Muralist Juana Alicia talks about activism in her work

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On Thursday, Bay Area muralist and activist Juana Alicia presented the 17th annual Anne and Loren Kieve Distinguished Lecture at the Stanford Humanities Center.

Alicia has been a key contributor to the vibrant murals on campus. His legacy at Stanford lives on through the 2012 mural “The Spiral Word: El Codex Estánfor” at the Centro Chicano y Latino, intended to depict the “multi-ethnic nature of students”. The work is inspired by the history and literature of Latin icons such as Miguel de Cervantes, Julia Alvares and Aracely Mondragon. The mural depicts several scenes, including the genesis of “human design”, slavery, and a Yucatec Mayan scribe, who holds a conch shell symbolizing zero and the beginning of history in the mural.

“Yucatec Mayan Scribe”, inspired by the poem “La Scribe” by Aracely Mondragon. (Photo: XIMENA SANCHEZ MARTINEZ/The Stanford Daily)
An intricate painting of nopal, or cactus, with pink flowers.  The nopal sits in front of a red background.
The nopal in the mural symbolizes resistance, strength and beauty. (Photo: XIMENA SANCHEZ MARTINEZ/The Stanford Daily)

Alicia kicked off the event by sharing how she got involved in the arts and social justice. Growing up, Alicia was drawn to muralism during her visits to Detroit’s Diego Rivera yard. At 19, Alicia began making posters for United Farm Workers (UFW) boycotts and was eventually recruited by Cesar Chavez to continue her work and support the movement. Her time defending UFW inspired her first mural, “Las Lechugueras / The Women Lettuce Workers”, which was created in 1983.

Alicia found additional artistic inspiration in poetry: “Poetry provided a springboard for images,” she said. Throughout her career, Alicia worked closely with Juan Felipe Herrera ’80 to illustrate her poems, and even asked friends to write poems for the illustrations. Among these is the vibrant 1990 “Mission Street Manifesto” mural, which was inspired by Herrera’s poem of the same name. The theatrical portrayal of the poem about the power of a rally scene was artfully captured by Alicia’s dedication to “the intersection of liberation and art.” His murals continue to serve as a medium that transforms public spaces into inclusive discussions of historically overlooked voices.

“The Sacred Waters of La Llorona” is an example of the research and care given to the meaning of every aspect of the mural. For this mural, Alicia commissioned a poem from a friend with water, a woman and a child. While writing the mural, she researched the dangers women face regarding water issues around the world. Alicia alluded to the struggles of women in India protesting the Narmada River dam project, Colombian women organizing against the privatization of the city’s water, and unresolved cases of femicide in Mexico around the Rio Grande River. The 2004 mural “The Sacred Waters of La Llorona” at York and 24th Street in San Francisco is painted over the 1983 mural “Las Lechugueras”.

To conclude, Alicia shared her ongoing collaboration with Tirso G. Araiza on a graphic novel that tells the story of the legend of La’ X’Tabay. The project will be in Spanish, English and the language of the people of Yucatán, where the story originated. Alicia shared stunning and meticulously detailed black and white illustrations that mesmerized audiences. Alicia also played an excerpt from the audiobook for the audience to follow the story depicted in the illustrations. The overview of this ongoing project clearly showed that, even 40 years after her first project, Alicia continues to apply her skills to empower and center the stories of marginalized communities.

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