When I saw images of artist Favianna Rodriguez’s “Slut Power” series circulating on Facebook, I was already familiar with her bold silkscreened posters, which often feature people of color tackling subjects as varied as immigration and sustainability. The Slut Power posters, however, were something different. Their power and pull felt immediate.
In Rodriguez’s work, the women are front and center, but the text packs the punch: “It’s my body. It’s my pussy. Get over it you patriarchal fuck head woman hater.”
The Oakland, California–based artist grew up under the watchful gaze of her loving (and overbearing) parents. Her family’s early experiences in the United States, her participation in free local art classes, and the Bay Area’s politicized atmosphere deeply influenced Favianna Rodriguez. She exhibited signs of artistic talent very early on, winning art competitions as early as elementary school, but the idea of making a living as an artist seemed like an impossibility.
But in the past 10 years, Rodriguez has made a name for herself as an artist, entrepreneur, educator, activist, and provocateur. In 2009, Rodriguez cofounded Presente.org, an organization dedicated to the political empowerment of Latinos. In 2011, she cofounded CultureStrike, a grassroots organization at the forefront of the national arts movement around immigration. Clearly, immigration is a topic near and dear to the artist’s heart. But after 2012, a year filled with political attacks on women, Rodriguez has taken a decidedly different focus, with topics like reproductive rights, slut positivity, and feminism taking center stage. As a queer Latina artist, Rodriguez is not afraid to stir the pot, but like many female-identified creative professionals, she is also just trying to figure shit out. She’s still learning how to be her authentic self in a family that does not understand the path she’s chosen, and in a community still uncomfortable with unabashed female sexuality.
Rodriguez, who is constantly juggling exhibitions, panel discussions, community art projects, and conferences, recently chatted with me about being a socially engaged artist, learning by doing, and her complicated relationship with feminism.
How did your political consciousness take shape as a Latina growing up in Oakland?
My parents were migrants who struggled with the English language. I can remember instances where we were called “monkeys” and other racist shit. I also saw certain things in my community—sexual violence, gangs, and drug use. Young people felt hopeless and I knew why. So many of my friends were headed down a negative path, and I could have been as well, but my saving grace was becoming empowered. I started the first Latino club at my high school and, because I was in the Bay Area, I had easy access to organizers who were fighting oppressive propositions. I contextualized what was happening to those around me with what was happening on a larger scale to people of color. Because I was surrounded by Chicano activists, I was able to take a different route. Rather than just being angry and internalizing [the injustice], I was able to channel it into organizing and art.
Why the specific desire to be a politically engaged artist? Why do you think you gravitated toward this kind of art?
I spent my adolescence in Mexico City, where I came to understand the history of murals and the political messages they could convey. When I returned to Oakland, I realized we had a lot of murals as well. So politically engaged artwork surrounded me, and I knew that posters could educate the community. As the daughter of migrants, I’ve always been politically conscious. I began organizing when I was 15. Organizing requires getting the word out and exposing important issues. It just came together naturally, using my artwork to be involved and express myself made the most sense.
When I was 19, I did a residency at the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles, where I was able to study artwork and graphics associated with the Black Panthers in the ’60s and the feminist movement in the ’70s. I learned about the long history of socially engaged graphics, [which] only solidified my belief that social movements need art to convey their messages.
When did you realize you could make a living with your artwork?
I was hired to do illustrations for political events, but it wasn’t until my early 20s that it really started to sink in that I could support myself with my art. I decided to drop out of UC Berkeley to be an entrepreneur. It wasn’t an easy decision. My family really enforced education. My whole life was school. I went to summer academies and Saturday classes; I was on the math and science track and my family really demanded I get good grades and required that I be at the top of my class. I was told that education was the only way you could ever do things for yourself. Once I got to college, I was already working on flyers and posters and I had freedom for the first time, so I realized I was already doing what I wanted to do and it had nothing to do with school. It was also the beginning of the internet, which opened up so many possibilities. An opportunity came to develop my own business around my artwork and new technology, and that was more appealing to me than staying in school. The infrastructure at UC Berkeley was sink or swim—I was too busy creating to go to class, so I sank. I chose to leave; it was the right decision for me. Up until that point, I didn’t have control over my life or destiny because I was groomed to be an academic success. It was really repressive and I’m grateful my artistic sensibilities survived that.
How do you think your artwork has evolved over the years?
Around 2005 and 2006, I began to play with abstract figures and re-explore the basics, improving my understanding of lines, composition, and texture. My earlier work helped me emerge as a “political artist,” but to be honest I never liked that title. My work has always been based on my environment, my community, my experiences—it’s always just been about the life I’m living and all the forces that affect me and my community, and those who look like me. Part of being an artist is understanding what unites all of us. I’ve become known as a Latina artist whose work focuses on migration, but it’s a human issue that impacts all of us.
You’re not just an artist; you wear many different hats as an educator, organizer, mentor, and business owner. How did you learn not just to survive but to thrive, financially and otherwise?
To be honest, I never thought I would get to this level or that I would get to travel around the world and talk about my work. I learned a lot from my parents. They were both entrepreneurs who had many different businesses, and I learned from them that you could pave your own path. They were always scheming ways to be their own bosses. If my parents could do it without an education and without a firm grasp on the language, I knew I could with the privileges I’d had. I left college to cofound TUMIS design company in 2001. When you need money to come in so you can pay your bills, things get real fast. So I learned by doing.
Artists [often] trade in their economic viability for a manufactured identity they have been taught to embrace—the idea that your only job is to create and someone else will discover you and take care of the business end of things. But if you’re a woman of color, no one is going to “discover” you. You have to make sure your voice is heard. Artists need to own their economic well-being and they need to know the business side. Thankfully, I learned how to get my cut, how to price my work, and how to market myself. You can’t put all of your hopes into a gallery, especially as a person of color. I had a steep learning curve, but because I learned how to be an artist-entrepreneur by doing, I was able to be self-determined and gain financial independence.
As a woman of color in the art world, what were the challenges of establishing yourself and your work?
I’m almost glad that I didn’t go to art school and had to figure things out on my own. For me, a degree was just a symbolic milestone that, on a personal level, wasn’t necessary. I’ve been successful operating outside of the art world because I was able to tap into other people who were also paving their own way, and with them I formed collectives, like the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative. In a lot of ways, I’ve rejected the “art world”—not just because it would have rejected me, but because my vision didn’t make sense in that world and the path I’ve chosen has kept me connected to my community.
Sex positivity, feminism, and reproductive rights are all topics you’ve addressed in recent artwork. Do you identify as a feminist? If so, how did your feminism take shape?
I have a rocky relationship with feminism. I am antisexist, antiracist, and I believe patriarchy is destroying the world. I see how racism destroys men of color, and as women of color, we stand by those in our community and there doesn’t seem to be an understanding of that in mainstream feminism. We do not sympathize or apologize on men’s behalf, but there is an understanding of something larger at play. The truth is that patriarchy has fucked up women and men. I am grateful for feminism because it gave me the tools to dissect my experience in my community, but it didn’t help me understand migration, my family’s experiences, or why my people were going to jail. When I first read Cherríe Moraga, it opened my eyes to a new reality because she called out feminists for these exact things.
As a queer woman, I strongly identify with queer communities of color, but yes, feminism means something to me. I’m still figuring out different aspects of my identity. Through my work with undocumented youth, I’m learning to own the privilege of my American identity and understand what it means. I think I flow between identities. I’m Latina, I’m nonmonogamous, I’m an ally to the undocumented community, I’m an artist—I’m figuring out what it means to be these things while also redefining them. So the short answer is that I’m reluctant to fully embrace the “feminist” label because it’s tricky: I identify with the label strongly, but I also feel like it’s strongly limiting. I’m a big, powerful, strong slut—that’s the identity I’m embracing all the time.
As a Latina who grew up in an incredibly strict and repressive household, I still struggle with being “out” about various aspects of my identity, even at the age of 27. Because of this baggage I carry—and as much as I hate to admit this—when I first saw your Slut Power posters, the first thing I thought was, “What do her parents think of this?” I feel like it can be challenging for women of color to identify as “sluts,” and as Latinas, it’s everything we’re not “supposed” to be. What is your relationship with the word, and why did you want to tackle the subject in a series?
Any identity, even a Latina identity, can be very limiting. When I speak on panels with other women, you wouldn’t believe how much slut-shaming there is, which is why this work is so important to me. I think it’s ignorance and a lack of understanding. A big part of our radicalization as Latinas will require rethinking sex. I’ve had my own version of the coming-out process as someone who doesn’t believe in monogamy or its framework. We call out people in the right wing, but in the supposedly progressive communities I’m part of, there is no major push to defend sex workers’ rights; women can’t openly talk about having multiple partners, women can’t openly talk about masturbation. Discussing these things in Latino communities is still outrageous. I’ve been sexually active since I was young, and I’ve had very positive experiences. I’m empowered by my sexuality and I celebrate my sexuality. I’m a woman who loves experimenting. I’m a woman who doesn’t want children and who doesn’t want to get married. I want to tell these stories and explore them in my art.
As you continue to develop your artistic voice, do you still struggle with the expectations thrust upon you by your culture and your family?
I feel like the most important and transformative work you do is in your own family, and that’s no different for me. I’ve experienced a lot of suffering because of the things that women in my family have said to me or about me. I’m a 34-year-old woman who isn’t married and doesn’t have children. This is weird enough in my family, but I’m also a sexually open person and because of it, the women in my family have been brutal. They disapprove of my “lifestyle.” They say I embarrass them and they insinuate that my home is a “whorehouse.” It’s painful, but I’ve confronted it. I’ve spoken to my mom about her behavior and the behavior of my aunts. I told her that at the end of the day, I’m up against patriarchy and I work in an industry dominated by white, racist men. I told her I need love and understanding to do what I do in a man’s world and that I don’t need to be torn down by the women in my own family. I’ve been very honest about how it affects my head and my self-esteem. I’m still dealing with my own insecurities. Patriarchy is so damaging; it runs so deep and you have to unlearn it. It takes years and it takes a toll, but you have to do your own personal work and then worry—or don’t worry—about what your family thinks later.
When did you begin doing your own “personal work”?
About three years ago, I decided I wanted to be my full, authentic self in front of my family. I was surprised by how supportive my dad was, but when I told my mom I wasn’t going to find one guy who would marry me and take care of me and give her grandchildren, she didn’t respond to it very well. Some of the most toxic, hurtful stuff comes from the people you love, and that’s why it’s so hard for women to express their true desires and be their authentic selves. At the end of the day, it’s worth it. I think it’s important to confront it and to really share our lives because if we hide, it implies that what we want and what comes naturally to us is shameful—and that’s not true.
I’m assuming art has been instrumental in your quest to be your authentic self.
Definitely. The other day, my mom talked to me about my abortion poster [“Come out. Share your story. Break the silence.”], and she said she was proud of me. I never told my mom about my abortion, but my art gave me my voice. Art is my way to discuss things in a way that is still protective of me. The one thing I despise about our culture is that children are seen as the property of their parents and parents feel it’s their job to control and shape us. Latina moms play this control game like no other and that really fucked me up. It took me a while to realize that my life and my body were mine. Yes, I love my brown people, but that doesn’t mean I can’t call out the fucked-up aspects of our culture—the racism, the misogyny, the homophobia. When I have the opportunity to speak to Latino parents, I tell them to give their kids more freedom to find their voices. Young people need to explore and experiment; many Latino parents are really afraid of that. Art has taught me to think critically for myself—it taught me how to form my own opinions and how to choose my own path. I think those are things we should want for all children.
Tina Vasquez is a writer and editor from the Los Angeles area. She has written for Bitch, Curve, and Herizons, and is a frequent contributor to The Glass Hammer. Excerpted from Bitch (Spring 2013), an independent quarterly magazine that offers a feminist response to pop culture. Follow the work of Favianna Rodriguez at her website.