Oakland native Favianna Rodriguez is a world-renown artist who uses her art to promote social change and activism. Above is a short documentary on her work. Below is the full interview from my time with her:
GROWING UP IN AN IMMIGRANT FAMILY
Growing up in an immigrant family is how I learned to be an entrepreneur and also how I learned to create my own reality. They were restaurant workers, they were janitors, they did everything they could. And so I was always really inspired by their commitment to, you know, create something of themselves. And I also witnessed how hard they worked. So it shaped me because I saw a model of what it meant to work for yourself and to create something out of nothing.
Growing up in an immigrant family also just means that we are constantly thinking about home and home is a place that's very far away. And as somebody who was born here yet, I grew up at a time when the system didn't really see me or recognize me, there was always this interesting relationship to Peru, which was supposed to be my homeland, but it was actually a place I didn't end up going until I was 15. So I think I just always felt what it means to be a part of a group of people that's on the move.
I believe that immigrants are pollinators. They are bringing ideas from other places and they are helping to cultivate a new kind of culture. And my parents were so curious, you know, they had gone from Peru to the United States. My mom was a travel agent before the internet was born. And so we went to all kinds of places throughout the world to explore. And they picked up little traditions and that is really the essence of migrant culture is to take ideas with you when you are on the move. And it also means adapting to your new home. My parents found ways to remix new traditions with their old traditions and to create their version of American culture.
GROWING UP IN OAKLAND
I grew up in Oakland’s Fruitvale District. My memories of being in the Fruitvale during the eighties and the nineties were largely witnessing the effects of the drug war and also experiencing what it felt like to be neglected by the city and by the state, because at that time, Oakland was a homicide Capitol and nobody wanted to come to Oakland. I could really feel the pain in my neighborhood. It's just a very strong memory that is with me: witnessing gang violence - a lot of gang violence - witnessing the effects of addiction, of incarceration, also of racism, anti-immigrant sentiment - all of those things were present. And then there were the things that we couldn't explicitly see like pollution.
The Fruitvale is a highly, highly polluted area, just like West Oakland, because we are next to the 880 freeway. It’s one of the most transited corridors in California. And while white people in the hills don't experience the level of pollution - precisely because they banned diesel trucks from going through all of that, consequently, it’s disproportionately affecting my neighborhood and many other neighborhoods along the freeway. I also clearly remember the lack of healthy food options. Fast food was all throughout throughout my neighborhood.
Overall, I would say I have a mixed relationship with the Fruitvale. On one hand, it’s a place of tremendous inspiration. It is where I witnessed the resilience of people who were experiencing a lot of harm. And it was also a very hard place to grow up in as a kid. And it really represented the injustice of what poverty does and what the war on drugs did - and many other factors like pollution, food apartheid, and police violence all do to communities.
And so despite Oakland being a very hard place to live in, there was so much resilience. There was a lot of beautiful art and creativity that emerged from hardship, and that was really beautiful to witness.The Black Panther Party was born here. Native American people have been organizing here. Latinx people have been organizing here. And all of those things combined were just kind of dropped into my imagination through osmosis. I literally would see black power. I would see Chicano pride. I would see, you know, murals that talked about our culture and those things shaped me. And I feel like my art is an output of that.
I would describe my art process as very Oakland. My art process is very reflective of my lived experience and it's about creating something out of nothing.
I learned from my first teacher, Xochitl Guerro, who was my first art teacher in the Fruitvale, about color, symbolism, and I learned about the importance of keeping tradition alive through my art. And so, so much of my art is about retaining the memory of what it means to have grown up as a Latinx woman and daughter of immigrants. My art is about putting all these things together and creating something that is highly, highly unique.
My colors are inspired by hip-hop, by graffiti. Actually my color palette is very much what I saw growing up: the bright colors, the pinks, the oranges, the yellows. And it's also about resistance. And that's the other thing about Oakland and having grown up in the Fruitvale is that Oakland is the place of very powerful political movements.
And my art was also a very safe place for me to be because I didn't like what I saw in my hood. The art was a place for me to imagine it was where I could create my own reality. And it was a place where I could escape. And so I feel like my art is a place of many possibilities, and it's also a deep, deep reflection of who I am and all the components that make me me.
So once again, my community finds itself in crisis. The Fruitvale is currently experiencing some of the highest rates of COVID infection in Alameda County. We are a tremendously dense community. Currently, Latinos are six times as likely to be infected by COVID-19. It's especially upsetting that the numbers are not just high in the Fruitvale, but they're also high in San Francisco. Although Latinos make up a very small percentage of the population in San Francisco, more than half of the infections are of Latinx people.
We're in the Bay Area. This is one of the wealthiest regions in one of the wealthiest states in one of the wealthiest countries in the world - if not the wealthiest country in the world. And to see the rates of infection at the national level is heartbreaking.
And, of course, that has to do because so many people in the Fruitvale community are frontline workers. And these are also folks that have systemically been disenfranchised by the system. And so we're in a moment of opportunity. What the pandemic has done is that it has really revealed the failures of an economic system.
And then also to experience that in my own home is really devastating because it, once again reminds me of my community is treated in a disposable way - people are literally dying. They are losing their life. They are getting sick in a neighborhood that has some of the highest rates of children in the Bay Area as well.
And COVID is a respiratory disease. COVID is a respiratory disease. And communities that have traditionally experienced pollution - like the Fruitvale - are at a higher risk. Also, communities that are vulnerable to food diseases are at a higher risk of COVID too.
We're at an important crossroads where as a community, we have to organize for investment in our health infrastructure. And we have to think about how to cope with this new reality. In the Fruitvale, we have multiple families living together. That is immigrant culture. That is how immigrant communities survive. We also don't have a lot of recreational options. And again, we are one of the most densely populated neighborhoods.
The new reality that COVID is bringing is that it is forcing us to really look how we take care of each other at the local level, how we care for the most vulnerable.
I'm really, really happy to be in the Fruitvale now during this time. I've always tried to model what radical transformative change can look like. One of the reasons why I got solar power in my home was because I wanted to inspire my neighbors to think more ecologically, and to really help move away from a company that's actually causing massive wildfires in the state of California. I wanted to really look at energy independence. I wanted us to think about ending our relationship to the fossil fuel industry because we have been affected by fossil fuels. We have very high rates of asthma because of the trucks that go up and down 880. I would love to see more farmer's markets - more healthy options for our community to eat.
And so for me, I believe we are at an intersection. I believe we are at a moment for intersectional solutions. Solutions that address the air we breathe, that address how we stay safe, how we stay healthy, how young people are educated and how we have access to create our own narrative about ourselves. And that is where the arts comes in. The arts is about us imagining what our future can be telling our stories and creating beauty around us because we deserve to live in a beautiful place that really reflects our culture.
BREAKING GENERATIONAL TRAUMA
Every year, I have a tradition of creating an altar. It’s become a regular practice. On the altar, I put flowers on where I honor my dad who passed away. And in addition to that, I also actuall honor the story of who I was. I’ve become he first generation who could really deal with breaking generational trauma. I know that the pain that my parents experienced in having to leave their country of origin to come to a country they didn't know is something that they carried for a long time. My father, as an Afro Peruvian man, the son of a black woman, had a lot of pain from the hardship that slavery created in the country of Peru and the effects of it. I feel like I'm the first generation to be able to process that. I’m able to heal from that precisely because my ancestors worked so hard to get us to this point. And so through my altar, I also honor the person I was - the part of me that I also am allowing to die, which is, you know, the young, angry Favi, the Favi who felt disenfranchised, who felt, um, very neglected by the system. And instead, you know, one of the reasons why I'm an artist is because I want to create a new reality for myself and for many other people - especially women of color. So I want to show how we can actually build and create our own reality. So the altar is a space of self-reflection. It's a space to honor my ancestors, to connect with my dead people and a place to mourn.
My art is about a movement. My art is about shifting world view. My art is about presenting new ideas that actually intersect so many issues. I'm tremendously inspired by the work of Kimberly Crenshaw who created the idea of intersectionality - which is really that our lives are not siloed. That air pollution has something to do with the issues we experienced in our lives - whether it's living in a food desert or living in a polluted neighborhood or living in a place where there's high rates of police brutality, or even COVID infection. All of these things intersect.
And the super power that I have is that I'm an artist. And so for me, it's not just about reflecting on our harsh reality, it's about creating a way of how we can move forward. Even if those ideas just exist in the imagination, it means unlearning all the things we learn. It's actually about having an entirely different worldview than what we were exposed to because the current world view that we live under is an extractive worldview based on ideas of domination. We, for the last, for the last 500 years, the story that we have been told, and the story that really guides our entire political and economic system is one in which the few control the many - it's one in which people are exploited for their labor. So, what would it look like if we were in balance with the environment? What would it look like if we didn't have a system of racism that exploited people? What if we had true gender equity? Those are the things that I strive to depict in my art. And really, I strive for people to leverage the power of their imagination, to think about the world that we want, even if that world is not going to happen in our lifetime. It's really about, it's really about planting the seed, so that future generations, um, so that future generation, so that future generations are able to be inspired.