Favianna Rodriguez talks sexual liberation, immigration, racial justice and art

When she was in high school, Favianna Rodriguez's parents wanted her to study to become a doctor. They supported her creativity, but subjected her to a string of math and science camps that monopolized her time. As an A+, super-star student, she went to college, found herself pregnant, had an abortion and decided to quit letting other people tell her what to do. So she dropped out, invested in herself as an artist and an entrepreneur, and worked tirelessly. Now 35 years old, she has become an internationally renowned political artist whose iconic work is synonymous with the food justice, immigrant rights and sexual liberation movements. This weekend, Rodriguez will be in town participating in the theatrical extravaganza Dreaming Sin Fronteras, at North High School. In advance of her appearance here, Westword spoke with Rodriguez about her creative practice, social justice and sexual liberation.

See also: Queer undocumented artist Julio Salgado speaks out

Westword: Talk about your work.

Favianna Rodriguez: I'm a visual artist. I'm a multidisciplinary artist and also a worker of social justice. I look at ways in which art and culture can help advance social justice principles that can challenge inequality, patriarchy and globalization. In my art practice, I don't just limit myself to my studio practice or even to the act of creating objects; rather, I look to how I can collaborate with people and movements to effect real change.

Talk about some of the collaborations you've been involved with?

Since I was in my early twenties, I've always understood that the art world was one of the most unequal spaces. I grew up in the '80s. Since then, communities of color have experienced 50 percent cuts to their arts programs. In addition to that, only 10 percent of art funding goes to communities of color.

I've always known, as a woman of color growing up in a migrant family and a working-class community, that I didn't have the same access to the arts as other people and that the arts weren't reflective of my story. I have to unite and collaborate with other artists, because contrary to the idea that artists can make it on their own, I actually think that artists really thrive in community. As artists of color, we need a community because we are so underrepresented and because there is an overall lack of resources.

I began by cofounding an arts organization in Oakland. It is called the East Side Arts Alliance. It was modeled to be a space where artists of color could come and show exhibits and have dance classes and do performances and do graffiti art and murals. It took us seven years to finally be able to purchase the building. We did that in 2007.

I also helped start a web firm called Tumis. I started this with other web developers, techies and coders. Technology is also a space of culture and a space to have a conversation. Technology is also a space for the arts. I began to do web development and projects around the country that were dealing with civil rights and migrant rights, human rights, projects against gentrification and projects about queer folks. In 2009, I left Tumis and the East Side Arts Alliance to help launch a project called, which is now one of the largest online communities. It's an online platform where people engage via e-mail and their mobile phones. It was built in the style of Move On, but focused on the Latino power-block. I did that for a few years. We had a lot of victories. One of the things that was most notable was that we took down Lou Dobbs. We got Lou Dobbs removed from the air in 2009.

It was a hardcore activist project. I realized I really missed being an artist. I was doing my art practice on the side, and yet so much of the work that was speaking to people was around visual imagery. I decided then that I needed to organize artists. It was something that I was witnessing: Artists were being exploited in the social justice space. Artists' voices weren't taken seriously. Artists were instrumentalized. Artists were looked at in a very transactional way: What could they give? I had a problem with that, because art allows us to have an entirely new way of thinking. Art can help us radically re-envision our strategy. Art is not a side strategy. Art is not a communication strategy. Art gives us the space to be critical thinkers.

I began an arts organization called CultureStrike, and that's what I continue to do today. We began by focusing on migrant rights. There were a lot of artists interested in engaging on immigration. I also realized artists needed a space to organize themselves, and artists needed to be unified when it came to advocating for artists' rights. Artists need support: We need space to do our art; we need resources; we need people to advocate for us because artists are workers as well. We are the precariat; we are an unorganized labor force. We give such huge gifts to the world. I wanted to create an organization that could advocate for artists and promote the very important work that artists do within the social justice context.

I'm interested in social justice work. That's what I'm continuing to do today. In that work, I'm able to collaborate with many artists all around the world. I'm able to go meet with people in London and Mexico and Canada and talk about models in which art and culture play a central role. It's been really exciting. The thing I love to do most is to advocate for artists. I have a gift of being able to speak and get resources for projects, and I love that I'm able to support women artists and queer artists and artists of color and really kick down some doors, really make it possible so artists can thrive and do the work we want to do while being able to live on a livable wage.

I'm curious whether you have specific stories about what that mobilization around art and creating space for artists looks like?

Yes. An example of that has been the Migration Is Beautiful initiative, which was about creating positive stories around our migrant histories. I'm the daughter of migrants. My parents were undocumented for many years, and I've closely watched the anti-immigrant movement, as it has successfully circulated a narrative in this country that paints the migrant as a criminal and that criminalizes migration. In reality, people migrate predominantly because they're displaced, because of broken economies. Americans are very much responsible for disrupting economies all over the world. When we talk about migration, we're always talking about it as though migrants magically appear on the border. That's not the case. The project's aims are very much inspired by the Black Is Beautiful campaign, which took place during the civil rights era. During that time, the creators of Black Is Beautiful thought to themselves: "We are fighting for civil rights, the right to vote and against segregation, but there is another war that's happening, and that's the war in our imaginations. We have been told that black is ugly, and we need to turn that around and show that black is beautiful, and that as black people we are beautiful human beings and that we have to decolonize our minds."

The concept of Migration Is Beautiful was exactly that, it was to showcase the positivity and the resilience that our migrant community has. When people migrate, yes there is a lot of pain and suffering and longing and even sometimes violence; however, what the migrant demonstrates is the ability to leave all that behind and focus on an important goal, which is to cross the border and to get to their location because of their strong will to survive. That is a story of human resilience and human resistance. Human beings are capable of some of the most epic journeys, in order to support their families and be with their loved ones.

I helped circulate the image of the monarch butterfly, because the monarch butterfly crosses borders. I invited other artists to do the same. Together, with many artists in CultureStrike, we created tools, stencils and black-and-white drawings that people could replicate in their cities, and so everyday folks were creating their own butterfly wings. In Philadelphia, a group of moms printed the butterfly and they covered the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement building with it and really challenged the space. Not only were artists able to create work, and of course they were compensated for it, but they also were able to get their work out there. Part of what I do when I support artists is think about how we can disseminate this work? How do we get it in front of the right people? How do we not just think about it as a digital image, but think about it as a transmedia project: Let's make buttons, have T-shirts, do street art; let's have a performance. In a sense, that project is about unleashing the creativity of everyday folks. I'm just providing a framework for people to be able to participate.

Continue on for more from Favianna Rodriguez.

You were talking about financially supporting artists. How do you make this economy work for you and the artists you advocate for?

The economy works because I look for resources. Whether that's pitching the projects to social justice groups or doing fundraising, I'm always looking at ways to resource artists, because I don't ask artists to work for free. I think that artists' work is tremendously valuable, and I want to make sure that artists are getting the support they need to do their work. That's not just in getting direct funding but also in getting guidance to do their work.

Maybe they need to be introduced to somebody who can open the door for them, whether that's showing at a gallery or writing a grant. I'm an entrepreneur. I have a really good sense of how to run a business and have tried many things in my own business practice when I was running the web firm. In my own practice, as a business, I try to think of ways where I don't have to rely on one thing to make money. I can rely on many things, and I've experimented, and many times I've failed, but that has allowed me to determine what the systems are for an artist to survive. There's teaching; there's selling your work to customers; there's showing your work in galleries; there is writing grants; there is speaking at universities.

As artists, we have a really weird relationship to money. Artists have this very erroneous idea that even though we create the work, somebody's going to come discover us and put us in a gallery or in a performance venue or someone will like our singing so much that they'll make a record, and we're going to be stars, and that's a lie. The truth is that income inequality affects artists the hardest. It's very hard to be an artist because the way that the market is set up, artists front all the costs for their creativity. The artists have to rent a studio to make their paintings. They have to rent the sound equipment to be able to create a song. Then the gallery or record label determines the value of that product. It's tricky because we've been taught to feel that art is this magical place where money doesn't matter, and that's not true. Unless you stand up for your rights and unless you really think through how you're going to survive as an artist, then you're going to be facing the same issue that many people in this country face, which is this issue of poverty.

As artists we face poverty so much more because there is not infrastructure to support what we're doing. We're getting wiped out. The first thing the government does is slash public art programs. The opportunities for artists that existed during the WPA era are no longer there. Artists need to understand that our economic viability is something that we very much need to advocate for and organize around. Just like low-wage workers are organizing, we also need to make sure that our work is respected.

I see this happen a lot in the movement. Artists get asked to do things for free all the time, and often, they're asked by people who are getting a wage to organize. That's not okay. I challenge many social justice groups on this notion that art should be free. Art should be a part of the public good. The thing is, there is not a public infrastructure that supports artists. As a result, we have to be able to ask for fair compensation.

What are your thoughts on mentorship, and how does that fit into your practice?

I didn't finish college. I dropped out of school because I was pregnant when I was nineteen, and I decided I wanted to have an abortion. In that year, I realized that I wanted to be an artist and to take a risk and pursue that. When I was growing up, my parents didn't encourage me to be an artist. They were supportive, but they didn't tell me that it could be my career. They wanted me to be a doctor. My parents immigrated here. For them, the idea that I would do art really freaked them out. I was a math/science honor student. I would have to go to math camp and science camp after school and on Saturdays and in the summer. I was a very obedient kid. Even though I was a little rebellious, I followed everything my parents said when it came to my education.

The problem is that by the time I got to high school, I didn't have a portfolio. You can't apply to art school if you don't have a portfolio. Although I was a very creative kid and my teachers would tell my parents that I had a gift and needed to be in creative programs, it was not possible for me to do that because I didn't get the kind of education I needed to go to art school.

I went to UC Berkeley for three years in the ethnic studies department. During that time, I met a few mentors. I took art classes on the side and was on campus, which meant I was free from the stronghold of my parents, and I was doing more and more art. It was coming more naturally for me. I met a woman. Her name was Elaina Cervantes. She looked at my work and said, "You really have a gift, and you have to pursue it. I'm going to introduce you to other artists in L.A." So I met folks and got a lot of advice and a lot of support. A lot of artists took me under their wings, and I decided then, after I got pregnant, that I didn't want to be a part of the education system anymore. I wasn't feeling fulfilled. It was tremendously expensive, and I felt that it was time for me to invest in myself.

I decided to learn on my own and find professional artists who would be willing to guide me and spend time with me. I reached out to many artists, including folks like Emory Douglas and Malaquias Montoya. I was taking it upon myself to be an autodidactic, which means somebody who learns on their own. Were it not for people mentoring me and taking time to show me the ropes and techniques, to show me how to write a bio and show me how to build a website, I wouldn't have been able to do any of that. Luckily, many people spent time with me, and they opened many doors.

I strongly believe in supporting younger artists and artists of color, especially. I understand the vast inequality we face in the art world. I'll give you a few numbers. Only 10 percent of arts funding goes to curators of color; 93.5 percent of curators in museums are white. Nine out of ten critics are white. Facing this reality, I want to mentor younger artists and teach them how to advocate for themselves, teach them how to charge and encourage them to try new things and push them outside of their comfort zone and support them in the way that I was supported. Unfortunately, the colleges are not going to do that for them.

Continue on for more from Favianna Rodriguez.

Your work addresses so many issues at the same time: sexuality and food and migration. How do all of these things come together in your work? What moves you to go in those directions?

I'm a woman, and so I have to face patriarchy in my life. I see how patriarchy manifests itself every single day, so I want to be sure to incorporate women's issues into my work. I grew up in a family where people didn't talk to me about condoms. People didn't talk to me about safe sex and especially about pleasure. I didn't learn what it was like to feel pleasure. I had to learn all that on my own. I had to learn all that through trial and error. As a result, when I reflect back on why it was that I got pregnant, even though I was a 4.2 student, it was because nobody taught me how to have good relationships, and as a result, I didn't know how to advocate and navigate that world of love and sex. I didn't have the tools to be able to say: "Well, I really need you to use a condom." I was an A-plus, all-star kid, but I didn't get those skills.

Now I'm 35 years old. Fifteen years ago, I realized I wanted to explore open relationships. I read this book called The Ethical Slut. It opened my eyes and transformed my view of sexuality, because it confirmed something I knew to be true: I could love many people at the same time. Just a few years ago, I really came out as queer and understood that I did not want to identify as a lesbian; I did not want to identify as bisexual; I wanted to identify as queer, because it allows me this space to be along a spectrum and not have to align myself with something I felt was very white. I always felt that the whole LGBTQ thing felt very white and felt disconnected from who I am as a woman of color.

I grew up in Oakland, in a food desert, where all we had was fast food around us. I was seeing young people drinking soda and eating really bad food. As a result, I became interested in food justice. I started researching and understanding that the number one cause of death in our community is related to what we eat. I began to understand the injustice that happens with things like NAFTA and globalization. I also witnessed police brutality in my community. I witnessed the start of gentrification. All these different issues I began learning about through a political education. I was able to learn about the Black Panthers, the Brown Berets, the Chicano movement and the women's movement. All of these things affected my life, and I believe we need to look at how we draw intersections in our art.

Art is precisely that space where we don't need to have linear narratives. When we're making art, art can be about so many different stories.

One of the reasons that I care about immigration is because my parents are migrants and many in my family are undocumented. There has not been immigration reform in over 25 years. My family finds it impossible to be able to get their papers. Like them, there are eleven million migrants. This is something that's deeply affected me and caused instability in my family and my community. I see it. I can't ignore that, and that's why I take on immigration.

Also, of course, I care about the environment. I care about climate. I care about climate change and issues that affect our mother earth. My mentors taught me that we have to live in harmony with the earth, that we don't exploit it, and we take care of it because the earth is our mother. Our indigenous ancestors passed on these lessons.

Audre Lorde says it best. She says: "We do not lead single-issue lives." We are multi-dimensional people. I care about factory farming just as much as I care about patriarchy because I believe that factory farming, the people doing factory farming, are Latino--overwhelmingly Latinos. It's been an exploitative system that doesn't value workers and doesn't value animals. Those are my values and that's why I engage in that topic. Overall, I'm a multi-dimensional person, like everyone, actually.

What are you most excited about?

Right now what I'm really excited about is art that talks about orgasms and racial justice. As women of color, we have been hypersexualized to the point where we are often reacting in a way that is very asexual. Because we've been hypersexualized in discussions around racial justice, we don't talk about our ability to be our full sexual selves. One thing that I've learned in the sexual freedom movement is that often spaces embracing polyamory, kink and open relationships are very white. It's unfortunate, because I think that our ability to express ourselves sexually has a lot to do with our ability to be human. If we don't have that right or that space to explore ourselves in our fullest dimensions, then we are limiting ourselves. We are allowing oppression to limit our sexuality. I think that women, especially in social justice spaces, don't talk about our right to pleasure. Why do we fight for an eight-hour work day? It's so that people can go home in the evening and have sex with whom they love and have dinner and enjoy a leisurely activity. I think that we forget that we are fighting so that people have whole lives that include leisure and pleasure.

What I'm excited about is getting women to explore their very beautiful pussies and to learn how to get off. We live in such a phallic culture, and sex centralizes and uplifts men's needs. We live in a culture that promotes rape culture, and women are either asexualized or they're hypersexualized. They exist within this virgin-whore dichotomy. As a result, we don't talk about women's orgasms or women's pleasure or the fact that women can have two types of orgasms: they can have clitoral orgasms and vaginal orgasms.

I really started experimenting with myself. Whether it's through trying out different toys or different partners or different kinds of strap-ons or accessories, I am figuring out who I am and what feels good to me. That journey has honestly been so lonely because I hardly see women of color. I am surrounded by white women who are doing this. It's so frustrating to me, because this needs to be something we talk about.

Latina women have the highest pregnancy rate. The fact that we're not talking about sex is only creating a place where young Latina girls do not have the agency to really advocate for what they want. That, to me, is not feminism. Feminism also has to include an analysis of pleasure. It has to give young women the tools. Young women are having sex. They're having a lot of sex. How do we make sure they are enjoying the sex and that they're able to tell their partners what they want? I'm 35: I sometimes wonder why it took me so long to be open about this stuff. That's because of shame. That's because of stigma. When you are a woman who openly talks about this, you're shamed. It's called slut-shaming. That's also something I want to challenge in my work.

How do we take on colonization and racial justice by empowering a pussy culture, a culture that celebrates the pussy, a culture where we move away from the phallic imaginary into the pussy imaginary? That's what I'm trying to do now with my art. I'm really excited about it. I've focused on art and immigration for the last five years. I've been tackling the physical border that is the U.S.-Mexico border. Now, I'm challenging the border in my own imagination around sex and self-love.

There will be three performances of Dreaming Sin Fronteras today and tomorrow March 21 and March 22, at North High School. Tickets are $20 for adults and $5 for students.

Follow me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris

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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris