The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Yolanda López, artist who elevated Latina life, dies at 78

In her artwork, Yolanda López set out “to pay honor to the ordinary.” (Alexa “LexMex” Treviño)

Yolanda López, an artist who elevated women and especially Latina women in her work, most notably a series of paintings that replaced the iconic image of the Virgin of Guadalupe with vibrant depictions of contemporary female life, in all its struggle and strength, died Sept. 3 at her home in San Francisco. She was 78.

She had complications from liver cancer, said her son, Rio Yañez, who is also an artist.

A granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, Ms. López grew up in San Diego but spent nearly her entire adult life in San Francisco, where she joined the Chicano movement in the 1960s. From the start, she saw art and activism as intertwined, and she sought to use her paintings, posters and other works to empower the Latino community.

“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.”

Ms. López was best known for a series of paintings, begun in the late 1970s, that subverted the traditional image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, or the Virgin Mary as she is believed in Catholicism to have appeared to Saint Juan Diego of Mexico in 1531. Clothed in a blue mantle, she radiates light from the sacred stillness of her serene figure.

In a 1978 triptych, Ms. López depicted herself, her mother and her grandmother in the Virgin’s place. In the self-portrait, Ms. 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, Ms. López’s mother labors at a sewing machine, mending the blue fabric with her expert hands. In the third, her grandmother sits atop the mantle, a blade in one hand and the skin of a snake in the other.

Ms. López knew that she “was on to something,” she told the Tribune, when she began to encounter resistance to the work. A printer refused to photograph the painting, declaring that “you can mess around with my woman, my car, anything. But you don’t touch my lady,” referring to the Virgin. A Mexican magazine that published the works reportedly received bomb threats.

Ms. López continued working in that vein, also presenting the Virgin Mary as pre-Columbian goddesses and a modern-day Mexican American young woman.

“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.

Ms. López, who struggled for much of her career to support herself financially, is today considered one of the most important Latina artists of her time. This year, she received a Latinx Artist Fellowship, a $50,000 prize underwritten 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.”

Yolanda Margaret López was born in San Diego on Nov. 1, 1942. She was raised by her mother, who worked as a sweatshop seamstress, and her maternal grandparents, both of whom were born in Mexico.

With her mother often engaged at work, Ms. López was largely responsible for bringing up her three younger sisters, according to her son. From an early age, she found an emotional release in artwork. It was “the one thing that she could do for herself in that period of her life,” her son said.

The day after her high school graduation, an uncle drove Ms. López to the San Francisco Bay area, where she moved in with him and his boyfriend. In San Francisco, she experienced a political as well as artistic awakening, joining the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the principal organizing groups of the civil rights movement.

Ms. López also participated in the Third World Liberation Front, which mounted a strike in 1968 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,” Ms. López told the website Shaping San Francisco years later.

Working on behalf of Los Siete de La Raza, a group of Latino defendants ultimately acquitted of killing a San Francisco police officer in 1969, she designed a poster, titled “Free Los Siete,” that presented the stripes of the U.S. flag as prison bars incarcerating the accused.

Another of her most noted posters was titled “Who’s the Illegal Alien, Pilgrim?” In that work, she depicted the Uncle Sam of “I Want You” Army recruitment posters as an Aztec god, jabbing at the viewer with the finger of one hand, while crushing immigration papers in the other.

After undergraduate studies at several universities, Ms. López received a master of fine arts degree from the University California at San Diego in 1979. She had lived for the past four decades in San Francisco’s Mission District, overcoming an attempted eviction that she protested in 2014 by selling her belongings in an act of performance art.

Ms. López’s son, from a relationship with the late San Francisco artist René Yañez, resides in Oakland, Calif. Besides her son, survivors include two sisters.

Reflecting on her life and her work, Ms. López told the Tribune that she found meaning in paying “honor to the ordinary.”

“I am not as interested in the extraordinary,” she said.

Read more Washington Post obituaries