SAN FRANCISCO — Once in a while, Josué Rojas, who left his job in February as executive director of Acción Latina, an arts organization, wakes up feeling like he’s unemployed. But mostly, he’s clear on his job — being an artist.
Acción Latina, which hosted Rojas’s 2016 solo show Gentromancer!, puts out a bilingual newspaper, El Tecolote, as well as running a gallery. After four years there, Rojas now focuses solely on his mural art.
“I knew I needed to do this,” he said. “COVID really brought home what’s important to me in my life. I had just come off getting this job and had a few other things going, so I just needed to focus and make it more of a business and get more jobs.”
Rojas is in front of “Birds of the Americas,” an 80-by-50-foot mural on Folsom Street in San Francisco’s Mission District. Rojas came from El Salvador as a toddler, and his family settled in the Mission. In 1995, when he was 15, his father passed away, and Rojas says he started acting out, until he got an internship with Precita Eyes, a mural arts organization. Having a wall to paint changed his life, setting him on the course he’s on now.
Rojas went on to get degrees in painting at both California College of the Arts in San Francisco and at Boston University. There, he studied with John Walker, whom Rojas calls a real “painter’s painter.”
Rojas says that growing up in San Francisco, he had lots of exposure to certain kinds of art (“a lot of art here is influenced by the Mexican masters — Diego Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros, Frieda Kahlo and their whole squad”) and he wanted to learn about art on the other side of the country.
“They say being bilingual helps your mind develop,” he said. “The East Coast has an entirely different language, and I wanted to be able to speak East Coast.”
The mural on Folsom started with the idea to honor Sean Monterrosa, a 22-year-old from San Francisco, who was kneeling when he was shot and killed by a police officer last June in Vallejo, California, at a protest over George Floyd’s murder. Monterrosa’s nickname was “Tucan,” and Rojas wanted to paint the bird to pay tribute to him. He decided on a tropical-looking background with other birds — Guatemala’s quetzal for Amilcar Perez-Lopez and Luis Gongora Pat, both killed by police within a few blocks of the mural, in 2015 and 2016 respectively, and the El Salvadorian national bird, the Torogoz, for Andres Guardado, a Salvadoran American man killed when he was shot in the back in 2020 by a Los Angeles deputy sheriff.
Since leaving his administrative job, Rojas has been busy, recently spending a week working on the Mini Mural Festival at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, painting a mural with an audience as Diego Rivera did with his mural, “Pan American Unity,” now hanging in the museum. The Ukiah Valley Youth Leadership Coalition asked Rojas to lead a team in Mendocino County to paint a mural on the theme of “Ninguna Persona es Illegal en Tierras Robadas” (“No One is Illegal on Stolen Land”), which will happen this fall. He’ll also do some private commissions, and also in the fall, he’ll be working with Monterrosa’s sisters and members of Horizons Unlimited to create another mural honoring Monterrosa.
Celina Lucero, the director of Horizons Unlimited, which provides services to youth of color (Monterrosa was a participant there), says they never really considered another artist. She knows Rojas from his work at Acción Latina, and she says the best word to describe him is “honorable.”
“He’s so beautifully articulate and so in tune with what’s going on,” Lucero said. “He’s selfless and dedicated to the work, but he’s always about inclusion. He’s a leader by example, with that philosophy of step up and step back.”
When a local organization that supports Central American refugees had to board up their office after a car crashed into it, Rojas went by and painted a mural on it, she says.
“It said ‘Vacúnate ya! (Get Vaccinated Already!),’ or something like that, just a simple message in bright colors,” she said. “He is a master of art and has such deep roots and his work has cultural resonance and centers the Latino culture in all its beauty and diversity.”
Poet and playwright Paul S. Flores has known Rojas since he was a teenager walking his dog around the neighborhood. “Josué is such a beautiful soul, and he embodies a lot of the generosity of the neighborhood,” Flores said.
Rojas and Flores are working with Mission Food Hub, an organization that started in May 2020 to deliver food to thousands of families in San Francisco a week. They are working on Somos Esenciales (We are Essential), for which Flores and some others have talked with Latino essential workers affected by the pandemic and made videos of their stories, with performances of the stories planned for next spring. Rojas is creating a logo for the project and painting a mural on one of the delivery trucks. Flores says that Rojas, who used to be a reporter for Pacific News Service, learned how to tell stories on walls as well as on the page. “He’s that person who creates murals to educate people,” Flores said.
After working so many different jobs and painting on the side, Rojas feels happy to be making a living with his art. “For the first time in my life, I’m not an artist slash teacher or an artist slash art admin — I’m an artist,” he said. “That comes with a responsibility, it comes with duty, it comes with some scary moments, and also a lot of joy.”