René Yañez, the Chicano artist who helped introduce the United States to Día de Los Muertos and the work of Frida Kahlo, died Tuesday morning from cancer. He was 75.
Yañez's son Rio announced his father's death on Facebook, saying the influential artist passed "surrounded by people who loved him." Diagnosed with both prostate and bone cancer seven months before, the revered artist had been hospitalized for the past two weeks.
"Throughout the past two weeks my Dad’s spirit has defied every expectation of his mortality to talk, laugh, joke, and sing with us," Rio wrote. "Once my Dad entered the hospital he was never alone, there was always a friend by his side."
Described as "an elder of the Bay Area Chicano arts movement," Yañez spent most of his career in San Francisco, tirelessly promoting the work of Latinx artists and Chicano culture. An accomplished artist himself, his greatest work may have been his impact on the community.
"He was instrumental in reconnecting [Chicanos] to the traditions we hold dear, and making them more visible in the United States," Galería de la Raza's executive director Ani Rivera said.
Yañez came to the United States from Mexico when he was 12 and moved to San Francisco in the '60s, after being drafted during the Vietnam War. There, he attended several schools, including California College of the Arts and the San Francisco Art Institute.
In 1970, he and several other artists co-founded Galería de la Raza, a cultural institution in San Francisco's Mission District. As the space's first artistic director, he established the gallery as a premier venue for Chicano art, but also as a home for burgeoning artists. The gallery became a hub for the community, providing services for the neighborhood like youth programs and public murals, which Yañez helped mount.
"There was no separation between René and the gallery," Rivera said.
Yañez made history in 1972 when he and his colleague Ralph Maradiaga brought the Mexican tradition of Día de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, to San Francisco. It began with an altar in front of the Galería de la Raza, later expanding to exhibits at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The exhibitions became an annual event, helping establish the holiday as an important cultural celebration in the Mission District.
"I came to realize that everything that happens in this country is hybrid. It’s not totally pure," Yañez later said about his gallery's impact. "In fact we are creating the culture here."
Later, after the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) reportedly declined his idea for a retrospective of Frida Kahlo's works, Yañez hosted it at Galería de la Raza instead. It was one of the first comprehensive exhibits of Kahlo's art in the United States, bringing her out of the shadow of husband Diego Rivera to be recognized as a talented artist in her own right.
In 2001, with the help of comedian Cheech Marin and his vast collection of Chicano art, Yañez curated Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge. Described as "perhaps the most complete exhibition of Chicano art," the exhibit toured the United States for five years, reaching as far as Florida and Minnesota.
All the while Yañez promoted the work of others, he made his own art, both physical and performance-based. He started the Chicano comedy group Culture Clash in 1984 and later, with his son Rio, they formed The Great Tortilla Conspiracy, which combined food-based art with humor.
The community gave back to Yañez in the years before his death. In 2013, he and his family faced eviction from the building they had lived in since 1978. But two years later, the San Francisco Community Land Trust and the Mission Economic Development Agency bought the building, thereby allowing Yañez's family to stay put.
This year, after learning he had just months to live, Yañez and friends curated one last show — a retrospective of his work. The exhibit, Into The Fade at the Luggage Store Gallery, showcased decades of work, from street art and abstract drawings to tortillas and virtual reality pieces.
When asked what he wanted to be remembered for before the opening of his show, the thoughtful, gentle Yañez did not mention his art, or his impact on the art world.
"I want to be remembered for how lucky I am to have such good friends," Yañez told El Tecolote.
At press time, a public memorial for Yañez has not been announced. We will update this story when we learn new details.