Favianna Rodriguez

An Oakland-based Latinx artist fighting for clean air

While the so-called war on drugs was ripping through Oakland, Favi was upstairs, drawing at the barred windows. Her protective immigrant parents found her an art teacher—a chola who taught her how to sketch lowrider cars, tigers, plants, and even herself.

The bars on her windows may have kept out the violence, but they couldn’t keep out the dirty air from the trucks rumbling down the I-880 freeway. The house was always coated in soot, and asthma was rampant in her neighborhood—but just two miles up the avenue, the streets were lined with trees and the air was fresh.

Favi used her brains—and her vagina, as she puts it—to escape the polluted cement-trap of Oakland. She got a full ride to UC Berkeley as an engineering student, then dropped out to be an artist. She had exhibits all over the world, a whirlwind of art shows, lovers, and parties.

From time to time, she’d pop back to Cali. She bought her childhood home for her dad, who was dying of cancer. Despite gentrification and the rise of Silicon Valley, the air was still poisonous. But she could always hop on a plane and escape—until the pandemic.

Now she was back, with no escape route.

Favi filled her house with plants. She broke through the cement outside to feel the soil with her hands. She grew her own food. Installed solar panels (the only house to do so in the area). Went vegan. Bought an electric car. But the black, dirty air still loomed overhead. The trucks still roared down I-880, puffing out smog.

So she did some detective work. Oakland is sandwiched between two freeways: I-880 and I-580. But trucks only drive on I-880. Back in 1963, (mostly white) residents near I-580 organized to ban trucks from passing through their neighborhood. But the trucks had to go somewhere—so they were routed right through Favi’s community. The truck ban became entrenched, and then forgotten.

As Favi says: when you realize you live in a dumping ground, you have to reclaim your dignity. She can’t move the freeway. But with her art, she can make the world acknowledge the Oakland they refused to see for so long. And someday, she can help her people get well.