When Judy Baca was born on September 20, 1946, the world was still reeling from the devastation of World War II. Mexican-Americans didn’t have it easy, but Baca was raised with pride in her heritage and with eyes open to the challenges prejudice created. Art became her way to express herself, educate others, and learn about racial divides and harmony.
During the first six years of Baca’s life her environment was all female, since her mother, grandmother, and two aunts raised her. It was through these female role models that she developed her sense of Chicano culture. At that time they lived in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, which in the 1940s was primarily a working-class African-American community with large numbers of Mexican-American households.
Baca’s mother married in 1952. Mother and daughter moved with the new husband and his two children to the Pacoima neighborhood, where there were far fewer Hispanics and many white residents were moving out. It was still a very solidly working-class neighborhood at that time. It was not welcoming to someone from Baca’s background.
Spanish was forbidden in the Pacoima elementary schools, and because her English was not as well developed as other children’s, Baca’s teacher often had her sit in a corner and paint. Over time Baca’s English improved, but an art teacher encouraged her creativity, helping turn what had been a punishment into personal power.
Baca earned a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Northridge (CSUN), in 1969, and then returned to her alma mater, Bishop Alemany High School in Mission Hills, Los Angeles, to teach art. Under her guidance, students painted a mural on one of the school’s walls. Baca and some other teachers participated in the Chicano Moratorium, a coalition of anti-war Chicano activists, and their principal promptly fired them. Baca’s next job was with a summer art program for the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department.
Without permission of the city and against the wishes of the police, Baca created a mural project that pulled together members of different gangs to make it. Las Vistas Nuevas was a huge success and led to her appointment as director of a new citywide mural program in Los Angeles in 1974. She constantly struggled with attempts by the city to censor what the communities wanted on their murals, which was not just bright and colorful depictions but also the harsh realities of their lives.
Baca co-founded the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) in 1976 so that the murals could continue without the constant threat of funding being pulled by the city if officials didn’t like the subject matter. The program is still going strong today.
Baca also went back to CSUN and earned her master’s degree in art in 1979. Baca then went to study with the La Tallera in Cuernavaca, Mexico. This program continued the public art and activism of its founder, David Alfaro Siqueiros, whom the Mexican government had imprisoned for his political beliefs and actions. Baca’s time there fueled her desire to do more with her art and the communities where she lived and worked back in California.
Baca sums up her philosophy of public art: “I want to use public space to create a public voice for, and a public consciousness about people who are, in fact, the majority of the population but who are not represented in any visual way." Her work can be found in such traveling shows as The World Wall: A Vision of the Future without Fear and as permanent parts of communities such as the Extraordinary Ordinary People mural in Richmond, California. Much of her work also has a feminist tone, showing how women’s lives are impacted by racism and sexism yet are as important as men’s, as we can see in Migration of the Golden People from 2001.
Today Baca teaches at UCLA in two departments – World Arts and Cultures/Dance and Chicana/o Studies while still heading SPARC. While we are rightly angry at her elementary school teacher who put her in a corner to paint, we should also praise Baca’s drive and her art teacher’s encouragement, because Baca took those experiences and used them to empower others through the public art she has created.