Yolanda López, boundary-breaking star of SF Chicano artworld, dies at 78

‘Her approach never involved making masterpieces for the elites’

By Jori Finkel

New York Times

Yolanda López, an artist and activist who created one of the most famous artworks in Chicano history by boldly recasting the Virgin of Guadalupe in her own image — as a young, strong, brown woman wearing running shoes and a wide grin — died Sept. 3 at her home in San Francisco. She was 78.

The cause was complications of liver cancer, said her son, Rio Yañez, who is also an artist.

López made other types of work, including conceptual art installations and political posters, but her 1978 painting “Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe” is by far her most acclaimed and widely reproduced. It has appeared in art books, feminist histories and Chicano anthologies. It has shown up on T-shirts and tattoos. And along with similar work by Patssi Valdez and Ester Hernández, it inspired younger generations of Latina artists to rethink the Roman Catholic icon, a vision of the Virgin Mary popular with Mexicans and Mexican Americans.

In essence, López took Guadalupe, the paragon of demure femininity, and liberated her. The Virgin’s heavy, voluminous robe is restyled as a short, sporty dress. Her star-studded blue mantle becomes more of a superhero cape. She is running instead of stuck in place, and she looks joyful.

Jill Dawsey, who curated an exhibition of López’s work that is scheduled to open in October at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego — her first museum survey — called it “a striking revision of Guadalupe, divested of her colonialist and patriarchal origins and transformed into an image of radical feminist optimism.” (It was radical enough that López received death threats.)

Few realize just how many versions of the Virgin of Guadalupe she created, including at least 20 collages and photomontages done as studies. Her finished image of the running Virgin was part of a larger triptych that celebrates working-class Chicanas of different ages and body types — and the idea of matriarchy itself. One image has her heavyset mother mending the Virgin’s mantle at a sewing table. Another has her grandmother seated on top of the piled fabric as if it’s a throne, casually holding a knife and a snakeskin.

A dedicated feminist and activist in the Chicano movement, López also made explicitly political work. In 1978, she created a poster for the Committee on Chicano Rights that finds hypocrisy in much anti-immigration sentiment by showing a man in an Aztec headdress pointing to the viewer like Uncle Sam with the message “Who’s the illegal alien, PILGRIM?”

In the late 1990s López made a series of popular prints, “Woman’s Work Is Never Done,” to recognize the power of women’s labor, from farm work to child rearing. But the dissemination of her work never created an income stream for her, and she scraped by through teaching as an adjunct instructor at colleges in the Bay Area.

“All of the work in our show was borrowed directly from the artist, not galleries or museums, and that tells you something,” said Dawsey, of the San Diego museum. “Her priority was always her politics and ethical commitments. She never catered to the institutional art world, which has notoriously neglected Chicano artists.”

The artist and activist Yolanda Lopez in an undated photo. Her best-known work, “Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe,” has appeared over the years in books on feminist history and Chicano art, as well as on T-shirts and tattoos. (Alexa Treviño, New York Times)

The artist and activist Yolanda Lopez in an undated photo. Her best-known work, “Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe,” has appeared over the years in books on feminist history and Chicano art, as well as on T-shirts and tattoos. (Alexa Treviño, New York Times)

Yolanda Margarita López, the oldest of four daughters, was born Nov. 1, 1942, in San Diego to Mortimer López and Margaret Franco. Her father left early, and she was raised by her mother and maternal grandparents in a largely secular household. Her mother worked as a seamstress for the Navy base in San Diego, among other employers, and a childhood dream of López’s was to become a costume designer.

Frustrated by the conservative values of her hometown, she left the day after she finished high school to live near San Francisco with her uncle and his boyfriend. In 1965, she enrolled in San Francisco State College (now University), where she joined activist groups like the Third World Liberation Front, which sought curriculum, hiring and admissions reforms for students of color. She participated in its five-month-long strike, which resulted in the creation of an ethnic studies college and a Black studies department.

In 1969, she was a founding member of a group called Los Siete de la Raza, which sought justice for seven young Latino men charged with killing a police officer. (They were later acquitted.) She designed its newspaper, ¡Basta Ya!, as well as some posters, including one that rotated the American flag so that the stripes looked like prison bars across the men’s faces. According to Karen Mary Davalos, chair of Chicano and Latino studies at the University of Minnesota, Emory Douglas of the Black Panthers acted as a mentor by showing López inexpensive newspaper layout and cut-and-paste techniques.

She later returned to Southern California, completing her Bachelor of Arts at San Diego State University in 1975. The next year she began studying for an Master of Fine Arts at the University of California San Diego.

López’s graduate show featured three important bodies of work: the Guadalupe triptych, done in oil pastel and paint on paper; a series of acrylic-and-oil self-portraits, “¿A Dónde Vas, Chicana? Getting Through College”; and a suite of 8-foot-tall charcoal drawings she made of herself, her mother and grandmother on butcher paper. These drawings were meant to show “ordinary” women, she wrote in an exhibition guide, to counter “the lack of positive representations of Latin Americans as normal, intelligent human beings” and “the continued use of such stereotypes as the Latin bombshell and the passive, long-suffering wife/mother.”

“¿A Dónde Vas, Chicana?” grew from a new pastime: running. She took up running while studying for her master’s, finding it both a form of exercise and a way to get around town without a car. This led to a series of self-portraits that show her running through the hills of La Jolla and past the edgy new modernist buildings on campus. The works show her claiming her ground as a Chicana woman in an overwhelmingly white community. “I was the only graduate student in the visual art department who was a person of color,” she said in a 2020 interview.

After she and her partner, René Yañez, returned to San Francisco, they had their son, Rio, in 1980. They had separated by the end of the decade.

López increasingly turned to making art out of found objects and images. In 1985 she created a mock-educational installation displaying patently stereotypical Mexican-themed souvenirs, calling it “Things I Never Told My Son About Being a Mexican.”

One of her last artworks was a collaboration with her son. In 2014, after receiving eviction notices — she had an apartment in the Mission District — López created an “eviction performance” with his help by selling her clothes, jewelry and household goods at the Galería de la Raza. It was a garage sale that doubled as an art exhibition. “It was also a way to make a lot of noise about the eviction,” Rio Yañez said. (She ended up staying in her apartment after a community organization stepped in and bought the building.)

Information on survivors other than her son was not immediately available.

Most recently, López returned to her earlier artworks by making small reproductions on card stock, the size of business cards, to share with friends and colleagues. Many had sayings on the back. They were meant to be put in one’s wallet or pocket, like laminated prayer cards. She called them “pocket posters.”

“Her approach never involved making masterpieces for the elites,” Davalos said. “She was always looking for ways to put art in people’s hands.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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