History was made in the White House earlier this month when President Biden awarded the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal to not one but four Latinx changemakers including musician José Feliciano, painter Antonio Martorell, and poet Richard Blanco, and muralist Judith Baca. National Medal of Arts recipient Baca is an acclaimed muralist whose work has been displayed in art institutions all over the country. The National Medal of Arts is awarded annually by the sitting U.S. President “to those who have contributed to excellence and growth of the arts in the U.S.,” while the National Humanities Medal is given to those “who have helped deepen and broaden humanities with contributions in history, literature and philosophy” and more, according to NBC. Both are some of the highest honors given to civilians in the U.S. to uplift and celebrate their influence in the humanities, and Baca, now 76, has certainly earned such a distinction over the course of a decades-long career.
“Her groundbreaking murals depict the strength and scope of human nature and tell the forgotten stories — and tell a fuller story of who we are as Americans,” President Biden said during the ceremony.
Originating in 1985, the National Medal of Arts has been awarded to many Latinx artists throughout the years, but never on this scale. Baca is of particular interest on a long list of previous and current winners for her unprecedented influence on the mural and art landscape, especially in LA where she grew up. Born in Watts and raised in Pacoima, she often references her family stories in her work, including her grandparents’ immigration from Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, as well as the history of California focusing on marginalized communities. Baca graduated from San Fernando Valley State College (now California State University Northridge) with a bachelor’s degree in art and later earned a master’s degree in art from CSUN in 1980.
She is best known for her half-mile-long mural “The Great Wall of Los Angeles,” which depicts the rich, mixed-ethnic history of California, has become a tourist attraction, and is part of the National Register of Historic Places. Despite the xenophobia and sexism she faced early on in her career from critics, mentors, and fellow muralists for her so-called “alienating” pieces, she is now considered one of LA’s most important artists culturally and historically. She continues to be an inspiration to Chicana and Latina muralists in California and across the country, representing our community on the world stage, bringing to life history that we don’t always get to see in the history books, and opening up conversations about visibility and community.
Today, she is the co-founder and artistic director of LA’s first-ever mural program, the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), and a professor at UCLA. Her art is currently on display in The Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, CA and will be available to view at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art later in September of this year. “Murals can do some amazing work in the world, because they live in the places where people live and work, because they can be made in relationship to the people who see them, because the people themselves can have input, if it’s done in a profound way,” she previously said in an interview with The Guardian. “And that’s what I intend to keep doing as long as I’m standing here on earth.”
We are excited to see our Latina elders getting their flowers and being recognized for their groundbreaking work on the national stage, and hope to see even more in the coming years.