Higher Education

Reflections from CCSF's Pan American Unity Mural Educators

by , April 2022

In 2018, a team from SFMOMA visited City College of San Francisco (CCSF) and presented exciting plans to move our beloved Diego Rivera Pan American Unity mural to the museum. I was particularly inspired by Tomoko Kanamitsu’s presentation and her invitation to educators to collaborate on educational materials for this exhibition. Since the 1990s, I’ve been a Diego Rivera fangirl and have made many pilgrimages to Mexico to see Rivera’s murals in government buildings and drawings in small local museums, as well as visits to his studio and his own collection of indigenous art. Rivera’s wife Frida Kahlo was an artist in her own right, and I’ve always thought of her as one of San Francisco’s patron saints. There are murals of Frida all over our city, and the street where CCCF’s main campus is located has even been renamed Frida Kahlo Way. Frida and Diego remarried at San Francisco City Hall when they visited in 1940 to participate in the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island, and the newspapers reported on Frida-Diego spottings as they strolled through North Beach. The mural that Rivera painted for the expo on Treasure Island was donated to CCSF and it is our treasure. For decades, educators from across the college have been bringing students to visit Pan American Unity, creating lessons across disciplines and using it as part of our curriculum. I have incorporated the mural into my own ESL lessons for years and presented these lessons with my colleague Tina Martin at a statewide conference. Visits to the mural were always a highlight of the semester for my students and me.

In 2018, a small cross-discipline team of us formed to collaborate on educational materials with the mural as the theme. With Nicole Oest from the Art History department as our visionary, persistent, and patient lead, we organized ourselves, meeting in cafes, on campus, and on Zoom. We had a day-long meeting with the team at the museum and we made two presentations to our college faculty. Nicole says that, for her, it was a rare opportunity to work with community partners and colleagues to create learning opportunities for City College students. Amy Díaz-Infante from the Art department says that she joined this project because she saw it as a great opportunity to showcase her students’ work and how they were engaging with the content of the Diego Rivera mural in interesting and unique ways. Amy says, “For me, it was also an opportunity to build relationships with colleagues across different subject areas and to share ideas, perspectives, and teaching techniques.” Jeff Goldthorpe, an English department faculty member, says that being part of this collaboration was a way of “paying forward.” Jeff says that his life has been enriched by a generation of City College teachers, students, and staff who encouraged him to value the college’s treasure, and by a decade of teaching about the mural. Jeff says, “When I heard about SFMOMA’s show, I knew that the mural would get more public exposure than at any time since its first exhibition in 1940, which means more educational opportunities than at any time previously. To contribute to that is a privilege.”

Daniel Elkin, from the Latin American and Latino/a Studies department, began teaching the course Diego Rivera: Art & Social Change in Latin America in 2019, which gave him opportunities to spend more time thinking about the role of art and culture in Latin American societies. Daniel says he was excited to offer a historical and Ethnic Studies perspective to the mural education team. Daniel says that working with his colleagues in other departments has added so much perspective to how he understands the mural and how it can effectively be taught. Daniel explains, “Some of my colleagues have been teaching the mural for decades, and I’m honored to have the chance to gain from their experience.”

In our collaboration, Amy Díaz-Infante showcased student work linked to the visual analysis curriculum. The project her students engaged in asked them to not only analyze the content of the Pan American Unity mural, but to reinterpret this through the lens of their own lives and experiences. Sophie Danielle Touzé from the Art History department says that she particularly wanted to interact with SFMOMA’s conservation team because the behind-the-scenes aspect is just truly fascinating and can inspire a wide spectrum of non-art-oriented students. Sophie was particularly interested in the intersection of art and science and the larger-than-life task of studying, caring for, and transporting a thirty-ton mural. She adds that the “behind-the-scenes technical and how-it-happened information, past and present, can be easily lost in the shuffle of history, so I wanted to make sure a trace would be left, however small.”

Nicole Oest says that her colleagues opened new perspectives for her on how Pan American Unity can inspire student creativity in written and spoken communication and the visual arts. For Amy Díaz-Infante, the benefit of working across departments on this project was being able to build relationships across CCSF. Amy explains that these different approaches helped inform her own teaching in thinking about how she can engage students across different methods of learning, finding more ways to help students be even more connected with the campus and community at large. For Sophie Danielle Touzé, “What is magic about discussing artworks is to be seduced and marvel at what meets the eyes, but just initially, because the body of the artwork is a catalyst, it is like an eye appetizer, as it allows us, viewers and thinkers, to be drawn into it perceptually and emotionally.” Sophie adds that “studying deeply a work of art is a way to address the eyes, the hands, the heart, and the mind — and become richer for it.”

Jeff Goldthorpe describes how “the visual enrichment of the mural’s current location, and the new scholarly and critical attention to the mural that comes from SFMOMA’s exhibition is a gift of lasting importance.” Nicole Oest says that one of her greatest joys has been hearing from students the great news that they were accepted to participate in SFMOMA’s internship program. Nicole says that SFMOMA’s Public Engagement team understands and supports City College’s commitment to its students. Daniel Elkin agrees, saying that SFMOMA has been a fantastic partner in opening doors and providing resources, which have not been available to all who care for the Pan American Unity mural. Amy adds, “For our students, this kind of attention makes institutions like SFMOMA more accessible. Through this partnership we have also been able to connect students to opportunities to visit the museum for free, internships and workshops. For our students this can lead to a greater sense of belonging to the San Francisco community, but, more importantly, a greater sense of ownership of institutions and what we choose as a society to value.”


Dayamudra Dennehy

Dayamudra Dennehy

Teaching Diego Rivera’s Pan American Unity Mural: Curriculum from City College of San Francisco
Detail view of Diego Rivera's mural Pan American Unity. See All