Saturday, April 12, 2008

Meeting Favianna Rodriguez

by Efrén Paredes, Jr.
"The voice of the individual artist may seem perhaps of no more consequence than the whirring of a cricket in the grass, but the arts do live continuously ... they outlive governments and creeds and societies, even the very civilizations that produced them." (Author Unknown)
Monday, April 7, 2008, I met Favianna Rodriguez, internationally renowned muralist, graphic artist, printmaker, and political activist. Favianna attended our Latin American Spanish-Speaking Organization (LASSO) monthly general membership meeting as a guest speaker.

As an activist, Favianna was one of the founders of the EastSide Arts Alliance, an organization that supports Oakland neighborhoods through art programs. She has also helped to make available performance, studio space, and affordable housing units. She is a co-owner of TUMIS, an East Oakland-based design firm that provides design, technology, and communication strategy services for social justice and nonprofit organizations.

Favianna co-founded Visual Element in 2001, a graffiti arts program that trains young artists in the traditions of muralism and graffiti for social change. She coordinated recruitment, instruction, and retention of young graffiti artists of color, ages 17-20. She has developed a street-based arts curriculum and fundraised over $75,000 annually from city grants, foundations, and private mural commissions.

While in Michigan, Favianna was doing a residency with Michigan State University Department of Arts and Humanities. She met our Latin American Spanish-Speaking Organization (LASSO) sponsor who invited Favianna to attend our monthly LASSO meeting and present about the activism and social justice work she does through art and printmaking.

Before Favianna presented, I spoke to the group about the importance of art, particularly as it relates to the struggle for social justice. I told those in attendance that art is a powerful expression of who we are and our views of the world. It is a culmination of experience, history, and culture — it is a vivid expression of life itself.

Through art we convey our vision, dreams and hope. We preserve the memory of our people for generations to follow. We are also able to shape the consciousness of the global community. Each piece of art is a tentacle with boundless measure.

As Suzanne Lacey, Executive Director at Museum Without Walls, puts it, "Artists as reporters represent their world. Artists as experiencers give tangible form to their feelings about the world. Artists as analysts look beyond the immediate to reveal hidden universal truths. And artists as activists help us see the world in new ways."

During her presentation Favianna covered a broad range of issues. I couldn't help but quickly recognize that she is totally committed to social justice and the elimination of every form of discrimination. It was also clear that she is passionate about the causes she supports and is unapologetic about her positions. Favianna says her work "reflects a growing national consciousness that speaks to the contemporary urban barrios, rebelling against racism, homophobia, sexism and corporate irresponsibility."

During her presentation Favianna shared several colored copies of artwork she has done. Everyone in attendance received a copy. She also shared art she is making available for free to be used for noncommercial activist purposes. They will be available online and in a new book Favianna co-edited titled "Reproduce & Revolt: Radical Images for the 21st Century."

She told us the story behind each piece of artwork she graciously shared with us, and explained the various processes she uses to create them. Her presentation was very interesting and captivated those who were in attendance. What began with Favianna saying, "I'm going to tell you a little about myself," concluded as a 45-minute political art discourse.

The range of topics that Favianna included in her presentation was vast. Sometimes it included subjects about femicide, day laborers, and genetically engineered food, other times she talked about politics, the Olympic Games protests, and upcoming events she would be a part of.

Favianna spoke to us on the day that members of The Ruckus Society climbed the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to support Tibetan independence. Members of Ruckus hung two large banners that read, "One World, One Dream: Free Tibet." San Francisco is the only city hosting the Olympic torch in the United States. Favianna is friends with members of Ruckus and has collaborated with them on projects in the past.

Listening to Favianna speak about the social activism she does was a great experience. I felt proud to be in the company of a person truly motivated to do all she can for the advancement of people worldwide. She is acutely aware of the many facets to social activism and the need to maintain an all-encompassing approach to avert any possible exclusion.

Favianna recently wrote in her blog how proud she was to see the unity between Black and Brown prisoners who were in attendance at LASSO the evening she presented. What she didn't know is that not only is there a strong unity of Black and Brown prisoners in the group, there are also White prisoners who regularly attend the meetings and help foster the cohesion that is created.

This is one of the things about LASSO that I have worked so hard to accomplish as the group's president. Having a vast background in social movements, Black history, and Chicano/Latino history, has equipped me with the necessary tools to help develop mutual respect and harmony between every race of people who attends LASSO.

Few people have been able to accomplish this because they lacked the knowledge about various cultures, history, and religions to create a human tapestry that is all inclusive. One must understand the commonalities that people share before they can truly bring them together and create harmonious relationships.

My ability to do this is a much needed skill that can be utilized in society as well. The model that I have created in prison to unify people and teach them how to respect one another and work together will significantly benefit the global community when I am one day released.

It was great hearing Favianna talk about various people she has worked with in Black and Brown communities. I was able to relate to everything she said because vicariously I have shared her experiences. I have always maintained an all-inclusive mentality when teaching people because I recognize the value that this has over employing a narrow approach.

Teaching about various cultures and history helps us better understand each other and appreciate the struggles we share. It helps us realize more and more how similar we are and, rather than be afraid of each other due to our ignorance, we grow closer as a unified body. Segregation breeds evils and is destructive to the human spirit.

I was also grateful that Favianna shared her thoughts with us about gender and women's liberation. They are issues eschewed by many males but need to be discussed. I have always been a strong proponent of the need for women to express themselves and compel others to respect their status in the world.

The mentality that relegates women as second-class citizens or tries to make their roles as footnotes in history is nothing short of disrespectful and oppressive. Having a strong accomplished Latina speak about her strengths and the need to respect and appreciate women in front of a room full of men, particularly in a prison, took courage.

During a conversation with Favianna I learned that she knew one of my supporters and a person I admire, Dr. Elizabeth "Betita" Martinez. Favianna worked closely with Betita for several years on the book "500 Years of Chicana Women's History/Años de Historia de las Chicanas."

According to Rutgers University Press, "500 Years of Chicana Women’s History offers ... a vivid, pictorial account of struggle and survival, resilience and achievement, discrimination and identity. The bilingual text, along with hundreds of photos and other images, ranges from female-centered stories of pre-Columbian Mexico to profiles of contemporary social justice activists, labor leaders, youth organizers, artists, and environmentalists, among others."

Betita is a prominent and highly respected figure in the Chicano/Latino community. She has a long history as a leader in the struggle for social justice. I was able to learn about her experience working with Favianna on the book and about how their historical project materialized.

I made a donation to the Immigrant Rights Poster Project that Favianna is spearheading. An immigrant rights conference is being held May 12-17 in Mexico City. The event is being convened by TIGRA (Transnational Institute for Grassroots Research and Action), SEDEREC (Ministry of Rural Development and Community Equity for the City of Mexico), and CENCOS (National Center for Social Communication).

The event will bring together more than 300 migrant leaders from the USA, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Europe. Favianna is collaborating with other artists to create five posters for the conference. She will have 5,000 posters printed of each design to be distributed free of charge to groups supporting immigrant rights all over the world. I chose to use some of the money I received for my birthday to help with this project.

Now when the conference is held I can truly say I helped make it a success. And, whenever I am eventually released, I can begin attending global immigrant rights conferences — and other social justice conferences — as well and be an active participant. It's just one of the many things I look forward to doing one day.

It was an honor having Favianna visit us and be the first group of prisoners she ever presented to inside a prison. We were privileged to have her as our guest and show her that the misconceptions and generalizations often made about prisoners aren't always true. We represented the full inversion of the lies presented in the media.

Who knows, maybe Favianna will even do an art project to memorialize the event one day.

To learn more about Favianna Rodriguez and her amazing work you are invited to visit her web site at www.favianna.com. While you're at it please read her writing, "Please Help Fund This Immigrant Rights Poster Project," and make a contribution if you are able to.■