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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”