How Yolanda López changed the art of Chicanx forever

An example of her mature style was Who is the illegal alien, Pilgrim? The poster, originally commissioned by the Chicano Rights Committee, depicts a Chicano man in Aztec costume holding immigration papers in one hand and pointing at the viewer in the other, in a wry mirror of the famous pose of Uncle Sam.

Ani Rivera, executive director of the Latinx-centric Galería de la Raza art gallery, remembers seeing this poster reproduced and pasted on the wall of her elementary school in San Diego. “I remember seeing that and having a completely visceral reaction. Growing up during Reaganomics, during harsh political rhetoric impacting our community … to see an image of power [like that] … it brightened my stomach, ”says Rivera. “It was a time to find my voice, to learn that I could demand the same and question.”

Yolanda López, “Who is the illegal alien, pilgrim? », 1978. (San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art)

López’s most provocative and renowned work, however, was his exploration of the figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The artist explained what attracted her to the Virgin in a 1993 interview for the newspaper crossroads: “In 1978, there were no images of Latinos and Chicanos in the mass media. When it came to the media of the movement, the Virgin of Guadalupe was the most prevalent continuous image of women (while there was a variety of male images – Caesar Chavez, Zapata, a pantheon of male figures).

To examine how the image portrays and confines Chicana femininity, she paints three large canvases depicting the Virgin herself, her mother and her grandmother. It was the first painting, depicting López running in the garments of the Virgin, which has become, according to San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art curator Jill Dawsey, “one of the most widely reproduced and disseminated images in the world. ‘history of chicanx art’.

Yolanda López, “Portrait of the Artist as Virgin of Guadalupe”, 1978. (San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art)

Lopez, with Patssi Valdez and Ester hernandez, was one of the first Chicana artists to claim the Virgin as a feminist symbol. The Virgin’s heavy robes, which usually seem to weigh her down, are cut at knee level, allowing her to jump out of her mandorla and shake the male angel at her feet.

Asked in 2007 by Chicana / o studies professor Karen Mary Davalos why this particular piece has become a touchstone for generations of Chicana activists, López reflected, “Because it’s exuberant, and I don’t not think there are many exuberant photos of us in the Chicano visual library.

After earning her Masters of Fine Arts degree, López returned to the Bay Area in the 1980s, teaching at UC Berkeley, Mills College, and California College of the Arts, and regularly exhibiting her work in group exhibitions and at the Mission’s Galería de la Raza.

After the birth of her son with fellow artist René Yañez, she turned away from painting – she had little time as a working mother – and towards large-scale photography, performance and installation. The works of this period include What I never told my son about being Mexican, an installation of foundling objects with stereotypical representations of the Mexican people, and the Life in mission series, a collection of photographs of everyday life in his neighborhood.


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Margarita B. Bittner

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