By Kelli Gibson
Anyone familiar with San Francisco’s Mission District can tell you about the giant, colorful murals that cascade across area buildings. Representing a variety of themes, from humorous to political to religious, these murals reflect both the artists who create them and the communities they surround. Though their aesthetic alone is enough to impress, knowing their history as representations of Latino-American culture—and the role of Latina artists in shaping it—deepens their significance.
The Chicano Mural Movement began in the 1960s when artists in the Southwest began painting buildings, schools, churches, and other public areas in Mexican-American barrios, or neighborhoods. Inspired by the works of Los Tres Grandes, three Mexican muralists credited with defining the mural movement of the 1920s, the artists used their work to increase the visibility of the Mexican-American experience as well as champion the causes represented in the Chicano Civil Rights Movement.
Composed primarily of male artists, the works often depicted war, Mexican revolutionary figures, and the struggles of immigrating to the United States. Though the artists richly conveyed social justice issues relevant to Mexican and Latino-Americans and provided space for formally untrained artists, the perspectives of women artists remained unrepresented.
Las Mujeres Muralistas, an all-women art collective founded by Patricia Rodriguez, Graciela Carillo, Consuela Mendez, and Irene Perez, confronted this absence with a vision of mural art that celebrated the culture and contributions of Mexican-American and Latina women and recognized the talent of Latina artists. Started in the early 1970s, the group faced challenges to both their identities and the content of their art.
Straying from the overtly political themes that characterized previous murals, the women painted images celebrating Latina-American womanhood. These included influential Mexican-American women artists and historical figures as well as everyday women in the community performing their various roles as wives, mothers, and workers.
Though the women founded the collective amid the Women’s Movement, mainstream activism often overlooked the perspectives of non-Anglo American women. The group’s art recognized Latina women’s experiences as integral to representations of Mexican-American culture and socio-political issues.
As Patricia Rodriguez said in a 2013 interview, “The statements that we made were very feminine and we got a lot of criticism because we weren’t doing soldiers with guns, weren’t doing revolutionary figures. We were painting women. Women in the marketplace, women breastfeeding, women doing art. People got really angry that we were doing that. ‘How could you do this when there’s so much going on?’ but we were saying that being a woman is a revolution in society.”
In addition to this criticism, Las Mujeres Muralistas faced challenges as an all-women collective. Other artists and community members were skeptical of the women’s ability to handle the taxing physical labor inherent to mural painting. In addition, the women often faced harassment as they worked outside in the open well into the evenings.
Despite these circumstances, the group’s first public and best known mural, “Latinoamérica,” received an outpouring of community support and officially established the women as muralists in the press. Along with proving the celebration of Latina-American women worthy of artistic recognition, Las Mujeres Muralistas established themselves as talented women artists capable of meeting the physical demands of mural painting as well as shaping its future as open to the contributions of women artists.
Though the group influenced the style of subsequent area murals, several of their original works have fallen victim to development or remain vulnerable. “Latinoamérica” remains, but “Para El Mercado”—painted in 1974 to highlight the uniqueness of Paco’s Taco’s restaurant after a McDonald’s was constructed across the street—was covered following the construction of a new building.
A local community-based art nonprofit, Precita Eyes, is working to restore and preserve one of the group’s few remaining murals. Precita Eyes formed in 1977 from a group of artists and community members involved in painting classes at the Precita Valley Community Center. Artist and director Susan Cervantes has taught classes in mural painting for 40 years and worked with Las Mujeres Muralistas on Para El Mercado. She emphasizes the cultural importance of murals through community engagement with artists of all ages and levels.
As an artist and community member, her experience working with the collective continues to influence Cervantes’ work: “After working with Las Mujeres Muralistas, I was inspired by their idea that murals were for everyone. They were able to integrate each artist’s ideas into a beautiful work. We painted A Day in the Life of Precita, the community center’s first multicultural mural, using the same creative process they used.”
Precita Eyes has painted and restored over 70 murals in collaboration with various community organizations and schools. They hope to restore and preserve one of the few remaining Las Mujeres Muralistas murals, “Fantasy for Children,” located in the district’s 24th street Mini-Park. Though the group has proudly undertaken several projects, including Flags of the Americas, which involved the restoration of the Latin American flags that have lined the neighborhood since the 1980s, preservation efforts depend on both local government and community action. As a result, projects often struggle for funding. Looking to the future, Precita Eyes will likely rely on more private funding for their restoration work.
Local politics and future development will determine the future of the Mission District’s historic murals. Community groups keep a vigilant eye on developers to ensure awareness of and respect for the Mission District’s status as a Latino Cultural District. This involves staying up to date on mural locations, statuses, and the goings-on of local city planning.
In Cervantes’ words, “murals reflect the culture that has made the community what it is. As it’s important to save the buildings of the people who have lived here for generations, it makes a case for saving their art as well.” The story of the District’s murals is one of Latina women, past and present, who left their mark and continue to lay claim to their future.
Featured Image: In 1975, the Latina Muralistas enclosed a mini children’s park, given to the Mission District by the City of San Francisco, with murals united under the theme “Fantasy in the Park.”