posters cover a variety of social and political issues, ranging from the Salvadoran civil war and the infamous 1973 Chilean military coup, to calls for respect for women’s bodily autonomy and better housing conditions in San Francisco.
“It’s like going down memory lane for me,” Dinorah Salazar said, recalling seeing some of the posters from her time working in the Mission. “Art is important to any community. It’s a mark of time, a mark of consciousness, and of what people are going through. Even though [younger generations] might not know about some of the political events, they should come see what it was about … Art is timeless.”
Fuentes, who curated the exhibition with co-curator Calixto Robles and artist Art Hazelwood, pulled from Mission Grafica’s extensive archive as well as private collections and other Chicano art collectives for the exhibition.
MCCLA Executive Director Martina Ayala insists that the flames of injustice that first sparked the creation of MCCLA and Mission Grafica continue to inspire and ignite younger generations of artists.
“As our artists get older and become elders, it’s important to pass down that tradition to the new generation … and to educate our young artists on our cultural and historical legacy so that we can continue to grow and move forward as artists of social change,” Ayala said.
The MCCLA has continued to develop its programs in hopes of improving accessibility to the arts in the community. The cultural center now offers 36 classes a week, many of which are free or low-cost.
MCCLA was first established in 1977 by a group of artists and activists, who, inspired by the local movements of the time, aspired to create a haven for the artistic endeavors of the community. It’s the self-proclaimed largest Latinx cultural center in the continental United States and functions in San Francisco today as a historical, legacy organization. It was also recognized as a designated San Francisco landmark in 2022.
“This center was created with love and with passion for justice and equity,” Ayala said. “We came out of inequity and made sure our people had a place to go so that our culture could be preserved and promoted. It’s this same spirit that keeps us going.”
While many pieces in the exhibition were made implementing traditional methods of screen printing and other mediums, Fuentes encourages younger artists to take advantage of newer technology to continue to push for change.
“The bottom line is that these works were used to advance political struggles or social issues,” Fuentes said. “Those things can still be done, and we still need that … we did it our way during that time period because those are the tools we had. Now, there are even more tools — the window of expression is even wider for youth to use.”
As the tools used for artistic expression evolve, so does the social messaging behind it.
La Llorona’s Sacred Waters, a recognizable piece by artist Juana Alicia, for example, flips the protagonist of a famous Mexican folktale into a woman who weeps for having been cut off from safe drinking water. The image was the basis of the current mural on York and 24th streets.
“[Art] helps give people a voice,” Choppy Oshire said, an attendee of the opening reception. “I don’t like art that’s pretty just to be pretty, I want art to say something to be able to make people see community concerns. It’s nice to see the history.”
As MCCLA approaches nearly five decades of service to the community, Ayala says more support is always needed for new equipment, building repairs, and paying artists and teachers equitable wages for their work.
Weekly classes teach the culture of multiple Latin-American countries, such as Nicaraguan folklore, Brazilian Carnaval drumming and Afro-Peruvian dance. Screen printing is also taught by Robles on Tuesdays from 6-8 p.m.
“We’ve always been resourceful and resilient and made the best with what we have, but it is also time for us to aspire for more and have what we deserve,” Ayala said. “This new generation needs all the tools possible to continue our legacy and continue to promote our cultural heritage […] If we don’t invest in Latino artists, who will?”
Mission Grafica, 46 Years, Community, Culture and Politics will run at the MCCLA until June 25.