The Legacy of Yolanda López

López committed her life to the intersectional nature of art and activism. Her legacy will be remembered for the ways in which she empowered and provided visibility to ordinary LatinX women in spheres of cultural influence, where they are traditionally ignored.

Credit: AP Photo
Credit: AP Photo

Yolanda López, who was born in 1942 and passed away due to cancer in September, will be remembered for her groundbreaking career spanning five decades as a Chicana artist and activist in California. In her art, López represenedt the lives of Chicana women in society through a feminist lens, and rejected the ethnic and cultural stereotypes that they face.

López is best known for Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe (1978). López used oil pastel on rag paper to depict herself as Guadalupe, running confidently in sneakers and wearing the Virgin Mary’s star-patterned mantle. Her body exudes joy, as a strong symbol of “revolutionary feminist optimism.” In creating this œuvre d'art, she also used her mother and grandmother as models. Having the women in her life stand in as Mexico’s patron saint was intentional, as López wanted to celebrate the imperfect bodies of beautiful, brown, working-class women in her art, and renounce patriarchal norms.

“Because I feel living, breathing women also deserve the respect and love lavished on Guadalupe, I have chosen to transform the image.”Yolanda López

By the time of the creation of this work in the late 1970s, López had already emerged as a seasoned activist. After growing up in San Diego under a single mother and grandparents who had immigrated from Mexico, Lopez moved to San Francisco immediately after her high school graduation. Upon arrival to her new city, López became involved with activist groups straight away, like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Third World Liberation Front. She also was part of a five-month strike at San Francisco State College, which resulted in a shut down of the school. Their demands were met when the school created the nation’s first College of Ethnic Studies and Department of Black Studies.

“I heard the men and women that led that Third World Strike speak and I understood at that point what my position was being part of this long legacy of being part of the oppressed people...”Yolanda López

Her activism first crossed over into art in 1969, when she drew a poster that portrayed the faces of seven wrongfully convicted Latino men behind prison bars - bars which were meant to look like the American flag. The poster, “Free Los Siete”, which called for their freedom, was a staple piece used in organizing protests.

Nine years later, another poster of hers became widely popular. “Who’s the Illegal Alien, Pilgrim?” depicted a man in an Aztec headpiece and armband, pointing in a similar fashion to the famous Uncle Sam poster, while crushing immigration papers in his fist. Because these two posters have touched on important historic topics like colonialism, racism, and civil rights, both “Free Los Siete” and “Who’s the Illegal Alien, Pilgrim?” are now preserved with the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Despite her dedication as an activist artist for certain causes through time, the Virgin of Guadeloupe remained a constant “muse” for López throughout her career. López creatively represented Guadeloupe as a contemporary, working-class woman in many forms. In a 1995 interview, Lopez explained her motivation, stating, “There were no public images of Mexican Americans or Latinos in mainstream culture that represented us in the broad scope of our humanity...What existed primarily were sleeping Mexicans, Spanish señoritas, bandito images…Nothing at all that reflected that we had families, children, were working people, were creative or engaged in day-to-day activities.”

When López depicted Guadeloupe “in open-toe heels, calves exposed under a shorter version of her traditional dress” on the cover of a Mexican feminist magazine Fem in the mid 1990s, people were outraged, and the magazine’s headquarters in Mexico City “received bomb threats.” That wasn’t the first time her feminist work inspired violence. Her son, Rio Yañez, has shared that over the years, galleries that showed his mother’s work were often vandalized. López received death threats throughout her career as well. But she took this as a sign of success, as she said in the 1995 interview, that she knew she “was on to something” when she faced resistance to her work.

López committed her life to the intersectional nature of art and activism. Her legacy will be remembered for the ways in which she empowered and provided visibility to ordinary LatinX women in spheres of cultural influence, where they are traditionally ignored.

López’s work from the 1970s and 1980s is currently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego until the end of April 2022. This collection of approximately 50 works includes “paintings, drawings, and collages that investigate and reimagine representations of women within Chicano/a/x culture and society at large.” The Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe (1978) can be found on display at the MCSD.