SALINAS—It was in the fields when she was cutting the bad weeds from the strawberries and listening to the hard stories of women farmworkers that Liz Ruvalcaba experienced a sorrow that only painting seemed to heal.
“I particularly remember this lady’s story,” she says. “For awhile it made me sad.” She painted the woman’s portrait, helped her have a voice and felt peace. When she gave the portrait to her, the woman felt better too.
Ruvalcaba, 28, an art student at Monterey Peninsula College, grew up in the Alisal neighborhood of East Salinas, an area better known for violent gang crimes than for transformative artistry. In high school, when she joined her parents working in the fields during summers, Ruvalcaba brought a sketchpad. She portrayed the people who are often invisible in artists’ renderings of the rich Salinas fields.
“I saw a lot of injustice working in the fields,” she says. “I think that’s what inspired me the most.”
In her brightly colored portraits, the women in the fields are often covered up, hidden in cloth from the sun, from verbal abuses that often occur, particularly toward older women.
“Most of my characters are very private. I wanted them to be bright. I want to show them they’re human.”
Ruvalcaba uses mixed media, spray paint, acrylics, markers, wheat paste for collage and photographs. When she hangs her work, she stands nearby to tell people the stories within the canvas.
“A lot of women say, ‘Wow, I’ve gone through that,’” she says. “It’s more of a storytelling so people can realize what’s out there.”
Last fall Ruvalcaba spearheaded Art for the Deprived, a monthly art walk in Natividad Creek Park inspired by popular First Friday events downtown. She holds it where families gather on the first Sunday afternoon of the month when working parents can join their children in creating art.
“I believe everybody gets surprised,” Ruvalcaba says.
To help people see beautiful things is important, she says. The neighborhood feels scarier than it used to. Sometimes she wakes to the sound of gunshots. When she walks home at night from her studio in a friend’s garage, she is cautious.
In December, Ruvalcaba found space to teach art classes three days a week at the Alisal Family Resource Center. She wants young people to find new ways to express themselves and she stood outside of elementary schools to talk with parents about the free classes.
“What makes me feel hopeful is the people who grow up here who decide they want to do it on their own,” says Carissa Purnell, director of the center. “She didn’t ask me to get paid. All she said was, ‘Can I please use the space?’” Donations help pay for materials. “There are a lot of families who come here and more families are coming because of her.”
For Ruvalcaba, it is about letting kids know their own capacity for art.
“I believe it changes the way they think and they’re different after they create something,” she says
This article appears in the spring 2016 issue of Monterey County Women, a quarterly supplement of the Monterey Herald.