Interview conducted by Rita González-Mahoney for New America: “Women Artists and Writers of the Southwest,” 1982
As Hispanics and as artists, these women represent the political, social and cultural revolution that has taken place over the past 15 years throughout the Southwest in Spanish-speaking communities. Each sees her art as part of the ongoing struggle of La Raza for self-determination and cultural integrity.
Linda Pedro began painting as a child, influenced by her mother, who was from an old Spanish ranch family, and her father, who was from a Scottish coal-mining family. As a painter of retablos—paintings of saints in tempura colors on pine panels previously coated with one or more layers of gesso, a stabilizer—she has been fighting a one-woman war in New Mexico for the preservation of native, original retablos. A quadraplegic since 1966, Ms. Pedro has consistently fought for the legal rights of the disabled. She recently completed an unsuccessful campaign for the New Mexico state Senate from Río Arriba County for La Raza Unida Party. Ms. Pedro lives in Chimayó, where she is hoping to establish a Hispanic Cultural Center.
In her own words, she describes her art, dreams and disability, as well as the politics and challenges she has encountered:
“When the Spanish first came to New Mexico, there were no Catholic churches. And when the first churches were built, the priests were not able to import art and decorations for the churches from Europe and México, so they appealed to people in the village to make the churches look nice. The people used what they had. In some cases, they didn’t use egg yolk and water but used piñón pitch and water to bind the pigment to the wood. Later, when the churches imported printed images and plaster of Paris statues, replacing the need for folk art, there was only a small group of people who maintained the art of carving santos, bultos and retablos. Today, retablo painters are the scarcest of them all.
“Retablo painting is a pretty traditional art. If you have to categorize it, it is Hispanic, religious folk art. I love folk art from all over the world. I guess it is my peasant soul. One of my favorites is any kind of straw work because I love expression that is motivated by images. I don’t care if it is embroidery or painting, it is really rich. It is real.
“Painting is a real inner reflection. I have been giving a lot outward lately, and I think it is really time to go back in and see where the growth has gone and what is inside that needs to be worked on. My work is known only in certain circles, though. It is very interesting that the people who control the Santa Fe art markets have never asked me to exhibit. I have heard that they do not consider my work traditional. Why? That means that I am not making museum replicas of the old retablos. You have people from someplace else deciding who you are, what your culture is, and what your traditions are. Santa Fe has rapidly become a place that the native people can’t even enjoy or live in. They can’t afford the lifestyle. And that offends me to the core.
“My real dream is to have a Hispanic Cultural Center in Chimayó that brings in Hispanic theater, that teaches the children of the area. We’d like to have a Spanish bakery, a center, a real center, and really do it up. One of my other dreams is to rejuvenate the old plaza and make it a place where people can stroll and go to see traditional art. It is going to be done. I don’t know if it is going to take me 10 or 20 years, but I’m not going to quit. This is one of my greatest dreams. I began to realize that there was such a need for instruction in the arts, and there were so many talented young Chicanos who could teach poetry, carving and painting that we could make a place where kids could go learn. But imagine if there was a cultural center where talented young Hispanos could go and say, ‘Listen, it really turns me on to write poetry.’ That is my dream.
“You cannot separate the political feeling of people, who grew up in the barrios, from their art. How are you going to separate their emotions from a very strong political statement? It is impossible. …The problem in today’s society for any artist is how to live off of your art. Where does the artist belong in today’s economy? That is the hard part. And it is even harder to be a woman artist in today’s society, even though it is easier now than it ever has been. I look around, and I know what I went through in my own personal struggle and self-development—that thing of allowing yourself to be oppressed by your family, a man, society—so readily accepting the role of not being good enough.
“I think women are a very vital part of art. It wouldn’t be art without them. As far as the woman’s role has changed through time, so has her place in the arts. Even in the last century, women who wrote had to write under a man’s name in order to get printed. Along with everything else that busted open in the 20th century, so did women in art. Women are by nature creative and passionate. That is what art is about—creating and being passionately caring enough to create.
“Being disabled is the minority of minorities because it can happen to anyone. You could be black or white, young or old, rich or poor, man or woman, or either through injury or disease or old age—anyone can become handicapped. You can get brain damage or spine damage or wake up with MS, and there you are. It excludes nobody. Yet it is the one minority in our society that has been ignored. All the other civil rights movements have taken their stride when, in fact, it is just now that the disabled movement has pulled itself up by its bootstraps.
“At least the disabled movement has brought about the consciousness that, because you have a disability, you don’t stop being human. You still have all the problems everyone else does, physically, emotionally, sexually, spiritually. I always say that one of the problems disabled people have is that they begin to think they are different than other people, when, in fact, they are not.
“After my injury, of course, I couldn’t move from the neck down—no way—and for a long time, part of my therapy was to begin to paint again. I broke my neck in 1966, and the first retablo I painted was in 1968. So, it took me that long to get strong enough, physically, let alone mentally, to believe I could do something like that again.
“But sometimes I think I’m absolutely mad to have taken on such an old art and to sit around with these little tiny boards and paint. I paint with a hand brace because my hand is partially disabled. I put this strap, this brace, on my hand, which allows me to pick up the brush. And then I paint.”