Remembering Yolanda Lopez, the Chicana Artist Who Redefined Latinas in Visual Arts

Nearly forty years after Frida Kahlo reappropriated typical Mexican iconography in her self-portraits, Yolanda Lopez carried the identity of the Chicana woman to a whole new level.

The Chicana painter, printmaker, educator, and film producer was known for her mastery in transforming the experiences of Mexican-American women through iconography, often defying the ethnic stereotypes that Kahlo had popularized decades earlier.

The art world and the Hispanic community in the United States said goodbye to this guerrera on September 3, 2021, when she passed away in San Francisco, California, at 78.

Yolanda López was born in 1942 in San Diego, California, in a Chicano family with three generations in the country. Her grandparents emigrated from Mexico to the United States, crossing the Rio Grande River in a boat while avoiding gunfire from the Texas Rangers. 

Lopez was educated at San Francisco State University, where she became involved with social movements, becoming aware of the ethnic reality experienced by Chicanos in the late 1960s in the United States.

Lopez also participated in the Third World Liberation Front, which organized a 1968 strike at what was then San Francisco State College in an ultimately successful effort to force the school to establish an ethnic studies program.

“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, just like Black people,” Lopez told the website Shaping San Francisco years later.

In 1969, Yolanda López was instrumental in publicizing the Los Siete de la Raza case, in which seven young Latin American men were accused of killing a police officer. She designed the “Free Los Siete” poster, which juxtaposed the incarcerated Latin Americans with the ideals of the United States. As part of Lopez’s efforts in the Los Siete Defense Committee, this poster helped garner much community support and eventual acquittal.

Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

During the 1970s, Lopez returned to San Diego and enrolled at San Diego State University in 1971, graduating in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in painting and drawing. She enrolled at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1979.

Beginning in the 1970s, her work focused on empowering the Latino community and portraying the true experiences of Hispanic women.

“There were no public images of Mexican Americans or Latinos in mainstream culture that represented us in the broad scope of our humanity,” she told the Salt Lake Tribune in 1995. “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.”

Her best-known series of paintings, begun in the late 1970s, would be the 1978 Guadalupe series, where Yolanda Lopez subverted the traditional image of Our Lady of Guadalupe into a triptych where she depicts herself, her mother, and grandmother in the place of the Virgin.

In the self-portrait, López strides toward the viewer in running shoes with a snake in her hand, a muscular leg seemingly protruding from the painting, the mantle waving behind her like a cape.

She “bursts forth from the Virgin’s traditional flaming mandorla, throws off her star-spangled cloak and dashes straight toward us, beaming, into the future,” New York Times art critic Holland Cotter wrote in 1999.

“The merging of past into future is what this painting is all about. There are countless more transformative visions where this comes from — the freed imaginations of women.”

In the second image of the triptych, Lopez’s mother works at a sewing machine, mending blue fabric with her expert hands. In the third, her grandmother sits atop the mantle, holding a blade in one hand and the skin of a snake in the other.

Yolanda Lopez Guadalupe Series
Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.

As the Washington Post recalls, Yolanda Lopez continued to work in that vein, also presenting the Virgin Mary as a pre-Columbian goddess and a young Mexican American girl of today.

“Because I feel living, breathing women also deserve the respect and love lavished on Guadalupe, I have chosen to transform the image,” she once said, according to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, where her first solo museum presentation, an exhibit titled “Yolanda López: Portrait of the Artist,” is scheduled to open in October.

Yolanda Lopez, who struggled for much of her career to support herself financially, is now considered one of the most important Latina artists of her time. This year she received the Latinx Artist Fellowship, a $50,000 award funded by the Andrew W. Mellon and Ford Foundations.

Her self-portrait, according to the San Diego museum, is “one of the most iconic artworks to emerge from the Chicano Movement, and one of the era’s most widely reproduced images,” one that “challenges the colonial and patriarchal origins of the Guadalupe iconography, transforming the symbol into one of radical feminist optimism.”