UC Berkeley alum Dulce María López creates her visual art to ‘cross cultural and national borders’

A woman holds a graphic poster in front of rows of trees.
Leonie Leonida/Staff

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In 2014, 43 male students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College were kidnapped in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico. To most people on UC Berkeley’s campus, the event might have seemed too far removed for them to feel emotion and impact — but if one had stopped to stare at the leaflets on Sproul, they might have been struck by a bright pink poster asking, “What if you were #44?”

To Dulce María López, the artist of this poster, the 2014 Iguala mass kidnapping was an open wound, and though she was a freshman on campus at the time, the distance didn’t mitigate the amount of urgency she felt to do something about it.

I came to Berkeley with all this passion, and I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know how,” López said. “When (the kidnapping) happened, I was like, I can do an artwork about that. Make a poster, distribute it, and just to cause attention about these issues. … That was the first time I consciously did political art.”

This is the central theme of López’s work as an artist: She uses visual art to bring up issues that are far from our sight. López, who graduated with a degree in media studies and art practice from UC Berkeley last fall, migrated from the state of Jalisco in Mexico almost 11 years ago. Having spent half of her life in the 11th-most impoverished community in Jalisco, López finds herself continually engaged with the politics and culture of her roots.

“Since I was young, I had a strong interest in politics because I didn’t know how, but I knew something was bad. I knew something was wrong with the way we were growing up,” López said. “Even though I was living so far away from the border, I was hearing about the United States because everyone who wasn’t working in these bad conditions, who wasn’t working in these drug cartels, they just migrated to the United States. And me? That was my luck — I migrated over here.”

In her village, López grew up without access to hospitals or university-accredited schools. Because the education in the area was so poor, López attended elementary school in Ciudad Guzmán, a center of murals from a revolutionary era in Mexican history. These murals, painted by notable artists José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, were the background of López’s childhood.

“Clemente Orozco was really revolutionary, but I couldn’t really understand it as much as I could understand that my father was living in the United States,” López said. “My dad was living here so he could send money to our family in Mexico, and I grew up working in the fields.”

A poster of skeletons holding a flag.

López said she focused her studies and community work at UC Berkeley on the politics and culture of Latin America because the politics of her early life defined her interests moving forward in life. While she was able to migrate to the United States, she said many of her cousins were assassinated as the war on drugs in Mexico decimated those who were involved in the cartels.

“All that always reminded me how lucky I was that I’m still alive. And all that, I feel like it was reflected a lot in my art because this is what I see,” López said. “I feel like my community was very visual — my community doesn’t tend to read a lot, my community doesn’t tend to write a lot. Because of the education system, we’re a very visual community.”

And so, when López arrived at UC Berkeley, she wanted to continue to participate in this visual creation and expression. She came across the organization Art for Social Change, where one peer encouraged her to start drawing about the issues she cared about. Her art centers on immigration, gender issues and drug culture.

Thus, López produced the 2014 Iguala mass kidnapping poster and propelled herself into using art as a platform for activism. The artist named two other pieces of hers —  “My accent sounds like immigration” and “Fuck borders” — that were informed by her experience both in Mexico and in the United States.

López, who was president of Art for Social Change for her junior and senior years, emphasized that the club not only made art that had a message but also sold the art to raise funds for various causes. For example, the club donated proceeds from artwork about immigration to individuals stuck in detention centers.

Now that López has graduated, she is trying to navigate the art world — a world she knows to be hostile to people of color. Though López believes the UC Berkeley Department of Art Practice is not necessarily accessible to people of color, her degree allowed her to practice and approach art more professionally.

“My dreams are to just dedicate myself to art. Let me rephrase that: to dedicate myself to the art world,” López said. “My goal is create a classroom in which POC have access to art, either as creating or appreciating it or retaining it.”

A drawing of a woman holding a mountainous and rural landscape in her bosom.

With the versatility she gained from her degree, López has secured fellowships and commissions. Most recently, she was given an exhibition at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts. With this success, however, come many caveats of the unstable life of an artist, so López works in marketing to support herself. She strongly believes that artists’ work must be valued more concretely because it is a way of life for many artists like her.

“There cannot be a revolution or a social change without art — not only because of the meaning of it but because art can really reach out to those who have not had access to elite education; the working class, our communities, and the true social makers,” López added later in an email. “Value the artists because we speak, draw, and communicate through a language that touches many senses in many different ways that can cross cultural and national borders.”

Malini Ramaiyer covers culture and diversity. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @malinisramaiyer.