A few days ago, the Chicana artist and community icon Yolanda López died.
Her passing has inspired many people to write some heartfelt, beautiful words in her honor. These words represent my humble contribution.
Echoing the chant heading this column says, I believe that she is still with us.
Spiritually, she remains, still reaching to the hearts and minds of those who were lucky to meet her and to interact with her.
I have known Yolanda since the late 70s. We both worked as cultural activists in the Mission District of San Francisco. Her focus was in the Graphic Arts. Mine was in the Theater.
We crossed paths in iconic moments, whether indoors at art gallery openings, at theater festivals, or at events taking place on the canvas of the street, such as mural unveilings, Day of the Dead or Carnaval.
Not enough. Today, I wish that we would have truly collaborated artistically, beyond those numerous but brief encounters.
A few months ago, the playwright Paul Flores called me and asked me for an interview. He was planning a street theater performance and was basing it on three people who have worked in the Mission for many years: Joan Holden, long-time Artistic Director of the SF Mime Troupe, Yolanda López…and myself.
I told Paul that I was thankful for including me in such a great company. Candidly, he replied that —although he had thought of me— his decision to include me was heavily influenced by what Yolanda López said about my work. In her own inimitable way, she told him: “You’d better include Carlos!” To Paul, perhaps it sounded as more than a mere suggestion? More like strong and unequivocal advice?
A few weeks ago I called Yolanda. I knew that her sickness was rapidly advancing. I wanted to thank her for the good words that she had shared about me. I also wanted to interview her for this column.
Yolanda told me that she had followed my career over the years and had been to street-theater productions where I had acted, or she had seen productions that I wrote and or directed. She actually remembered details that even I had almost forgotten. Later in the conversation, she made suggestions about what kind of theater works I could (or should) be doing now. Another strong and unequivocal piece of advice!
I told her that I was pleased and honored with her interest and appreciation for my work and that I always loved and admired her work. She had a good laugh and said: “Well! Too bad that we did not make clear this mutual admiration a little earlier!”
Specifically, I mentioned her famous “Guadalupe Trilogy,” saying that I liked the fact that she depicted three different Virgins of Guadalupe, all as everyday working women.
Yolanda shared concepts that I had previously read or seen in printed interviews and videos:
“I wanted to see more women in the graphic works created by Chicano/a artists. The images of women, mostly done by men, were few and far between. Too stereotypical, sometimes overly sexualized. Since the Guadalupe was perhaps the most ubiquitous image to be found on the house walls of Raza families, I decided to use her image… but I wanted my versions of the Virgen to be more accessible, more real, more human, less divine.”
I told her that a few years ago, when I taught a class called “La Raza values and culture,” at San Francisco State University, I had used an article, written by the Puerto Rican author Magali García Ramis. It was titled “We do not love the Virgin.” A feminist criticism to machismo and extreme “marianismo” in Puerto Rico.
With the article, I intended to open up discussion on the influence of the Catholic church and of the men who control it, upon our Latino countries. Whether in Mexico, Chile, Puerto Rico, or the United States.
I was taken aback when a few young women in the class went to the Dean of the College of Ethnic Studies and demanded that I should not be allowed to teach in La Raza Studies, because “this teacher does not believe in the Virgen of Guadalupe.”
Had something like that happened to Yolanda with her “Guadalupe Trilogy”?
Again, she laughed. “Of course! When my work, including the “Guadalupe Trilogy,” was to be exhibited in a Los Angeles Gallery, the organizers received death threats against me…and them! We had to enlist the help of body guards for our protection! I underestimated the hold that religion has upon our people. Those “Guadalupanos” wanted my head on a stick!”
It can be dangerous when the best intentions of a teacher or an artist are misunderstood. People can react violently against those who try to help them to think critically.
Yolanda López knew that the process to educate can involve the initial rejection from those you intend to help. It is a part of the process. She did not hide from the battles. Her love for her work and for her people were worthy tasks.
That is why Yolanda López will continue to be present. Today and always!