Patricia Rodriguez’s mother was astonished when Rodriguez told her she wanted to go to college in the 1960s.
Her mother’s response was quick. “’That’s loco! Mexicans don’t go to college, let alone women,’” Rodriguez recalled last week at CounterPULSE, an arts and culture venue on Mission Street where she shared muralista memories and her views on Chicana art.
The family is from Marfa, Texas a place Rodriquez said, was Mexico before it was sold to the United States. At the time she grew up in the 1950s, Mexican-Americans were seen as useful for day labor, not college material. Rodriguez, however, wanted to become an artist.
She got her way and graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1972 to become a young pioneer in the Mission District’s burgeoning public art scene. She founded the popular art group, Las Mujeres Muralistas (The Women Muralists) with Irene Pérez, Graciela Carrillo and Consuela Méndez.
Susan Cervantes, who now runs the Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center on 24th Street, and a dozen or so other women painted with the muralistas.
“When we had asked guys to work together with us, they said: ‘Well, we are the Diego Rivera. We paint and you girls fill in the colors.’ But we said: ‘We are also Diego Rivera!’”
“We were Chicanas. Our murals had to be special,” Rodriguez said. “Our aim was to get the murals to communicate with the community. We brought the fine art to the street.”
Rodriguez’s home on Balmy Alley in the Mission District was the meeting point and hangout spot. Her fellow muralistas had their own keys to come and go as they pleased. Today, the narrow alley is still covered in murals.
Mujeres Muralistas wanted to be different from “the guys,” many of whom were Vietnam veterans. Their murals tended to be gloomy and filled with war scenes, guns and violence, she said.
In contrast, the Muralistas work reflected the beauty in life. The collaborations produced murals abundant with flowers, celebration, landscapes, harvests and female figures. Other artists often criticized the women for being too apolitical and optimistic.
It was only after coverage in the national media that the movement was taken seriously by Art Institute instructors and the male-dominated art scene, Rodriguez said.
Some Mission residents of the time said that for them, the coming of the Muralistas was exhilarating.
“I remember how in the Mission the murals used to be black and then suddenly there were flowers and color. It was wonderful,” recalled one woman in the audience.
While the colorful and floral themes remain in Mission murals, only one mural of the original Mujeres Muralistas survives, according to Rodriguez – the exotic fantasy world depicted on the wall of the 24th Street Mini-Park.
Note: Correction on January 29, 2010. The reporter erred in writing that Rodriguez was from Mexico. Her family, parents and grandparents are from Marfa, Texas.