Professor makes issues in Mexican-American women’s history a new conversation.
By Emily Garcia
English Professor Juanita Luna Lawhn is the creator of the sculpture “Eye of a Needle,” which is on display at the “Aqui Estamos y No Nos Vamos” exhibit at Esperanza Peace and Justice Center.
“Aqui Estamos y No Nos Vamos” means “We are Here and We are Not Going.” The exhibit features art made by women of color.
With the help of her sisters, the sculpture took Lawhn about a month to finish and features a vintage dress form wearing a pink ribbon and a white apron sitting on top of an embroidery hoop.
The apron and embroidery hoop contain images of historical protests by Mexican-American women in San Antonio.
The Mexican flag hugs the base of the sculpture with an Our Lady of Guadalupe figure sitting on the flag.
This is the first sculpture Lawhn has made.
The protests Lawhn chose to represent in her sculpture include the Finck Cigar Strike of 1933, the San Antonio Laundry Strike of 1937, the Dorothy Frock Manufacturing Strike of 1936 and the Pecan Shellers’ Strike of 1938.
The sculpture is a result of research Lawhn started in the 1970s when she first started teaching at this college.
“One of the first questions I asked was, ‘Where is the literature by us, by Mexican-Americans?” Lawhn said. “The answer was there was none.”
That question led to another: “Where was literature by women?”
Lawhn began searching for Mexican-American literature, and in 1976 she started the first Mexican-American literature course at this college.
Lawhn recently began studying Mexican-American protests in San Antonio and wanted to bring her love of Mexican-American literature and Mexican-American women protests together in her sculpture.
“Everyone knows about the Pecan Shellers’ Strike,” Lawhn said. “But I wanted to bring these women to life, tell who they are, give them names and identities.”
The “Aqui Estamos y No Nos Vamos” exhibit is a response to the rhetoric of President Donald J. Trump’s campaign, Lawhn said.
“Not that I don’t know that this type of rhetoric is there, but this dialogue kind of gave permission to shout out abusive rhetoric that is so against diversity and people of color,” Lawhn said. “So I decided to say something with my art, and I think that the intent of my exhibit is to show that the base of most of us is Mexico because so many of us are from Mexico and have family from Mexico, and this whole idea of deportation has gone on and on for so many years.”
Lawhn believes women of color have always been politically involved throughout history but does not consider herself political.
“When I look at who I am, I think I am in a way the essence of what many of these women are in that we work quietly at our political activities,” Lawhn said. “Since the first day I have worked here, I have tried to integrate into the curriculum the literature and art of Mexicanos.”
There are many needles incorporated in the sculpture, which symbolize something violent, such as the needle tearing through fabric, turning into something beautiful, such as the finished product of embroidery, Lawhn said.
The needle can also symbolize a sexual metaphor as the needle penetrates the fabric, Lawhn said.
Lawhn was the founder and former coordinator of this college’s multicultural conference, English Professor Laurie Lopez Coleman said.
“She did the conference for years without any kind of official college support,” Coleman said.
Lawhn did the conferences out of her own desire to give voices to important multicultural people in history, Coleman said. The multicultural conference has since become an official Fiesta event.
Coleman said Lawhn likes to share the issues of the past, such as racism, with people because she knows these issues are still not resolved.
“She really likes to get people to think about the images of the past. She loves images,” Coleman said.
Lawhn has taken several trips to the University of Texas at Austin library to look through archives to find lesser-known issues of the past and bring light to them so there can be a conversation about them, Coleman said.
Lawhn integrated art into her curriculum by asking students to write an essay based on the art at the “Aqui Estamos y No Nos Vamos” exhibit, social work freshman Kayla Green said.
Green enjoyed the multimedia elements Lawhn used to make the sculpture, such as the needles connecting the pictures of the strikes to the apron.
“I think her piece brings out a lot of Mexican culture because a lot of women sew and do things shown in her piece,” Green said.
The “Aqui Estamos y No Nos Vamos” exhibit opened March 27 and continues through May 26 at Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, 922 San Pedro Ave.
The exhibit is open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday. Call 210-228-0201 or visit esperanzacenter.org.