Turning the grey walls of Los Angeles concrete jungle into vibrant stories full of color, Mi’randa Villanueva has found her role in contributing to her community through large-scale murals. Her work can be found across the city that floods walls of vivid imagery that depict the prismatic stories of its local inhabitants. Using muralism as her primary medium, Mi’randa attributes this journey of finding ways to amplify the stories around her as one that ultimately helped her find her own. Through creating culture via spray paint, fostering new talent and leadership through mentorship, and cultivating familial unity in the bustling city, Mi’randa is at the forefront of transforming the way communities can thrive and keep their stories alive through accessible space and everyday items.
That is why this Our Heritage Month, we are collaborating with Walmart and the Together Somos Más campaign to highlight and share the voices of Latine visionaries and creators who are transforming local and global communities through their respective talents.
For this segment in our series, we explore how Mi’randa’s dedication to transforming her community through the vibrancy of muralism has cultivated public space into centers of history and unity. We spoke with the muralist and mentor to learn how she navigates the art of sharing rich histories through spray bottles, the significance of sharing knowledge to inspire the next generation of creative artists, and how her work embodies the spirit of Together Somos Más.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity purposes.
Can you introduce yourself and the work that you do?
My name is Mi’randa. I’m also known as Nana, a local muralist, and painter in the City of Los Angeles. The work that I typically do is large-scale murals for my community. It is also focused on the youth as I do a lot of feminists workshops with young female artists. I teach them how to do murals with spray paint and paintbrushes. As a community leader, it is a goal for me to give them opportunities that I never had through art. With every project or class, we obtain a wall to paint and reflect who they are and what they want to be in our communities.
For Our Heritage Month, Remezcla is joining forces with Walmart to celebrate the Together Somos Más Project, highlighting young changemakers elevating their communities through creative mediums. How does it feel for you to be recognized for the work that you do?
It’s crazy! I had to work really hard to get where I am, and it wasn’t easy. I was just the girl on the bus dreaming of one day have a big wall. Growing up, I made many mistakes, and I didn’t have my Mom or my Dad, so it eventually made me focus on the question – What does Mi’randa want? It’s taught me to be more fearless, be more resilient, and never give up on your dreams. There were so many times I was told to get a job, but I resisted because I wanted to paint, and I was going to make that my reality. Being recognized for the work I am doing now brings a few tears because I am being recognized for work I shouldn’t be recognized for, in the sense that I know I would still be doing it all without the recognition. I would still dedicate my time to the youth and put my effort into making sure they are successful. I dropped out of college three times, I hit low points, and ultimately, I am blessed to be here creating for the community. I can’t wait to see where the next years take me because it’s been a beautiful journey so far.
What does that phrase Together Somos Más mean to you and to the larger scope of muralism?
Just the simple idea of togetherness, just that word. With this pandemic, I’ve been noticing a bit more togetherness and being one with each other – and it’s been a beautiful sight to see. I didn’t really have family, I didn’t really have a story, and I didn’t really know about my culture. Through art, I’ve learned so much, and it’s really helped me understand who I am as an individual. It’s helped me create this pathway of new leadership in our community. It’s also been a beautiful journey of feeling like I actually have a family again, all through togetherness with my community. I feel like I’ve finally become that butterfly I’ve always painted, and it wouldn’t have been without the people who stop at my murals and tell me I’m creating something they never imagined for their community. That togetherness is everything. As much as I love solo painting, I always want to involve the people who live in my city, the community, or the youth because they will keep this going when I’m gone. Togetherness is going to keep art alive and the leadership that strives to keep us together alive.
What do you recall as your first personal exposure to art?
The arts have always been in my life. When I was growing up, it was very therapeutic. I had a lot of very tough times where I really had to express my emotions, and the best way was through my art. I would draw on every little piece of paper in my notebook and express myself that way. I wasn’t born with the abilities I have now. I worked really hard to be where I’m at. So the love that I had for art since elementary school has just grown. It’s been a beautiful experience being immersed with different artists and communities. It’s been a vital part of my therapy and my life.
What were the first mediums that got you started in the art world?
It was cartoons. That’s what really got it going because I was like, “Oh! I can do this, or I can draw that.” I always wanted to be an animator, and I mean, it didn’t work out, but it sparked my interest in tracing my favorite cartoon characters and eventually led me to be a tattoo apprentice and all these other mediums I didn’t know existed. So honestly, it started with a love of cartoons.
“Sometimes we get so lost in technology that we kind of miss that personal connection. I feel murals capture this expression and make it real. “
What was your origin story with muralism?
I had nothing to my name and lived with a former partner, who unfortunately was not very supportive when I took one of the first jobs I found on Craigslist. It wasn’t paid, but they said they would provide my materials. This was in San Francisco, and it was something I wanted to do and try, so I was like, “you know what, I’m going to do it.” I was just trying to push the envelope. I painted less a wall, more a shipping container, all by paintbrush. This was after seeing Diego Rivera’s mural at the San Francisco College, and I remember thinking, “I’m going to be just like him.” It pushed me so much to points where I wanted to tap out, or I’d think that maybe this wasn’t for me. Then I would see butterflies around, and I felt they were calling to me. When I looked up what they meant, I learned they represent the understanding that we don’t always know where we’re going to go, but you have to trust the process. At the end of the cocoon, you turn into this beautiful butterfly. That hit me deeply, and I felt it inspired me to keep going. I cried during the last moments where I signed my name because I recognized that this was what I wanted to do.
You hold a particular emphasis on storytelling through your mural work. What particular stories do you like to tell, and how do those narratives inspire your symbolism and color use?
I don’t speak Spanish, and I grew up with a Chinese grandfather that became my father figure and a Native American grandmother. I had stories to tell, don’t get me wrong, but I felt like I was missing my brown roots, and I began to reflect on how I could explore this through my art. How can I help tell the story of others when I don’t even know who I am as an individual? Those feelings when I first started inspired the concept of creating larger stories. I read Diego Rivera’s “My Art, My Life,” where he told the stories of hardships of our people and our history, and it made me think that we all come from the hood, a city, a place. I thought about all the good memories like our grandma’s cooking or elders coming around and telling their histories, and I really wanted to reflect that on my walls. So I share images of butterflies or different tones of people because I feel that should be more reflected in art and communities that don’t really get to tell their story often. I want people to walk out and see my work and say, “That’s me!” I want to spark this idea that people know I really thought about my paintings and the stories being shared, so they get excited to go down to the park or walk their kids to a space that reflects all of us. I never want to dismiss anyone’s story, and I want to make sure I can create for them through the talent I have.
What do you believe public art combined with storytelling, which you do through your murals, is an important tool in creating community?
Public Art and the idea of storytelling from murals is very important when I think about all the greats like Orozco, Diego, all of them really, and all they did for their communities and where they came from. It’s very important because sometimes we get so lost in technology that we kind of miss that personal connection. I feel murals capture this expression and make it real. It hits me when somebody walks up and tells me they feel certain emotions. They feel there’s something there as a story. It’s so important to keep that alive in our cities and our communities. I don’t do art to get paid. I do it to keep telling the stories of others that don’t really get to be vocal. That’s my mission as I continue to paint.
You have a mentorship program that offers your skills to the youth in your local community. Can you tell us more about this program and how you’re choosing to bridge art and community?
The whole mentorship experience is crazy. It happened after the pandemic, and I received a grant that inspired me to teach after feeling like I couldn’t. Those girls brought something out of me. They amaze me. We need to embed these seeds because regardless if they pursue art or don’t, I believe in them, and I know they’re going to be great leaders for the community doing anything they choose to do. Art has these fundamentals that relate to life, like working hard for what you want and learning from your mistakes. I always share that the program is meant for them to feel comfortable creating, and there is no wrong way because we are all different. Even when we have different styles from each other, when we come together, we can create something beautiful. The girls are like family to me now, and I’m always going to be the mama butterfly to them.
How do you feel projects like Together Somos Más inspire the next generation of creative changemakers, and what advice would you pass onto the creatives considering using art as a tool to make change in their communities?
It puts things in perspective for me to really just stay in my community and build within and not leave it. That is a message we need to tell the youth too. Many people like to say that you need to leave the hood or your city, but we should focus on how we can do better and create these communities and environments where everybody can thrive. That’s why my murals are so special. With every project I’ve painted within my community, you know that I am Latinx and came from my city. The advice I would pass on is if you feel it in your gut and feel that fiery sensation in your heart, go with it. Go with it despite what anybody says because you never know what’s going to be behind the next door. Sometimes you have to create your own path, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just about having the determination to turn that drive into something. Nothing stops you; bet on yourself and never quit – you’ll get there with patience, love, and authenticity.