Detalle del mural de Juana Alicia ‘La Palabra Espiral: el Códice Estánfor’. Portion of Juana Alicia’s mural The Spiral Word: El Codex Estánfor, El Centro Chicano, 2012. Photos Ever Rodriguez

Recently, muralist and former Mission resident Juana Alicia inaugurated a new set of murals on the walls of El Centro Chicano at Stanford University. California Poet Laureate and Stanford Graduate, Juan Felipe Herrera, titled the mural “The Spiral Word: El Codex Estanfor.”
On Nov. 9 an inaugural ceremony was held where poet Rafael Jesús González performed a spiritual ceremony and recited his original poetry alongside poems written by student Aracely Mondragon.

On the murals, the imagery represents historical thoughts alluding to the customary pictographic languages that the ancient Maya, Aztec and Inca cultures used in their own codices—ancient manuscripts folded onto themselves in several parts.

Alicia also drew inspiration from popular artists such as Violeta Parra and Mercedes Sosa; prominent literary authors such as Sor Juana, Marti and Borges; and in particular the narrative of Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer known for his political views and for his books “The Open Veins of Latin America” and “Memory of Fire.”

According to Alicia, the main challenge in this project was representing the histories and literatures of indigenous peoples in Latin America in a restricted space. She created the murals on separate canvases that now adorn the entrance walls of El Centro Chicano’s office space.

The first canvas, located by the entryway depicts a young female scribe profusely tattooed with traditional Mayan, Aztec, Samoan and African symbols, alluding to her diverse cultural make up and heritage. This reflects the multi-racial, multi-ethnic nature of Latinas/os and Chicanas/os as they are today.

The second and third vignettes rise out of the Mayan scribe’s writings as an extension of the unfolding codex that climbs up to the ceiling on the entryway telling centuries of stories. This visual narrative expands more than 10 feet horizontally, illustrating the History of Latin America from the mythical Mayan genesis of the jaguar to slavery and the conquest in Latin America, to the resistance and revolution. It ends with a depiction of an ecological reflection where the same Mayan scribe is now a young Chicana who is writing back to history connecting her voice and ideas with those of her ancestor.

The fourth canvas is a colorful prickly pear cactus called a nopal that rises majestically through the ceiling as the visitors descend the stairwell. The plant has been symbolic to people of Mexican descent since the Aztecs saw an eagle perched on a nopal devouring a serpent. They interpreted it as the omen, which led them to build at this precise place the city of Tenochtitlan, which is now modern day Mexico City. The cactus is also representative of the southwestern U.S. cultures that under dire situations are able to survive, resist and flower just as the cactus does.

“When [I] saw the slanted ceiling at El Centro [I] thought of something that would be rising powerfully from the base of the slanted ceiling,” she recalled. “The Nopal being a symbol of resistance and flowering and strength and fierceness and beauty, [I] thought that would be a perfect image because that’s what students have to be to persevere and be there at Stanford.”

Alicia is an internationally recognized muralist, an activist and educator who has been teaching for 30 years. Currently she is the director of the public art program True Colors at Berkeley City College, and she has painted several prominent murals in the San Francisco Bay Area, and other parts of the world—most recently in Mexico and Nicaragua.

El Centro Chicano serves two very important functions at Stanford: it provides a platform for Chicanas/os and Latinas/os students to interact with people who share a similar cultural background; and as an academic center, it provides the community with the opportunity to explore the Chicanas/os and Latinas/os cultures and histories while inviting everyone else to experience some of the most beautiful Latin American traditions.

The murals can be viewed Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at El Centro Chicano; 514 Lasuen Mall, Building 590, Old Union; Stanford, CA.