The Women on the Wall: Beautiful, Sexist or Both?

A few weeks ago, a new mural debuted near Van Nuys Boulevard on Laurel Canyon, as many recently have in the past year along Pacoima’s “Mural Mile.” It’s another vision created by Levi Ponce with assistance from active community members and artists, such as Manny Velazquez, Kristy Sandoval and Javier Martinez.

The mural was revealed just as Levi was becoming a local media darling, with coverage in the Daily News and on KCET.org, KPFK and, of course, i am san fernando. Soon after “Pacoima Neighborhood Mural” debuted, Good Day L.A. was touring the street art with Levi, and the prolific muralist was subsequently interviewed on CNN and MSN.

All good, right? Well, not exactly. “Pacoima Neighborhood Mural,” which depicts two Latinas in dresses lying amidst flowers against a backdrop of stained-glass windows, has stirred up controversy. Some have called the image sexually suggestive with regard to the dress, poses, facial expressions and reclined positions of the two female models (as if they’re in bed, some have argued). Additionally, others see the religious iconography as a reinforcement of values that suppress females.

Between the excitement of Levi’s technically beautiful work, the media spotlight on Pacoima and the mixed feelings toward the representation of women in the mural, things got messy. How messy? Let’s just say Facebook was involved.

I watched and listened as this played out among community members, acquaintances and personal friends. Part of me wanted to jump in with my own initial thoughts but, like many, my feelings were still murky and unclear. Anything I said would have been reactionary, and I’ve learned that time often gives me the space to make sense of gut reactions.

What was my gut reaction upon seeing the 70 feet by 20 feet depiction? Like most things that strike me as off, I found it hard to digest but I couldn’t pinpoint why. Perhaps seeing its grandiosity in person left a sense of awe I felt uncomfortable with. Yes, I was moved. The national flowers from various Latin-American countries were beautiful, the loteria pictograms clever, and sheer stature mesmerizing. But then there they were — women I had met and conversed with in real life right in front of me, yet I could not see them.

In my first and only encounter with Ana Hernandez, one of the models, I gathered that she had an interest in photography since we only spoke briefly before she was off to shoot. In my time with Melanie Moreno, the other model, I learned that she is a talented wardrobe stylist with a passion for online media. I’m glad I got a chance to see those dimensions because the average mural observer will not be afforded the opportunity. The mural subjects will likely be relegated to “Latina babes” status, just as the Daily News recently called them.

pacoima neighborhood mural levi ponce1 The Women on the Wall: Beautiful, Sexist or Both?

Even though I wasn’t sure how to react, I knew I had concerns. First, there’s the notion of public art and its role in the community. Every artist has freedom to create and nearly every artist comes under fire at one point in his or her career, but do street artists carry more responsibility than others since their medium is intended for the public space, focused on accessibility and expected to interact with the community? And should a modern-day Latino or Latina muralist painting in a disadvantaged neighborhood take extra care in his or her decision-making, especially considering the art form’s deep historical ties to Mexico, which harkens back to an era when murals were rooted in social and political movement and served as a platform for underrepresented people?

I am not one to infringe on artistic freedom. After all, I’m a writer with a public-facing website who shares her sometimes less-than-popular opinion on a daily basis. The “About” section on iamsanfernando.com cheekily states, “I’m an independent blogger. You don’t like? Start your own blog.”

But, the difference is that my audience has a choice. They can choose not to read my words, never visit my website and, with a few resources, start their own blog and share their voice. The same cannot be said of a mural. You’re running into that sucker, whether you like it or not, and creating a mural is not a realistic possibility for the average citizen.

That being said, my answer is yes. A muralist should take extra care when considering his or her subject matter and think about how the piece will interact with the community at large. It’s one thing to facilitate access to art for residents who aren’t receiving it, but the more important thing is pushing through meaningful and compelling images that challenge the empty and false ones penetrating their daily lives.

There’s also another problem with the picture here, and it has to do with the representation of the two women on the wall. If a mural tells a story and challenges social constructions, what does “Pacoima Neighborhood Mural” have to say? How does it confront the all-too-common depiction of the sexualized female, particularly that of the Latina “vixen”?

There are people in certain camps that just don’t see the mural as “that bad” or overtly sexual. First, let’s state the obvious. There is a sexual connotation. If the characters from some of Levi’s other murals were subjected to such a pose, people would sense something was off. Would the Mona Lisa in “Pacoima’s Art Revolution” lose her strength if she was reclining with that same expression on her face and dress falling off her shoulder? How would Danny Trejo’s power be reduced if he wasn’t upright and looking down on you with that mean mug?

Pacoima Mona Lisa 800 The Women on the Wall: Beautiful, Sexist or Both?

“Would the Mona Lisa in “Pacoima’s Art Revolution” lose her strength if she was reclining with that same expression on her face and dress falling off her shoulder?”

The idea that the mural is not “that bad” is a large part of the problem. Not that bad compared to what? Compared to what you’re used to seeing? Beer ads? Porno? The point of reference is off base; males have unjustly created the benchmark and ignorantly continue to look to it as a measuring tool.

The most surprising element about this whole ordeal is not the content of the mural itself. We women are accustomed to images that objectify, conversations that insult and actions that abuse. It’s not right, but also not shocking. No, the real letdown comes in the form of trust broken.

DannyTrejoMural The Women on the Wall: Beautiful, Sexist or Both?

Danny Trejo, upright with a fierce look.

The suggestive nature of the mural struck a particular chord among community members because it was an “inside job.” This wasn’t the usual corporate entity looking to cash in on the Latin market by playing up that spicy/sizzling/feisty/hot Latina in a red dress (see: Sophia Vergara, Corona ads, any movie where the girlfriend is Latina, life). No, this was our brown, conscious brothers and some sisters who either call themselves feminists or, at the very least, are aware of a predominant culture that has marginalized them in some way.

When our community of Chicano activists and local artists — the very friends and neighbors who work side-by-side in a struggle that parallels that of females — offer this mural as their vision of Pacoima women and thereafter cannot look past the backlash, admit fault and offer understanding, it feels like an affront.

To me, this was the most upsetting element about the whole drama. I read or heard ignorant comment after ignorant comment and ran into defenders of the mural who were flabbergasted by the negative reaction. They chalked it up to the vocal opinions of “extreme feminists” and brushed it off. I didn’t know there were levels of extremity when it came to equal rights.

Some, mainly men, were ready to swiftly absolve the mural’s shortcomings because the door had now been opened for dialogue and real conversation was on its way. The problem is that the dialogue is not happening until something pops off, and females are automatically put in the position of defense. Real talk cannot stem from that. We’re supposed to be on the same team.

The content of the mural is troubling but what made me sick to my stomach was seeing how those in defense of the mural — a community of Latino artists, educators and activists — were unwilling to look at themselves, their perception of women and the resulting impact on young people walking home daily from Pacoima Middle School.

After all, if your struggle is somehow related to creating social change or presenting a new perspective through art, would it not have made sense to end the trail of disrespectful comments and begin with, “You know, I’m not sure I understand why this is so upsetting to women or why it has triggered such emotion, but I’d like to try to understand.”

Because if the conversation doesn’t begin in such an honest and open way — if the conversation doesn’t take place at all — then the writing’s on the wall.

written by

i am san fernando is April Aguirre, a writer born and raised in the San Fernando Valley. April bounced around the Valley throughout her upbringing and lived outside of California for a quick minute but always felt most at home in the city of San Fernando. To get at April's heart, FedEx puppies to her door, offer In-N-Out cheeseburgers by the dozen or introduce her to a beer tastier than the last.

16 Responses to "The Women on the Wall: Beautiful, Sexist or Both?"

  1. Freddy says:

    This first time I saw the mural, I couldn’t help thinking about how beautiful the flowers and the women looked. I brought all of my friends to the mural, I told my family about it, and I posted a picture of it on Instagram. Yes, there was something sexual about their expressions and in their posture, but I looked past that. I looked past it because I think I was so used to the thought of everything having a sexual connotation.

    I grew up in Pacoima, as many of the people who defend or antagonize the mural do, but to me it stands as a reminder to the overtly sexual nature/thoughts that went on around me since I reached the age adolescence. What I mean, and I’m speaking in general here, is that to boys who grow up in Pacoima this kind of sexual activity or influence is too common. School came secondary to most of those that I hung out with and what made you real cool was having a girlfriend and hooking up. I’m not a well educated man, but I like to observe my surroundings, and I don’t feel that the mural should have been made any other way, partially because just like any other mural, it is targeting a specific population..if you look past the females, and look at it in the perspective of our youth, it serves as a reminder of many things, of their past actions, of their futures, of their friends’ futures.

    I’m curious to see what the artists have said in regards to all of the opposition.

    Reply
  2. Mari says:

    I Loved the Murals that depict ‘classic art’ like “Girl with a Hoop Earring”. But, I can see why some people in the area cannot relate to it. (Who’s Vermeer? I was asked!) Yet, they can relate to the “Latina Babes” mural and more familiar Latino artists.
    I saw the models and did not think they were truly represented in the mural. They are ‘normal Latinas’ in real life. In the mural, they are sexualized. I was disappointed and not clear on what the ‘message’ is. Maybe Levi just wanted to meet some cute girls?

    Reply
  3. FRB says:

    I don’t agree with this mural being displayed on any building, its portrayal of women is too sensual~sexist. Although it is a beautiful painting, this should be displayed inside. Feminist will argue about equality on this portrait, but I think if the artist wanted to portray strong Latina women they should have put them in business attire with a small suitcase on their arm. Rather than dressed with that come hither look, this advocates attitudes that stereotype women based on their gender. As far as the picture with the naked half of Danny Trejo, let’s just say he is not sexy, but looks hardcore. (my opinion)

    Reply
  4. Wence.. says:

    I rather see this painting on the wall instead of the chicken scratch graffiti that was on it before. I don’t understand why people make a big deal about the way the models were dressed. Why can’t people just enjoy the the mural. You have a guy (Levi Ponce) trying to make our community look better and all I hear is people complaining. The funny part is that the people complaining don’t even live in the community. I live here and I would like to see more art go up. If you people feel the need to complain, why not complain about the strip club- porn advertisement bill boards around town. (like the one across the street from this mural) Take it as it is the mural is beautiful, it’s art.. if you don’t like it no one is forcing you to look at it… I mean there are other things around town that could use your attention why focus on this mural.

    Reply
    • PacoimaLove says:

      I so agree with you :)… I don’t see nothing wrong with this mural its beautiful I rather look at the mural then build boards with half naked women on them promoting strip clubs.

      Reply
  5. Mushululu says:

    As someone who defines herself as a chicana feminist, I love this piece! I think the problem with any form of art or anything really..is that our perspective is really tinted with our personal experiences..good and bad. And, being that each of our life experiences as been unique to us…we will never see things the same as the next person. Someone who has been molded by experiences of being demeaned, objectified, or grew up in a very conservative or religious environment could easily see this as hurtful. On the other hand, someone who has been molded by seeing our sexuality as beautiful and nothing to be ashamed of or hidden for cultural or religious reasons, something we can keep to ourselves or express openly…can see this as beautiful. I am sure you can tell which category I fall into. lol! I am actually more offended by the Danny Trejo piece! What about the stereotypes there? For someone who wouldn’t know any better would think we are glorifying the “gang member” “role model for boys in our neighborhoods”..he’s not in a suit and tie. How is that any different or less offensive? If people did their research and found out he’s a successful artist in his own right then it’s ok to have him up there looking like the barrio stereotype? Why because we know there is more to him than that. SO why should these women be painted with buns in their hair, suits, briefcases, etc to show there is more to them as well. Double (very hypocritical) standard in the art world isn’t it? They are beautiful! And they have the look of so many of our tia’s and uncles girlfriends that were beautiful and strong women back in those days of the movement. Like the monarch in the mural… nurture them, be proud of them, remind them their beauty is all theirs. SO in my mind…I am wondering why people don’t see that but then again… I think art is like an ink blot…you never know what you’re going to see in it….

    Reply
  6. Bobot420 says:

    The fact that this has “stirred up Controversary” is a good sign that things are getting better in the community we live in. I take it as a sign that there arent too many “real” problems if this is getting so much attention. Mostly those that are offended by the mural are likely unattractive women who find themselves competing with the mural itself. It is in fact a beautiful mural and the artists should be praised for their work in this wonderful piece of art. The fact that we are typing are hearts aways proves that. To take it down would be a bad sign and a step backwards from where I thought we all wanted to be. Free to express ourselves without being oppressed by others who dissaprove. If you are one of those that think this needs to be taken down, then your no better than gay basher who oppress gay people for being gay. If you want something up that you want expressed, THEN DO IT!!! thats the beauty of art. Respond with your own peice of work and express yourself meaningfully. There no beauty to be seen by complaining about someones artwork. Though there are those that oppose this piece, just as many approve of it. That is a fact!!!! So to take away from those that do appreciate it would be the biggest slap of oppression to the community itself.

    Reply
  7. Bobot420 says:

    I did also hear that the Artist had a meeting set up to discuss what it was he was going to paint and sent an invitation to the one(not naming names) who was most outspoken against this mural after it was said and done. They did not go to the meeting where they couldve voiced their opinion and could of stoped it there. NO instead they declined the invitation and when they saw afterwards made a stink about it, when indeed they had the chance to voice their opinion. I just thoght that was a funny bit of Information that I just heard last night. smh

    Reply
  8. Nautica says:

    Before we attack a mural painted by a home town artist with a love of his city and a desire to improve it, why not protest the beer adds filled with more sexually suggestive messages first? Theres no talk about the television shows on round the clock that reach more familys than that one wall filled with bikini girls. Why not put all this anger towards building something more for Pacoima not taking something away. People are mad because two women are on display some what suggestively? Be mad for the countless being killed raped put on the streets by gangs in our city. Be mad by the lack of money going to our schools to help raise a smarter more independent woman! Don’t be mad because a small group of artist put together a piece of “sexually suggestive art” instead of leaving it open to tagging!

    Reply
  9. Genesis says:

    As Levi’s sister, I’m disappointed in the community I grew up in for having any opposition to this beautiful mural that I watched come to life as all the others did. I watched my father protest to keep a beautiful mural of his own of a war symbol that was erased. The writer and others may be offended because their minds are in such a negative disposition, but I love my brother, and I know him better than anyone else. Levi loves me, my mother, people of all kinds, and he loves Pacoima. He is no sexist, and it’s far better for the community he’s giving back to to be on the news for his artwork than for what usually makes the headlines. To call my brother sexist is just cheap. I am deeply saddened that the author could even write something like this. There are better things you could bring to light to bring about change in the community. Is the art the problem or is it you?

    Reply
  10. Randall says:

    bad press is press, none the less. Congrats, Levi!

    Reply
  11. Yami says:

    Building controversy around this beautiful piece of art is more than disappointing as a proud member of this community. Drawing negative energy to the acclaim and success of this young and talented artist does nothing to improve our neighborhood but rather hinders the goal of reestablishing the charm of the San Fernando Valley. His mission to paint the town is inspiring. This country thrives off of our right of freedom of speech and opinions will always be expressed, my opinion of the mural is that it is stunning. I can’t wait to see what this composer behind a paintbrush does next!

    Reply
  12. Heart of Pacioma says:

    I love Levi’s new painting.

    Reply
  13. Gabriel says:

    I think this is amazing. I am very impressed by both Levi and the author of the article. I must say that the article expands on that weird feeling I get when I see “Pacoima Neighborhood Mural.” It looks like the typical stereotype of Latina women, but others disagree. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? It’s clear that the author feels it is not a good thing, and it seems that the artist didn’t intend it to be interpreted that way, but an artist can’t fully control what people see in their work. I agree with the article when it says that street artists have a responsibility to the community, but I also believe that an artist is free to depict any subject/content they want. In my opinion, I think that artists such as Levi have the responsibility of being open and responsive to criticism of their art. I don’t think there was any hating in the article against Levi, but rather a clear and respectful expression of someone’s opinion and concern as to the effect that this art will have on the people of this community. I have the same concerns. I am very glad that Levi, so far from what I’ve read in his comments on his facebook post, is not giving in to the “haters gonna hate” attitude that I feel is at the base of many responses to the article (both here and on his fb post). I mean, that was the whole point of the article, right? To get beyond the “it’s not that bad” and “get over yourself you crazy feminist” reactions and actually start a community dialogue, right? Well I’d like to thank Levi for linking me to this article via his facebook, and I think it’s great that he’s painted two people who are actually from Pacoima. Danny Trejo, is he from Pacoima? Mona Lisa? What’s she doing here? Bringing “high art” to the people (which is what I remember him saying in a video I saw, correct me if I’m wrong)? I guess… but Levi’s execution of “Pacoima Neighborhood Mural” is so good that I don’t think there’s any need for him to import high art from anywhere else. And I’d like to thank the author for putting into words the problems that I see with this mural. Great art, great article. Both are reasons for why Pacoima is great. (full disclosure, I grew up in Sylmar, but half of my family lives in Pacoima, and I went to Pacoima Middle School, with Levi actually. I currently live in Sherman Oaks, crazy I know but I’m excited to move back to the NE Valley)

    Reply
  14. Maura says:

    Are the women depicted sexually? I don’t see a bed, a bottle of wine or parted lips. I do see boobs. Relaxed positioning. Does this automatically convey intercourse?

    What if the women were wearing yoga pants and one was holding a TV remote? What if the bed of roses between them was a bag of cheetos? Same women. Same boobs. Same hips. Same expressions. Just different context. Would you still say they were sexual? Could it be they are displaying, to some degree, the sacred feminine?

    If you would like to see femininity communicate something besides sex, you can start with this mural. Consider the background. It is a church wall. Or a cathedral wall. It, in and of itself the wall is not iconic. It is a theme. The true iconography is shared within each window pane. Each pane is a window into an aspect of these women’s lives.

    I have not seen the mural person because I live far from California. However, from what I can make out in photos, the personal iconography is diverse. I see a handicapped woman depicted. She is cheerful and welcoming despite her disability. From this, I presume she has been a strong example to one or both of these women. Another icon features a male carrying musical tradition. I see tree sapling and an open book in other windows. The symbolism for these are all positive. The devil may be a persistent fear or addiction. Some of the other symbols are a bit bourgeois — the shopping cart, the generically decorative starfish. What do they mean? At this point, does it matter? We all have an inventory list of concepts, both real and imagined, that make up our personal stories. Some of our “icons” are precious, some burdensome, others very ordinary, but if we place value in them (and even fear gives an unfortunate ‘value’), we carry them through our lives.

    What might matter more is the women’s positioning relative to the symbolic display of their psyches. The lay casually in front of the defining window panes with their backs turned to them. Are they confident or somewhat disconnected? Are they tired? Maybe they are all of the above. Do they long to expand their identities? Evolve their self concepts? Do we long to expand or refresh our own?

    If this mural stirs a cauldron of patriarchal resentment, consider adding a dash of salt, a spoonful of honey; let it simmer in objective contemplation and give it another look. Some things are meant for more than a passing glance. Indeed, the best things are.

    Reply
  15. Manu says:

    Both those women look like my aunts. They took no shit from anyone. Strong women do not need a business suit nor carry a suitcase. A strong woman, likewise men, is one who is confident of herself to pose in whichever way she desires. If you are easily influenced by a mural such as the one mention, you have bigger things to worry about.

    Reply

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