Muralist Juana Alicia speaks on the activism in her work

April 18, 2022, 11:33 p.m.

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. Her legacy at Stanford lives through the 2012 mural “The Spiral Word: El Codex Estánfor” at el Centro Chicano y Latino, meant to represent the “multiethnic nature of students.” The artwork was inspired by the history and literature of Latinx icons like Miguel de Cervantes, Julia Alvares and Aracely Mondragon. The mural depicts multiple scenes, including the genesis of “human conception,” slavery and a Yucatec Mayan scribe, who holds a conch symbolizing zero and the start of the story in the mural. 

Photograph of Alicia's "Yucatec Mayan Scribe," featuring a shirtless Yucatán woman with intricate tattoos on her arms and torso. Behind her are buildings and statues, all set against a red sky.
“Yucatec Mayan Scribe,” inspired by Aracely Mondragon’s poem “La Scribe.” (Photo: XIMENA SANCHEZ MARTINEZ / The Stanford Daily)
An intricate painting of nopal, or cactus, with pink blossoms. 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 began the event by sharing how she became involved in the arts and social justice. Growing up, Alicia was drawn to muralism from her visits to Detroit’s Diego Rivera courtyard. At 19 years old, Alicia began to make posters for the United Farm Workers (UFW) boycotts and was eventually recruited by Cesar Chavez to continue her work and support the movement. Her time advocating for UFW inspired her first mural, “Las Lechugueras/The Women Lettuce Workers,” which premiered in 1983.

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

“La Llorona’s Sacred Waters” is an example of the research and care that go into making each aspect of the mural meaningful. For this mural, Alicia commissioned a friend for a poem with water, a woman and a child. While drafting 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 dam project on the Narmada River, women in Colombia organizing against the privatization of the city’s water and the unsolved cases of femicide in Mexico around the Rio Grande river. The 2004 mural “La Llorona’s Sacred Waters” at York and 24th Street in San Francisco is painted over the 1983 mural “Las Lechugueras.”

Wrapping up, Alicia shared her ongoing collaboration with Tirso G. Araiza on a graphic novel that recounts the story of the legend of La’ X’Tabay. The project will be in Spanish, English and the language of the Yucatán people, the place of origin of the story. Alicia shared astonishing and meticulously detailed black-and-white illustrations that left the audience mesmerized. Alicia also played a snippet of the audiobook for the audience to follow the story depicted in the illustrations. The preview of this ongoing project showed clearly that, even 40 years after her first project, Alicia continues to apply her skills to empower and center the stories of marginalized communities.

Ximena Sanchez Martinez '23 is a writer for the Arts & Life section. Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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