[Mujeres Muralistas] dared to change the course of muralism by wrenching itself free from its male-dominated base, and working collectively as women.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, the San Francisco Bay Area became a center of multiracial activism, political mobilization, and artistic innovations. This confluence gave rise to an explosion of artistic production, primarily posters and murals, that advocated cultural affirmation as well as societal change. In defiance of male dominance—the leaders of these movements for equality were predominantly men—four art students joined together in 1974 to create public art from a Latina feminist perspective. Graciela Carrillo, Consuelo Méndez, Irene Pérez, and Patricia Rodriguez formed Mujeres Muralistas, the first Latina artist (and muralist) collective. Their distinctive murals in the Mission District neighborhood of San Francisco brought them national attention and inspired other women to become muralists. Their first major mural as a collective, Latinoamérica (fig. 1, 1974; identified elsewhere in this publication as Latino America), redefined Latino aesthetics and expanded American art history.
To fully appreciate the achievements of Mujeres Muralistas, one must review Mexican muralism’s influence on the Chicano art movement. José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros understood the importance of muralism as a means of not only educating but also unifying people, especially after the traumatic Mexican Revolution (1910–20). “We used to speak of the Mexicanization of the plastic arts in our country,” wrote Siqueiros. “We discussed the necessity of depicting Mexican landscape, Mexican types, and even to depict the problems of Mexico.”
In the United States, Los Tres Grandes received artistic recognition and financial support through many privately and publicly funded mural commissions, especially during the 1930s and 1940s. Their influence on artistic techniques and political aesthetics impacted generations of artists, especially those associated with the Chicano movement, and “the social responsibility of the artist to his community is a philosophy [they] derived from Siqueiros.” However, Chicano muralism was markedly different from that of Mexican muralists decades earlier. Rather than government-sponsored commissions painted on civic buildings, these murals occupied neighborhood walls and school campus buildings. In Mexico, the murals reflected the vision of individual artists advancing a government agenda. But in the barrios of the United States, they were the products of artists working within and often together with the community to promote cultural pride and self-determination. “This element of community participation, the placement of murals on exterior walls in the community itself, and the philosophy of community input, that is, the right of a community to decide on what kind of art it wants, characterized the new muralism.”
Artists who functioned as the pictorial arm of the Chicano sociopolitical movement embraced the tenet of self-determination. However, while Chicanos fought for racial equality, there was not gender parity in the areas of leadership and decision making. Women rarely occupied leadership positions at art and cultural centers and were not represented as muralists. Thus, Mujeres Muralistas had to not only reclaim an artistic legacy erased by the U.S. mainstream art world, but also create a new organizational structure within the Chicano movement that asserted gender participation while defending their nascent Latina aesthetic, which was deemed “pretty and colorful, but . . . not political enough.” These negative responses were predicated on an assumption that a mural’s composition should conform to transplanted versions of the Mexican political murals controlled and painted by men. “At the time, a lot of images were of men,” observed Irene Pérez. “All the heroes were men and it seemed like historic events only happened to men, not to families or communities.” Thus, the Mujeres Muralistas’ murals enacted a Latina vision that inscribed women and families into the public sphere as well as asserting the muralists’ own agency.
An example of these Mexican-inspired Chicano murals was Homage to Siqueiros (1974; fig. 2), painted by Jesús “Chuy” Campusano, Michael Ríos, and Luis Cortázar inside the Bank of America branch at Mission and 23rd Street. Unlike the Mexican murals that “spoke for an entire nation,” it was described as conveying “the heritage, life and hopes of the Mission community,” shown in scenes of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) extension into the Mission and of the artists with their drawings for the bank mural. In spite of its noble description, the mural primarily incorporated male figures, including a portrait of Siqueiros and an image of a crucified man referencing his América Tropical (1932) mural in Los Angeles. There are also depictions of agricultural workers, one holding the text of a statement by United Farm Workers cofounder César Chávez and a young farmworker with the shadowy image of Emiliano Zapata, leader of the Mexican Revolution, walking beside him. Painted the year Siqueiros died, the mural honored him and his progressive legacy by reflecting the Chicano movement’s fight for worker’s rights, but it did not represent the numerous women who also toiled in the fields, factories, service industries, and at home. A year later, Ríos was joined by Richard Montez and Anthony Machado on a mural project at Mission and 24th Street commissioned by BART (fig.3). Influenced by Orozco, the monumental male figures that formed concrete pylons holding up the train track were Ríos’s metaphor for “poor people always having to carry the burden of things in society,” in this case the Mission taxpayers. Though the 1974 and 1975 murals reflected Chicano sociopolitical ideals, like their Mexican counterparts they “further entrenched the idea of male virility as the basis for nationhood that had been used to formulate the concept of Mexicanidad at the expense of women and homosexual men since the sixteenth century.” It would be the Mujeres Muralistas collective who would expand Mission muralism beyond didactic, male-centric imagery, creating colorful portals that elicited cultural pride and celebrated women, children, and families. Equally important, in their contesting who and what defined Chicano muralism, they altered Latina/o and Latinx art history.
Las Mujeres Muralistas de la Mission
The women who formed Mujeres Muralistas came to San Francisco seeking an art career. Patricia Rodriguez moved from south Texas in 1966. Graciela Carrillo (who now goes by Grace) came in 1969 from Los Angeles, where she was born. Originally from Venezuela, Consuelo Méndez transferred from Rice University in Houston to the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in 1972. And Irene Pérez moved from her native Oakland after high school initially to study at San Francisco’s Academy of Art College. They gravitated toward each other as students at the SFAI, seeking mutual support at an institution dominated by white male professors promoting abstract art. Rodriguez recalled, “it was very frustrating to be in a classroom where the instructors were really not at all understanding about what was going on with the way I express color, the way I express line, just the imagery in general that I was using.” The lack of curriculum relevance and increasing cultural marginalization provided the catalyst to depart and form a collective, one that would facilitate their entry into muralism. And instead of waiting to be asked by their male colleagues, they would utilize their artistic skills and group labor to paint their own murals.
Upon leaving the SFAI, Carrillo and Rodriguez moved to Balmy Alley, a major site for murals in the Mission District. In 1973, they received permission to paint their first mural on the garage across from their apartment (fig. 5), which served as a learning experience. With scaffolding from the city’s Arts Commission and donations of paint from neighbors, they created a fantasy scene replete with tropical flora, birds, and animals, along with a large globe in the middle containing colorful fish and tree branches. The same year, Pérez painted a mural above an adjacent garage door. The horizontal space was occupied by two seated figures facing in opposite directions, each playing a flute (fig. 6). “I felt a lot of murals were very political, disclosing injustices, which to me were very violent,” Pérez recalled. “True, it is part of our experience. But what about the other parts—the quiet, positive images of our experience?” Later that year, Rodriguez invited Méndez to participate on an interior mural at the Jamestown School and Recreation Center on Fair Oaks Street. Rodriguez’s contribution featured a tree motif with animals and birds, while Méndez created an anti-drug statement with a pre-Columbian death deity and heroin addicts (fig. 7). At the same time, in group meetings at Carrillo and Rodriguez’s apartment, they discussed plans for larger collective murals with expansive iconography centered on women, families, and nature, as well as reflecting the cultural diversity of Mission residents.
As aspiring artists, the women shared multiple aesthetic influences, some familial and others cultural. Méndez and Rodriguez had artistic family members, while Carrillo, Pérez, and Rodriguez shared a Mexican cultural heritage. They had exposure to the Western European canon, but their extensive travel to Latin America inspired them artistically. During Pérez’s monthlong trip to various regions in Mexico she rediscovered the plants and fauna, especially the cornstalk and maguey, visual symbols of fertility and regeneration. Rodriguez spent time viewing murals in Mexico City as well as learning about the Indigenous cultures and spiritual rituals of Mexico, Bolivia, and Peru, including the Andean Devil’s Dances. Méndez had grown up immersed in Venezuela’s arts and culture and, as a member of the Venceremos Brigade, became aware of Cuba’s posters and public art that melded global art styles to advance an international political ideology. However, it was the burgeoning Chicano sociopolitical movement that had a major impact. “It was a transforming time,” recalled Rodriguez, “that inspired many feminist Chicana/Latina artists to break free.” However, as muralists within this promising environment there were no female role models they could emulate, and they often encountered criticism regarding their artistic abilities and physical capabilities. It was working as a collective, with the exchange of ideas, division of labor, and the adaptation of their individual artistic skills toward a group vision, that allowed them to embark on a trajectory that would influence their artistic careers as well as those of subsequent generations of Latina/x artists.
Mujeres Muralistas’ first mural was commissioned by the Mission Model Cities, an organization located on Mission near 25th Street. Méndez requested the participation of the other women after she was contracted to paint their parking lot wall, which measured approximately twenty by seventy-six feet. Committed to designing and painting the mural collaboratively, they met weekly to develop its overall theme, deciding it should convey positive messages about the Mission District’s diversity, with an emphasis on women and children. They spent two months on the research and design phase, with Méndez focusing on her Venezuelan heritage, Pérez on Mexico’s iconic plants, Carrillo on reinterpretations of preconquest imagery, and Rodriguez on Bolivia and Peru’s Indigenous cultures and landscapes. Their intent was to pictorialize these Latin American countries for the neighborhood residents, eliciting individual pride as well as sharing their cultures with others. As a testament to their success, reporter Victoria Quintero declared upon its completion, “The ideas and images of the cultures they blend are bold achievements in the move toward unity. South America and the barrios of Aztlán have taken a stand and we stand together.”
The composition of Latinoamérica was reminiscent of Rivera’s SFAI mural, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City (1931), as well as The History of Mexico (1929–35; fig. 8), his mural in the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City, which depicts people and events from the Spanish conquest to 1930. Though it did not have the edifying intent of Rivera’s murals, it did share his composition of multiple self-contained scenes that serve to visually maximize the allotted space. However, Mujeres Muralistas chose to integrate Latinoamérica’s imagery into distinguishable vignettes arranged within a more spacious configuration. Its central panel (fig. 9) features a perspective grid behind a row of cornstalks and magueys, with bands of color serving as pyramid-like steps leading up toward a large sun symbol containing a nuclear family, in which the mother and children dominate.
Utilizing visual symmetry, depicted to the left were Venezuelan Indigenous dancers, Peruvian musicians and alpacas, and Guatemalan women in traditional clothes, while to the right were a Bolivian devil dancer, preconquest and contemporary Mexican landscapes with peoples, and a Mission District street scene with its racially diverse residents (fig. 10). Familiar plants and trees along with birds and animals from each country were woven in, which served to amplify the lush vision. The border of corn and maguey plants at the bottom and skyline along the top not only provided an overall frame for the wide-ranging scenes, but also mimicked a panorama composed of multiple smaller landscapes. Thus, in its ability to traverse time and geography, the mural was able to impart a sense of monumentality, while its ground-level placement also afforded a sense of intimacy for the viewer.
While Latinoamérica incorporated some influences from Mexican muralism, it was the muralists’ individual artistic skills and collaborative approach that facilitated innovative painting techniques and the formulation of a Latina aesthetic that expanded Chicano muralism’s color palette and, more importantly, its iconography. Unlike other muralists, the collective decided to choose their colors after applying the line drawing to the wall. They also rejected advice from fellow muralist Ríos to use the dark, “sophisticated” colors of existing murals, instead striving for the brightest palette inspired by Indigenous textiles, Cuban graphics, and American pop art. By elevating images of Indigenous peoples, especially women and children enacting everyday activities, they broke with muralism’s role as solely a visual tool that advanced a sociopolitical agenda predicated on scenes of strife and struggle. Replete with daily endeavors and spiritual rituals that conjured sounds, smells, flavors, and textures, Latinoamérica evoked cultural pride and personal memories. In addition, it provided an aesthetic respite from the “blood and guts” imagery of other neighborhood murals, while counteracting the prevailing political definition of Chicano muralism. “We wanted to depict images that gave a balanced view of the whole culture,” Pérez declared, “and we were determined to do this in spite of the controversy it provoked. Chicano artists didn’t think our new ideas of beauty were appropriate images to portray. But we felt the food, the music, and the beauty of the environment were all part of our culture, so why not paint about that, too?”
Latinoamérica would be the first and last time that the core Mujeres Muralistas created a mural together. Subsequent “Mujeres Muralistas” murals were designed and directed by one or two of the core members along with a growing number of affiliated artists and assistants. The same year, the mural Para el Mercado (To the Market) (fig. 11) was painted by Carrillo and Méndez with the assistance of Susan Kelk Cervantes and Miriam Olivo. In September, Méndez, Pérez, and Rodriguez worked with Olivo, Tuty Rodriguez, and Ester Hernández on a three-dimensional piece, The Latino Family (also known as Rhomboidal Parallelogram; fig. 12). It consisted of a canvas painted by each artist assembled into a monumental, freestanding, sculptural mural featuring scenes of women and children within Latin American landscapes.
In 1975, Carrillo, Pérez, and Rodriguez collaborated on Fantasy World for Children, a two-story mural located within the 24th Street Mini Park. In subsequent years, the artists focused on their individual careers, with Méndez returning to Venezuela and pursuing printmaking. Nevertheless, their historical significance as the first female mural collective and their role in disrupting Chicano muralism’s male dominance was cemented.
A Collective Legacy
As Latina artists, Las Mujeres Muralistas encountered gender, cultural, and artistic challenges. Along with proving their physical abilities to execute large mural projects, they had to defend their aesthetic choices. As in Mexico, Chicano artists defined public muralism as political art limited to sociopolitical narratives they approved. Mujeres Muralistas expanded this myopic definition to include beauty in both its cultural manifestations and their portrayals of women. As noted by Guisela Latorre, their figures were “an important departure from the nationalist models” dominated by “Aztec warriors and their scantily clad female companions.” They understood that murals had an important role in the community and not solely as billboards or monuments promoting male-centered history and imagery. “Our people, the workers, can identify readily with our work,” Méndez noted, “because it is there for them to see and enjoy. Our images and our people and our culture; full of color, life, and strength to keep on struggling.” In fact, though at times framed as “apolitical” and “nostalgic” (in their depictions of Indigenous people), their murals did enact sociopolitical change not only by promoting the social centrality of women but also by celebrating the Mission’s diversity, engendering community cohesion. Given the uniqueness of Mujeres Muralistas, their murals received heightened media coverage, including features in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sunset Magazine, and the New Republic. This allowed their contributions to reverberate beyond the Bay Area and inspire generations of Latina/x artists.
- Patricia Rodriguez, “Pioneer Chicana/Latina Artists: Creating Institutional Inclusion,” Blaze: Discourse on Art, Women and Feminism, ed. Karen Frostig and Kathy A. Halamka (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007), 92.
- The mural has had different names ascribed to it, including Panamérica, Latino America, and Latinoamérica. The last of these is the most published title and the one provided to the author by Mujeres Muralistas cofounder Patricia Rodriguez. However, according to Cary Cordova, while “the mural’s inaugural poster and statement referred to the work as Latino America . . . scholars have relied more on the names Latinoamérica or Panamerica. . . . Latino America without the accent maximizes the double meaning of the work, suggesting that Latinos in the United States are reinventing America as a nation as well as articulating a larger kinship to the Américas.” Cary Cordova, The Heart of the Mission: Latino Art and Politics in San Francisco (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 135–36.
- Desmond Rochfort, Mexican Muralists (New York: Universe Publishing, 1993), 28.
- Shifra Goldman, “Mexican Muralism: Its Influence in Latin America and United States,” in Dimensions of the Americas: Art and Social Change in Latin America and the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 115. Siqueiros received international attention for América Tropical, his mural in Los Angeles of a crucified Indigenous man beneath an American eagle, which was painted in 1932 and then whitewashed. Publicized efforts, especially by Chicano artists, to recover this mural in the late sixties and seventies further influenced Chicano muralists.
- Eva Cockcroft and Holly Barnet-Sánchez, eds., Signs from the Heart: California Chicano Murals (Venice, CA: Social and Public Resource Center, 1990), 9–10.
- Mujeres Muralistas, Imagine: International Chicano Poetry Journal 3, nos. 1–2 (Summer–Winter 1989): 148.
- Theresa Harlan, “My Indígena Self: A Talk with Irene Pérez,” Irene Pérez: Cruzando la Línea (Sacramento: La Raza/Galería Posada, 1996), n.p.
- Though conceived as a tribute to Siqueiros, it did incorporate Rivera imagery and Orozco influences. Ira Kamin, “Come On In, Bring Your Paint,” Pacific Sun, May 30–June 5, 1974, 11. For a detailed description of the mural and the influences of Los Tres Grandes, see Guisela Latorre, Walls of Empowerment: Chicana/o Indigenist Murals of California (Austin: University of Texas, 2008); Cary Cordova, The Heart of the Mission: Latino Art and Politics in San Francisco (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).
- Shifra Goldman, “Resistance and Identity: Street Murals of Occupied Aztlan,” in Dimensions of the Americas, 121.
- Carol Hagen, “Mission Murals,” undated. Copy of article in author’s possession.
- Latorre, Walls of Empowerment, 47.
- Michael Ríos, interview with SFMOMA, March 12, 2021.
- Robin Greeley, “Painting Mexican Identities: Nationalism and Gender in the Work of María Izquierdo,” Oxford Art Journal 23, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 56.
- Patricia Rodriguez, quoted in “Final Report to the National Endowment for the Humanities, Califas, Chicano Art in California,” Oakes College, April 18, 1982, transcript of conference panel, 113.
- “A very important need [was] to express the way we felt. We couldn’t do it with the structure of the school. We needed another arena, we needed another audience, so we went back to the Mission District and that’s where we started.” Rodriguez, “Final Report,” 114.
- Irene Pérez, interview with the author, December 11, 1999.
- Irene Pérez, interview by Mary Lou Nevarez Haugh, 1993, transcript, 3. Shifra M. Goldman Papers, CEMA 119. Department of Special Collections, UC Santa Barbara Library, University of California, Santa Barbara.
- Rodriguez, “Pioneer Chicana/Latina Artists,” 90.
- Patricia Rodriguez, “Mujeres Muralistas,” The Fifth Sun: Contemporary/Traditional Chicano and Latino Art (Berkeley: University Art Museum, 1977), 14.
- Victoria Quintero, “A Mural Is a Painting on a Wall Done by Human Hands,” El Tecolote (San Francisco), September 13, 1974.
- Irene Pérez, interview with the author, December 11, 1999.
- Irene Pérez, interview by Nevarez Haugh, 4.
- Though Mujeres Muralistas founding members designed Latino America, Ester Hernández, Xochitl Nevel, Miriam Olivo, and Tuty Rodriguez assisted them with the painting.
- Timothy W. Drescher, San Francisco Murals: Community Creates Its Muse, 1914–1994 (San Francisco: Pogo Press, 1994) 23.
- According to Rodriguez, “We decided to do something totally different, because they had no walls for us to paint on.” Quoted in María Ochoa, Creative Collectives: Chicana Painters Working in Community (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003), 54. In an article published on September 18, 1974, the San Francisco Chronicle referred to the piece as Women . . . Mother, Worker, Seeker of Visions. The canvases were assembled on-site into an eight-by-eight-foot geometric sculpture, exhibited as part of the Arts Commission’s 1974 Art Festival held in front of City Hall.
- Latorre, Walls of Empowerment, 188.
- Consuelo Méndez, “Statement by Mujeres Muralistas,” undated. Copy in author’s possession.
- The Chicano movement’s seminal manifesto, “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán” called for artists to “produce literature and art that is appealing to our people” and declared the “cultural values of life, family, and home serve as a powerful weapon to defeat the gringo dollar value system.” Thus, it could be argued that Latino America’s aesthetic appeal to the community did achieve the movement’s sociopolitical goals. Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán,” in Aztlan: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature, ed. Luis Valdez and Stan Steiner (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), 405. The manifesto was first presented in 1969 at the National Chicano Youth Liberation Conference in Denver, which was organized by Gonzales’s organization, Crusade for Justice.
- In San Diego, Celia Rodríguez, Rosalinda Palacios, and Antonia Mendoza from Sacramento painted a mural celebrating women on a pillar at Chicano Park in 1975. Two years later, Yolanda Lopez and a team of young women from the neighborhood painted a mural there. Las Mujeres Muralistas del Valle, a group of fifteen women, created murals in the mid-seventies in and around their hometown of Fresno. Goldman, Dimensions of the Americas, 214. Two decades later, in 1994, seven female artists, including Irene Pérez, painted MAESTRAPEACE, a five-story mural on the Women’s Building in the Mission District. For detailed accounts of these murals and the Mujeres Muralistas’ legacy, see Carissa Garcia, “In the Valleys: Las Mujeres Muralistas del Valle and Chicana Art in the San Joaquin Valley” (master’s thesis, University of California, Los Angeles, 2016); Rita Sanchez, “Mujeres Muralistas: Chicano Park Female Artists,” La Prensa San Diego, June 29, 2012, http://laprensa-sandiego.org/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2012/06/LaPrensa06-29.pdf; Juana Alicia, et al., MAESTRAPEACE: San Francisco’s Monumental Feminist Mural (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2019).