Pleasure, Power and Culture: A Conversation with Favianna Rodriguez
(You can listen to Kiskadee episodes on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your favorite podcasts)
Favianna Rodriguez is an interdisciplinary artist, cultural strategist, and social justice activist based in Oakland, California. Her art and praxis address migration, gender justice, climate change, racial equity, and sexual freedom. Her practice boldly reshapes the myths, stories, and cultural practices of the present, while healing from the wounds of the past.
Favianna’s practice includes visual art, public art, writing, cultural organizing and power building. In addition to her expansive studio practice, she is the co-founder and president of The Center for Cultural Power.
Below are edited excerpts of my conversation with artist and cultural organizer Favianna Rodriguez
Favianna, can you share about your journey as an artist and cultural organizer at the intersection of social justice?
I am the daughter of Peruvian immigrants and I grew up in East Oakland, during the era of the war on drugs. And so I grew up witnessing a lot of inequality from a young age and that really shaped me. I also grew up witnessing the resilience in my community because it was the birth of hip hop. I would walk down my street and see murals. I would still feel the remnants of black power from a decade before. And early on as a kid, I realized that stories really mattered, that the way that culture was portrayed in film and television, in the news, shaped policy. I realized that because not only was I growing up in a really violent reality, and even for me as a kid, I knew that it was wrong for me to experience that. I had a lot of anger about it. I saw a lot of my peers who would get locked up. I saw a lot of my peers, my young home girls get pregnant or just kind of go into these destructive paths. And for me, art was a way to imagine another reality. So I’m really glad that I found art as a kid because it helped me manage a lot of my anxiety.
Because my parents were immigrants, they did not see art as a viable career. They wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer. And so I was groomed to be at the top of my class, the kind of math and science kid, but I always wanted to be an artist. So it was just always a challenge to be the first American born kid, but also want to be very creative. I eventually decided to leave college because math and science simply were not for me. And that really set me off on a path of creating my own sort of education because I could not go to art school. And so the way I learned was through mentorship, working with artists, activists, and little by little, I began to build my studio. One of the reasons why today I’m an artist activist and I’m very committed to opening doors for other artists, is because I recognized early on that it was very hard to be an artist, that the barriers were significant.
There was no art in my school, and if I didn’t get art classes as a teenager, you can’t really apply to an art school. And even then when I did try to apply, or apply to gallery shows, the opportunities were very limited. I would later realize that the arts was a place that was not inclusive, very much centering the white male experience. So I combined my love for art with my activism ,to fight for all the things I care about, all the things I experienced, whether that was fighting for environmental justice or organizing for immigrant rights.
Favianna, we’ve worked together now for almost three years on the intersection between culture and movement building. Can you talk about what you’ve learned and what you’ve done during the pandemic and for the 2020 elections?
For many years of my artistic life, I felt that my work in the social justice space was separate from my work as an artist. I felt that there was a disconnect because I would collaborate with a lot of artists who cared about [social justice] issues, but there was no real place for them. And there was no way for them to get involved beyond a free performance here and there, or creating a work of art. I felt that it was important to create a bridge between both worlds because in creating this sort of space that intersects both the power of art and culture and the power of social movements, we’re combining two practices that are intended for full embodied liberation. So my work is about combining that space, about bringing all the best that there is from what I’ve learned about being an artist with what I’ve learned from being an activist.
Artists can leverage the power of our imagination, so we can visualize and dream and even create other worlds. [As artists] we can touch people’s emotions through powerful stories or songs or images. And that has a very different impact than reading a policy paper or interacting with rationale. Because often rationale will tell us what’s right and what’s unjust, but that’s not enough. We actually have to inspire people in their “heart space.”
[In terms of COVID] it turns out that not only were we [our country] not ready, but that capitalism is not interested in care. It’s not interested in addressing vulnerable people. So when you have a pandemic that is going to disproportionately impact communities of color, and you have a healthcare system that’s been built around the impetus to profit, we don’t have a system of care. We don’t have a social safety net and our governments are ill-equipped. We see that the rich have only gotten richer and the working class people are losing their wealth. All of that has just really created a moment for us to imagine a different kind of world. And it’s not about just healthcare. It’s not about just gender equity. It’s actually about a worldview, a worldview of domination and extraction that has been normalized, and that has been translated into policy.
The pandemic has broken apart all of those narratives, not just at the national level but at the global level. What it reveals is that these are myths. These are actually myths. And as somebody who works in myth creation, I can tell you that myths are very powerful. They don’t have to be real. People just have to believe in them. The pandemic offered an opportunity for those of us who care about justice to put forward a different idea at a time when people’s imaginations are ready to receive it. And also when we can talk about things that in the past, might’ve felt very boring to talk about. We can talk about healthcare, we can talk about care work, what it actually takes to care for elders and children. We can also talk about white supremacy. When I was growing up, we didn’t even have those words.
You couldn’t even say white privilege. You didn’t have the cultural language or the body of work that allows us to question it. The pandemic really offers us an opportunity. My organization, the Center for Cultural Power, was able to mobilize artists to help create new narratives. Because I love artists, and I am an artist, I know how artists work, and I am hungry for a different kind of leadership. We need more artists leading organizations. We need to have a more vibrant cultural sector working together with social movements to build cultural power. That is the essence of my work, building cultural power because we don’t have it. Even naming culture as a lever of power is a fairly recent concept. It’s something that I’ve been pushing for over a decade, and now it’s finally being embraced.
I know that you were very involved in the elections in many different ways, not only the presidential elections but also the runoff elections in Georgia. Can you talk about how and where you saw the influence of cultural activism during the elections?
First, what I saw is an organized community of artists and culture makers. We’re not operating in a vacuum. It takes time for us to get organized, to get mobilized. We need tools as artists, because we’re not going to read a narrative paper and make art. A lot of the work that has to happen is that the narrative research that exists needs to be translated so that it’s artist friendly. And so that’s some of the work that we did together with our partners in culture search to translate materials and make them accessible to artists so that artists could engage. They could understand which states were important, who were the characters in each of the states. How do we weave a compelling story and also what to stay away from?
You know, myself included, a lot of people wanted to get 45 out of office, but getting someone out of office is not a compelling ask for a lot of people. It’s about how to show our power.
Through [the project] Culture Surge, the Center for Cultural Power worked with hundreds of artists to train them, to help build their confidence. Artists need to understand the best ways to engage, how to tap into their own voice, to be ambassadors for voting. How do we give accurate information? It wasn’t just about voting. It was about voting early. It was about voting by mail. It was about researching and understanding all of the various voter suppression laws that exist in your state, and this is all happening during the time of a pandemic and economic crisis. The role of artists became even more important because its artists who can share this with their fan bases and we could also make voting, something that’s fun and sexy.
I helped train at least 300 artists, made a lot of social media posts, and a lot of different things to encourage artists to find their power and to get activated. This was the first time that I participated in an election in that way, because for years before I’ve been, for 20 years actually, I’ve been protesting at the DNC and at the RNC. Whether it’s protesting Obama’s record-breaking deportations or protesting Bush, the war president, that was really my stance. 2020 changed all of that for me. I felt very empowered to be able to bring artists along in the journey.
I would say that 2020 was so different in many ways, but it also created this opportunity to really rethink how we engage civically for elections and not just the elections, but also the census. Favianna, I know that you are starting an amazing and powerful project focusing on the [U.S.-Mexico] border. It is heartbreaking to see what’s still happening at the border. Can you talk about your ideas and how you’re imagining your work in the border?
As an artist, I was disenfranchised and sort of left behind by the art world. I have a very deep commitment to ensure that artists from different parts of the country are able to get the visibility they deserve. Especially artists who are living in a militarized zone.
I was 16 years old when NAFTA passed. It was right after NAFTA passed, that Operation Gatekeeper was born, which is the beginning of the militarization of the U.S.- Mexico border. And while my family is from Peru, I grew up with a lot of Mexicans and Chicanos, and I know how harsh that border has been on our communities. I also have seen the story of the border evolve. If we talk about the power of story, the border policy, as we know it today began with [president Bill] Clinton and it began with this really weird narrative that said that there was going to be no borders for money. Money could easily flow, but workers follow capital. How could it be that we passed a free trade agreement that actually impacted workers and created a crisis at the border?
Whether it’s the femicides in Juarez, the impact of narco violence, what border policy has done to our neighbors in Mexico, but also to people who live in that region is truly heartbreaking. It’s all based around a narrative that we need a wall, but we don’t have a wall on the Northern border. We don’t have that level of separation and that level of dehumanization. Working with artists in the border region is something I’ve wanted to do for many, many years. And I’m so glad that last year with [support from] the Ford Foundation, Borealis, the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, we launched a border initiative to support artists in that region and to support movement makers.
That means giving artists the tools, the networking, the space for them to create their best ideas, and also uplifting them, showing how they might engage in helping to change the story of the border, but also connecting them with movement groups, you know? I feel that so much about how our programs run at the Center is a reflection of my lived experience. Since I was a kid, I knew something was wrong, and I really wanted to do something about it. […] I want to build better mechanisms for collaboration. I want artists to be valued and to be celebrated, and I want their capabilities and their gifts to be weaved in, as opposed to the situation I was in, [having] to build my own path. And I had to knock on a lot of doors before a few opened. At the Center for Cultural Power our approach is to open doors for artists, give them the personal development and the political training that they need to be able to collaborate with social movements.
Favianna, can you share how has 2020 shaped or changed your personal work as a visual artist?
It’s always a challenge being an artist. As an artist, we get sold this idea that we need to be in our studios and need to be working on our masterpieces. I’ve never fully bought into that idea. I really love working with my community. I love being part of movements for social justice. I wish there was more space for artists and I’m committed to making that space. That, of course, becomes its own artwork requiring a lot of time. And it means that I am away from my studio, because I have to, I have to lead.
Something really beautiful that happens is that I get to meet so many artists and I get to pass on what I’ve learned. And so many of the artists who I work with are artists in entertainment. They are storytellers, they are actors, they are musicians. They all represent disciplines that I don’t do, but in being around them, I realized that I’m actually an interdisciplinary artist, and that it’s really all about relationships. Now I have embraced my status as a storyteller and my power to create different kinds of narratives. I’m no longer limiting myself to visual art. I am now entering the world of film and I’m learning how to write scripts and I have the best support team ever because I work with people who have done amazing jobs in their field.
What I realized last year was that it was the first year where I could slow down, because I’ve been on a grind for 20 years. 2000 is when I first launched my first studio and came out as an artist and it’s been nonstop since then. My life was getting on a plane once a week, going to different cities, always moving. For a majority of that time, I put my own personal healing in the back [burner] because it was all about the movement and being able to transform the reality for so many people.
2020, of course, stopped all my travel and I had to be at home. That also means being at home, alone with your feelings and all the things that came up during COVID because you think about your own mortality. You think about what it means to care for the people you love, for you to be cared for in case that you get sick. The quarantine [limited] our traditional ways of distracting or numbing ourselves. Now I see that my travel meant that I was always in high gear and that is a form of numbing, which I inherited from my immigrant parents, who both had two jobs throughout their life, each of them. I realized that I needed to go on my healing [journey] and the healing of my lineage [journey].
When I began to examine where in my body trauma lives, it’s in my womb. I started piecing together the story of my grandmother, my great-grandmother, my mom. I realized that womb trauma existed for many generations [in my family]. Whether it’s my mother being forced to give-up her first child, my brother, who was adopted by a white family, and didn’t find us until he was 31 years old, or similarly my grandmother, who became pregnant against her will. When I had to think about my abortions, [I began to think about my body] as the artist Barbara Kruger says, as battleground.
I’ve been working in gender justice for a long time. I felt that what was happening at the Supreme Court and the conversations around breaking the gender binary, are essentially conversations about body autonomy and respect, [about having the freedom] to do and express [our bodies] in the way that we feel is right. It was time for me to examine the story of [my] womb trauma.
That’s what I’m working on now. I want to be able to create something that centers women of color acknowledging the historical trauma of what has been done to the womb through hundreds of years. [I’ve] tied [it] to my pleasure activism work because pleasure activism is about reclaiming joy and pleasure, especially through [celebrating] one’s body. I grew up in a culture that was very pain oriented and that told me to close my legs, don’t get pregnant, don’t get an STD. It was a very negative message. When you combine that with womb trauma, you can see how the cycle continues. I wanted to do something that both acknowledged the trauma, but also used pleasure and healing as a way to move forward. We don’t talk about miscarriages. We don’t talk about womb trauma. I can speak for Latinx culture. I mean, machismo is still very much ingrained. We have a femicide problem throughout the hemisphere, so I wanted to create something that began with the place where we’re life is created, which is our womb.
I’ve been your fan for a number of years before we got to work together. Can you share about your pleasure activism?
I had an abortion in 2001 when I was in college. I left home to go to college and I lived in a co-ed Chicano co-op, which was my first time living in any kind of environment like that. And of course I experimented and tried many things, and that led to me being pregnant. After I got my abortion, I didn’t talk about it. I’ve been an activist since I was 16 years old, so I know I have a lot of courage to stand up to the police, to lead a walkout and to be part of an occupation, but I didn’t have courage to share my story, not for 11 years.
In 2011 I heard Senator Brown ask people in a room at Netroots Nation, [for] everyone who had had an abortion, to please stand up. I saw people stand up around me and I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe somebody would ever share that. It was a turning point for me, because I realized that I was living with shame and stigma preventing me from recognizing the importance of abortion access. I was able to get an abortion, and was able to get through on my own. My parents didn’t know, and I was really alone. My partner abandoned me. When I experienced that, I decided that it was time for me to come out.
Everyone wanted to hear my abortion story, and it [was] almost like [there was] an expectation that I would have a lot of regret, or pain, or sadness around it. Of course there was sadness because it’s normal to have sadness around [having] an abortion. But there wasn’t an examination of the context of why I got pregnant in the first place, which was because of a lack of sex education and a sex negative culture. As an artist, I want to embrace the yes. And when I thought about what would have prevented me from having an abortion, it would have been embracing my sexual agency, to have known what brought me pleasure. And that’s when I embarked on my pleasure activism journey, which was around 2011.
I started remembering how I was called a slut in high school. I started piecing together experiences. I would always get made fun of because people thought I was too sexual, but in reality, I was very free. I was expressive. I was very curious, I hung out with a lot of people. I had access to a different kind of language and expression. I was ashamed of that. And even as an adult, in my twenties, I continued to get slut-shamed by people in my family. So I decided that it was time for me to really learn about my own body. I had not even learned about masturbation.
These messages you get as a kid really live in your head. When I began on a journey of self discovery and learning, what is this body that I have? You know, my body’s not just here to please others. My body is here for myself too. I was entering my thirties and I was barely learning about my body.
Science didn’t discover the cliteracy until 1998. This made so much sense to me because I was in high school, and the little sex education I got was around my reproductive ability and nobody taught me about pleasure. I went on that journey and I read a lot and I practiced on myself and I felt whole, it helped me reclaim something that had been robbed from me for half of my life. For 20 years of my life, I was living under another narrative. What I love about being an artist is that we have a safe space to talk about anything we want to talk about, so I would go talk to people around the country and I would share my art. At the time I was working on an art series called Power, which was about me learning about my body again, and my own anatomy, which I didn’t know.
I talked about it as something that was not about gender, but about understanding that we live in a phallic-centric culture that does not allow us to know our full bodies. When I would talk about that, people would come to me and share. This is something that is very silent, especially in communities of color. I understand why, because our bodies have been commodified and exploited. As you continue to do that, you have to confront the real damage that was done by those narratives, and you have to go back generationally. I understand why my grandmother did not want to talk to me about anything related to what was happening below her waist, because it was a trauma for her. And that’s why I’m now seeing the full spectrum of the experience, to reconcile with the pain and to chart forward a different kind of way.
I can see the thread in all of your work, as you are talking about experiencing and bringing your whole self to our communities. This is a beautiful description of your personal journey and how it has influenced everything that you are doing now.
As somebody involved in social movements and an artist, we are talking about something that’s going to affect a lot of people. The laws we are fighting are going to have an impact on many people. Art brings it back down to the personal and that’s the power of combining art and social justice. It’s the individual transformation for the collective wellbeing, the power of my individual story, to help others heal.
For a long time, and even in my pleasure activism work, I just wanted to focus on the pleasure, but the more I uncovered, the more I grew into this work, I realized that you can never move forward without a process of truth and reconciliation. We are doing [this in] our social justice movements, acknowledging the pain that laws have caused and pushing for repair. That’s why I’m very supportive of reparations to Black people. I’m supportive of anything that helps move towards repair, not punishment, not shaming, not stigmatizing, but actual repair.