UC Davis gives voice to ‘Lupe’ — and she has a lot to say

The central figure’s rebozo (shawl) opens up to a skirt of agricultural fields, workers, activists, allies and scholars.
The central figure’s rebozo (shawl) opens up to a skirt of agricultural fields, workers, activists, allies and scholars.

Instead of being sung about disparagingly, “Lupe” is now speaking up for herself by way of a sculptural mural expressing her pride, strength and courage.

The mural, primarily ceramic, is called The Voice of Lupe. With its dedication later this week, the university will take another step forward in healing a 40-year-old campus wound.


The Voice of Lupe is the work of Susan Shelton, a Latina who graduated from UC Davis in 1981. She spent eight months creating the sculpture in her Davis studio.

The sculpture comprises about 125 pieces, the smallest about 4 inches square and the largest being the upper half of the central figure’s body. Many of the pieces are carved, others are sculpted, like the central figures.

Shelton installed the pieces in October on an arched stucco wall, capped by bricks. This is her third art project on the Davis campus, following the ceramic murals Field Crops of California in the Plant and Environmental Sciences Building courtyard, and Nurturing the Dream at the north entry to the Student Community Center.

The following information about The Voice of Lupe is derived from a narrative she wrote for the dedication ceremony:

The Voice of Lupe honors and celebrates the role of Latina women in history and society, while also addressing ongoing issues of race, gender and class on our campus and in our society at large. It is a work that endeavors to inspire communication, understanding, positive action and healing, in the hope for eventual mutual respect and equality.

Three female figures at the sculpture’s center represent the collective “Voice of Lupe,” Shelton said. They embody multiple trinities of symbolism: Past-Present-Future, Mother-Sister-Daughter, Wisdom-Courage-Strength and Reflection-Activism-Healing.

La Mujer de Maiz (The Woman of Maize) “looks back with sorrow at the injustices suffered by her people,” Shelton said. “However, she also reflects on the wisdom of her indigenous inheritance.”

The corn she holds represents the concept of “Las Tres Hermanas” (The Three Sisters), referring to the corn, beans and squash that are native to Mesoamerica, an extraordinarily nutritious combination of crops that made up the basis of the indigenous Mexican diet.

“Native cultivation practices of these three crops enriched the soil, reduced evaporation, and used agricultural land in a remarkably efficient and sustainable manner. This Mujer de Maiz, therefore, also connects us to the present, in that she represents the extraordinary contributions Mexican and Central American workers have made and continue to make to agriculture in California and the United States.

“The history, importance and abundance of these contributions are celebrated in the imagery of the fields radiating out from the central figure of the mural.”

This central figure is the Woman of the Jaguar — an icon traditionally associated with the male warrior.

“With her right hand on its head, the woman claims the jaguar as her totem,” Shelton said. “In so doing, she adds her voice to the narrative, challenges harmful presuppositions regarding  gender, race, class and power, and she redefines what it means to be a warrior: The Woman Warrior has the courage to fight for her right to an education; she fights for her right to seek a better life for herself and for her family; she fights for her right to have control over her own body; she fights for her right to be treated with dignity and respect; she fights for her right to seek justice.”

The name “Lupe” comes from a fraternity song decried as sexist, racist and degrading to women. It surfaced publicly at UC Davis in the fall of 1975 after Alpha Gamma Rho gave copies to its pledges — and someone came across a copy and delivered it to the Chicano/Latino community.

Up to 300 Chicana/o and Latina/o students and their supporters staged a daylong protest Jan. 28, 1976, marching from the AGR house to the campus, rallying on the Quad and delivering demands to administrators on the steps of Mrak Hall, according to a front-page story in The California Aggie.

Adding insult to injury, “Lupe” is short for Guadalupe, as in Virgen de Guadalupe, a revered religious figure in Mexico.

Lasting pain

Fraternity leaders apologized in a letter published in The Aggie. But the pain hung on, as new students each year heard the AGR story from upperclassmen.

Then came the opening, in 1992, of the Buehler Alumni Center and its Alpha Gamma Rho Room. The donors who funded the room chose its name, recognizing their fraternity.

Some people refused to hold or attend events in the AGR Room, even if it was the only meeting space available — and this has been going on ever since it opened.

Enter Griselda Castro, who as an assistant vice chancellor in Student Affairs decided to try for reconciliation. She began her effort in 2006 and kept at it past her retirement in 2012.

She knew the campus’s Chicano/Latino community, having worked at the university since 1982 as an academic adviser and Educational Opportunity Program specialist in the College of Letters and Science, and then as student affairs coordinator in Chicana/o studies.

‘Finding a way forward’

But it wasn’t until she joined the vice chancellor’s staff that she felt she was in a position to tackle this issue that affected the entire campus.

And so began a year of forums with students and faculty and others to craft the AGR Room Resolution Agreement, officially a memorandum of understanding with the university. She even met with the fraternity, asking for and receiving its support.

The agreement has two parts:

  • Lupe Social Justice Scholarships — Given since 2007-08 to first-generation university students from farmworker backgrounds. Three such scholarships are presented annually, and they are renewable over four years.
  • A public art piece — This brought another set of forums to decide on the project, which turned out to be The Voice of Lupe, in the Buehler Alumni Center’s courtyard.

Parties to the agreement gather Thursday (Nov. 12) to dedicate the sculpture and reaffirm UC Davis’ commitment to the Principles of Com­munity. The ceremony, open to the public, is scheduled for 3:30 to 5 p.m. on Moss Patio behind the Buehler Alumni Center.

“This is a testament to our community’s being able to come together to find a way forward,” Castro said.

'Great discomfort' in AGR Room

Rosa Estremera was a student in 1975, co-founder of Chicanos in Health Education or CHE, and active in Chicana/o studies, when the “Lupe” controversy erupted. In fact, she was in the Chicana/o studies office when one of her fellow students came in with the lyrics.

Estremera went on to graduate in 1976 and returned as a staff member in 1984, working primarily in outreach. “In the 18 years that I worked on campus, I stepped into that room perhaps three times, and it was with great discomfort on my part,” Estremera said in remarks prepared for the dedication ceremony.

As a program manager, she said, she once worked on an event for which the AGR Room was the only space available. “I refused to reserve the room,” she said. The program was held instead in the Buehler building's foyer, where the speakers addressed the audience from the staircase.

'This tribute feels very healing to me'

Now, The Voice of Lupe sits just outside, between the foyer and the AGR Room. Estremera said she is moved by the actions of the people involved in the mural project, “by the countless hours devoted to creating this beautiful tribute to Latina women.”

“This tribute, this artistic gift to the campus, feels very healing to me, as does the creation of the Lupe Social Justice Scholarships,” she said, noting that many of the recipients are from the Central Valley, where she and Martin Flores did extensive recruitment of students. 

Michael Gardella ’82,  the AGR chapter adviser, said alumni members will join current members at the ceremony, and the fraternity will have a part in the program.

Acknowledging past wrongdoing

Estremera said: “I understand that the present-day AGR fraternity chapter is not responsible for the actions of past members, but it takes courage to acknowledge the past AGR wrongdoing, to be present and commit to being different.

“If AGR’s present-day legacy is one of honoring women and respecting all cultures, then it is fitting that AGR be with us; and if they are willing to carry this message upward to the national AGR fraternity, that is better.

“This could be healing to us all. On my part, you are welcome today. And at long last, I could enter the AGR Room together with you.”

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Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556, dljones@ucdavis.edu

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