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Self-Help Graphics & Art, Inc. is a community arts center in East Los Angeles, Californiamarker, USA. Formed during the cultural renaissance that accompanied the Chicano Movement, Self Help, as it is sometimes called, was one of the primary centers that incubated the nascent Chicano Art movement, and remains important in the Chicano art movement, as well as in the greater Los Angelesmarker community, today. As a center of culture, SHG also hosts musical and other performances, and organizes Los Angeles's annual Day of the Dead festivities. Throughout its history, the organization has worked with well-known artists in the Los Angeles area such as Los Four and the East Los Streetscapers, but it has focussed primarily on training and giving exposure to young and new artists, many of whom have gone on to national and international prominence.


In 1970, printmaker and Franciscan nun Karen Boccalero, Chicano artists Carlos Bueno, Antonio Ibáñez, Frank Hernández, and others, began producing prints in an East Los Angeles garage. They decided to work together to promote community arts and the work of local artists, to use art as an instrument of social change in the barrio, and to establish a cultural arts center. The artists had their first exhibition the following year at an East Los Angeles shopping center called El Mercado. In 1972, the organization, which until that time went by the name Art Inc., was renamed Self Help Graphics & Art when it found a home in a suite on the third floor of an office building at 2111 Brooklyn Avenue in Boyle Heightsmarker. The 2,000 square-foot (186 m2) space was financed by Order of the Sisters of St. Francis, who donated $10,000. The following year, the space was expanded to 9,000 square feet (836 m2) with a grant from the Campaign for Human Development.

The first official activity of the organization was an inaugural batik and silkscreen workshop that ended with a group exhibition. Participating artists paid a small fee and provided their own materials. Thus began the Self Help tradition of instructing budding artists in graphic arts techniques. Shortly thereafter, funds provided by the California Arts Council allowed the hiring of artists Michael Amescua and Linda Vallejo as arts instructors.

At first, material support for Self Help was scarce. Boccalero raised funds from Beverly Hillsmarker art enthusiasts and sought donations from art stores, museums, and Catholic organizations. In 1974, the artists realized that in order to accomplish their goal of creating a permanent home for a community arts center, they would need the support of major institutions such as the National Endowment for the Arts. Boccalero attended grant-writing workshops and hired professional administrative staff, including a bilingual office manager supplied by the American GI Forum's SER-Jobs for Progress.

In 1979 Self Help relocated to its present location in a large building on the corner of Cesar Chavez Avenue (formerly Brooklyn Avenue) and Gage Street. The building, which is owned by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, was previously home to the Catholic Youth Organization, which rented space for dances and meetings. Under the terms of the lease, which was renewable every ten years, Self Help was to pay one dollar per year in rent. According to cultural historian Kristen Guzmán, "From [...] correspondence involving Sister Karen and members of her community, as well as the Franciscan priests of Santa Barbaramarker and Oaklandmarker, it is evident that the Church was vital to Self Help's existence in this period".

The Self Help building contains a gallery, Galería Otra Vez, a printing room, office, studio space for artists-in-residence, and storage areas in two stories. Today the exterior walls of the building are adorned with embedded ceramic pieces, mosaics, and murals. A large statue of Our Lady of Guadalupemarker stands in the parking lot.

Boccalero functioned as executive director until her death in 1997, at which point she was succeeded by Tomás Benítez. In May 2005, the artist Gustavo LeClerc became the center's new artistic director, and was charged with broadening Self Help's horizons. The personnel changes may have been symptoms of larger problems. Benítez stepped down in March 2005 as a financial crisis became public knowledge. On June 7, 2005, the doors of Self Help were locked and the staff was dismissed. The unforeseen nature of the closure evoked an angry reaction from the artists affiliated with the center and the community at large. A series of meetings were held to ensure that the closure was only temporary and to pre-empt any potential future problems resulting from lack of funding or the lack of organizational transparency.

Apparently, the trouble started when it was discovered that the building was in need of repairs. Numerous fundraisers were held, including a benefit concert by Ozomatli. But they were not enough to cover the repairs necessary, which raised safety issues for Self Help's workers and liability concerns for the organization. There was the additional complication of the ownership of the building, which still belonged to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Most recently, news became public that Self Help had been sold by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The former owners, the Sisters of Saint Francis, said they asked the Archdiocese to facilitate the sale of the building. Sister Carol Snyder said it became untenable to support a venture that did not make money.


While continuing to offer educational workshops and organize cultural events, Self Help sought ways to reach out to the community.

Barrio Mobile Art Studio

In 1975, Self Help began a program called the Barrio Mobile Art Studio (BMAS). The BMAS was a large van that was equipped with art supplies. Its mission was to "to develop the individual's aesthetic appreciation, to provide an alternative mode of self-expression, and to increase the individual's appreciation of Chicano culture." On weekdays, the BMAS visited public and parochial schools and taught photography, batik, sculpture, puppetry, and filmmaking. On weekends, the van went to neighborhoods in Boyle Heightsmarker, City Terracemarker, and Lincoln Heights to provide art materials and training to people of all ages. Participation was encouraged even among members of street gangs, who used the materials to publish a newsletter about gang activity. The program, although phased out in 1985, served as a model for similar programs in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

The Vex

In 1980, Self Help expanded its mission to incorporate the burgeoning Chicano Punk rock and New Wave musical scenes. Beginning with the first performance on March 22, 1980, Self Help hosted the Vex, an all-ages music club. East Los Angeles musicians now had a venue where they could play to their own community, rather than performing in White American-dominated West Los Angeles nightclubs. During its run, the Vex frequently hosted such acts as Thee Undertakers, the Stains, the Plugz, and Los Illegals.

Atelier program

In 1982, Self Help began an "Experimental Screenprint Atelier", a workshop in fine art serigraphy. Serigraphy was a technique that was more expensive and required greater expertise than the silkscreening. As such, it represented a departure from the Chicano sensibility of rasquachismo, or a humorous sense of pride in being able to make do with limited resources. Nonetheless, it gave artists greater latitude for individual expression, and created a higher-quality product, which resulted in greater prestige for both the artists and the center. The shift was also a means to concentrate the center's resources, which were becoming limited due to Reagan Administration-era cutbacks in social spending. The production of higher-quality works also opened up the possibility of funding Self Help activities through the sales of prints. Stephen Rose was the first master printer, Oscar Duardo the second, and José Alpuche the third and current.

Ateliers are held at least twice a year, and usually center around a specific theme. For example, when residents were being evicted from the Wilshire Corridor, artists produced prints accusing the city of gentrification. Other themes have included the Virgin of Guadalupe, AIDS, the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and the poet Sor Juana. Special projects are also undertaken, such as the Maestras atelier, a workshop for female artists.

Chicano Expressions

"Chicano Expressions" was an internationally-touring exhibit funded by the United States Information Agency to "provide exposure to American values and culture". The exhibit, which featured work from 20 artists, toured South Africa, Colombiamarker, Hondurasmarker, Germanymarker, Francemarker, and Spainmarker in 1993. Boccalero found funding to allow some of the artists and Self Help staff to travel with the exhibition, which fostered networking between artists from the countries visited.

Self Help Graphics & Art was invited to Glasgowmarker, Scotlandmarker by the artists of the Glasgow Print Studio in October 1996 to collaborate on Day of the Dead workshops and celebrations there.

Day of the Dead

The revival of the indigenous holiday Día de los Muertos was part of the Mexican-American reclamation of indigenous identity, an important social aspect of the Chicano Movement. Self Help played an integral role in the holiday's revival in California. The first celebration was in 1972, and by 1978 it had become an event requiring $14,000 in funding. Today, the Day of the Dead is one of Los Angeles's major celebrations, and receives funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, among other sources.

Preparation generally begins in August with papel picado-making, altar-making, and printmaking workshops for children and adults. On November 1, participants, many of whom paint their faces as calaveras, proceed down Cesar Chavez to Evergreen Cemeterymarker, where personal and family altars are set up and food is (pan de muerto) offered to the deceased family members there interred. Sometimes a mass is celebrated there. Then attendees return to Self Help, where altars, ofrendas, prints, and other works are exhibited. Often there are musical and theatrical performances. In 1978, Luis Valdez's Teatro Campesino performed El Fin del Mundo as part of the program.

The event has not only been the occasion to, as a promotional brochure explains, "learn about the important role that heritage and tradition play in defining who we are", but has also been used to make artistic and political statements. In 1974, the Chicano conceptual and performance art group Asco took advantage of the opportunity to confront a by-then entrenched social and political culture with an irreverent "invasion". In the midst of ceremonies attended by Los Angeles's political elite, Harry Gamboa, Jr., Patssi Valdez, Gronk, and Willie Herrón were "delivered" in a giant envelope marked postage due. They emerged in wild costumes, acting out their "absurdist message". The piece was a challenge to Self Help's orthodox interpretation of the holiday. According to Gronk, "We were originally asked to come in to do a piece." But after being shown a film about Mexico's Day of the Dead, "we sort of rolled our eyes like, 'Are we gonna repeat that?' Just like, 'That's fine for somewhere else, but not for us.' Day of the Dead can mean a lot of different of things, and it doesn't necessarily mean paper cutouts, skull heads. We can invent it, what it means to us."

The Day of the Dead has taken a political bent when used to mourn those who have died from the political violence. As such, it has occasionally been used as a vehicle to artistically criticize the policies of the United States, especially as they affect the Latino community. Altars to honor the victims of the Iraq War that incorporate text or images highlighting the high casualty rate among Latino soldiers are an example of such.

In 2000, the Mexican Museum in San Franciscomarker dedicated its exhibition "Chicanos en Mictlán: Día de los Muertos en California" to Day of the Dead celebrations at Self Help and San Francisco's Galería de la Raza.


  1. Guzmán, 10
  2. Hernandez
  3. Vallen
  4. "Self Help Graphics & Arts bldg. sold" ABC 7, July 11, 2008.
  5. "East L.A. art center will need a new home" LA Times, July 10, 2008
  6. Romo, 5
  7. Guzmán, 13


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