Radical Love: Yolanda López Reimagining la Virgen de Guadalupe

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A couple of weeks ago I attended a talk and workshop in South San Francisco featuring renowned Xicana artist, and activist, Yolanda López who presented on her Guadalupe series. López discussed her groundbreaking series from the seventies and the reasoning behind her interpretations of the Virgen of Guadalupe. I was left understanding the importance of her work now more than ever amidst the current political climate.

López went through each of the pieces from her Guadalupe series and carefully deciphered their meaning to us the audience, followed by a Q&A and an interactive workshop in which the audience created abstract Guadalupes ourselves. López’s Guadalupe pieces are a series of pastel-on-paper pieces in which López merges the iconography of the Virgin of Guadalupe with contemporary depictions of everyday Mexican women and create contemporary feminist icons.

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The Virgin of Guadalupe can be seen as the single most important religious figure for Mexicans. She was essential in the conversion process of indigenous people during the colonization process of Mexico. Her dark skin tone symbolized a merge in cultures including religion and the new mestizo race that emerge from colonization.  

However, the Virgin is also a symbol of the status quo especially in terms of gender roles. Her demeanor hints at what a “good woman” should be like. The black ribbon around her waist means she is with child. She looks down and holds her hands as if she is praying. She is caring and her most distinguishing feature to her identity is motherhood and obedience.

Yolanda López among other feminist Xicana artists such as Ester Hernandez and Santa Contreras Barraza used Marianism or the veneration of the Virgin to create critiques of heteropatriarchal machismo systems of dominance and oppression present in Xicanx communities. López recognized that Catholic language and symbolism was so widespread, that to do work within the Xicanx community it was necessary to use a discourse that circulated widely. López challenges our visual vocabulary and the models of acceptable power in our communities by reimagining the Virgin. The question that lies at the root of López work is what models of power can we have?

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López, Yolanda, Walking Guadalupe, 1978. Mixed-media collage, 6 x 10 inches

Yolanda López explained that the Virgin is “bound by the excess cloth around her legs that makes her immobile.”The lack of movement of the original Guadalupe inspired Yolanda’s Walking Guadalupe piece for Femme Magazine in 1978 which saw the removal of the excess fabric, with a shorter hemline to Guadalupe’s robe/dress and low heels so that she could walk. The mixed media collage received backlash from many Guadalupanos who sent her opinionated letters and prayed for her repentance.

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López, Yolanda. Nuestra Madre, 1981-88, from the Guadalupe series. Acrylic and oil paint on masonite, 4 x 6 feet.

Nuestra Madre is a four by eight feet acrylic and oil paint on masonite featuring the Virgin of Guadalupe as Coatlicue. Coatlicue is an Aztec goddess regarded as the earth-mother goddess.  This piece alludes to religious synchronism with many indigenous spiritual practices surviving the forced erasure from the Church through assimilation and eventual incorporation into the Church itself. For example, Día de Los Muertos a pre-Columbian practice survived Catholicism when it was assimilated into the Church as All Saints Day. Throughout Latin American one can see this spiritual resistance with many indigenous people practicing modified ceremonial practices which survived centuries of repression. “The Virgin of Guadalupe is Coatlicue with a thin veneer of Christianity. Many recognize who she really is,” affirmed López. In this way, López

Nuestra Madre was first shown at Galeria de la Raza in the Mission District of San Francisco with outspoken critics present: “At Galeria, someone threw a rock and landed at her feet.” mentioned López. When it was later shown at LACMA for a different exhibit López mentioned believers were present to protest the exhibition: “the Guadalupanos were picketing that piece. They saw it as sacrilegious, and it was mostly older folks confronting me. I told them it was an homage to our past.”

One of my favorite pieces from the Guadalupe series was the set featuring three generations of woman in López’s family. As with all of her pieces, these were a critique of the Church but also loving imagery of working class woman as Yolanda explains, “They need to be honored for the work that [working class women] do. The sacrifice they do is never recognized. There is no imagery for those goddesses in our lives and they’re all beautiful.”

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López, Yolanda, Victoria F. Franco: Our Lady of Guadalupe, 1978, from the Guadalupe series.

López’s 1978 piece Victoria F. Franco: Our Lady of Guadalupe portrays López’s own grandmother sitting on a stool covered by a fabric reminiscent to Guadalupe’s star covered veil with the traditional bright halo in the background. López incorporates a snake not seen in the original Guadalupe to her pieces. In her grandmother’s portrait, the serpent has been skinned and the grandmother holds the skin in her left hand and the knife that was used to skin it on her right hand. She holds the knife as a symbol of empowerment. López also talked about her own grandmother and the importance of depicting her in one of her pieces: “My grandmother was just a step up from slavery. She had to take care of six people. She would be in charge of the food, tending the garden, changing diapers. She had no friends, no outside activity like playing Bingo.” The lack of recognition prompted López to immortalize her grandmother in this piece.

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López, Yolanda, Margaret F. Stewart: Our Lady of Guadalupe, 1978, from the Guadalupe series.

Margaret F. Stewart: Our Lady of Guadalupe depicts her mother sitting and sewing her own stars onto the Guadalupe veil. López’s mother was a seamstress who worked in factories. The sewing of her own stars shows her independence, her class background, and profession. López also mentioned how there is a lack of overweight woman presented in the media and her responsibility of representing her mother accordingly.

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López, Yolanda, Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe, 1978, from the Guadalupe series.

Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe is Yolanda López’s self-portrait featuring a shorter dress that shows off her runner’s legs and running shoes. She holds the Guadalupe cloak like a cape at the end of a race and jumps over the angel with red, white, and blue wings a symbol of the United States capitalism. She is not restricted from motion and moves forward contrasting the stillness of the original.

“When I went to show them to my grandma, I went to her and put it in front of her. She was like ‘Yolanda!’ Like I was going to fry in hell for sure! We had a ten-minute conversation and then she was giggling with the idea that she was the one portrayed. My mom took a more contemplative reaction. The print went beyond the church. It was more about recognition for working class woman,” says Yolanda.

After the talk ended, I went up to López and told her how impactful her work has been in my creative endeavors. I learned about Yolanda López and her artwork in my Chicana Feminist Writers and Discourse class with Dr. Laura E. Pérez whom I am currently a research assistant for. López mentioned how Profesora Pérez is one of the leading Chicana art intellectuals of our times and her personal friend and asked me to say hi to her.

I also mentioned to López how we were both from the same neighborhood (Logan Heights/Barrio Logan) back in San Diego. López grew up in San Diego and went to paint one of the few murals in Chicano Park led and created by women along with a group of high school girls before relocating to the Bay Area.  Preserve our Heritage was completed despite the discouragement from male muralists during the second wave of muralism of Chicano Park. We went on to discuss gentrification in Logan Heights and she gave me her number and invited me to give her a call whenever I was in the Mission District to brainstorm performance protest art ideas to fight displacement and “get make people angry.” I was astonished by her approachability given all her work and her continued commitment to activism.

Yolanda López introduced new heroines that younger generations of women of color needed to see. Although working class women are the foundation for families throughout inner-city neighborhoods across the country, they are hardly recognized for their work rendered invisible and that is at the core of her López’s art.

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López planning a march against Donald Trump.

López’s work seamlessly incorporates the political and personal into her art. The responsibilities of an artist are exemplified in López’s intersectional masterpieces. Her work continues to be as relevant as it was, perhaps more important than ever as López ended her session with a call to action given the new president-elect: “We have a new president-elect. I would like to see a whole fleet, a platoon of people marching down the street dressed as Guadalupe, whether farmworkers, women, holding hands because this is not a passive figure. I will join you. I want to see you performing active sacred love. It is not passive. If you present if as passive, it means the death to us all.”

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SALUD!

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SALUD!

Salud! is the newest addition to my neighborhood’s (Barrio Logan/Logan Heights) long list of delicious taco establishments. I heard about them through Instagram where nine out of ten posts are photos of tacos. If you know me, then you know how much I love (good) food. FOOD

After a quick Google search, I realized this place had quickly gained a large following in San Diego. The owner, Ernie Becerra also has a proven track record with his taquiza catering company San Diego Taco Company  landing multiple awards throughout the years.

I did not have any preconceived expectations of this new business but the transformation my neighborhood is currently going through is startling and upsetting, to say the least. I’ve been living in Berkeley for a couple of years now, and every time I return to my hometown San Diego during school breaks I notice my neighborhood going through many rapid changes. Most changes have been disheartening as gentrification has begun to take way in Barrio Logan. Every time a new business opens up, I try to see where it fits within the community.

I didn’t know how to feel about this new taco shop given this context but I decided to go check it out with my niece Carla. Carla is your typical eleven-year-old musical prodigy/princess/dog whisperer/future Youtube star. Being spoiled by my mom’s cooking she has also become one of the toughest food critics I know. She appreciates traditional flavors and accessible ingredients. Together we would make a holistic assessment of this new taco business.

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My niece Carla on our way to Salud!

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I-5 from a pedestrian bridge

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Old School Dodge Dart by Chicano Park

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Our tacos are ready!

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One voluptuous taco

As you enter Salud! you can see the merging of tacos and Chicanx culture. There is a car hood hung against the wall with decorative art, elegant low rider car parts substituting paintings on walls, black and white photos of Chicanxs from the good old days, monochromatic walls to accentuate the vibrant decorations, sugar skulls and 1950’s soul music playing in the background. There’s a large mural featuring a woman wearing large hoop earrings with a rose on her brown hair holding a thorned sacred heart. I went to the bathroom and it was the coolest a bathroom I’ve ever been to with nopales painted all over the walls.

It’s a beautiful restaurant that makes Chicanx iconography and culture its main identity marker. It’s not your typical decoration route, as most taco shops stick to vibrant yellow and red walls. This place was elegant, modern and most importantly Chicanx in its aesthetics.

Another key difference from most taco shops in the area was its demographics. The crowd was largely young professionals, navy officers, and just middle-class people in general. The working class people that I saw were the servers, cashiers, and the folks in the kitchen. 

The cost for a taco ($2.50) was above average for my neighborhood, and the portions were smaller than most tacos for the price. We each got three tacos, carne asada, al pastor, and birria. These tacos are untraditional to some extent with some of their ingredients providing a “modern twist” such as the bases for some of the sauces.

Carla took notice of some of the untraditional flavors and was not a fan, she also did not like how loud the music was, which made it difficult for us to chismear and catch up. I was more open to the changes in ingredients although some flavors clashed and were overpowering. The meats were fresh and well seasoned, coupled with hand-made tortillas, I was happy.  I was not as excited about the portions given the price we paid, but the tacos were rich in quality ingredients and flavors.

Carla was definitely not coming back again and I was trying to situate Salud!’s role in my ever changing neighborhood. Affordability is key in a neighborhood that has been historically composed of working class  and low income Latinxs with the average annual income for a family of four being $24,000. Other menu items included a side of beans for $4, esquite for $5 and nachos for $8. $2.50 per taco does not seem too steep of a price but when you take into consideration the minimum wage in San Diego, Salud! becomes less appealing to community members. For $5 you can buy a burrito the length of your arm just a few blocks away or an elote cup for half of their price from our local street vendors. I felt privileged to be eating there as the quality of the ingredients was better than most taco shops, but the prices and portions are not enough bang for my buck. Eating to reach a level of fullness is important in the way I was raised.

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ACHOO!.. SALUD!

Carla and I disagreed on whether we would come back again. Overall, I liked the food but as a poor broke brown person, I do not have the income to come on a daily basis for my lunch breaks. I would come here for Taco Tuesday when tacos are 3 for $5 though!

I would recommend this place for people who are looking for modern tacos and a new experience as I appreciated the cultural iconography, ambiance, and the upholding of multiple Chicanx experiences, although I would have liked to have seen more melanin that was not there just as workers. I hold conflicting thoughts on this restaurant’s role in accelerating gentrification and would like to speak to the owner and hear about his community involvement on my next visit. 

Food is political. Often times “good food” is a coded word for white food and the criteria which we use to judge food is based on privilege and eurocentrism. Growing up I learned to appreciate simple ingredients such as those used to make chilaquiles because that is what was readily available, but I also know there are over twenty ingredients in my mom’s mole recipe.

As cliche as it sounds there is a tremendous amount of love present in my family’s kitchen that impacts the flavor of our food. In low income communities like the one I was raised in, food takes a spiritual role in our everyday lives.

A new generation of Latinxs like myself may experience traditional food as well as modern takes on those very dishes we grew up consuming. I am accepting of those changes that Salud! is making within their recipes  most likely due to exterior influences that altered my food palette. Carla upholds traditional Mexican food perhaps as strongly as someone from my parent’s generation. I see this as a reflection of the divide between our generations and the way we go about upholding our cultura in food. 

At Salud! I did not see an appropriation of food, given the owner’s long family history in the Mexican food world and Becerra’s cultural roots. I was greeted with warmth and the food tasted like it had been made with care. Places like Salud! may not be what my community is used to but the food and what it stands for is an homage to the recipes of prior generations of elders. This speaks of the heterogeneity among Latinxs and the changes in the way we consume, experience and make food. However, Salud! and other new Latinx owned businesses, predominantly located on Logan Avenue must have affordable menu options that are inclusive to the original working class AND low income  community of the neighborhood, not just catering o middle class folx whether Latinx or white. Or else they contribute to a division among first generation Latinxs and second and third generation Latinxs. I would also want to hear from their community involvement whether it be volunteering their time, donating their money, food or any other form of community enrichment they are a part of. It is not enough to simply say this is gentefication (as opposed to gentrification) on the sole grounds that it is a Latinx owned business and Latinx iconography, it must be backed up with a commitment to Logan Heights and Barrio Logan’s low income community through concrete actions.