As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, I think of those individuals who influenced our life path. For this once young, frizzy-haired Mexican-American woman from Southern California who dreamed of being an artist, that person was Yolanda Lopez.
While I was an art student in college, I completely immersed myself in Chicano Art. Studying at CSULA, that would stand to reason—East L.A is the birthplace of Chicano arts and activism. The Chicano artists of the 70s fascinated me, especially female artists. Their work strove to break the stereotypes of the day, and it gave me immense pride in my heritage.
I fell in love with Yolanda Lopez and herartwork, specifically the series she created using La Virgen. It spoke to me. More important was the message that the artist herself taught me. It was possible to be a mother, a wife, a woman of Mexican descent and an artist. I can do this. I can have a family and still be who I am. I can create art that is relevant to me and people will get it.
To put it simply, she gave me vision.
Fast forward 15 years, when I had the opportunity for my artwork to be shown in a Día de los Muertos art exhibit in the Bay Area along with Lopez’s son, Rio Yañez. He said there was a chance I could meet her at the opening and I was overcome with excitement. When I saw her from across the room that night, all those years of admiring her work and her struggle made me a little breathless, and it took me some time to work up the nerve to talk to her. I was completely unprepared for the wave of emotion I felt, and I had to fight back the tears.
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I told her she was my “Chicana hero” and she smiled.
When I tried to adequately convey what her artwork meant to me, I choked up. I was annoyed with myself for wasting the opportunity to speak with one of my heroes. She patted my arm and hugged me. Then she whispered these words in my ear, “I painted them for you. They were my Valentine.”
Her words touched me so deeply, I don’t think I will ever forget them. A Valentine. You send a Valentine to someone you love and care for. Her words, so poetic, fueled my ambition. It was up to me to create the kind of life I wanted—I could raise a family and still have a voice through my creative endeavors, no matter how nontraditional it seemed.
As Hispanic Heritage Month comes to a close on October 15, think of those individuals who were pioneers, who broke ground for the rest of us. I have immense pride in my heritage, and I enjoy sharing it with my family, so they can understand what a rich culture we have. And I thank Yolanda Lopez for helping me find the voice to express that pride.