Yolanda López, an artist known for her reinterpreted paintings of the Virgen de Guadalupe as well as her early work on 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, looked after by artist colleagues, friends and her son. She was often animated and supported with pillows and told stories from her past.
When one visitor noticed that it was strange for her to have a photo of Howard Hunt on her fridge, she laughed. It wasn’t the hunt for Watergate, but their treadmill at UC San Diego. At the time, she thought she was doing a calisthenics class, but discovered long-distance running.
Later, in her triptych of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which also included the royal blue cloth of the Madonna depicted in Christian art, López illustrated her own figure as a runner, lively, determined and majestic.
Her son Yáñez said this morning that a formal memorial ceremony would take place after concerns about Covid subsided. Tonight at 5pm, he said friends and family would informally gather at “Yolanda’s Mural,” recently unveiled on Folsom and 16th Street.
At nearly 80 years of age and in her apartment surrounded by a lifelong job in the Mission District of San Francisco, López stayed determined this summer to keep creating art.
Most recently, she had received some of the recognitions others believed others had long deserved by winning a fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Ford Foundation under her new Latinx Artist Fellowship and learning about the first solo retrospective Their work would be exhibited in San Diego.
In search of a way to showcase her artwork and ideals, López, like others before her, discovered that printing pictures and text on business cards was a stylish and affordable way to showcase her work. “I’m trying to develop a method that women can use to do something that is easy and inexpensive,” López said in the spring when she unveiled her latest project – one that was business card-sized reproductions of her art, the were put in small manilla envelopes: “pocket posters”, she called them.
The small posters show a photo of one of her works on one side and a feminist declaration on the other. “As soon as we start treatment as women [men] as victims of patriarchy, they will begin to rebel against it, but they will understand, ”it says on the back of one of the cards.
On the pocket posters were statements such as “Men must learn that aggression is not power”.
López closed this after years of trying to teach men to be feminists and failed. “Men must save themselves from patriarchy if they want liberation,” she said.
For her part, López had long led the life of an artist. And although she was fighting for recognition and making little money with her art, she did not hesitate to answer: “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 a steam press operator and was “a very talented, intelligent, demanding woman,” said López.
Her grandparents, who both came from Mexico, ended up in San Diego after stops in Louisiana (where her mother was born) and New York City. Eventually, López’s grandmother headed west “to leave diapers as a trail,” and the family settled in San Diego. Years earlier, a family member had bought a house there using the GI bill.
Growing up, López remembers her mother buying her and her sisters coloring books from the latest Walt Disney films along with a new box of colored pencils. López and her siblings sat and listened to the “little yellow records” and played things like the music of Cinderellaand they would draw. Her neighborhood was a vibrant Mexican-American neighborhood with a tortilleria on one side of her house and a bar on the other. Sometimes her uncle Mikey would visit and teach her tango, ballroom, and salsa in her tiny living room.
At Lincoln Senior High School, López and her friends made nerds over lunch in the classroom. One of her friends played Mozart for her; it was the first time she had heard Mozart and it amazed her.
Three days after graduating from high school in 1961, when López was only 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, she started a new life in the Bay Area.
López hadn’t been given guidance on how to go to college, but she managed to enroll in summer courses at San Francisco State, just across from Sausalito, where she lived with her uncle. She didn’t get a place at San Francisco State, but a sympathetic teacher helped her enroll at the College of Marin, where she took art classes.
It was “really wonderful and exciting,” recalls López. At the College of Marin, one of her professors, Mr. Cadigan, gave her an envelope containing 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 living room in the Larkin Hotel on Polk Street. She went to school in the mornings in San Francisco State and worked at the Golden Gate Movie Theater from afternoon to night.
While in the state of San Francisco, López was involved in the 1968 Third World strike of the Liberation Front, which called for the creation of a department for ethnic studies to include both black and Latin American studies.
At that time she was also in Los Siete de la Raza, a group formed to stand up for seven men they believed were not guilty of killing a police officer in 1969. The defense committee, in which López was involved, fought for an acquittal of the men.
“As an artist, I belong to the Chicano civil rights movement,” said López.
Los Siete has a moving newspaper called Basta yes! who fought against the mission police López remembered did pretty much what they wanted. She said that while it wasn’t called police brutality at the time, “that is basically it”. The group also created a program that gave free food to children in the mission and brought Spanish translators to San Francisco General to translate for patients who had difficulty communicating with health care workers there.
During López’s involvement with Basta yes!, she had the chance to meet Emory Douglas, a graphic artist and member of the Black Panther Party. At the print shop he showed López and her friend how to remove the edges San Francisco Chronicle, and stick it on the Black Panther Newspaper. López was inspired by Douglas’ focus on everyday black life. Her illustrations were published on the back of the Black Panther Newspaper.
Although López belittled her own engagement, the editor of Basta Ya! Donna Amador said: “For me she was the inspiration.”
López eventually moved back to Southern California, where she received a BA in Painting and Drawing from San Diego State University in 1975.
López is known for her series of paintings that reinterpret the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Her depictions of the Virgin were among the most widely used images by Chicano artists of her generation. They offered Latina women a presentation of the feminine divine outside the Catholic institution, which many feminists found patriarchal, according to Karen Mary Davalos, author of a Book about López, published in 2008.
López resisted popular depictions of women in the mass media and used the virgin as a symbol to talk about issues related to race, class and feminism. She said that during her research she turned to images of women in the media, including porn and other religious symbols, and realized that the only popular depiction of Mexican women was the virgin. The Virgo, she said, “allowed her the language and vocabulary she had never heard before” to express her ideas.
So she turned to the picture and created depictions of the Virgin as an intellectual, working, complex and moving woman, not as a standing and submissive figure.
“She was as hell tempered,” said longtime friend and co-worker Donna Amador. López often told others to “go out there and make a riot – let people know you are here,” Amador said of López.
Even decades later, in her San Francisco apartment, her fascination with mass media and representation persisted when she analyzed the image of a woman on a can of starfish tuna she received from a local grocery store. López believed that culture is shaped by the visual images that surround us every day in advertising and media, and that it is important to be visually educated as we become aware of the images that affect our minds.
In 1979 she earned a Masters in Visual Arts from UC San Diego. López said she never learned to make money creating art and has always been humble when receiving recognition for her contributions to the Chicana art movement. “This accompanying fame at this moment is a little unsettling,” she said after Jessica Sabogal, an artist she had tutored, created a large-format mural in her honor in San Francisco.
That year she received a $ 50,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Ford Foundation as part of her new Latinx Artist Fellowship. In the news of the award, López confirms that her generation of artists is only just learning and understanding how to archive their work. She said a curator once told her she could make $ 2 million off her work. But she was much more interested in her artwork being useful and intellectually powerful.
Although López said she was never able to wrestle with the idea that she was some kind of heroine, her legacy lives on in the many Bay Area artists she has mentored and inspired, many with Galería de la Raza.
An excerpt from Yolanda López’s description of Who is the illegal alien?:
“… It’s about the stupidity of white Americans owning land. With the index finger it literally sticks into the tradition of colonialism of Western Europeans. “Manifest Destiny” is America’s perverse and perhaps pornographic concept of the country and mother earth. Use the time.”
Just yesterday, friend Donna Amador said that López smiled as she listened to the Beatles and her friends danced around her. “I know she was full of pain inside, but that was a wonderful moment to share,” said Aamdor, the editor of Basta Ya !.
López leaves behind her son Rio Yáñez, who lives in Oakland. Her ex-husband Rene Yáñez, also an artist, died in May 2018.