The north-south median-divided street now known as Mandela Parkway is a microcosm of the changes at play throughout Oakland. Once, it was the site of the Cypress Structure, a 1.6-mile-long two-deck freeway that collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and killed 42 people. Now, Mandela Parkway is home to food establishments, industrial businesses and pathways, which in the pre-pandemic era filled with affluent residents walking through the neighborhood. But tucked into the side streets is another, simultaneous, Oakland, one that reflects the uneven effects of gentrification sweeping the Town.
Vanessa Espinoza, better known as DJ Agana, is well aware of the disparity present in these streets. She’s looking up at You Are Beautiful, a mural on the back of East Bay Resources recycling center on West Oakland’s Willow Street. “The mural is all trashed, I don’t know if this is going to work,” she says of a planned photoshoot.
DJ Agana is an East Oakland graffiti artist and a member of the women’s artist collective Few and Far. Agana is also an emcee, a 3D visual effects animator, a jewelry maker and an activist.
You Are Beautiful, painted by Agana and Few and Far members in 2018, depicts women in all shapes and forms: pregnant, breast-feeding, voluptuous, in full tribal regalia. Its message is straightforward but emphatic—all women are beautiful. Agana’s contribution to the mural is a woman breastfeeding her baby, draped in a teal shawl, her feet surrounded by a maíz plant.
The image is Agana’s way of normalizing a part of motherhood that is often sexualized or seen as inappropriate in public space. “Breasts aren’t made for your sexual pleasure,” she says. “They are made to feed babies, they might be sexy, they might turn you on or make you uncomfortable, but I’m going to feed my baby when he’s hungry, and I don’t care who is around.”