Betty Ávila, executive director of Self Help Graphics. Photo courtesy of SHG
2017 altar in memory of Sister Karen Boccalero at Self Help.

Betty Ávila grew up in Cypress Park and went to high school in El Sereno and Boyle Heights, but she never entered Self Help Graphics’ famed printmaking studio until she was an intern at the Getty Institute in Brentwood, while going to Pitzer College in Claremont.

“It was a life changing moment for me,” said Ávila. “It’s quite literally one of the reasons why I started down a path in the arts.”

As Self Help Graphic & Art marks the 45th anniversary of its signature Día de los muertos event on Friday, Ávila will be at the helm of one of the Eastside’s –and perhaps Los Angeles’– most important art institutions. In August, the 32-year-old arts administrator was named its executive director, following the departure of artist Joel García in July. Prior to that, Ávila had served as co-director with García – he had been in charge of programs and operations and she of advancement and administration.

“We thank [Joel García] for seven years of service to the organization and to the community , and for everything that he brought to the organization,” Ávila said in an interview shortly after her taking over the post. “Both the organization and Joel have grown and are taking their journeys separately and we wish Joel the best.”

Ávila –who went on to get a Masters in arts management from Claremont Graduate University after Pitzer, and who held positions at the Music Center and the Levitt Pavilion in MacArthur Park prior to joining Self Help in 2015– takes the helm following Self Help Graphics & Art acquisition in May of its current building, a former seafood processing plant on 1st Street.

A key player in the Chicano movement of the 1970s, Self Help Graphics & Art was founded in the East Los Angeles garage of Sister Karen Boccalero, a Franciscan nun and printmaker. It started with a small group of young Latino artists who used their medium to spread social justice messages. From the onset, these artists involved members of the community in the process of making art and organizing programs, such as a 1972 Day of the Dead event considered to be the first public commemoration in the United States of a tradition rooted in Mexico’s indigenous origins.

Ávila at a 2017 press conference.

After Boccalero’s death in 1997, Self Help went through a period of financial turmoil that forced it to move out of its landmark location on César Chávez Boulevard and Gage Avenue. A successful fundraising campaign allowed the organization to raise the $3.625 million needed to acquire the former Ocean Queen packing plant from the City of Los Angeles.

While acquiring the building meant overcoming a huge hurdle, Ávila said the organization is still running a capital campaign to renovate its headquarters.

“We’re continuing to fortify and strengthen the administrative backbone of Self Help Graphics, and really creating an infrastructure that will support us as our programming grows, as we continue to amplify Self Help’s presence here in the neighborhood and regionally,” she said.

“There’s only four Latino cultural organizations in the country that own their building, we’re the fourth,” she added. “Honoring the fact that we now have the control, we have a little bit more agency, we have the opportunity to  look at the building and really think through, ‘ok, what does the community need? How do we renovate this space so that it is at maximum capacity to support the artists in the studio, to support our public programs, to support the artists that just need space to work.”

Ávila said she saw her appointment as a “passing of the baton from one generation to the next” and that she was elated and humbled to become executive director.

“For me this is a great responsibility, I take it seriously,” she went on. “I think often of Sister Karen and of how she was able to create a space that despite all odds is still here, and that’s her legacy, and the legacy of the artists that she worked with remains.”

A poster for the 1974 Day of the Dead celebration at Self Help Graphics by artists collective Los Four.

“I think it’s a testament to the innovative work that they were doing at the time,” she said, adding that the Self Help founders were pioneer in community engagement practices more common today.

“They didn’t have to give it a term to know that this is how they wanted to be working with the community,” she said.  “I totally feel a sense of responsibility in stewarding that legacy, I feel a sense of responsibility in ensuring that we continue to nurture emerging and young artists, and artists of any age who are in need of a space to grow artistically.”

A big part of the legacy is exemplified by the Day of the Dead event, on which community volunteers work for weeks prior to the Nov. 2 date. The celebration, which long ago outgrew the Self Help Space, attracts hundreds of revelers to the Méndez High School campus across the street and usually involves a procession at dusk from Mariachi Plaza.

Ávila said that plans for the celebration were unchanged by the surprise departure of García, who had organized the event since 2010.

“We can expect to see the same elements that we have with our procession, with the community made papier-cache calacas, we’re going to be having some papier mache skeletons on bikes this year, and also potentially a VW beetle that’s going to be transformed into a day of the dead skull,” she anticipated.

A highlight of the 45th anniversary edition will be a special music performance from El Teatro Campesino, the nation’s premiere Chicano theater company whose own roots date to the Chicano movement of the ‘70s (and which is in town for an upcoming run of the Luis Valdez play “Valley of the Heart” at the Mark Taper Forum). Ávila said members of the company will do a “throwback” revisitation of their 1975 play “El fin del mundo.”

In spite of its institutional success, Self Help Graphics has also had to deal with a boycott organized by Defend Boyle Heights and other groups, that claims the organization has veered from its mission by aligning itself with developers and by engaging with some of the galleries and art organizations that have been accused of contributing to gentrification in Boyle Heights.

While some of the accusations personally targeted García, Ávila insisted his departure had nothing to do with that. She said Self Help stood by its assertion that it is a foe of gentrification.

“Our perspective has not changed in terms of being a community based organization for 45 years who has itself been displaced as a result of real estate speculation, she said. “We continue to be very much concerned with gentrification and how it affects our broader community, the artistic community that we serve.”

Asked to define Self Help’s role in 2018, Ávila said it was to build on its legacy to expand its reach.

“Self help graphics is a total bridge,” she said, “and it’s at this incredibly important intersection of legacy of community based work and the kind of artistic social practice that is so common now, that was innovated here in this space. It’s where that kind of work meets, it’s where the production of incredible art meets, it’s where community-building meets, at this intersection.  And really as a bridge into other parts of the city, even other parts of the world.

The 2004 Bravo High School graduate recalled her own first visit to Self Help.

I often think about all of the young people who are out there who don’t know that Self Help Graphics exist, and will walk through the door and permanently change their lives,” she said.  “There are so many people out there who –whether they are artists or not– need to know about Self Help, they need to feel that this place is here, even if it’s not that accessible. We have people who come here from Ventura, from Oxnard, from Orange County. What that tells us is that there is such a need for this kind of space, this kind of programming, and that people are willing to travel for it.”

“We’re very fortunate that we have people who are part of the family and they come back, whether they come for Day of the Dead or it’s people who have gone through our youth programs and now bring their kids, who continue to cultivate that family and growing it.”

Photo above:  Courtesy of Self Help Graphics

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Antonio Mejías-Rentas

Antonio Mejías-Rentas is a Senior Editor at Boyle Heights Beat, where he mentors teenage journalists, manages the organization’s website and covers local issues. A veteran bilingual journalist, he's...

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