“I want to be remembered for how lucky I am to have such good friends,” says René Yáñez in the comfort of his his outdoor office at SOMArts where he calmly smokes ganja, which has allowed the 75-year-old renowned Mission artist to function properly since receiving chemotherapy. “Some people smoke to get high, while I smoke to stay afloat.”
Diagnosed with prostate cancer and bone cancer, René was given only three months to live, but he’s going on seven months now. In between Chemotherapy every three weeks and bi-weekly blood transfusions, he finds the time and strength to work on his art.
“There was a time that I felt sorry for myself,” he confesses. “But I have a good support system.”
With the three-month warning, René’s doctor suggested he complete his art exhibits earlier than expected. Since then, he’s had a show called “Into the Fade” at the Luggage Store—his first solo show that featured works inspired by his reaction to cancer medications—and a benefit honoring his work for SOMArts called “¡Demasiado!” in mid-April. In the near future, he plans to host a show with blacklight art and more in different locations.
Lately, his art has consisted of abstract drawings—which explain his experienced hallucinations as a result of chemo—and featured pieces on the current president, Frida Kahlo, “The Great Tortilla Conspiracy,” and others.
“Everything made it interesting and what’s interesting is that people like it,” he chuckles. “I’m trying to catch a certain vibe.”
Originally from Mexicali, René spent his childhood jumping between Tijuana and San Diego. It wasn’t until his early 20s when he confronted the issue of identity during the Civil Rights movement. Since moving to the Bay Area in the late ‘60s, he has accomplished more than even he can recall.
Aside from his art, René cofounded Galería de la Raza, which is what he is most proud of. He was there for 17 years, serving as it’s director and curator for many of them. It was at Galeria where Yañez embarked on his comedy and theatrical work, something else he’s proud of.
On Cinco de Mayo 1984, he brought together Ric Salinas, Richard Montoya, Herbert Sigüenza, José Antonio Burciaga and Marga Gómez to form a Chicano comedy show called “Comedy Fiesta,” which would eventually be reduced to three members and renamed “Culture Clash.”
“I like when I connect with the audience,” says Yañez.
With the joy it brings René to work with his son, Rio, the two coordinate an annual Día de los Muertos procession.
“In the 1970s, Yañez was instrumental in establishing the Day of the Dead as an important cultural celebration for Chicanos by virtue of the yearly exhibitions, processions and other cultural and educational activities he organized with Ralph Maradiaga at Galería de la Raza,” the former executive director of Galería de la Raza, Carolina Ponce de León, told El Tecolote in 2003. “René Yañez galvanized a large community of Latino and Chicano artists. He supported many of the artists at an early stage of their careers and who are now established and well-known such as Rupert Garcia, Ester Hernandez, Yolanda Lopez, Carmen Lomas-Garza, Enrique Chagoya, Amalia Mesa-Bains, Gronk, ASCO and Culture Clash to name only a few.”
In 1993, Yañez was honored by the S.F. Weekly as an unsung community hero. El Tecolote’s founding editor Juan Gonzales wrote in his January 1993 “Pelando el ojo” column that Yañez “has historically played a key role in challenging the City’s art establishment for more artistic resources in our community.”
Challenging the city’s art establishment was on full display in the ‘70s. In a Letter to the editor published in the November 1977 issue of El Tecolote, Yañez—along with Maria Pinedo, Carmen Lomas Garza and Ralph Maradiaga—responded to an article by San Francisco Chronicle writer Alfred Frankenstein, who reviewed the Berkeley Museum art exhibit, “The Fifth Sun: Contemporary/Traditional Chicano and Latino Art,” saying it was “forced into the museum by ethnic gangsterism” and that “most successful artists of La Raza hereabouts wouldn’t be found dead in a show like that.’’
“We challenge these attacks because we view Raza art from a Latino perspective which primarily communicates to that audience,” Yañez wrote. “It expresses values and visions based essentially on the lives of Raza people—their heritage and their struggles.”
Yañez also backed fellow Chicano artists such as Lalo Alcaraz. When the S.F Weekly cancelled the publication of Alcaraz’s La Cucaracha cartoon in 1997, Yañez—the coordinator of the L.A. Cucaracha Defense League—led the charge in asking why.
“I called [John] Mecklin when I noticed La Cucaracha was missing from the S.F. Weekly. Mecklin said the cartoon was not funny and that the cancellation had nothing to do with race. But it does,” Yañez told El Tecolote in 1997. “The cartoon was a catalyst. The media is not reaching out to the Latino community. There’s not enough opportunities for Latino writers in our community. Look at how the media villianizes us. You see it in Proposition 187 and how immigrants are seen as taking jobs away from people. You rarely hear the positive side of Latinos.”
Working with community is something he still enjoys. “I like organizing, getting into circles and getting people together.”
Looking back, René recalls his life to be filled with “very exciting times.” In the 70s, he enjoyed smoking, drinking, playing the guitar and “the art was incredible… it kept drawing me back.” He also recalls himself lucky to have work with Jose Montoya and Luis Valdez, founding director of Teatro Campesino.
Despite the impressive list of things that he’s achieved throughout his lifetime and the many times he’s been honored, René remains humble.
“I don’t know how long I’ll be around,” he says, staring off in the distance before looking up with a smile. “But I hope to do some good projects.”
Story by: Destiny Arroyo