An original pillar of hip-hop culture, graffiti once possessed a singular objective of fame: plastering one’s tag anywhere and everywhere. From the ‘hoods of the Bronx, where the music genre was born, to the Manhattan art scene of the late ‘70s, where Jean-Michel Basquiat rose to fame as a staple pioneer, graffiti shouted from the margins and made a famous home out of the Big Apple before permeating international streets. Like the late Haitian-Puerto Rican painter, who started as a graffiti writer before trading spray cans and buildings for paint and canvas to employ pro-Black and pro-immigrant images, many of today’s Latin American practitioners of street art emerge as fervent champions for Black and Indigenous women in their regions.
As with music, poetry, and film, street art has the potential to educate, inspire, and move people. This transformative power of the visual arts takes a unique shape on walls and buildings all over Latin America. From Haiti to Brazil to Puerto Rico, street muralists are scaling the faces and narratives of Black and Indigenous women in climates seething with growing femicide rates, reproductive injustice, and gender pay gaps that disproportionately distress these communities. For them, street walls are where they speak to women’s plights, celebrate community leaders, and imagine a new reality.
V!cky Onélien, Port-au-Prince, Haiti
In her native Port-au-Prince, Haitian street artist and photographer, Victoria Onélien, takes to the streets to paint or scale what words fail to express. “It’s heartbreaking to hear the number of cases of femicide that exist and continue to increase in Haiti and the Dominican Republic,” the 24-year-old tells Refinery29 Somos over WhatsApp. “We are told that women are weak and submissive, and that men are strong and brave. It’s why we have a society where women are victims of violence, or the victim is guilty and the aggressor is excused. Here, silence is better because we avoid the shame of further possible harm.”
Often in the company of her colleagues at art collectives Assaf Haiti or Nègès Mawon, Vickey’s art raises awareness about the issues of Haiti’s environment, and its beauty and need to be protected, which she sees as a direct correlation with how women are treated there. “I put my art at the service of causes related to the social issues that directly impact Haitian women on the island,” she adds.
Pre-existing issues, like weak infrastructure and a lack in social protections that are common in many so-called developing nations like Haiti, have left its women and children most vulnerable. When Haiti was struck by the back-to-back 7.2 magnitude earthquake and tropical storm Grace of 2021, it exposed its most vulnerable populations to further loss and violence.
“The [femicide rates] in Haiti, like in DR, magnifies my anxiety because I, like many other women, do have a strong chance of being a victim of rape if I'm out alone,” she continues. “But I move forward and educate the younger ones so that they can live a little safer and know that they do not have to suffer in silence from violence at home or outside.”
The Dominican Republic's femicide rates are among the highest in the world and the highest in the Caribbean, affecting at least 2.4 per 100,000 women. With little to no readily available stats on how these rates affect Haitian women on both sides of the border, and the deeply fragmented and obscured history of Dominican-Haitian relations, we have to assume this record number encompasses the lived experiences of Haitian women by the border and Dominican women of Haitian descent.
Vicky recently participated in a campaign against femicide organized by Nègès Mawon where she employed stencils to represent a strong woman shouting “No” to violence against women. The Aba Feminicide Campaign was organized as part of a 16-day protest against the deadly violence waged upon women. “A series of panel discussions took place on the subject of violence against women and the psychological assistance needed for women and young girls. For the visual aspect of the campaign, the girls and I sprayed stencils on all the walls in different areas of Port-au-Prince,” she says.
Her past works also include a collaborative mural with Assaf Haiti that honored Toto Bissainthe, a Haitian actress and singer that “greatly impacted the culture of our country.” Other murals around the capital focus on Black women’s portraits of resistance and bravery.
“In Haiti, we love saying ‘fanm se poto mitan’ (‘women are the centerpieces’),” which is why Vicky is currently working on a digital series and March exhibition honoring the strength and resilience of Haitian women across sectors, including merchants, policewomen, doctors, mothers, politicians, and the poor or homeless.
Raysa Raquel Rodríguez García, Carolina, Puerto Rico
For Raysa Raquel Rodriguez Garcia, her artwork isn’t a vocation but a calling, and she’s answering. “Being a woman who lives in a patriarchal and colonized society, in the context of Puerto Rico, brings with it experiences that must be represented, questioned, and transgressed,” she vehemently expresses to Refinery29 Somos. “Patriarchy, colonialism, and narratives about race, body, and power are themes that resonate in the work of Colectivo Moriviví. Together, we create murals by, for, and with the community, to represent the realities of these people, realities that are also ours.”
Colectivo Moriviví is a women's artist collective that has been producing public art and activism since 2013. Raysa, alongside her comrades, include muralism, community-led muralism, and protest performance/actions in her artistic productions. Together, their work is about democratizing art and bringing the narratives of Puerto Rican communities to the public sphere. “Our intention is to create unity through community and to shed light on our obscured history—that is why we use public art to achieve it,” she says.
The Moriviví collective, like Vicky, understands how to leverage this model of artistic production focused on translating the voice of the people and its context into a public forum. “Muralism is understandable and powerful for the general spectator,” she adds. “Portraying ideas in collectiveness and collaboration with others is a challenge and that is what validates painting as a process.”
As a feminist muralist-activist living in Carolina, Puerto Rico, a great deal of Raysa’s collective works honor the plight of Black women and/or explore Black feminist politics. Decorating the walls of Borikén are large murals like “Paz para la Mujer” (“Peace for Women”), painted in 2015 and restored in December of 2021; the mural "Nosotres Luchamos" (“Together We Fight”), a collaboration with the feminist organization AWID; and "Libre y Peligrosa" (“Free and Dangerous”), made in 2019 to visually represent Plena Combativa’s Puerto Rican feminist anthem of the same name.
It’s precisely through street art that Raysa has been able to cultivate for her surrounding communities a richness in education, visual arts, and activism in the charge to eradicate violence in all its manifestations. “Being a woman in Puerto Rico is very difficult since our fight is not only against the patriarchy but also against a colonial ideology that is part of our current climate. The force exerted on us is immense,” she goes on. “The change we seek to generate is a social one, promoting community organizing, as the most important value and one that really leads to the prosperity of a people. It is our contribution to an increasingly difficult world, with challenges that we have to deal with collectively, with activism, in every sense of the word.”
Raysa underscores how women in Puerto Rico have the least access to resources and job opportunities, and yet, are the worst paid, hypersexualized, and violated on a daily basis. “The country where we live works for and benefits rich white men. However, there is a very large powerful community of women that is creating their own spaces and are working for a more equal, fair, and a more feminist future in Puerto Rico. We, women, are the ones who lead the spaces of resistance on this island. We have achieved much through our fight and struggle, but we still have much more to achieve,” she says.
Colectivo Moriviví is currently planning and coordinating several projects. One of them is a collaborative mural with the community of Tocones in Loíza, Puerto Rico. Loíza is one of the regions of Puerto Rico that is predominantly Black and “where the arts, music, and culture are cultivated in all their splendor.” This project is based on varying themes, including the legacy of Puerto Rican women, the importance of community leaders, and braiding as an act of care and transmission of knowledge.
Mauro Neri, São Paulo, Brazil
Men are also in the business of immortalizing Black and Indigenous women through street art. “My work for more than 20 years has been as an artivist. I write words and sentences seen in the context of human and environmental rights,” São Paulo visual artist and street muralist Mauro Neri tells Refinery29 Somos. “Infograffiti is the name of the [ongoing] project I have been doing to address injustices through useful painted information in the streets of Brazil. A great deal of my work also portrays important figures, and over the years I have chosen to honor Black and Indigenous women above all.”
His latest masterpiece, in collaboration with Mona Caron from Switzerland, was recently unveiled in Porto Alegre, the city capital of Rio Grande do Sul estado. The breathtaking showpiece honors their own Beatriz Gonçalves Pereira, affectionately called Bia da Ilha or Mãe Bia by her “spiritual sons and daughters.”
“Mãe Bia is a Black woman who learned daily the art of resistance and the fight against racism,” wrote João Marcelo dos Santos in a commentary about Mauro’s mural debut. “Her knowledge is practical. Her school is life. Her diploma is the concrete recognition of her neighbors. Their wisdom is inherited from their ancestors who knew how to use the material and symbolic resources of white people to survive in an environment of violence and denial.”
Mãe Bia is perched high up in the sky on the façade of the city’s DAER building, depicted showing appreciation to a tall plant of some kind standing before her. Titled “Quebra-tudo, Abre Caminhos” (“Advance, Open Roads”), Mauro’s mural is a prayer of sorts and a token of faith and hope for the people of Brazil, home to the largest population of African descendants outside of Africa. “Thanks to the wonderful Bia Gonçalves and the entire community of Ilha da Pintada, whose combination of sensitivity with strength and determination we intend to capture in this painting, together with the plant that breaks everything, inviting justice to open new paths,” Mona said of the artwork on Instagram.
“I think that portraying Black women in works of art, especially in street art, is something very urgent and necessary today. The reality for women continues to be unfavorable despite the injustices against them being increasingly visible,” added Maruo when asked why it was important for him to shift his focus to women. “Society has a debt and a historical reparation to correct. I feel responsible for addressing these issues in my productions, both through spontaneous and unauthorized graffiti, and especially in the large murals on the façades of buildings.”