Six-year-old Yolanda Guerra sat at the dining room table with a Dick-and-Jane elementary-level reader. The strong, bold print matched her growing confidence as she strung words into sentences. Her father sat next to her and watched her read. “Mija, what is it about? Tell me.” She started saying the sentences out loud. “Which word is that on the page?” he asked. “What’s that word?” he pointed, “and that word?” She looked at him, and he said, “Mija, I don’t know how to read.”
At 18, for a graduation present, Yolanda received money from her father. She spent it all on buying novels. “When he asked what I got, he started crying. My father and I were connected intuitively. He created a space for both of us to learn.”
Gratitude for her father inspired one of Yolanda’s most well-toured pieces, “Love, Strength, Will and Power of Protest (Little Iron Vagina),” an installation work in which a small iron with a glowing, red center sits atop an ironing board. Flanking the brave little machine, two wooden panels with handwritten cursive describe a memory from the early ’80s, when Yolanda was 13 and her older brother demanded she iron his shirt. When her refusal escalated into an argument, and her mother sided with her brother, her father stepped in and freed Yolanda from the outdated expectation that women must cater to men.
“My father and I were connected intuitively. He created a space for both of us to learn.” -Yolanda Guerra
Much of Yolanda’s art explores the culture she inherited from previous generations. For example, one of her works-in-progress is an untitled textile sculpture about dismantling shame, for herself as much as her mom and dad. “My parents were hit in elementary school for speaking Spanish,” Yolanda explains. “I need to let go of the guilt my parents had.” As a child of assimilation, her English is fluent, but her Spanish is hesitant. “I have students who ask, ‘You’re Mexican–how come you don’t speak Spanish?’ We have to talk about the colonizer!”
A full-time artist with her own studio at the Alameda Artworks, Yolanda has been teaching art for eleven years. Born in San Jose as the youngest of nine, she chose to pursue her BFA in Art while her classmates became engineers or graphic illustrators. She found an affinity for writing, which she sometimes embroiders into her artwork: her own words mix with those of Pablo Neruda and Sandra Cisneros in “She Gave Birth to Joy and Poetry,” a sculpture composed of a zip-up cloth tissue-box with smooth, dried flaps of colorful acrylic paint and butterflies. Its satin lining contains lines of poetry celebrating the beauty, depth, and functions of the vagina.
Many of her recent pieces are woodblock prints about families separated from their children. Yolanda sees these works as healing for herself and possibly for many others as well. “I want to show love and hope and pain, but pain in a way that people can see the beauty of family, of Mexican people,” she says. “I want to be some kind of voice for people who are not always heard.”
“I think that’s why I’m a teacher too,” Yolanda reflects. “Each time I walk into a classroom, I want to honor the teachers I had.” During her time at Evergreen Valley College, which Yolanda attended for junior college before San Jose State, she found creative women professors who were “kind and open to people’s craziness.” The instructor whom she dubs her “first art mama” once told her, “You have to follow your own path. Because if not, what kind of life would that be?”
And so, Yolanda expresses her truth in every way she can. She reminds her city it was once a farming community; it can continue to innovate without exacerbating wage gaps. She sheds tears each summer as another class of students graduates; she makes art about them, wishing them well. And eventually, confirmations arrive at the door. Her students return to their art mama and tell her they still enjoy drawing or painting or printmaking. And Yolanda rests assured she’s at the right place in life. “Whatever pulls me in the direction of where I need to be, I follow that. Despite whatever situations are around. That’s just my way of living.”
The Alameda Artworks
1068 The Alameda
San Jose, CA 95124
Article originally appeared inIssue 11.5 Dine (Print SOLD OUT)