Latin American women and the art of change

Photo By David Robert

There are obvious similarities in the women presented in this story. They all have black hair, brown eyes and college educations. They are all Latina and came to the United States as immigrants from South America. They are spirited and engaging. They are all artists—one a writer and photographer, one a sculptor, another a theater director.

But even more binding is how all three women use art as a tool for social change. For Emma Sepulveda and Laura Mijanovich, this began as a response to brutalities seen under dictatorships in Chile and Argentina in the 1970s but became a desire to prevent similar abuses from happening in the United States. For Anna Maria Vega, it was a response to problems Hispanics are facing here in Reno. For all, it’s something they can’t ignore.

Emma Sepulveda
Emma Sepulveda was not having a good week. Out of town over New Years Eve, she returned to Reno to find her basement flooded—CDs of her photography floating in the water, hard drive burned out, making irretrievable both the images and the week’s opinion column she writes regularly for the Reno Gazette-Journal. Then there was the car accident she’d had the day before (no one was hurt). And she’s supposed to take care of all this before hopping on a plane for Chile the following day.

And yet, she’s smiling and composed as she strides up the walkway to Medio Mundo—the all-women art gallery on Vassar Street she began with business partner Allyson Adams this past November.

Inside, the gallery is like the cozy home of art-minded inhabitants, complete with a couch, tea and a mosaic-encrusted fireplace. Dominating the mix of artwork hanging from the walls are Sepulveda’s photos of Chilean landscapes, Vietnamese children and an old man walking down a deserted Israeli street. At first glance, they look like paintings—an illusion realized by manipulating Polaroid photographs with tools, rescanning them and adding watercolors.

“I like to change the reality I see around me,” she says.

That sentiment lies behind nearly everything she does, be it through writing, art, teaching or politics.

Sepulveda, 55, is a striking woman—straight black hair streaked handsomely with gray stretching mid-way down her small frame. Wearing all black and a hint of perfume, Sepulveda exudes confidence while maintaining modesty. But it’s the contributions of her mind that make her truly stand out in a crowd.

Sepulveda has written two books of poetry, several non-fiction books and is currently writing a novel. Her book Amigas: Letters of Friendship and Exile premiered as a play in 2003. She edited We, Chile, a book of personal testimonies of the Chilean arpilleristas—women who use textile art to communicate their outrage over the loss of their husbands and children under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s. She’s now writing a novel called Reclaiming the Memory of Chile, which is based on the true story of one man’s tragic attempt at escape from Pinochet’s rule. She’s also working on a photography project of Israel and a second volume of Amigas.

Artist and writer Emma Sepulveda looks out from behind a trellis at Medio Mundo, her gallery featuring her photography, jewelry designs (below) and art from other female artists.

Photo By David Robert

She became the first Latina to run for Nevada Senate in 1994, of which she wrote From Border Crossing to Campaign Trail: Chronicle of a Latina in Politics in 1998. She is also the first Latin American woman to earn the special designation of foundation professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Her outspoken opinion columns denouncing everything from the war in Iraq to current immigration policies and the sins of the Catholic Church have earned her both fervent fans and livid detractors. “There are many people in this town who hate my guts,” she says with lighthearted acceptance.

But connecting her disparate interests is a determination for social change. Her photos and writings speak to art but go hand-in-hand with the changes she hopes to forge through the more standard routes of teaching, opinion columns and political activism. “Everything I do is so connected,” she says.

Born in Argentina, Sepulveda moved with her family to her father’s native Chile when she was 7 to leave the fascist-like atmosphere of Juan Peron. “My life has been totally shaped by political events,” she says.

Sepulveda was a 23-year-old college student finishing her fifth year at a university in Santiago when “the other 9/11” happened on Sept. 11, 1973. A coup d’etat by Pinochet led to 17 years of oppressive military rule, during which at least 35,000 people were tortured, 3,000 disappeared, and thousands of summary executions were conducted. Under the dictatorship, Sepulveda was told she could not return to school. Many who applied for asylum in the United States and other countries were turned down. But Sepulveda was married at the time to a Peace Corps volunteer from Reno, and they decided to move to the United States, so she could leave the tyrannical atmosphere and finish her studies.

Now remarried, with one 30-year-old adopted daughter and an 18-year-old son, Sepulveda reflects on how the events of 1973 impacted her life and work today. “I would not be here today if not for 1973,” she says. “My life would be totally and completely different.”

Her family still lives in Chile. Her father, now deceased, abandoned her mother and siblings when Sepulveda was 15. The conservative businessman was later appointed by Pinochet as a concejal (councilman), and Sepulveda says she had no relationship with him. This may have given her a head-start on feminism, as her main role model was a single, independent woman. “My mother was just the most remarkable woman,” she says. “Everything I am today, I owe to her.”

Also heavily influential was working with the arpillerista artesans when she returned to Chile in later years.

“That was the first connection I made between women’s art and their message,” says Sepulveda. The women’s pain and denunciation of Pinochet’s brutality is poignantly expressed on arpilleras, or textiles depicting the atrocities that occurred, such as people being gunned down by the military for protesting outside the Ministry of Labor. It was a turning point for how she viewed art.

“Women’s art needs to have a special place in the world right now,” she says. “The art of men and women both have value. But with social art, I think women are more interested in sending a message of change. One of the arpilleristas put it so eloquently: ‘A woman wants to denounce more than criticize.'”

Sepulveda thinks women are more interested in creating a collective, rather than an individual, voice. Elaborating on why women artists, especially Latinas, need a separate space to exhibit their art, she says, “There was no sexual liberation movement in Latin America. We’re just beginning to see that. We don’t have to look far to when women didn’t have the right to publish their own work. So there’s the necessity of females to create their own space. It’s saying, if you won’t let me have a space with you, I will create my own space.”

Photo By David Robert

Things are changing in Latin America, she says, which could contribute to more women freely expressing themselves. Last year marked the first time a Chilean woman could legally request a divorce. And this month, Michelle Bachelet, a woman whose father was killed by Pinochet and who, herself, was imprisoned and tortured under that same regime, became Chile’s first female president. “Women have access now to things they never did,” says Sepulveda. “I think the conscientious women are really going to be involved in making changes.”

Laura Mijanovich
Don’t let the last name fool you.

Laura Mijanovich, a sculptor and the Northern Nevada coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union, spent the first half of her 53 years as Laura Grampa in Argentina, where she developed a fierce aversion to injustice and secrecy. She’s lived the second half as a U.S. citizen, artist and lawyer fighting those ills in courtrooms as well as in galleries.

Mijanovich is a lovely and intense woman in a smart black jacket and bold knitted scarf. Her voice sounds rushed as she ruffles through papers showing samples of her artwork like someone accustomed to having to find things in a hurry—no doubt a rhythm she picked up from her past three years with the ACLU.

It’s difficult to fully grasp her art through sheets of standard office paper. Much of her work includes sprawling, symbolic structures up to 27 feet long. In one, photographs and newspaper clips rest inside an oven in homage to Aphrodite. Another is a ceramic sculpture of a bald, nude woman with black wires, chain links and other found objects dangling where her appendages would be, making her look as if she is disintegrating. Mijanovich says the piece represents how many felt immediately after 9/11. Then there are her “hagioscopes"—a word she invented for her installations that attempt to merge the observer and the observed, forging a connection between the viewer and the artist. This is a common theme throughout her work—the reconciliation of the physical with the metaphysical.

But she hasn’t had much time for art lately.

“I cannot be producing art when I see what’s going on in this country,” she says. “I want to be involved in a more direct way.” She now works to protect the civil rights of Northern Nevadans, with special focus on immigration, reproductive rights, free speech, open meeting laws and improving standards for Hispanics and minorities in public schools.

Mijanovich differs greatly from Sepulveda in that she views her art as separate from her activism: “My art is not about politics; it’s about metaphysics.”

Neither does she believe there is a significant difference between the art of men and that of women: “I believe artists are artists. It’s a soul. It’s a manner of feeling. I don’t think there’s that kind of separate dichotomy.”

But like Sepulveda, the roots of Mijanovich’s activism stemmed from injustices she saw her native country’s government practice in the name of fighting terrorism.

Sculptor and ACLU coordinator Laura Mijanovich views her art as separate from her civil rights activism, but both realms infuse her life.

Photo By David Robert

Mijanovich graduated in 1977 from the University of Buenos Aires during the beginnings of Argentina’s “Dirty War” (1976-83). It was a time of censorship, repression, civilian spying and detentions without charge for indefinite periods of time. ("All things that are nowadays allowed here,” she adds.) Some 30,000 people disappeared by government order, many of whom had nothing to do with terrorism. “In the name of fighting terrorists, the government went way beyond,” she says. Formerly classified documents showing the vast extent of the government’s atrocities have been disclosed to the public only in the past few years.

“That’s why so much of my job here is about countering secrecy and making sure open-meeting laws are upheld,” says Mijanovich.

She practiced law in Argentina for a year before deciding to take post-graduate studies in the United States at UNR in 1978. She intended to return to her home country, “but I ended up getting married and became a ski bum,” she jokes. She worked at a local Reno law firm for 17 years, taking art classes at UNR on the side. Her days as an ACLU lobbyist began in 2002.

“It’s the irony of life that, in my case, I was a young woman seeking America about how to protect civil liberties in my country,” she says. “And now, I’m in America trying to protect those same civil liberties from abuses here.”

Yet Mijanovich still feels the need to have art in her life. She found a compromise by coordinating art events with civil liberties themes. The first was a Day of the Dead art festival in 2002. This past October, she coordinated 20+1984—Art for Post 9/11, an ACLU-sponsored exhibit of local artists’ responses to civil liberties issues. What Art Civil Liberties?, an exhibit featuring art from elementary, high school and college students, is scheduled for next summer’s ArtTown festivities.

To help other people do art is a way for me to vicariously create,” says Mijanovich.

While her own art is not distinctly political, she believes art is important in creating social change.

“I believe so strongly in free speech, and as an artist, I can see the connection,” she says. “With language, there are obstacles to really understanding. Through art, you appeal to the intuitive power of your mind. When you see an image … you have to figure it out. And when you understand it, you understand it at a much deeper level.”

Noting current controversies about government civilian spying and the PATRIOT Act, Mijanovich says this type of education through art is especially important when freedoms of expression seem threatened.

“With art, it’s a way of protesting or denouncing the state of affairs.”

As for herself, Mijanovich can see a time when art will resume a central place in her life. “But there are some things that need to be stopped before I allow myself to close myself in a room and think about things like hagioscopes and beauty,” she says.

Photo By David Robert

Mijanovich alludes to other forces keeping her away from her art—her ACLU work, yes, but also the death after a sickness of her husband, Paul Mijanovich, this past July. In a 2001 artist statement, she wrote: “Art helps me … liberate strangled emotions. … Art is my outlet for troubled emotions, my way of confronting my own existence.” Perhaps it is too soon for all that.

But she also feels a sincere urgency to change the world in an immediate, direct way.

“I saw what happened in Argentina, and I don’t want that to happen here,” she says. “America is supposed to lead and give the example of a free nation. It has to be careful about what it gives up in terms of civil liberties to protect itself from a supposed threat. I believe that’s the most important thing I can do right now. I’ll do art later.”

Anna Maria Vega
After hours, in the dimly lit back office of local Spanish newspaper Ahora, Anna Maria Vega sits down at a rounded table and brushes one side of her long black hair behind her ears. Eighteen Spanish-speaking actresses have been frequenting this room lately, one at a time, to rehearse monologues about vaginas with the theater director and Ahora reporter.

Under Vega’s direction, Brown Eyes Too, the small bilingual theater group she began in 2003 with her husband and Ahora editor, Mario Dela Rossa, is bringing an all-Spanish production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues to Reno in February. It’s the group’s first work performed entirely in Spanish.

“In Reno, there aren’t many cultural things for Hispanic people,” says Vega, 32. “So the idea of Brown Eyes Too is to bring a work of theater that’s cultural and educational for Hispanics.”

Other efforts at Spanish theater in Reno have shown there is, indeed, a theater audience among the growing minority group (nearly 20 percent of the population). When UNR’s Latino Research Center brought the all-Spanish production of Las Mujeres de Juarez (The Women of Juarez) to Reno last spring, the Arizona-based Teatro Bravo actors performed before a packed house at the Nevada Museum of Art.

“It showed that the (Hispanic) people need to entertain themselves with something positive,” says Vega.

But is the typically conservative Hispanic community ready for The Vagina Monologues?

“No,” says Vega flatly. “It’s going to surprise the people. They’re very traditional, in general, both Hispanic men and women. But with this play, they’re going to identify with it because it’s the reality of women.”

Director Anna Maria Vega’s Brown Eyes Too theater group brings the first all-Spanish production of <i>The Vagina Monologues </i>(<i>Los Monologos de la Vagina</i>) to Reno this February at the Laxalt Theater. Past bilingual plays by the theater group have attempted to alert both Spanish- and English-speaking audiences to problems in the Hispanic community.

Photo By David Robert

The Vagina Monologues is a fun comedy addressing everything from orgasms to the frustrations of going to the gynecologist and using women’s toiletries. But it also has elements of tragedy—stories of violation and abuse, including a monologue about the hundreds of Mexican women brutally and mysteriously murdered in Juarez in recent years. “So they aren’t ready to see it or hear it, but yes, when they do, they’re going to identify with it,” says Vega.

Vega studied theater in her native Chile while getting a degree in communications from the University of Santiago. Her father had lived in Reno for 30 years, so she immigrated here seven years ago.

She found work (and her husband) at Ahora, where she’s been a reporter for four years. Through her articles, she witnessed how gangs, violence, drugs and alcohol were affecting Hispanics in Reno, especially the youth.

“No one was doing anything for them,” she says. “So one day I said to Mario, ‘There has to be something we can do to educate.’ I thought it would be good if I did something with theater to maybe make a small change.”

She created Brown Eyes Too and began directing free plays she co-wrote with Dela Rossa. The first was the 25-minute Carmencita’s Dream in 2003. It was a bilingual performance about a Mexican girl whose parents wouldn’t allow her to go to school because, as a woman, she should stay home and have children. Vega says there is still little encouragement for young Hispanic women to become professionals.

That same year also brought the bilingual Dia de los Muertos/Day of the Dead, which told of the holiday’s origins through the voices of three children—an Anglo-American, Mexican and Mexican-American.

The next bilingual play was My Son Was a Good Kid, which opened in 2004. It alerted parents to signs of their children becoming involved with gangs and has been performed at area schools at the request of some of the students.

“Hispanic parents don’t know,” says Vega. “The gangs here aren’t like they are in other countries. So when we arrive here, and our children are putting on loose pants, red caps, green bandanas, the parents think it’s just the American style of dressing. But it’s not always the style, sometimes it’s because they’re getting involved with gangs.”

Vega says she tries to educate the Latino community about issues that are important to them, be it through her reporting or in the theater. “Art is a different way to say the same things.”

With The Vagina Monologues, Vega thinks both men and women will learn something. “The men are going to understand a little more about women, and the women are going to understand a little more about the feminine,” says Vega.

Every other Brown Eyes Too production has been free to the public. But when The Vagina Monologues is performed on Feb. 25-26 at the Laxalt Theater on West Second Street, tickets will cost $15, with proceeds benefiting organizations helping abused women.

Vega’s daughters, ages 6 and 15, are a constant reminder of her stake in improving the lives of both women and Hispanics. “I hope they are learning to think first of the other person and then of themselves,” she says. “I hope they understand the way I’m trying to help.”