How art, Instagram helped this Latina activist figure out why it's cool to be Central American

ByJuan Carlos Guerrero KABC logo
Wednesday, September 15, 2021
How art helped activist figure out it's cool to be Central American
Smug and bold: Latina activist Gabriela Aleman creates Andy Warhol-like illustrations to bring dignity and joy to her neighborhood

SAN FRANCISCO -- Smug. It's how Gabriela Aleman describes herself and a term she's proud to represent.

"When it comes to women of color, we are not allowed to be smug. To me it means unapologetic, confident and knowing that I'm good at what I do," said Aleman, who didn't always brim with confidence while growing up among primarily Mexican immigrants in San Francisco's Mission District.

"It wasn't cool to be Central American," said Aleman, whose father is from Nicaragua and mother from El Salvador. "Being half and half is in itself an identity crisis because you never feel fully one or the other."

When political unrest hit Nicaragua in 2018, Aleman made an illustration supporting protesters against social security reforms proposed by President Daniel Ortega.

"There was a huge response. People wanted more representation and visibility of Central Americans, so I kept going," Aleman said.

So she began drawing and posting her illustrations on Instagram.

Many are snapshots of her neighborhood -- a man wearing a cowboy hat while he stares at his phone, a Latina woman walking and a mom holding a baby.

Hispanic Heritage Month begins in the middle of September. That's because five Central American countries all celebrate Independence Day on September 15.

Her illustrations pop with bold color, but many also carry messages about queer rights, support for immigrant workers and equality for women.

"I use a lot of symbols that people can identify with. I love to play with iconography and nostalgia. One of the many themes of my work is Central American joy," said Aleman.

Her work caught the eyes of Disney+, which asked her to create an illustration for Pride month. She did another drawing for an Instagram campaign. But despite her successes, Aleman does not identify as an illustrator.

"Before I'm anything else, I'm an organizer around immigration, housing and food insecurity," she said.

At the start of the pandemic, she spearheaded a campaign to collect and distribute food to people who lost their work. Mission Meals now distributes thousands of food bags on a weekly basis.

It's one of the many hats she wears. She is also a housing caseworker for a local nonprofit organization. Her artwork is represented in all she does.

"I hope my work can help young people explore the multidimensionality of what it means to be a person, what it means to identify with a certain group and what it means to be part of a community."

From actors to activists, people share stories of celebrating their heritage, expressing their identity as Latino, Latinx, or Hispanic, and representing and embracing their diverse cultures. Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month with "Our America: Todos Unidos" on ABC Owned Television Stations streaming apps and Hulu.

Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month with "Our America: Todos Unidos," premiering September 15 on ABC Owned Television Stations streaming apps and Hulu.

The Walt Disney Company is the parent company of Disney+ and this ABC station.