Artist and community organizer Izabelle Fernandez Williams stood before a blank wall in Las Cruces with a team of volunteer artists, all of whom had come to a standstill as they gazed upward at their work-in-progress. Williams wanted to be sure that the image of a New Mexican woman was incorporated into the large-scale mural they were working on—but not a single person among them could think of who they should paint into history. “There were all these brilliant, educated artists around me,” Williams described the scene, “and no one knew who we should honor—they didn't know one single woman from New Mexico that would be worthy to put on that wall.” And to Williams, that's indicative of a larger problem—that in New Mexico, and even across the whole of the country, we are rarely given the opportunity to learn about the women who have shaped our history, especially women of color. “For me, that experience was an eye opener,” Williams explained, and since then, she has been working to change all that. A few years ago after relocating to Albuquerque, Williams established Galas de la Sol, a fledgling coalition of female muralists who are putting up public art that emphasizes the work and lives of women of color from the Southwest.
Galas de la Sol, with direction from Williams, just completed their first mural in Barelas (at Casa Barelas, 1024 Fourth Street SW). The mural was designed and painted into life by local artists Colleen Gorman and Al Nair Lara and was done in collaboration with Young Women United, who helped find a space for the design. The whole process took about three years for Williams, who ran into roadblocks when it came to approval from the city and local businesses. “Where the problem came from was [the question,] who should we honor? Who are we going to offend if we honor them? And why?” Resistance came mostly from the choice to include las soldaderas—female fighters of the Mexican Revolution—in the painting. “[They] were very challenging to put up,” Williams explained. “For some reasons there's a weird translation of if they are heroes or not, if they are warriors or not.” And again, Williams found little information about the soldaderas locally—in fact, there is only one book in our entire library system about them. “That's the kind of stuff I'm interested in bringing to light for students,” Williams reiterated. “For people to actually have some women warriors in their everyday vocabulary. Especially women of color, who have done big things to bring us to where we are now.”
Included in the mural along with the soldaderas are portraits of artist Pablita Velarde and Navajo women who undertook The Long Walk—a forcible removal of Navajo people by the United States government from their home in Arizona to what is now eastern New Mexico. In total, there are some 15 New Mexican and Mexican women depicted in the vast mural. Subjects like New Mexican historians, humanitarians, artists and fighters of various points in history have all found a space of their own on the wall. Williams believes that if young women, especially young women of color, can see themselves reflected in the public art around them, and if the community as a whole can gain greater knowledge of these women, everyone benefits. Take for example Pablita Velarde and her daughter and granddaughter, who comprised a dynasty of distinct and legendary figures in the art world. “They were very honest about everything that ever happened to them in their lives,” Williams described. “[Their biographies] offer very raw material. They've been through abuse and really, really hard times. I think it would be great for women to learn and read these things. … Once you've talked about what's happened to you, you're no longer a victim, you're helping someone else.”
To further Galas de la Sol's mission of providing a complete picture of the community on the city's walls, the group is hosting a series of discussions to gain insights into what and who the people of Albuquerque hold dear. “The best art comes from long conversations about art,” Williams affirmed. “And also people talking about what inspires them, what styles, showing pictures—that's where good art comes from: collaboration.” Galas de la Sol is actively looking not just for community members to contribute to the discussion, but also muralistas. To become involved, you can visit the group's CrowdRise page or contact Williams via email. You can also take a moment to visit the group's first mural, as I did under the thin sun of late December. The mural rose several feet above my head, and I gazed upward at all the history, talent and wisdom contained in each of the faces painted there. Every passerby also paused to regard these women towering above us. I then understood exactly why Galas de la Sol's mission is so important—these women, now prominent against the cityscape, are impossible to ignore.