If you are a Latinx at UCLA, you might have already been in contact with Becerra’s work before her gallery exhibition in Kerckhoff opened. Becerra’s work has not only been used for Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA flyers: she was also an active board member of SJP and pushed for UC Regents to divest from corporations that profit from the Israel-Palestine conflict. Becerra is also a UCLA graduate study under the Chicana/o Studies Department, and her work has flooded many a Tumblr and Instagram feeds from her Palabra and Revolutionary Love Note Series. In fact, we wouldn’t be surprised if a friend of yours has a Becerra piece pinned onto their wall. And why wouldn’t they? And why wouldn’t you? Becerra’s art speaks to a particular moment of Latinx and Latinx student history in which we find ourselves looking to our past figures for hope and guidance as we march forward into the future with their words and light.
So for those who haven’t been in contact with her work: you seriously don’t know who Angelica Becerra is? Well, don’t you worry! La Gente has got you covered with an exclusive in-depth interview with Becerra about her work, her upbringing in Mexico, Long Beach, and her transitions as artist, student, mujer, a possible Otis School of Arts students, and an amazing conversation between her and her mother about the intersectionalities between pansexuality and pan dulce. When asked why Becerra even makes art in the first place, she responds with “For me, it’s so much deeper than that, it’s part of my behavior. I depend on it. The only reason I’m selling it is because my survival depends on it, you know people think that grad school salary is a living wage and… no.” (continued below)
Angelica: A lot of us grow up with art as an outlet and we’re not encouraged to pursue it. Well… we pursue it, my family was very encouraging. My family has artists in it. My grandpa is an artisan, he’s a carpenter. He’s a carver of woods, for churches, those big intricate doors… he does that for a living. And he does cathedral floors, too. So my grandfather has a workshop on the very first floor of our house in San Juan de los Lagos, Jalisco, which is a very religious town. He made the cathedral floors and the doors. It’s the second most famous pilgrimage site for Catholics in Mexico next to la Virgen de Guadalupe. That’s my perspective. So yeah, I grew up with someone who had a workshop and spent 8 hours a day in there and sold their stuff. He sold the machines that makes tortillas, he makes them in mass and sells them to people who come to the city temporarily. And nobody calls him an artist, he’s 89 and still working. So yeah, that artistic work ethic; making something with your hands and selling it, that’s something that’s ingrained in me.
The aunt that taught me how to paint, she’s an architect. She went to architecture school. She does replicas for a living, hotels will want a painting of, I dunno, The Birth of Venus or The Mona Lisa but they obviously can’t buy the real thing so they ask her to paint a replica for their lobby. Or like fancy looking fruit (laughs) or religious paintings or something. So my tía sort of does that, and now she’s a teacher at La casa de la cultura which is the local art center. Every small town in Jalisco has a small culture house and she teaches painting there. And she had her studio in the third floor in the house we were just talking about. And it was such a beautiful room to me growing up though I wasn’t allowed in! (laughs) I saw it when the door was opened sometimes and she’d come out for like a minute and… it was just filled with paints and, she painted with a lot of blues and whites so it would always seem really dark in there. I remember peeking into her room and understanding its OK to go away for a minute and do your own thing… she was that tía for me.
There’s a lot of us [artists] out there, and we have people in our family that have always drawn. We have that tío who does really good graffiti letters. Or we have that tío who loves to make little toys for us. A lot of us are creative but we don’t call it that. Then when we call it that, or even when we’re younger, we see our friends majoring in art and, like the first time I met an art major I was so confused, I was just like… oh, you can do that?! What the fuck? (laughs) I’ve been making stuff my own life, my tía taught me how to paint fruit and people and faces forms and shapes. So I knew how to paint but I just learned too late, and also there’s–you know–being poor.
But there’s definitely so many of us out there. So when I make my art and see so many other people out there, it makes sense.
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A photo posted by Angélica Becerra (@angelicaisaib) on
Giovanie: There’s a lot of guitar players in my family. I play guitar. Not to brag, but we actually play pretty well. We know what we’re doing. My little brother loves to tag.Yet we never think of it as, “Oh wow, we’re all just really artistic people.” I think we come to think of things, because we grow up poor, when it comes to your labor you need to make money.
Angelica: Right. Or, art is just a hobby.
Giovannie: Exactly. Did selling paintings start in grad school?
Angelica: My heart was more like, you need to heal (laughs) you need to do something to not die. There’s two series that I’ve done so far. The Palabras series started because I was involved with Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA, I actually got involved with SJP super early in my grad school career. When I arrived to school late 2014, that Fall my first quarter, by the end of it I was already applying to be a board member.
Giovannie: I always knew you as ‘Angelica from SJP.’
Angelica: Yeah! And a lot of my community is that. I had done stuff with MEChA [Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlán] during my undergrad and I did some stuff with workers at Hyatt as well in Long Beach. But I got into the Palestine cause because I felt that’s the issue we need to talk about that’s really urgent. That’s where a lot of people are currently losing their lives and it’s the most recent example of apartheid. So I started working through it, and I didn’t stop drawing, I would paint. My partner at the time was a writer who’s Palestinian, so we’d be making art together and talking about being creative even though he comes from a middle class family where creative writing was more accepted. He majored in creative writing. So, that’s when I started to make work about people. I was trained in portraiture. I did life drawing in high school, I did AP Art, I did AP Studio Art. I was very encouraged by my high school art teacher, Mr. Vasquez, another pocho. He applied to Otis for me, and I almost went. But I don’t tell people that because I didn’t end up going so I don’t want to claim it.
Giovannie: Buy you got in, though?
Angelica: Yeah, but it was $50,000 a year (laughs). Let’s not talk about that. I was undocumented at the time. I was undocumented until I was 18. The FAFSA application was too late for me.
Giovannie: And this was before the CA DREAM ACT.
Angelica: Yeah. This was when they began to talk about it. So, again, I started making my art because they invited Angela Davis to talk on campus. She was teaching a class at UCLA and my partner was taking it and asked her to talk for SJP because he knew she had been very vocal about Palestine. So then I get this text message saying ‘Oh, can you make this flyer for Angela Davis?’ I almost want to frame that text, because who gets that kind of text, ya know? That’s a lot of pressure.
And I didn’t paint for people at the time. So I just did a portrait of her, a watercolor portrait. It was the quickest thing I could do: oils take time to dry, acrylics don’t look cute (in my opinion, they’re too opaque). I did a quick flyer and it came out really good. People really responded it, they wanted a copy of it to frame and to keep but I was more like ‘Nah, I don’t sell it. I’m cool. It’s just for this one thing.’ So the event is happening, and I’m taking notes on what she’s saying because she’s amazing and she said this wonderful quote and I thought it would be amazing if the portrait I made had this quote on it. So I go home and I photoshopped it. I did it for me, not for anyone else. I showed it to people around me and everyone loved it and everyone wanted one and it just kind of grew from there and I started to think about, ‘Why am I painting these people?’
The next person I wanted to paint was Yuri Kochiyama. She’s from San Pedro (laughs) South Bay represent! And she’s amazing! That just kind of happened. I did a lot of research on her, I went into the deep underbelly of Tumblr (where I’m usually at anyways), and yeah. After that, it occurred to me that these were the motivational posters I wish I had growing up on my wall. If I can have it all again, I would be growing up with these people on my wall. That’s how it really started. Then I did the Frida one because Frida’s birthday and mine are one day apart.
Giovannie: Cool! Her actual birthday or, because I know she claimed that her birthday was on the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution.
Angelica: Yeah, she’s crazy. No, she was born on the 6th of July.
Giovannie: And you’re…?
Angelica: I’m the 5th. So I always felt a certain affinity to her because she’s a fellow Cancer and I’m really into astrology so it made sense to me that I’m a Cancer and she’s a Cancer. We’re very emotional people and put it all out there and wear our heart on our sleeve.
Giovannie: I’m surprised she’s not a Pisces sometimes.
Angelica: Yeesss! She felt way too deep! Her Moon sign must have something… But yeah, that’s why I was like… no wonder she’s so… wronged in love. Selena… I don’t even have to explain that. I love her. I love her so much. I used to have a crush on her when I was little, and Ana Gabriel, too. I gotta paint her too.
Giovannie: And the other series?
Angelica: The Love Note series is different. If you thought Palabra was personal, the Love Note series is hella personal. That one happened out of heartbreak, obviously. I hope people don’t think I was happy when I made those because I wasn’t. And that’s something I think Frida did really well, something I admire her for. She made beautiful work out of her heartbreak. She let people see what was going on.
A photo posted by Angélica Becerra (@angelicaisaib) on
Giovannie: Definitely. I’ve always been very perplexed at the way we really can glorify her when I imagine her being a really sad person.
Angelica: Me too. I went to her house this summer and I cried… I don’t know if it was just being in the space and feeling the energy there, knowing she slept in that room. She was so sad and art seemed to be the only thing that helped her and I really relate to that.
When I was doing the Love Note series, the first piece I did that for that was Nina Simone. And that quote (“You’ve got to learn to leave the table when love’s no longer being served”), I don’t pick quotes just willy nilly. It’s because I read them when I was heartbroken, or I read that book or this author and that’s really what got me through it.
So the next piece is Bell Hooks. I read her whole trilogy on love, because I was so lost, and the next one after that was James Baldwin: the first man I ever painted and probably the only man I ever will. I read Giovanni’s Room after Bell Hooks and it really helped me. So these are people that I read constantly and have educated me on many subjects, and this one’s about love. I didn’t know I was making a series, I did the Nina Simone one because I needed to do something and let it go. So each piece you let go.
The series actually began after reading the Bell Hook’s books and thinking ‘I need to paint this, too’. So that’s how it worked out, but I think the premise behind it all was to remind myself: it’s OK to feel heartbreak. You need to process it and … it’s a Cancer thing. You feel everything and you learn how to synthesize it and process it and let go. People think we’re moody but we’re just really good at meetings. Pisces can get a little lost in them.
Giovannie: Tell me about it.
Angelica: They can get lost in their feelings because they feel lost, even more. Cancers are very pragmatic people, and so my practical result was let me make something and let it go. The Sandra Cisneros piece, that’s when I got to the moment of my heartbreak, my healing, where I was like, ‘I need to love myself and I need to feel better.’ Everyone goes through this. This definitely wasn’t my first heartbreak but it was definitely my hardest one. I learned to sort of make pieces for people who are looking for that affirmation that they are worth more what they just left, or when they were left.
The next one is going to be more about self love. I’m not too sure what quote I’m using. But the James Baldwin is about taking off masks. That’s where I’m at right now, I found love but I need to remove masks that I’ve put on in order to access that love. It’s like I’ve come full circle. I’m only making four pieces.
Piece 3 of the Revolutionary Love Note Series is done and available on my tiendita! (Link in my bio) 💕 I couldn’t have healed without the words of bell hooks to guide me in times of heartbreak, and toxic situations, she reminded me that I am who I have been waiting for. Feel free to share and repost & tag me! 🌿🌿😘 #chingona #AngelicaBecerra #woc #art #bellhooks #love