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

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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.

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