If you don’t know who Favianna Rodriguez is by her iconic art, or just by living in Oakland, check out this story about her from our archives. She is an internationally-renowned artist and devoted activist but, because we live in a backward society, she and her family only just manage to keep their heads above the waters of financial insecurity. She says her parents, both small business entrepreneurs, have felt the impact of the recession over the last few years. It became clear some time back that they needed to sell their house in the Fruitvale in order to get out from underneath mounting debt payments. Her response to that problem was to raise the money to transfer title to her–partly through selling her art.
“You have to understand the meaning of this house for us,” Favianna says, barely able to contain her excitement. “First of all, the Fruitvale has long been a Chicano Power stronghold for this country.”
She explains that her parents made their home in the Frutivale amongst other Spanish-speaking immigrants, and that she was born in the neighborhood’s La Clinica de la Raza and grew up being mentored by the artists of the Chicano Mural Movement. Since her parents bought the house in 1991, it has become a vital community stronghold itself within the neighborhood. “It’s the kind of house that has always been full. We have community events out of there, artist workshops, parties. We have artists working in the back, it’s a special place.”
Her family’s home is precisely the kind of place that breeds Fruitvale’s identity, she says; it’s the kind of place that makes Fruitvale not cookie-cutter, bed bath and beyond, anywhere-USA. “And we were going to lose it.” She imagined it would go the way of so many others in the neighborhood and get diced into multiple units for short-term, transient renters.
“I’ve always considered myself a nomad,” she says explaining that much of her art is a celebration of migration and movement- of the individual’s entitlement to transgress borders and recognize themselves in foreign places, “but the thought of giving up this house to someone else was impossible.”
Since September she had been applying for a loan, in vain. “I have a lot of savings but the income of an artist is- it’s not steady.” At the beginning of the month she applied for yet another loan that would, if awarded, bring her $7,000 short of making a down payment. “That’s including every last bit of my savings. I still needed the last $7,000″
So, on Tuesday the 25th, in a last-ditch moment of desperation Favianna made an announcement on facebook that for the next 48 hours she would put all of her prints and posters up for a 50% sale. “I need your help,” she told her friends.
She thought she was just scraping the bottom of the barrel, but “within a half an hour I started to get the alerts that a purchase was made. Within a few hours it was every ten minutes.” Her Facebook post was shared at lightning speed, climbing to 866 likes and 365 shares before the 48-hour sale ran out. “For a while the purchase alerts were coming in every minute!”
By the end of the sale she’d sold almost 300 pieces at a total of over $20,000. “I was absolutely stunned. Speechless. Just so moved. It was like everything I’ve been giving, the effort and the love, was just returning to me all at once.” The next day she was approved for the loan and a few days later she signed the lease.
“They cleaned out everything I’ve ever made over the last 15 years- almost all of it made inside that house.” She describes the folders and folders of images that she loves that had piled up in her studio. “I just don’t think of art in those commercial terms so somehow it was just so surprising, like magic that they could be turned into that kind of value.”
The orders were made from all over the world, she says. A lot were from California, but not the majority. It reflects something nice about people that they are more eager to indulge in buying things when they know that on the other side of the purchase there’s a human with a story embedded in a larger story about gentrification.
Home ownership is a key component of economic upward mobility from one generation to the next. Having a house to pass down is often the buffer that allows families to, say, send their kids to school instead of putting them to work to help make rent, or that insulates families from being one illness away from bankruptcy. “Every time [a long-time resident] is able to buy their house and lock it down for the neighborhood it’s a victory for the city,” Favianna says.
This isn’t the first time the family has been blessed by good fortune and serendipity. Favianna says her mother knew the house was going to be hers the moment she walked into it back in 1991, despite being $13,000 away from her down payment. A few days later, the airline for which she worked as a travel agent, announced a huge sale. Favianna’s mother was able to make her down payment that week by pushing on-sale flights at commission.
Favianna’s is a bittersweet story. Her victory is as triumphant as it is improbable, it shines out like a small break in the clouds to remind us just how precarious these things are.