You’ve likely seen stores around town stuffed with heart-shaped balloons, boxes of chocolates and Valentine’s Day cards.
And then there are the cards that Oakland-based artist Rio Yañez creates every year. They are not physical cards, rather images shared through social media. And they’ve found a cult following because Yañez mixes his annual greetings with politics and Latino pop culture.
"The images themselves are a mixture of contemporary news photographs, historical images and a few '90s hip-hop references," says Yañez. So, there are recurring characters — mainstays of Latino pop culture. You'll spot Frida Kahlo and the singers Selena Gómez and Morrissey.
This year, the 11th rollout of his cards, his images mix gushy text with images highlighting the state of US-Mexico relations. Think border walls and protests. Like this:
"They've kind of gotten uglier over the years," he says. "But I kind of love that."
Yañez says mixing politics and art is unavoidable. He calls 2017 the most "polarizing year of my life and we're only in February." One of his valentines features the southern border wall and a guard. He says it shows the scope of the wall — something that separates people — and is an "image he wanted to test and to recontextualize into something about love and about letting people into your heart."
Humor is needed, too. "For a lot of us, the stakes are really high when it comes to what's happening with immigration. But sometimes I think we need to be able to laugh at it, too," he says.
Yañez is continuing a family artistic tradition, and a tradition of being vocal about politics. "At this point, it's the family trade," he says. His father, René Yañez, has been a leader among Latino artists in the San Francisco Bay Area and co-founded the Chicano performance group Culture Clash. And his mother, Yolanda López, transformed iconic Latino imagery in art, most notably by mixing working-class politics with portrayals of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
López is also known for her 1978 poster titled "Who's the Illegal Alien, Pilgrim?" It appeared at a time when, like now, the US immigration debate was boiling.
The Valentine's Day cards are just a slice of Rio Yañez's work. He also helped create a tortilla art collective. "We started out experimenting both by drawing directly on tortillas, heat-pressing images on tortillas. And we've created a top secret formula of edible ink now that is mostly just chocolate syrup that is able to print beautifully on tortillas," he says.
Sometimes, they heat up their art and make quesadillas. "We take to the streets and we feed people with our artwork."