Why Yreina D. Cervántez Is Unlike Any Other Chicana Artist of Her Generation

If you look under the bridge at Toluca and Second streets in Westlake, a pensive female face will peer out at you. It’s the visage of labor leader Dolores Huerta, set in a mural that pays homage to the strength of women. Created in 1989 by Yreina D. Cervántez, La Ofrenda (The Offering) is an iconic piece of public art that still serves as a visual means of empowerment and cultural preservation.

For those undereducated about Cervántez, the Vincent Price Art Museum is exhibiting a survey of the artist’s work that spans four decades. “Yreina D. Cervántez: Movements & Ofrendas” takes a look at the ways in which Cervántez has influenced not only L.A. but also feminist and Chicanx visual language.

Born in Kansas, Cervántez studied at UCLA and later became a professor at California State University, Northridge. Her influence on the city as an artist extends through many mediums, from murals to printmaking to watercolor painting.

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Mujer de Mucha Enagua Pa’ Ti Xicana, 1999
Mujer de Mucha Enagua Pa’ Ti Xicana, 1999
Courtesy Yreina D. Cervántez

Still, La Ofrenda may be many people's only experience of Cervántez's work. Combining Mesoamerican and Chicanx cultural language, she creates a multilayered look at her own identity, one she shares with many Angelenos. Iconic as it may be, the mural hasn't been exempt from vandalism. The surface has repeatedly been covered in graffiti, necessitating efforts in both 2012 and 2016 to bring the mural back to its original state.

Besides Huerta, the mural features other figures: a woman with a long braid, a huddle of figures crying, a farmworker bending down, a woman holding her hands out in front of her. A pair of large, brown hands with palms upward frame a poem called Mujer (Woman). Symbols including white candlesticks, helicopters and calla lilies fill out the composition.

“It is an important work associated with the city’s long history of murals, and is embedded within the fabric of our culture of public art,” VPAM director Pilar Tompkins Rivas says via email. “That being said, the artist may not be known widely, despite her prolific 40-year career.”

The creation of the mural was also a community event, a way to unite people in the neighborhood. Archival photos show dancers performing on the sidewalk in front of the mural, an audience watching. Another photo shows Cervántez smiling on a scaffolding, her jeans splattered with paint. That an artist could not only create something for the community but also activate a space is rare; the VPAM show is meant to shed light on the ways in which Cervántez contributed to both the city’s visual language and its social movements.

“She is unlike other Chicana artists from her generation in that her stylized storytelling, spirituality and activism is found in works across mediums, from lithography [to] serigraphs, silkscreens, oil pastels, water colors, muralism, and altar building,” Ana Guajardo, co-curator of the exhibition, says in an email. “Her visual language is deeply intimate and personal while zooming out to be politically engaged and community-centered.”

Guest curator Marialice Jacob hopes that viewers walk away with a “sense of pride for having one of their own as a 'maestra' mirroring back their culture beauty, history, respect, reverence and spirituality.”

Big Baby Balam, c. 1991/2017
Big Baby Balam, c. 1991/2017
Courtesy Yreina D. Cervántez

For the show, VPAM got to work closely with Cervántez. It’s something that Jacob doesn’t take for granted.

“Though I have known Yreina D. Cervántez’s artwork for many years, and have worked with her closely for many of those as well, it wasn’t until we gathered all the art pieces together that I realized the link between her artwork from the beginning of her career as an artist to the present,” Jacob says. “She has been consistent in responding to her social-political-Xicana-feminist ideas and ideals, and always giving us a way to ponder and admire through her art what is, or not, and what can be.”

Other links made themselves clear to Rivas. The jaguar is one of those — part of a group of “recurrent spiritual and power symbols within the artist’s work.”

That theme comes through subtly in Big Baby Balam, a self-portrait in which Cervántez aligns the female body with the wild nature of the jaguar. “Balam” often translates as jaguar in Mayan; here, the female face becomes jaguarlike, her skin covered in Mesoamerican imagery. She appears wild, her eyes glowing. Her gaze is meaningful and steady. It’s an image that, displayed in an institutional setting, offers a different possibility for who depicts female figures in art and how they are depicted.

Heart of the Sky, Heart of the Earth/ Mary and Elizabeth, o Maira y Virginia (after Kathe Kollwitz), 2003
Heart of the Sky, Heart of the Earth/ Mary and Elizabeth, o Maira y Virginia (after Kathe Kollwitz), 2003
Courtesy Yreina D. Cervántez

VPAM serves as an appropriate backdrop for the show; as Rivas explains, the museum “is committed to showcasing artists that represent the diversity of our community and is particularly invested in supporting women artists.” The location of the museum within an East L.A. college further reinforces the importance of displaying Cervántez’s work within Chicanx communities that can see their own culture represented in her pieces.

“Yreina D. Cervántez: Movements & Ofrendas” is on view through July 22; Vincent Price Art Museum, 1301 Avenida Cesar Chavez, East Los Angeles College, Monterey Park; free. vincentpriceartmuseum.org.

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Monica Orozco


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