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Hidden in Plain Sight: Media Workers for Social Change, Chapter 4
by Peter M (streetdemos [at]
Saturday Mar 13th, 2010 8:44 PM
This is the fourth in a series of profiles of activist and alternative media workers in the Bay Area by Indybay contributor Peter M. Featured in this installment is artist Favianna Rodriguez. She is shown below with a mural on a temporary wall at the Oakland Museum downtown. She is responsible for the mural—she organized many local artists to do panels for it, and she is standing by the panel she created.
I first interviewed Favianna Rodriguez for Indybay in 2004. We met at a conference held in Barrows Hall at the University of California Berkeley that was called “Designs on Democracy.” She was one of a handful of designers and activists who put the conference together, and it was attended by several hundred people from around the U.S. She told me, “The conference is not just for designers, it’s for communicators and people who are in the business of doing marketing and selling the image of the left, to take it to a broader audience, and make it more appealing.”

Rodriguez contributed a poster to the event, in which she portrayed herself pasting the poster—a poster within a poster—onto the air in front of a cityscape. “It’s being posted on a cityscape to reclaim the right to public space,” she said recently. “I wanted to highlight this, since the conference was around our democratic right to have our voice of dissent.”

At the age of 31, Rodriguez has produced over 200 posters, many on political themes, and some more personal. She is also a business owner, an organizer, and a world traveler. “I no longer consider myself ‘emerging,’” she said. “I think I’m entering mid-career.” She has built the kind of life that many other artists can only imagine. Getting there was a journey that began in an immigrant East Bay home.

Her parents both came from Peru, without papers at first, and they met in the Bay Area. Her mother worked in dental offices, and her father worked in restaurants, each juggling two to three jobs at a time. They knew they had a talented child. “Even as a kid I was really creative,” Rodriguez said. “I would win a lot of competitions and my parents really supported my creativity.” There was a caveat—they saw her art as a hobby. “They definitely wanted me to be a doctor, or an engineer, or something meaningful that would make them very proud immigrant parents, because they didn’t get the opportunity to go to college.”

It was a struggle for Rodriguez to get a decent education in the Oakland schools. She went to Catholic School until the seventh grade, when her parents sent her to Mexico City for junior high so she would be in a better and safer learning environment. After returning, she broke the rules to go to San Leandro High School while living in Oakland, got caught, and then finished high school at Oakland’s Skyline High.

She likes Oakland, but is concerned about the pervasive violence there, as she told The Oak Book Magazine last year: “I grew up in Oakland, attended Oakland schools, I was scared as a child, I was scared as a teen, and now as an adult, I am still scared at times.” Despite the fear, and the sub-par instruction she received in high school, she excelled and took Saturday and summer school classes for teens at UC Berkeley. When she graduated, she was admitted to Cal with a number of community scholarships.

In 1999 she met a Chicana artist who saw her talent, and suggested she should make a trip to Self-Help Graphics, a well-established barrio art center in Los Angeles, and participate in putting together a portfolio of prints done by women. She went, and was the youngest artist there. The effort changed her perspective. “I was introduced into the world that is Chicana art,” she said, “and from there I decided to focus on my art. I really felt like I could succeed at it.”

As a junior, she realized that higher education wasn’t what really inspired her. She began to see herself taking on the role of arts entrepreneur. She had been a model student, but she thought she could take her skills into business. She was already around friends who were working in the business world—coding, developing and designing—and she jumped from Cal into co-founding a shop called Tumis Design in 2000.

Design, Rodriguez points out, is different from the kind of art where you have full freedom to express any idea. A designer must meet the requirements of a client. Tumis found clients in the area of social change organizations, many of whom were starting their first website. “From the moment we opened Tumis, we were busy,” Rodriguez said.

Tumis is still going strong. By now they have served 300 clients on over 500 projects. They recently moved from a shop in the San Antonio neighborhood of Oakland into Berkeley’s Brower Center, which is a model of ecological design. Tumis also spun off the Taller Tupac Amaru, a print-making collective, which now works out of the backyard of Rodriguez’ home.

While she was starting work at Tumis, she also participated in founding the East Side Arts Alliance. The mission statement of the Alliance, as published on its website, says: “We are committed to working in … Oakland neighborhoods to support a creative environment that improves the quality of life for our communities and advocates for progressive, systemic social change.” In 2007 they purchased a multi-use building on International Boulevard in Oakland where people can engage in art, music and community event. The building includes 16 units of affordable housing.

Perhaps Rodriguez’ legacy will be institution-building. Tumis, a for-profit business, and the Alliance, a non-profit, are both remarkable organizations already a decade in existence, and showing no signs of slowing down. They serve as models for the Latino community, and also for those who share the values of the left.

“I never feel stuck for ideas,” Rodriguez said. “I feel like I’m in the middle of a huge social justice ecosystem, where I’m constantly seeing subjects I can approach in my work.” She added, “In making art, I think about sharing a narrative, and touching people so much that they want to do something.” She recently came out with a book, co-edited with Josh MacPhee, called “Reproduce and Revolt,” which contains hundreds of graphics from movements for social justice, to be used freely by activists in their flyers, posters and books.

For a while, she took her activist viewpoint to the airwaves, working with Hard Knock Radio at KPFA-FM. She covered the 2008 Democratic National Convention, where her feelings about street protest changed. “When I was at the DNC,” she said, “I saw very clearly how the cops and the protesters were involved in a kind of theater, and how each of them were really interdependent with each other. The cops needed the protesters in order to justify their huge military spending. The protesters needed the cops in order to create a confrontational feeling, like an adrenaline rush. The whole protest area there was enclosed, so the public didn’t get to see it. I was sort of thinking ‘Wow, we are being very isolated as protesters.’ Which makes me realize we have to rethink how we engage with the public. Because once you win over the public, it’s a different game. We were not winning them over.”

Rodriguez sees another more immediate and potent form of protest in the story of how forced Lou Dobbs off CNN’s airwaves in 2009. Presente, which shares space with Tumis at the Brower Center, was co-founded by Rodriguez, and she consults for them as her day job. The people at Presente worked hard on a three month online campaign bringing Latinos together to pressure CNN to get rid of Dobbs because of his anti-immigrant hate speech. “It was really around targeting CNN’s brand,” Rodriguez said, “because when you mess with their brand, you’re ultimately messing with their bottom line.” Fearing they would be tainted by Dobbs’ racism and would face the loss of Latino viewers important to advertising revenue, CNN caved in to the innovative campaign, and Dobbs was out. It was seen as a major victory for Latinos.

Some of Rodriguez’ art, in particular her self-portraiture, shows her as a divided person. She explained, “I’m a radical Latina. I consider myself very radical. I’m for gay marriage; I’m for decriminalizing drugs. But I have to be careful around how I discuss these ideas in my community because I don’t want to isolate myself. I would first have to spend time in educating the community and shifting its consciousness. I have to deal with the fact that I’m in a somewhat conservative ethnic group. I love my people very much, so I want to carry forward the traditions that are great about our history, but also break them. That’s why I make art around duality.”

As our interview concluded, Rodriguez made clear she does not see her career as typical. “I don’t ever talk about my success as being the success of Latinos. Because it’s not. I’m a very unique case, and I think a lot of variables have intersected so I’m able to be a successful artist.” She said she “calls that out” to the many mostly white audiences she addresses in her frequent travels—she tells them she is aware she is only making up part of a small quota of women and Latinos who manage to survive in business and art, and that many more need to be included.

Rodriguez says she fights her oppression by taking control, artistically and as a businesswoman. She puts forward that an outsider has to learn to work within the system in order to radically change it. That is what she tries herself to do. She is a Bay Area pioneer, and it is more than likely that many will follow the trails she is blazing.

Photo Assistant: Charles Slay