A mural with a woman raising a fist in a Virgin Mary halo, an Indigenous man pointing with the caption, "Whose the illegal alien pilgrim?" and a woman in running clothes
A nearly-finished mural dedicated to Mission District artist and activist, Yolanda López. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan

As if in an act of defiance, a striking young Yolanda López in track shorts and a star-spangled tank top beams from a wall between an abandoned building and a children’s park. She’s grinning a toothy smile and raising a fist and surrounded by a sparkly Virgen de Guadalupe halo. 

The mural is the latest in a three-year project by local artists to splash color onto what has been a hotly contested development site in past years, one that may still be sold at any time. In the meantime, the four walls of 2675 Folsom St. have been covered with murals, with the wall of the adjacent Parque Niños Unidos serving as artist Josue Rojas’s tribute to López, the esteemed late painter and activist. 

A woman in sweats sweeps debris in front of a mural of a woman raising a fist, surrounded by a halo
Photo courtesy of Josue Rojas

The haloed image of López, most prominent on the wall, is a variation on the Chicana pioneer’s most well-known work: López often depicted herself and women close to her running, sewing, or doing other regular activities, and paired them with the religious iconography of the Virgin Mary’s halo — a daring artistic choice at the time. 

“This may not seem so radical in 2023 to occupy that space,” Rojas said, referring to the iconography of the Virgin Mary. “But it was absolutely radical in the time that it happened. And I wanted to pay tribute to how ‘next’ Yolanda has always been.” 

Noting the rebellious, mischievous twinkle in her eye. Rojas decided to depict her just as she appeared in one shot from her 1978 photo series “Tableaux Vivant.”  In it, López  poses in front of the body-length halo — praying, running, and holding a bouquet of paintbrushes. 

The newest mural, visible through a wire fence from Folsom Street near 23rd Street, also features two other of López’s most iconic works, including “Who’s the Illegal Alien, Pilgrim?” from López’s play on the Uncle Sam poster, and her 1977 self-portrait, “Runner: On My Own!”  

Colorful Victorians and Central American-style houses, California poppies and blue Central American flowers frame the wall and its three images from López.

Rojas asked his assistant and mentee, Anthony Jimenez, a painter “trying to get into the mural scene,” to make the near-replicas of the original works on the wall. 

Artists at work on the Yolanda López tribute mural at 23rd and Folsom streets. Photo courtesy of Josue Rojas

Also sprinkled across the wall are references to Los Siete, the group of young Central American men who were wrongfully implicated in the death of a Mission District police officer — highlighting López’s critical role in sparking Mission District activism in the late 1960s. López founded the organization Los Siete de la Raza to support them, designed its newspaper ¡Basta Ya! (these words shout down from the wall in bright pink), and created posters supporting their release. 

Rojas interpreted the work that uses the Virgen de Guadalupe as López’s way of rejecting the divide between the beloved and holy Virgin Mary and everyday women, who face mistreatment and discrimination. He saw it as her way of testing out a world in which people could “bestow the love that they do on the Virgen, and turn that love and actually place it on women in their lives.” 

Having gone against the religious establishment at the time, López reportedly received death threats and her art was vandalized. Rojas wanted to pay tribute to her courage. 

The Virgen de Guadalupe works were among López’s most recognized and celebrated: Jacqueline Gutierrez, a local youth program coordinator at PODER, said that shortly after López died in September, 2021, she built an interactive art piece for an event that allowed attendees to step into the virgin’s halo. 

Having been born on the day of the Virgen de Guadalupe, Gutierrez felt an extra level of connection to the iconography in López’s works. Gutierrez, 31, helped with the mural honoring López, and called the experience of painting the halo with shimmery gold paint, on a sunny day last week “a sacred moment.” 

Artists at work on the Yolanda López tribute mural at 23rd and Folsom streets. Photo courtesy of Josue Rojas

López’s way of “challenging the narrative of what is pure, what is holy, and what is sacred” affected Gutierrez from a young age, and informed her outlook and work within the community. 

A lot for the legends

The López mural, painted on a dividing wall between the Folsom Street lot abutting Parque Niños Unidos, is just one of five adorning the run-down plot of land. The four walls of a shabby structure a few yards away are also coated in bright colors, with distinct murals all directed by Rojas. 

The entire project at 23rd and Folsom started in 2020, in honor of artists like López and other role models and cultural figures. 

Rojas began the project with the Birds of the Americas mural more than two years ago. In it, different tropical birds represent different young men killed by police.  

“After having done that, I really had it on my heart to do the rest of the building,” Rojas said of the remaining gray walls overlooking the long-empty lot, so he asked the building’s owner in 2022 about continuing. He knew that the building, once home to a restaurant equipment warehouse, could be demolished, or converted to offices or housing at any time. 

“The owner said it could either be up for six months, or six years,” said Rojas, but it was important to him to make the area — near a school, a children’s playground, and a daycare — beautiful. “I accepted that assignment just knowing that it would be temporary. But, you know, that’s just the nature of street art. It’s sometimes temporary.” 

After the birds were completed in 2020, Rojas began on the north-facing wall of the building in May, 2022, with a tribute to Jesse “Spider” Tavizon, a Mission native graffiti writer who died in 2021. The mural follows a Spiderman comic-book theme in honor of Spider, and celebrates the 30-year anniversary of the Class Acts, the graffiti crew that both Spider and Rojas were once part of together. 

This led to the “Bay Area Legends” wall, which faces south across the lot toward López’s nearly-finished wall. This aerosol tribute to Bay Area art legends includes a portrait of Spider, and others of photojournalist Jim Prigoff by Norman “Vogue” Chuck and graffiti legend Cuba by Vanessa “Agana” Espinoza. 

And in a pink rose sits a tiny tribute to René Yáñez, López’s once-husband and her son’s father. Yáñez sports a lucha libre Mexican wrestler’s mask. 

Passing the torch

Soon after López died in 2021 from cancer, Rojas took a younger artist under his wing to keep the lineage going. Jiménez, 30, told Mission Local he has been working with Rojas on various projects over the past year. 

“He’s just been bringing me on to every project he’s been involved with,” Jimenez said, including the JFK Drive labyrinth, the new housing project at 681 Florida St., and clearing out weeds with a machete last summer to reach the walls at 23rd and Folsom. “I learn something new, like, every day that I paint … it makes the job exciting.” 

When talking about Rojas as their mentor, Jimenez and Espinoza have the same fondness and reverence in their voices that Rojas has when talking about López. 

Espinoza, who painted the Cuba portrait on the “Bay Area Legends” wall, said she first met Rojas in her early 20s, when she was ordered to do community service after she got caught tagging. 

“He opened up a lot of worlds for me that I didn’t know existed,” Espinoza said. “He’s taught me to look at my art — and art, period — differently, in ways I’ve never imagined.” 

Rojas, like many other Mission artists, was inspired directly by López, who encouraged his art in times when he doubted devoting himself full-time to painting. 

When he faltered in describing himself as an artist, López admonished him. “She told me never to apologize for being a painter,” Rojas said. 

After López died, Rojas was among those permitted to keep some of her belongings. He selected her pin of a painter’s palette. It wasn’t until he began working on the mural that he realized: In the photograph of herself standing under the rays of the halo, she is wearing that very pin. 

“Yolanda was speaking to me from the great beyond,” Rojas said, “and just reminding me in a way, to just stay true to the vocation.” 

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REPORTER. Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim nearly 10 years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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  1. Thank you for the free public art. I love murals. It makes San Francisco the place to be. My favorite mural is the Carmaval mural on lower 24th Street over the car repair shop. It has actual San Francisco Carnaval Royalty portrayed in it. .