In 2021, amid a sea of various social movements, civil unrest, and uncertainty, political discourse is perhaps the most partisan and divided it has ever been in modern U.S. history. In a moment where racial tensions reached a critical boiling point, contemporary artists have once again shown themselves not only to be speakers of truth to power in times of crises, but the moral compass of our society. Over the course of the past year, perhaps no artist has embodied these ethos in their artwork more creatively and meticulously than artist and activist Soni López-Chávez.
Hailing from San Diego, California, the 39-year-old artist has dedicated her time to creating a popular series of digital art pieces highlighting the struggles of street vendors, the Black Lives Matter movement, immigrant rights, family separation, Indigenous sovereignty, women’s rights, mental health awareness, and LGBTQ+ issues. While her art covers a wide variety of different topics and causes, the overall encompassing themes all revolve around the key theme of empowering marginalized communities and raising awareness for people of color.
Born in Cuitzeo de Abasolo in Guanajuato, Mexico, López-Chávez immigrated to the U.S. with her family as a child. Her parents ultimately decided to settle in the border region of San Diego. Professionally, López-Chávez has worked as an acrylic painter and a muralist. But, for the past 13 years while working as a preschool teacher, she dedicated most of her time outside of the classroom curating group art shows in San Diego’s local art scene.
Since 2013, she and her partner Chris Zertuche have operated their own gallery called La Bodega in Barrio Logan, located a few blocks away from historic Chicano Park. However, in 2020 they were forced to relocate due to rampant gentrification in the neighborhood. Several months later, in the midst of relocating, statewide COVID-19 shutdowns effectively ended all shows and galleries across the state.
No longer teaching or helping orchestrate shows at La Bodega, López-Chávez is revisiting her own art, which had taken a back seat to curating shows.
“Since I started to curate my own art shows, I hadn’t really been able to focus on my own art career,” she said. “It wasn’t until the COVID-19 outbreak allowed me some free time to focus on my work, and honestly, it’s really the first time ever in my life where this is really all that I’m doing.”
López-Chávez soon began creating digital art on ProCreate, a graphics editor app for digital painting that had been gifted to her as a birthday present. Although she had mostly worked in the mediums acrylic painting and muralism beforehand, she quickly fell in love with the speed and user-friendliness of the app. “When I started this digital work, it blew my mind. I connected to it right away. It isn’t easy, but it was much a faster process.”
As López-Chávez began sharing her work on social media, her digital art series quickly began taking on a life of its own, going viral across multiple platforms. Since embarking on the series last spring, López-Chávez has created dozens of pieces for the series and her work immediately received an outpouring of praise across the web. Her initial following of 5,000 on Instagram ballooned to 64,400 new followers in less than a year.
“I’ve received a lot of messages from people thanking me because they’re just happy to see art depicting people with the same color of their skin,” López-Chávez said. “I think back to when I was younger when I was a child and a teenager. I didn’t see any art like this. I didn’t see any images of people that I could connect with. I didn’t see any art that focused on the issues of the time, so I want to have that purpose in my art to connect with POC and communities that need more representation.”
With a continuously rising profile and having gained tens of thousands of followers in the span of less than a year, López-Chávez remains committed and has been further driven to create more pieces that bring awareness to social movements and struggles experienced by communities of color.
“I’ve always been someone that cares about the community. There are just so many things going on right now that are unjust and inhumane that we need to fight for,” she said. “If you have a large platform or following, I think it’s almost your responsibility in a way to somehow send a positive message.”
López-Chávez has no intention of stopping her art series any time soon. She landed collaborations with the cosmetic brand Urban Decay for a T-shirt giveaway, as well as Latino media company Mitú. In addition, López-Chávez has also begun selling prints of work as well as posters, stickers, T-shirts, and other merchandise. In 2021, she also hopes to begin work illustrating a children’s book, vlogging on a newly created YouTube channel, and hopefully get back to muralism where she hopes to further bring awareness to issues that are important to communities of color.
López-Chávez expressed gratitude for being able to connect with people through her art, especially at a time where artists have been integral to not only bring awareness to issues through their art, but also use their platforms in a way to counter negative, preconceived stereotypes, and to empower historically marginalized communities in the U.S.
“There are so many things that are happening in communities of color that still need so much awareness, need to be brought to light, need to be spoken about, and so much to fight for,” López-Chávez said. “I’m so grateful and honored that I’ve been able to connect with others through my art. I’m inspired daily. I want to continue this, and I’m excited to see where it’s going to take me.”