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Getting to know three Latina artists in Sonoma County inspired by their heritage

Latino Heritage

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here.

For these three Latina artists, creating — whether making murals, painting watercolors or inking tattoos — is a way to connect with and recognize their heritage while also passing down the imagery and history of their culture.

Tattoo artist Lucero Vargas digs deep into her ancestral roots, into the pre-Columbian history of Mexico, to create her intricate designs of birds, skulls, flowers and spirals. As a Latina who grew up in the United States, muralist MJ Lindo-Lawyer draws on both the lush colors of the Nicaraguan coast and the ideas she finds in her environment here. Rosa Díaz-Serrano’s surrealistic paintings recall those of famous Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, but it’s her own memories of her native country that inspire her work.

Rosa Díaz-Serrano

For more than 60 years, Rosa Díaz-Serrano has been collecting landscapes to store in her memory. The scenes from Mexico to California are visions she later fixes onto watercolor canvases. Her paintings range from realistic flowers, figures and still lifes to dreamlike surrealism. There is one constant in her work: the visual legacy of the Mexican land where she grew up.

On one occasion, she got into the car with her husband Roberto and set out on a road trip from Sonoma County to Baja California. It was winter, and the arid Mexican desert had turned green with the recent rains. Gazing at the vegetation was her only distraction sitting in the passenger seat. With the sunset on the horizon, those upright cacti began to unfold in her imagination. She saw them as long, slender fingers emerging from the bottom of the earth like a sudden invasion of creatures from the underworld struggling to rise to the surface.

As soon as she could get her hands on brushes and watercolors, she shaped that vision on canvas. The result was a boney hand connected to the earth through its roots, with a giant, radiant red sun in the background.

“Color is what I like the most about Mexico. We are very colorful. I dress in dark colors, but I like my work to have clarity and the purity of colors that watercolor can bring,” said Díaz-Serrano, who came to Sonoma County in 1977 with her husband and two daughters.

Since her art student days in Mexico City, watercolor has been one of her favorite techniques. On Sundays she would visit the zoo with her teacher Alberto Beltrán to draw human and animal figures. She later practiced for another two years with one of the most renowned Mexican watercolorists, Gustavo Alanís Pastrana.

“To paint watercolors you need planning, because you paint the other way around than other techniques, starting with the lightest colors, until darkening the darkest tones,” she said. “I paint without white and without black because I like to create images as transparencies.”

Since arriving in Sonoma County, Díaz-Serrano has become involved with arts organizations such as the Santa Rosa Art Guild. Through her Santa Rosa business, Restoration Studio, she restores fine china and ceramics. And she teaches watercolor workshops to the senior community in Windsor, although interaction with students in recent months has been almost nil, with the pandemic, she said.

This is a time to reinvent ourselves, Díaz-Serrano said.

“Artists must evolve and seek new ways of representing what they see or feel,” she said. “It’s not about doing something perfect, but the artists have to find different ways of interpreting what they see, feel and know.”

You can see Díaz-Serrano’s work online at the Steele Lane Community Center’s virtual exhibition or at her website: diaz-serrano.com/home.html

MJ Lindo-Lawyer

Before the pandemic, MJ Lindo-Lawyer’s dreams of artistic success seemed largely unattainable. Today, however, she has a full schedule of exhibitions all the way through November, from the streets of downtown Santa Rosa to a New York gallery.

Lindo-Lawyer, whose full name is Maria Jose Lindo-Lawyer, had long planned a transition from her customer service job at a coffee roasting company in Santa Rosa to full-time painting. But the move occurred unexpectedly when her employers sent her home “until further notice” in early July due to the impact of COVID-19 on local businesses.

“I had tried in recent years to make a smooth transition to the arts, so COVID could have been the silver lining,” said Lindo-Lawyer, who was born in Miami 32 years ago.

Currently, she has five murals going up on walls throughout Santa Rosa, Roseville, Sacramento and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. That’s in addition to five pieces for Stone Sparrow, an art gallery in New York City. And as of March, local Cooperage Brewing has been printing one of her brightly hued paintings on a beer can label called “Moment of Truth” Westcoast IPA.

Latino Heritage

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here.

Although far away from the tropical landscapes of Nicaragua where her parents came from and where she lived for two years, Lindo-Lawyer’s murals exude the same lush and intensely colorful character found in coastal Central America. But at the same time, she draws from the creative influences that surround her in the United States.

Having lived in Miami, Toronto and even Oklahoma in addition to Central America, the Roseland resident bases her creations on what she sees and consumes in her daily environment. She’s also inspired by anime and the lowbrow art movement.

“I don't think I go out of my way to be super-representative of being Nicaraguan. Being successful should inspire people. I am also westernized,” she said. “The environment that I grew up in and lived in is probably more in my paintings.”

She’s drawn to faces of multiethnic women in their own spaces of power and paints them in a style that integrates realism and abstract forms.

“I like a variety of models of all colors. As a heritage, I don't focus too much on putting my culture into it. It may be unconsciously, but I don't go into a piece thinking that I have to incorporate Nicaragua,” she said.

“These days we are expected to make political art, but that’s not me,” she added.

The closure of Fourth Street in downtown Santa Rosa to vehicles that started in July has allowed pedestrians to enjoy the area at a more leisurely pace. It’s also created an opportunity for street art. Lindo-Lawyer said she soon will be painting a temporary mural near Old Courthouse Square. You can see her there or find her work on her @mjlindo Instagram account.

Lucero Vargas

Lucero Vargas said she had a sinking realization that she had become “Americanized” after she crossed the border in 2003 and settled in Los Angeles. The cultural shift she experienced prompted her to delve deep into her heritage and learn about the practices of her ancestors, something she had never once considered when living in her hometown north of Mexico City.

Vargas learned the ancient Nahuatl language of the Mexica, ventured into Aztec dance circles and learned about the codex of pre-Columbian civilizations. She needed to hold on to her roots to not get lost in the urban landscape of Los Angeles.

The lines and shadows tattooed on her body show the adventure of this cultural immersion. An owl goes through a process of transformation along her neck until it reaches the shape of a stylized heart with grains of corn on her chest. On her right hand is the profile of prince of the flowers, Xochipilli. And since she jumped into the tattoo industry eight years ago, her specialty has been the semblance of the iconography seen in ancient Mexica murals, sculptures, codex and architecture.

"I like to project my culture in black and gray tattoos, with a blend of realism and surrealism," said the Santa Rosa resident.

The black ink that she tattoos on the skin of her clients takes the form of skulls, birds, flowers, glyphs and spiraling patterns. The images speak of her own cultural and spiritual exploration during which she acquired the Nahuatl name of Amanalli, which corresponds to her birth date according to the Mexica calendar, the Tonalpohualli.

Vargas was born in Acolman, in the center of the Valley of Mexico, a few miles from the great Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, the ancient “city of the gods.” But it took moving north for her to discover the buried roots of her relatives.

“People have another lifestyle here and we forget our culture while trying to adapt,” she said. “I wanted to get closer to my roots because I felt that I did not belong here. I learned a lot about Mexican culture here, and when I went back to Mexico years later I talked to my family and not even they knew about our ancestors, where we came from.”

With the coronavirus pandemic, tattoo studios were forced to close throughout California. That included Meyer Ink in Santa Rosa where Vargas rented a space to tattoo. Accustomed to transformations, she had to reinvent herself in a matter of weeks to keep creating.

“As a single mother and self-employed person, the anxiety came immediately. Having to suddenly provide and become a full-time teacher for my 10-year-old son was difficult. I came to a place of acceptance that this would be our ‘new reality’ for some time. After a couple of weeks, we got into the rhythm but due to the closure of businesses, I couldn’t work as a tattoo artist,” Vargas said.

Her tattoo skills helped her take up the brush again and put color on a series of projects in Santa Rosa. She participated in the making of a mural at Los Guilicos homeless shelter that illustrates the cultural roots of a homeless woman with Pomo origins playing Native American drums.

With other local artists, such as Martín Zúñiga and Magali Larque, she made a series of murals on the walls of what used to be the Dollar Tree in Roseland, where the Mercadito Roseland recently sprouted as part of the larger Roseland Village project.

Now nopales, butterflies, flowers, corn and pyramids can be seen on the walls where discounted household goods were once sold.

“These images give me life and make me remember where I’m from. I’m proud to remember my ancestors, even though I am far from home,” Vargas said. “It connects me to my community, inspiring people to remember where they come from.”

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