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Interview with René Yáñez, artist, co-founder of the Galería de la Raza, San Francisco, CA, USA, August 13, 2001

Entretien avec René Yáñez, artiste, co-fondateur de la Galería de la Raza, San Francisco, CA, Etats-Unis
Gérard Selbach
p. 107-111

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1René Yáñez is an all-round visual artist and visionary, now in his sixties. He came out of the Chicano movement of the 70’s and was instrumental in founding the Galería de la Raza in the Mission district of San Francisco. He remained some fifteen years as its director, curating exhibitions, directing and promoting emerging artists of all kinds. He then worked as director of cultural programming at the Mexican Museum until its closure. René Yáñez co-produced Mexican performance artist Astrid Hadad with Life on the Water and spotted potential in a theater group named Culture Clash that now performs successfully in Los Angeles. He also started a program called Street Smart for children at RAP (Real Alternatives Program), an organization that helps ninth-grade dropouts work their way back into school. He gathered around him writers, performers and visual artists from the Latino arts community to do workshops and presentations.

2René Yáñez is certainly best known for starting a new cultural tradition in San Francisco: Dia de los Muertos, in 1972, and for initiating an art tradition linked to it: Rooms for the Dead, consisting in some thirty altar rooms made by different artists at the Mission Cultural Center (Cf. supra interview of Jennie E. Rodriguez).

3I met René Yáñez as he was about to rehearse a performance with half a dozen young actors at the SOMARTS Cultural Center (South of Market) in San Francisco.

Gérard Selbach (GS): You started by painting, but that was a long time ago. You have been using all kinds of mediums …

4René Yáñez: Yes, all kinds of mediums. Painting has turned a bit out of shape lately, people tend to turn to digital. I have done light shows, installations, performances, conceptual art, directing and lots of curating, something I approach as an artist as it is a mix of lighting, visuals and directing. To live in San Francisco you have to be flexible. San Francisco is expensive and competitive. When I started the Galería de la Raza in 1970, lots of people had moved out of Mission toward Sunset and there were lots of vacant storefronts and cheap apartments. So lots of artists moved in. Now it is the other way round. You need now lots of energy and ideas to make a living here.

GS: What was it like when you started? I suppose you needed lots of energy and ideas too.

5RY: It was different in the sixties with the Civil Rights Movement and Berkley. I went to a college of arts and crafts and got together with some people like Orlando or Manuel Hernandez and we formed the Mexican-American Art Liberation Front. We had an exhibition at the Education Clearing House and maybe 300 or 400 people showed up. We were so surprised. There was a hunger for art and new ideas. I started creating a new vocabulary, “symbology,” on issues of identity: Mexicans vs. Mexican Americans vs. Chicanos vs. Latinos. Those issues were new back then in the 60s. I lived in a house and had meetings where fifty people would show up once a week. We had lots of arguments and passion, and lots of ideas were born out of that. It was a very exciting time. Then I moved to the city in the early seventies to work for the Neighborhood Arts Program in San Francisco. We wanted to create culture in the neighborhoods. This came about because they failed to raise enough bonds to build a symphony hall. So they gave us the money to educate the people in the neighborhoods and create arts activities in the Mission. And with people I had known, we opened la Galería on 14th Street. We did a lot of experimental art and lots of people came because they were curious and we were experimenting. The museums and galleries were segregated. Until then there had been no exhibits of Chicano or Latino artists, we looked into their records. We organized a protest movement. A large number of artists came forward and joined us as they had never had any opportunity of exhibiting. Orlando moved from director of the Galería to director of an outreach program for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He then hired me. It was breaking the color line in the 70s.

GS: And it has come  full circle, you said?

6RY: Yes, it is exactly the same, a sense of segregation … But, back then, they were helpful. I wanted to learn about installations, how to hang an exhibit, the lighting, etc.. I applied and became Rockefeller Fellow for a year. I got paid to study under curators. Then I came back to the Galería and worked for the Museum of Modern Art too. Then I had a grant to travel to Mexico and learn. It was a good time. There was a big audience, the schools came, we had a great response. We then opened Studio 54 and a copying machine for artists. We had 500 people a day. That was pretty good for a small community gallery. People would stand in line round the block to get in. It was ironic because, when we asked for funding, we did not get much because they said: “You know, nobody cares.” Yet, nowhere in town would they get as many people. Then there was this Women’s Movement, women were looking for heroines, for stories, good paintings, and that had a chord. A good 60 or 70% of visitors were women. We had artists from Peru or LA and we created an audience for them and also we provided the community with spirituality, the certainty that our culture would survive.

GS: Were you trying to keep the Latino tradition going?

7RY: In fact we were creating the tradition. I came to realize that everything that happens in this country is hybrid. It’s not totally pure. There is no access to a cemetery here. You don’t have the tradition of going to a cemetery. We are in an urban area and you don’t see women in black shawls, in processions, carrying candles. We have an urban audience. The Mission is not like Mexico. It’s all unique. We don’t have farm workers here but service people. It’s a different situation. In fact we are creating the culture here. In the 80s we started Culture Clash, a group of comedians who had a lot of influence in the performance arts world. We had good reviews. Like folkdance giving birth to modern dance and other developments…

GS: Would you say it is a form of americanization of Latino folk culture?

8RY: Not at all, because before you had hip hop or break dance. They were doing a kind of hybrid between modern dance and street dance. Even before that, they were experimenting. It is a whole process of mixing and integrating. What is containing what? Latino culture is different depending on location. Chicanos in San José are different in accent and body language from those in Sacramento because there has been a different enrichment leading to different styles. And it is constantly changing. San Francisco is much more tolerant because there are lots of liberals who are open-minded. And you have different parallel trends and issues like Aids, sexual politics, gay marriages, trans-sexuality. It is a very complex reality, all these categories of gays, lesbians, Chicanos or Mexicans. Depending on locations, concerns reflect differently in the arts, in religious or anti-religious iconography, in posters or murals. In Arizona, you find the imagery of the cactus and rattle-snakes; in Texas, boots, horses and cattle; in New Mexico, land rights, water rights. All these local issues come through in some art forms. To me, it’s much more interesting than mainstream culture where nothing happens, it’s monoculture, it’s segregated, not open. I find hybridity much more interesting in the issues it addresses. That’s why I liked so much the 60s and 70s. There was a tremendous activity. There were remarkable people: Martin Luther King, Malcom X … I could quote twenty more. I can even say there were a lot of good racial relations. Art experiments were tremendous: the murals got started, the City of Miracles got started, the Day of the Dead, etc.. They made me a better artist.

GS: Has the present-day situation changed then?

9RY: It used to be a livelier place here. Lots of artists had to leave because of the high rents and went to Oakland. That bothers me because life is hard.

GS: You have mentioned the Day of the Dead. You are well-known here for having initiated this event.

10RY: Yes, I like rituals, processions, performances. I did that for several years, then I got tired of it and started doing other things. I like contributing to culture, enriching it. I turned from the “Day of the Dead” to the “Altars” that became an art form in its own right, then to the “Rooms for the Dead” that has grown into an institution in a few years. I like experimenting with something new. I invented rituals in San Francisco that did not have any.

GS: When did you launch the “Day of the Dead”?

11RY: In 1982. I first had an idea of a procession, then there was the Irish Captain Mission Station with a death cult in. I saw the coffins and the skulls. I was really freaked out. I wanted to contaminate the whole neighborhood. And people liked it and asked for more. I remember the last time I did it, I went to court. There were more than 20,000 people, we could not count. Then there was this lady driving a BMW that got dented. I had to pay $300. The procession is a lot different now. After a time, an event takes a life of its own. Music comes from Aztec bands, to banda, to marching bands. So many people show up, some even walk on stilts. Although at the beginning, I would program it. I tried to give it a direction, some sense. But afterwards I could no longer control who was showing up and in what way. I liked that, but it was time for me to leave and let it live its own life.

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Gérard Selbach, « Interview with René Yáñez, artist, co-founder of the Galería de la Raza, San Francisco, CA, USA, August 13, 2001 »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II - n°6 | 2004, 107-111.

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Gérard Selbach, « Interview with René Yáñez, artist, co-founder of the Galería de la Raza, San Francisco, CA, USA, August 13, 2001 »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. II - n°6 | 2004, mis en ligne le 30 octobre 2009, consulté le 21 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Gérard Selbach

Dr. (Paris V, France)
Gérard Selbach, assistant professor at the University of Paris 5, France, and researcher at the CERLIS-Paris 5 and the National Scientific Research Center (CNRS), has as a main field of research American art, art museums, Native American museums and museology. Beside publishing articles and contributing to conferences, he has published Les Musées d’art américains: une industrie culturelle (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000) and is about to release Les Musées amérindiens: du vol du sacré à la métaphore identitaire (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2004). He is also a contemporary art critic with <>

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