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'Womyn' at Work: Muralist Sistas Bring Color to San Fernando Valley

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HOODsisters_group_mural unfinished.jpg

This week April Aguirre returns to "Writing on the Wall" for a guest editorial. The Los Angeles native, and NYU grad with a Master's in journalism, is one of the women artists working together as "sistas" to give a counterpoint to the wave of murals in northeast San Fernando Valley. She paints on Van Nuys Boulevard and blogs at "I Am San Fernando."

The dry-erase sign at USA Gasoline on Van Nuys Boulevard and Herrick Avenue read "Womyn at Work. Please RESPECT." As onlookers pumped gas in Pacoima, they observed a group of muralists indeed on the grind -- 8-foot ladders were shuffled to and fro as some painted their assigned grid intently, while others took care of rinsing brushes clean.

"Solo mujeres, verdad?" murmured one of the observers in Spanish. "Only women, right?"

HOODsisters Toypurina Detail | Photo: April Aguirre
HOODsisters Toypurina Detail | Photo: April Aguirre

Murals along Van Nuys Boulevard in the northeast San Fernando Valley are not breaking news anymore; the Los Angeles Times profiled prolific muralist Levi Ponce last year, Pacoima artist Kristy Sandoval graced the cover of Ventura Blvd Magazine in December and KCET coined the "Mural Mile" moniker in mid-2012.

But HOODsisters, an all-women crew I'm a part of, brought something else to the Valley this week. Decidedly feminist ("womyn" is an alternate spelling of women often seen in feminist literature) and poignantly conscious, our collective wants to create awareness through public art and transform our 'hoods into beautiful spaces for healing and self-empowerment. The emphasis is less on the technical beauty of the artwork and more on the value created, simply because the art exists.

Whereas some Pacoima murals have caught flak for their subject matter and lack of direction (see a controversial critique from yours truly), HOODsisters wants to ensure its first official mural carries weight. "A lot of the murals, specifically in Pacoima, have been led by men," said HOODsisters member Karina Ceja. "It is important to have an all-female group because we get to choose the images and message."

The message in the first HOODsisters mural is found in its title, "Honoring Our Origins," an excerpt taken from the HOOD acronym: Honoring our Origins, Ourselves and our Dreams. The 12-by-64 foot wall features Toypurina, an indigenous medicine woman who spearheaded a revolt against Spanish missionaries.

"We decided to honor the native people and women that empower us -- that lineage of strong and brave women who create change in their communities," said Ceja. "Toypurina was that for Tongva people here in the L.A. basin."

The resolute image of Toypurina is backed by mountains and surrounded by plants and flowers native to California. Bright tapestries pay homage to cultural roots with textile patterns representing various tribes.

The seed for what would become HOODsisters was planted roughly a year ago when aforementioned muralist and HOODsisters member Kristy Sandoval invited women to assist with her Assata Shakur mural. At some point between placing Shakur's quote on the wall, "A women's place is in the struggle," and sharing the simple joy of painting with others, the idea for an all-female crew was born.

"I'm very fortunate to be working with such conscious and educated women," said Sandoval, about designing collectively for the first time. "We definitely learn from each other and, through that, grow as individuals."

HOODsisters at work | Photo by April Aguirre
HOODsisters at work | Photo by April Aguirre
'Womyn at work' | Photo by Rosalilia Mendoza
'Womyn at work' | Photo by Rosalilia Mendoza

The group, which is a mix of artists and community organizers with roots in the San Fernando Valley, has core members who meet biweekly to research, design and plan what will eventually be executed on paint days by the rest of the crew and other women from the area.

So far, the planning process has led to tangible results -- the HOODsisters' Fundly campaign has raised more than $1,000, the Facebook page reached 1,000 likes in a matter of weeks, and volunteers from as far as Santa Ana have contributed to the painting effort.

At the mural unveiling on March 16, Danza Mexica Cuauhtemoc, a group of Aztec dancers, led a procession from the Assata Shakur mural to the Toypurina image. Some bystanders joined the walk, others stopped to take photos, and children looked curiously out car windows as an ordinary trip to the gas station turned a little more colorful.

"I hope it [the mural] will empower our young womyn and educate the community while adding more color and visual inspiration to our 'hood," said Sandoval. "'We have nothing to lose but our chains.'"

HOODsisters ceremony | Photo by April Aguirre
HOODsisters ceremony | Photo by April Aguirre

"Honoring Our Origins" is located at 12959 Van Nuys Blvd., Pacoima, CA, 91331.

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