Frontiers Augmented highlights selected authors from our issues to create a means for deeper engagement with the content published in the Frontiers Journal. The most recent general issue, 43.1, edited by Frontiers Co-Editors Wanda S. Pillow, Kimberly M. Jew, and Darius Bost, highlights the issue’s cover artist, Ruby Chacón, community muralist, artist, and teacher.
I continue to paint our counter stories because we deserve to have a right to belong, to exist, and be celebrated. I raise my voice proudly through large murals and paintings. Like Native artist Alan Houser, I paint large so “people have to look up to my ancestors.” I want my work to read: We will continue to thrive despite the barriers put upon us. Occasionally, I have to say a prayer to my ancestors to show me where I am and where I am going. As I stray or feel lost, I put trust in my community and my ancestors to guide me back towards my path that is full of rough terrain but also full of hummingbirds and rivers. I listen for the sounds whispering their stories into my ears. Stories of perseverance exhale hope onto my brush and it guides me back home into the sacredness of my heart where my family, my community and my ancestors have persisted and will continue to thrive for generations.
When my high school posted my name as a graduate for the class of 1989, I thought it was a mistake. I had spent the past three years daydreaming during the office visits while my high school counselor consistently repeated in frustration: “I don’t know why you keep trying, you won’t graduate anyways!” Immediately after graduation, I escaped to Santa Barbara City College to find reprieve from the power of her oppressive words. Leaving Utah would be the first glimmer of light towards my work as an artist.
Going to see a counselor at Santa Barbara city college was terrifying. I went to the EOPS office, which I never heard of before. John Diaz was the first Chicano I ever saw in education, and the first time I saw other students of color in higher education. Mr. Diaz advised me academically, and when I returned to his office the next day, he said, “c’mon, let’s go take care of your financial aid.” I told him I had completed the process, and he was dumbfounded that I figured out how to do it on my own. In retrospect, I realize that I developed these skills having to navigate the school system on my own as my single mom, Virginia only finished the second grade. As a result, I took care of the bank account, job applications, medical for her, and this in turn, helped me learn to problem solve. The most important lesson going to school in California though, was that I felt for the first time that I belonged and that I had the skills inside me to thrive.
I was raised in Utah, a conservative White Mormon culture. I did not realize the coping skills I developed until I visited other states. I was taught to fold my arms when going into the grocery store, behave. Always be the best worker or, “I would be the first one to be fired,.” cover for coworkers who called in, never ever be late, do not cause trouble, and never do anything to be noticed. It wasn’t until I was older, when I could travel to other states, did I notice my coping strategies. I carried this weight in my body, and it wasn’t until I could release these ideas into paintings did I begin my healing journey.
I never saw our lives, how we thrived on gallery walls. I did not read them in books except in my one Chicano experience class in college. I knew our stories were tainted, or completely invisible. These facts did not hit me so deeply until I was about to graduate from college, when my 3-year-old nephew was killed. The newspapers wrote about us as if we were the culpable ones, much like a woman who is sexually assaulted and blamed for bringing it on herself because of what she wears. The media did not write about the lack of childcare for low-income single mothers. They did not write about the real lives of the people devastated by this tragedy. Instead, they falsely wrote rumors about a mother, my sister, who was irresponsible and left her child with a person who took the life of her only son. We are still fighting the devastating impact this has had on our lives. These stereotypes had power over our livelihood, they prohibited us from getting jobs, from graduating high school, getting into college. The worst part though was that these ideas were repeated so much that my nieces and nephews started to believe them too. To go to college meant you were turning White and turning your back on your family. Even I thought to myself, “Why would you want to be like that educated doctor who called our mother ‘Ms. Housekeeper’ instead of bothering to learn her name?’ I felt the urgency to decolonize our education, our public spaces and heal our hurting communities that continue to be inflicted by this damaging rhetoric. This pushed me stronger than ever, to brown up the white walls of galleries, public spaces, and ivory towers. We are not nameless. We are not to be blamed for the ills of society.
Ruby Chacón is a community muralist, artist and teacher. She co founded Mestizo Institute of Culture and Arts-MICA in 2003 in Salt Lake City. Through the organization she worked in partnership with University of Utah faculty as an artist in residence with Mestizo Arts and Activism-MAA, a youth collective. Working with youth is at the heart of her career.
Chacón is published in several books, book covers, and magazines. Her most recent public artwork/murals are located at Gonzaga University, American River College and Sacramento’s light rail. Some of her awards include: the Humanitarian award (SLCC) Distinguished Alumni award (SLCC), Mayor’s award, Governors Mansion award, and many others. In 2018 MICA named an award in her honor called the Ruby Chacon Social Justice Award to acknowledge the next generation of artists and arts advocates who advance social justice through the arts.
Currently she is working as a lead artist with a team of change makers and activists on las Poderosas mural project, to recognize living Chicana and Latina trailblazers who use their work as a tool for social change. She also teaches grades 9-12 at Encina Preparatory in Sacramento, CA. where she has served as the Department Chair (2020-22), and is involved in equity work.