Yolanda López, an artist acclaimed for her reimagined paintings of the Virgen de Guadalupe as well as her early work in political posters, died of cancer this morning at her home on San Jose Avenue. She was 79 years old.
Her son, the artist Rio Yáñez, said his mother died peacefully. López had been in hospice care at her home for more than a month, tended to by fellow artists, friends and her son. Often, she was animated and propped up with pillows, and would recount stories from her past.
When one visitor remarked that it was odd for her to have a photograph of Howard Hunt on top of her refrigerator, she laughed. It wasn’t the Hunt of Watergate, but her running coach at the University of California at San Diego. At the time, she said, she thought she was taking a calisthenics class, but discovered long distance running.
Later, in her triptych of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which also incorporated the regal blue cloth of the Madonna depicted in Christian art, López illustrated her own figure as a woman runner, vibrant, determined and regal.
Yáñez, her son, said this morning that a formal memorial would take place after the worry of Covid-19 has diminished. This evening at 5 p.m., he said, friends and family would gather informally at “Yolanda’s mural,” one recently unveiled at Folsom and 16th streets.
At nearly 80, and in her apartment surrounded by a lifetime’s worth of work in San Francisco’s Mission District, López remained determined this summer to continue to create art.
Only recently had she received some of the recognition that others felt she had long deserved, winning a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Ford Foundation, as part of its new Latinx Artist Fellowship, and learning that the first solo retrospective show of her work would take place in San Diego.
Looking for a way to showcase her artwork and ideals, López, like others before her, discovered that printing images and text on business cards was a classy and affordable way to showcase her work. “I’m trying to create a methodology where women can do something that’s easy and inexpensive,” López explained in the spring while revealing her latest project, one that involved business card-sized reproductions of her art that were slipped into small manilla envelopes: “Pocket Posters,” she called them.
The small posters feature a photograph of one of her works on one side and a feminist declaration on the other. “Once we as women start treating [men] as victims of patriarchy, they will begin to rebel against it, but they will begin to understand it,” is written on the backside of one of the cards.
The pocket posters had statements on them such as, “Men need to learn aggression is not power.”
López concluded this after years of trying to teach men to be feminists, and failing. “Men have to save themselves from patriarchy if they want liberation,” she said.
For her part, López had long lived the life of an artist. And despite struggling for recognition and making little money from her art, she did not hesitate in answering, “Something artistic, probably in film.”
López was born in San Diego in 1942 to Margaret Franco and Mortimer López. She was the eldest of four sisters and lived with her mother and maternal grandparents in Shelltown, a largely Mexican-American neighborhood in Southeast San Diego. Her mother worked as an operator of a steam press machine, and was a “very talented, intelligent, sophisticated woman,” López said.
Her grandparents, who were both from Mexico, ended up in San Diego after stints in Louisiana (where her mother was born), and New York City. Eventually, López’s grandmother headed out West, “leaving diapers as a trail,” and the family settled in San Diego. Years earlier, a family member had bought a house there through the GI Bill.
Growing up, López recalls her mother buying her and her sisters coloring books from the latest Walt Disney films, alongside a new box of crayons. López and her siblings would sit and listen to the “little yellow records,” playing things like the music of “Cinderella,” and they would draw. Their neighborhood was a vibrant Mexican American area, with a tortilleria on one side of their home, and a bar on the other. Sometimes, her uncle Mikey would come to visit, and he would teach her to dance tango, ballroom and salsa in their tiny living room.
At Lincoln Senior High School, López and her friends would nerd out in the classroom during lunch. One of her friends played Mozart for her; it was the first time she had ever heard Mozart, and it amazed her.
Three days after graduating high school in 1961, when López was just 19, her Uncle Mikey picked her up in his Cadillac and drove her to the Bay Area, where he lived. With just two paper bags of things, she started a new life in the Bay Area.
López had not received any guidance on going to college, but she managed to enroll in summer classes at San Francisco State University, just across the water from Sausalito, where she was living with her uncle. She couldn’t get a spot at San Francisco State, but a sympathetic teacher there helped her enroll at College of Marin, where she took art classes.
It was “quite wonderful and exciting,” López recalled. At College of Marin, one of her professors, Mr. Cadigan, gave her an envelope with a $10 bill and a $20 bill. He taught her how to make her own frame and stretch a canvas, skills she carried with her forever.
Eventually, López moved to San Francisco and rented a small residential room at the Larkin Hotel on Polk Street. She went to school at San Francisco State in the mornings, and worked at Golden Gate Movie Theatre from the afternoon into the night.
While at San Francisco State, López was involved in the 1968 Third World Liberation Front Strike, which demanded the creation of an Ethnic Studies department that would include both Black and Latino Studies.
Around this time, she was also involved in Los Siete de la Raza, a group formed to advocate for seven men whom they believed to be not guilty of killing a police officer in 1969. The Defense Committee, which López was involved with, fought for the eventual acquittal of the men.
“I belong to the Chicano civil rights movement as an artist,” said López.
Los Siete created a movement newspaper called Basta Ya!, which fought against the Mission Police whom López recalled were “pretty much doing whatever they wanted.” She said that although it wasn’t called police brutality then, “that is basically what it was.” The group also created a program which gave free food to children in the Mission, and would bring Spanish translators to San Francisco General, to translate for patients who were struggling to communicate with healthcare workers there.
During López’s involvement with Basta Ya!, she had the chance to meet Emory Douglas, a graphic artist and member of the Black Panther party. At the printers, he showed López and her friend how to cut out the borders from the San Francisco Chronicle and paste them on the Black Panther Newspaper. López was inspired by Douglas’ focus on the life of everyday Black people. Her illustrations were published on the back page of the Black Panther Newspaper.
Although López belittled her own involvement, the editor of Basta Ya!, Donna Amador said: “To me, she was the inspiration.”
López eventually moved back to Southern California where, in 1975, she received a bachelor’s degree in painting and drawing from San Diego State University.
López is well known for her series of paintings which re-imagine the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Her depictions of the Virgen were some of the most widely circulated images of Chicano artists of her generation. They provided Latinas a presentation of the feminine divine that was outside of the Catholic institution, which many feminists felt was patriarchal, according to Karen Mary Davalos, who authored a book about López which was published in 2008.
López was pushing back against popular representations of women in the mass media, and used the Virgen as a symbol to talk about issues related to race, class and feminism. She said that while doing research, she turned to images of women in the media, including looking at porn and other religious symbolism, and realized that the only popular depiction of Mexican women was the Virgen. The Virgen, she said, “allowed her the language and vocabulary that she had never heard before,” to express her ideas.
So she turned to the image, and created depictions of the Virgen as an intellectual, working, complex, and moving woman, not as a stagnant and submissive figure.
“She was hella feisty,” said longtime friend and collaborator Donna Amador. López often told others to “get out there and make a ruckus — make people know you’re here,” Amador said of López.
Even decades later, while in her apartment in San Francisco, her fascination with mass media and representation remained, as she analyzed an image of a woman on the can of starfish tuna that she had received from a local food pantry. López believed that culture is shaped by the visual images that surround us every day in advertisements and in the media, and that becoming visually literate is important, as it makes us aware of the images that impact our minds.
In 1979, she earned a masters in Visual Arts from UC San Diego. López said she never learned how to make money creating art, and was always humble when she would receive recognition for her contributions to the Chicana arts movement. “This accompanying fame at this moment is a little unnerving,” she had said after Jessica Sabogal, an artist she had mentored, created a large-scale mural in her honor in San Francisco.
This year, she received a $50,000 fellowship from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Ford Foundation, as part of it’s new Latinx Artist Fellowship. On the news of receiving the award, López acknowledges that her generation of artists is just now learning and understanding how to archive their work. She said a curator had once told her that she could make $2 million from her work. But she was much more interested in having her artwork be useful and intellectually powerful.
Although López said she was never able to fully wrestle with the idea that she is some kind of heroine, her legacy lives on in the many Bay Area artists she mentored and inspired, many of whom are involved with Galería de la Raza,.
An excerpt from Yolanda López’s description of “Who’s The Illegal Alien:”
“ … It is about the stupidity of White Americans’ ownership of the land. With the pointing finger it literally stabs Western-European’s tradition of colonialism. “Manifest Destiny” is America’s perverse and perhaps pornographic concept of the land and mother earth. Seize the time.”
Just yesterday, friend Donna Amador said López smiled as she listened to the Beatles and her friends danced around her. “I know that, inside of her, she was filled with pain, but that was a glorious moment to share together,” said Aamdor, the editor of Basta Ya!