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The Mission’s Mother and Son Painting Duo

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Ester and her son Josué Rojas painting in SF's Balmy Alley.
Ester and her son Josué Rojas painting in SF's Balmy Alley. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Mission District-based muralist Josué Rojas and his mother, Esther García are a dynamic duo.

Josué has painted murals across San Francisco and beyond, often using images that celebrate culture and community. Esther picked up painting during the pandemic, but she’s been leaving her mark on the neighborhood for decades.

As she sold small goods on the street, Esther built a reputation for her sage-like presence around the way. Josué remembers times when she’d be asked to pray over people, and she’d kindly oblige.

Her presence is so strong that she got in good with local artists collectives, like the Chulita Vinyl Club. And the artist JR incorporated Esther’s image into The Chronicles of San Francisco, a gigantic mural that was in the main entrance to the San Francisco Musuem of Modern Art.

Esther gave Josué the "G-Pass," you can see why.
Esther gave Josué the “G-Pass,” you can see why. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Although Esther didn’t understand Josué’s art career at first, she watched Josue’s journey as he earned a Masters of Fine Arts from Boston University, served as the executive director of Acción Latina and became a well-respected muralists on the streets and in the galleries of his hometown. You can see Josué’s latest piece at the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum.

Now, at 75, Esther has been learning how to paint under the tutelage of one very demanding teacher: her son. And she tells me that she doesn’t like what they paint– she loves it.

The image of a multicolored tropical bird, one of Josué Rojas' staple images, looks on as Esther and Josué finish a mural in Balmy Alley.
Josué Rojas and Esther finish a mural in Balmy Alley. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Below are lightly edited excerpts of the podcast.

Josué: My mom is really kind of one of the biggest of influences. She’s a real tough cookie. She just turned 75…

Josué: [My brothers and I] were all born in El Salvador. I’m the youngest of four boys. She brought us all here to San Francisco to avoid the war. The war really kicked off around 1980 in El Salvador. I was born in December of 79. So there were little skirmishes and battles, and she was dodging bullets while pregnant with me. And she was like, “This is not how I want to raise my kids, and I don’t want them to grow up and be forcefully recruited to either side of this war… I don’t want my kids to participate in this.”

Josué: So she sold everything she had. She had a small business and she brought us here. Thus begins my upbringing in the mission.

Josué: My mom worked really hard her whole life and so it was really hard for her to reconcile that at around 15, I’m coming home with paint all over my jeans, paint all over my nice clothes, whatever it would be. And she’d be like, “What is wrong with you?”

Esther: He was in high school, the teachers asked him what he wanna be when he got adult. And he’d say, “Paint!” I say, “What!?” “Mom, I like it.” I’d say “No! This is for the rich people!” …  But now I understand very well. And the teacher tell me, “Let him be what he want to be.” I’d say, “okay, okay, I can.” And now I am painting too!

Josué: It took a little bit of convincing, and once she saw how much joy it gave me, she realized that it could give her a little bit of joy, too… It went from like, “No, don’t do that, don’t do that!” to being like, “Hey, what are you doing?” And then it became like, “Hey, how do you do that?” And then it became, “Hey, teach me how to do that.”

Josué: Everything that I would learn, I’d bring home and I would school her with. And so she’s been a practicing artist, too.

Pen narration: Josue’s mother is a multi-talented creator, skilled at making small crafts and a budding visual artist as well. And in Josue’s work, you can spot her signature, M-E-G, which are her initials.

Josué: During the pandemic, she was like locked up at home. So I was making sure she had everything she needs. I would make sure she had groceries, make sure she had all her medications and all that kind of stuff, and also make sure she had blank canvases and paints so that she could paint at home and stay fresh and stay hot with her practice. It was just a way of making sure that we were feeding the body, but also feeding the soul.

Josué: She spent some time out in the street doing street vending, many years back, just to kind of survive. And she always blended her own take into that, for her, she’s a deeply spiritual person, and I don’t think you live the life that she has lived without a powerful spirituality.

Esther: Oh, yeah. Yeah. A lot of people they know I am Christian. The people go over there and say, “Can you pray for me?” I say, “Why not?” And I pray for the people… God made the miracle. And I do it. I do it because we loved the people. I love the people. I want the people to be safe.

Josué: And so I’ve seen people come to her in some real need. People that are hooked on substances or who have been abused and are in some serious distress, people living on the streets. And they see her as this elder.

Pen: And you’ve told me that she’s been depicted in murals as well. So how does it feel to share your mom with the community?

Josué: I learned early on that she isn’t only my mom like she is an elder, an OG for many other people.

Esther: Oh, my God! I know! I no understand why! I say, “I am very old and ugly!” And he painting a very, very big picture in the city hall.  And another day, ¿Cómo se llamalo?

Josué: J.R. The artist, J.R.

Esther: Well, the point is, they put me in a big mural ¿Cómo se llama?

Josué: In the San Francisco MoMA. That big black and white piece that J.R. did. Yeah.

Josué: … She also was hanging out with like the Chulita Vinyl Club before she introduced me to them. I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve been trying to get hold of them to come and spinning at my openings!” and they’re like, “Oh, well, only because she’s your mom. We’ll think about doing that kind of thing.” And I was like, “Oh man, she’s cooler than me.”

Pen: The moms gave you the G-pass! I love it!

Josué: Yeah! Moms gave me the G-pass, thats right!

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.



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