By Tey Marianna Nunn, PhD, Director of the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative
This September I have read hundreds of poignant remembrances, testimonials, and expressions of sorrow and resignation. They came from friends and Latino arts and culture colleagues reacting to the death of artist and activist Yolanda M. López. She died at the age of 78 on September 3, 2021, in San Francisco. I was deeply saddened and struck by how powerful these messages felt. Every account was filled with personal anecdotes. They shared how López inspired, changed, activated, and mentored. It seems many felt the pain of her passing because she was so connected to her community.
I was lucky enough to know López. I studied her works in graduate school, enamored by the galvanizing power of her images. I was also influenced by her activism. As a young curator I corresponded with her about my work on Chicana artists. Years later, López and I spoke on a panel at OFFCenter Community Arts Project in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She had a sharp wit and masterful story telling powers. The conversation was robust, and the audience engaged. Following the event, we talked about the power of art and community over dinner at a friend's house. I remember laughing a lot!
A champion of art, activism, community, and heritage, Yolanda López smashed barriers. In her birth hometown of San Diego and her chosen hometown of San Francisco, López activated her communities. Within the early male-dominated Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s, she created space for Chicanas. Her images, especially those of women, helped to blaze a trail allowing for the works of Chicana artists, writers, and activists within the movimiento. Her feminist works directly challenged art produced by her male counterparts. Male artists often featured portraits of icons from the Mexican revolution, such as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. By sharing portraits featuring women, López created a legacy that allows Chicana and Latina creatives to thrive today.
López painted and printed art where we found ourselves reflected. Through her paintings and prints, she transformed and reinterpreted images like the Virgin of Guadalupe, a Mexican colonial representation of the Virgin Mary who is revered as the patroness of the Americas. She also intervened with racist stereotypes like the traditional figure with a sombrero sleeping against a cactus. She even created a film on the topic of Mexican ethnic stereotypes. López turned this traditional imagery on their heads and in doing so, directly addressed societal issues inside and outside her Chicano community.
She defied stereotypes. In the 1970s, she depicted women as active in a culture that often expected them to be passive. In her work "Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe" (1978) from her Guadalupe series, she wears running shoes. They reflect her identity as a long-distance runner. The shoes also represent the mobility of women who are freed from passive, male-dominated cultural constraints. In other work in the Guadalupe series, her mom creates the cloak of the Virgen de Guadalupe on a sewing machine and her grandmother sits on the cloak of stars.
While at times some were angered by this imagery, by including her mother and grandmother and their portrayal in relation to the devotion to the Virgen de Guadalupe, López elevated the role mujeres (women) play in Chicano communities. She created a new artistic vocabulary and tradition that inspires creators today.
Though López's legacy has often been overlooked by mainstream institutions, her work is present here at the Smithsonian.
The Tomás Ybarra-Frausto Archives at the Archives of American Art contains correspondence between López and art historian Dr. Ybarra-Frausto. You can also explore gallery pamphlets and materials from exhibitions featuring her art in the collection.
López increased visibility of social justice and immigration issues with her art. Her work "Free Los Siete" was included in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's recent exhibition ¡Printing the Revolution! The Rise and Impact of Chicano Graphics, 1965 to Now curated by E. Carmen Ramos. López created this work in 1969, responding to the arrest of seven young Latinos charged with killing a white policeman in San Francisco's Mission District. The image spread across the Mission community via posters, leaflets, and community publications.
Another of López' powerful images, "Who's the Illegal Alien, Pilgrim?" was also part of ¡Printing the Revolution! Here, López plays on the imagery of World War II era broadsides. In this work from 1978, she replaces Uncle Sam with an Indigenous warrior crushing anti-immigration plans. The work responds to the then-current immigration plan created by President Jimmy Carter. By using patriotic imagery, López argues immigration is a key social justice issue. The central figure addresses the viewer as "pilgrim." This reclaims the world pilgrim, especially its frequent use by actor John Wayne in the 1962 western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
This image continues to resonate within Chicano and Latino communities as a powerful statement. It asks who has a right to be part of the United States. "Pilgrim" is often used to claim who "first" arrived in the country. However, this work reminds the viewer that Indigenous peoples lived in the Americas before the Pilgrims arrived.
Since her passing on September 3, Yolanda López's memory has thrived. The warm response from her community reflects her values in life. For me personally, she was a hero, a role model, and a friend.
¡Yolanda López Presente!
- ¡Printing the Revolution! The Rise and Impact of Chicano Graphics, 1965 to Now online at the Smithsonian American Art Museum
- Works by Yolanda López at the Smithsonian American Art Museum
- Tomás Ybarra-Frausto Archives at the Archives of American Art
- Meet American Women's History Initiative Director Dr. Tey Marianna Nunn
- The First "Queen of Tejano" and Six More Women to Know this Hispanic Heritage Month
Tey Marianna Nunn is the Director of the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative (AWHI). Nunn leads the work of the AWHI team to recover and elevate women's stories and ensure a more complete and accurate American cultural history.