is a Chicana artist, writer, and educator who lives in San Francisco. The name Chicano/Chicana refers to Mexican-Americans who fight for equal rights for their people. Chicanas are Mexican-American females; Chicanos are Mexican-American males.
Amalia grew up with the home altars (“altares”) and yard shrines (“capillas”—small chapels) which are popular with the Latino culture. These are sacred religious spaces. “Altares” might be set on top of the TV, on a table, or in the bedroom; “capillas” are placed outside in the yard, facing out toward the street. An altare consists of religious statues, flowers, candles, lights, and family photographs.
Heritage, identity, family values, and rituals or cultural practices are important to Mexican-American culture. Some Chicana art may be about family history, daily life, or resistance to exploitation. The shrine can be all of these; it’s also a symbol of spiritual belief. A strong part of Chicana identity and culture, it represents communication between sacred beings and humans—a place where people ask or give thanks for special favors.
Amalia’s first art work was about religious shrines. She then took this theme further by using the traditional shrine form to honor her Mexican cultural heroines such as artist Frida Kahlo, actress Dolores Del Rio, and her own family members including her beloved grandmother. In making shrines and altars, she is identifying with her heritage, independent women, and those who break social barriers. Eventually the works grew to room-size installations which sometimes also include music and sound. Where have you seen an altar or shrine? What is a heroine or hero? Who are some of yours? Why?
One of Amalia’s pieces, dedicated to the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, consists of a little stone room placed in a landscape of dead leaves filled with souvenirs of Mexican popular arts, such as folk toys and pottery figures, that Kahlo loved. What do you think this means? Why is the room made of stone? What do the dead leaves represent? Why did the artist include Mexican folk art?
Another of her shrines, to the Mexican actress Dolores Del Rio, is 8 feet high. At first you see lots of shiny satin, ribbons, lace, and glittery mirrors, bottles, and pearls. It seems Dolores was a very glamorous movie star! But closer inspection reveals that Amalia is also praising the actress for her accomplishments: Dolores Del Rio was the first Mexican superstar to break through the Hollywood color barrier, much the same way Jackie Robinson was the first black to play in a major league baseball club. The shrine includes photographs of Dolores, information about her, and personal letters. She was a friend of the artist Frida Kahlo, and was committed to helping artists in Mexico.
An object that Amalia often uses in her work is that of a mirror, sometimes broken. Looking in a mirror can symbolize pride; a broken mirror can also symbolize a shattered self-image. Mirrors reflect how we see ourselves and others—sometimes, in a mirror, you see something in a new way. How do you think this relates to Latinos and other minorities in our society?
Amalia Mesa-Bains writes articles for books and magazines and serves on the San Francisco Art Commission. Her art gives new meaning to ancient traditions.