Muralist guest speaker highlights cultural understanding
As a teenager California in the 1960s and 1970s, Yreina D. Cervantez found her voice as an artist as the streets of Los Angeles were filled with the voices of activists and protesters from around the world.
“My work is really about the reclamation of identity and transformation,” she said. “… reclaiming one’s history and understanding one’s history and therefore understanding your identity, transforming and transcending.”
Now a professor of Chicana and Chicano art at California State University, Northridge, Cervantez’s collection of painting, drawings, prints and mural work reflect 30 years of community art and activism. Raised in California, she entered young adulthood during the Chicano Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Movement and the resistance to the Vietnam War.
“I was very young and I [came] into my political conscience at that historical movement, and so it really formed a lot of my experiences,” she said. “Through my education I was able to go to the university and be exposed to a lot of different ideas.”
While still an undergrad at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Cervantez traveled to Nicaragua to show her support for refugees affected by the country’s civil war in the 1980s painted a mural to there with other students and supporters. After graduating, she became active in community art as a teacher and noted mural painter with the grassroots non-profits Self Help Graphics and the Social and Public Art Resources Center, which provide free art classes in East LA and promote mural preservation.
“Most of my life has been dedicated to issues that are related to community and to creating positive change in communities,” Cervantez said, mentioning a program in which she taught art to young women and mothers involved in gangs. “That was rewarding because there were women who didn’t necessarily have access to opportunities but who were very intelligent, very creative. Sometimes it’s just the access to education or opportunity that really creates circumstances.”
While Cervantez said that her style and artistic approach have changed over three decades, her work is connected by the common thread of Chicana and Native American spirituality, feminism and the blending of the personal and political. She cites the incorporation of alto historia as an important part of her self-portraiture, a concept coined by Valley writer Gloria Zanzaldua as the practice of Chicana artists including elements that represent their communities into their self-portraits.
“The Chicana and Chicano Movement didn’t happen in a vacuum, and neither does Chicana and Chicano art,” she said. “It was all a process of being inspired by the Chicano Movement, my education and my experiences that formed my consciousness, and also working in the community with the Latino community and Central America community as well.”
Her work “Mujer de Mucha Enagua, Pa’ Ti Xicana” showcases Cervantez’s use of symbolism, feminism, and indigenous influences. The title translates to “woman with a lot of petty coat,” a saying in Mexico that inspired to create the screen-print depicting a Mexican revolutionary woman Zapatista, Mexican poet Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz and cotemporary poet Rosario Castellano.
“I thought that was really beautiful because … we don’t really have anything that comparable to, excuse me for being blunt, but you have things like, ‘He’s got a lot of balls,’” she explained. “Una mujer de mucha enagua, a woman with a lot of petty coat is comparable to the idea of a person with a lot of strength, a person that is empowered, and I thought that that was a beautiful metaphor, and that piece is dealing with history…”
Cervantez will be on campus to discuss her work as part of FESTIBA in a March 28 lecture in the library. Her “Selected Works in Paper” exhibition will be on display through April 30.
“[It’s] an opportunity to have discourse on Chicana and Chicano art and aesthetic because we don’t really have that opportunity many times…,” she said. “Until things really change significantly for communities of color, particularly Latino and especially immigrant communities, there are always issues to address in the work.”