The original mural, La Madre Tonantsin, was created in 1991, at the request of my friends and neighbors Juan Pedro and Joyce Gaffney, who feared that their freshly-painted garden wall, on a highly-trafficked stretch of 16th St., would be vandalized. Juan Pedro was the director of Coro Hispano, a chorus dedicated to preserving the musical heritage of the Spanish-speaking world, and I was lucky enough to be a member. My favorite song from our repertoire was “Dios Itla Tonantsine”, a hauntingly beautiful piece written in the Nahuatl language and combining Aztec drumming with Renaissance polyphony. Written by an Aztec maestro trained in European composition, it is a hymn to the Virgin Mary which refers to her as Tonantsin, the mother goddess of the Aztecs. I was intrigued by this free-form cultural syncretism; i had also just given birth to my second child, and the theme of motherhood in all its frightening intensity was very present to me.
Although I have now done some travel in the Yucatan and visited a number of archaeological sites, the creation of the mural preceded my knowing much about Mesoamerican cultures, and I am certainly no expert still. I painted the feelings aroused by the music, and, oddly, I found that many of the pictorial elements I included are actually attributes of Tonantsin (with the exception of the symbols painted on her skin, which I got from a book and in some instances altered). The strongest artistic influence on the piece was an exhibit of Tibetan Thangka scrolls that came to San Francisco in 1990.
The mural was popular in the neighborhood, and received an award from Precita Eyes muralists. Over the years, though, the old wooden fence it was painted on began to flake and rot. With the aid of contributions from locals and a small grant from Precita Eyes, I took on the project of renewing the piece using more weather-resistant materials. The Recology artist residency I’d recently completedled me to incorporate mosaic and relief sculpture into the new mural. Tonantsin Renace (Tonantsin Reborn) was inaugurated in 1998, and has been a much-photographed and beloved part of the Mission ever since. I’m not the only one to observe that on some foggy mornings the condensation makes her appear to weep. But then, there is so much to weep for.