Raza Day

Keynote Speech at Stanford University's Raza Day High School Conference

Jessica Sabogal

First and foremost I would like to say THANK YOU

Ireri Hernandez, the Raza Day Planning committee, the Vice Provost for student affairs, Mecha de stanford, El Centro Chicano, & the Chicano/Latino community at Stanford. It’s an honor for me to be here with you all today.



I’ve learned from Buzzfeed that people pay attention if you organize things into lists, like the Top 13 Reasons your iphone keeps running out of battery or The Top 20 pictures of cats doing headstands. So I decided to organize this keynote into two lists. First I’m going to tell you 3 stories and then I’m going to end with The Top 5 Musings of a First Generation Colombian American Lesbian Graffiti artist.

Let’s start with story #1:

I was supposed to be a doctor. Yes, a doctor. I have no idea what kind of doctor but a doctor — white coat, terrible handwriting, and all. So what happened? How did I end up here at Stanford talking to you about art?

I remember being 17 years old — 

Okay, I’m only 26 so that really wasn’t very long ago. But nevertheless… I remember being 17 and being a superstar.

I did everything in high school. I had a 4.3 GPA, I attended one of the highest ranked high schools in America, I was captain of both the varsity basketball and volleyball teams, I dated cool people, I went to prom with a chick, and I drove a stick shift -- I was awesome. So when it came time to apply for college, you’d think I’d aim for the highest. You’d think I’d applied to the Stanford’s the Harvard’s and the Yale’s. But I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t even apply to a single college in the top ten. No one told me I should. No one told me I was that good. No one told me I belonged at Stanford, Harvard or Yale despite my awesomeness.

So what did I do instead? I applied to 28 — yes, 28 — other colleges and universities around the United States because my Colombian father thought American college admissions was like playing the lotto and wanted my chances of getting in to be as high as possible.

I remember the letters coming in slowly one by one- some rejections, some acceptances. In the end, I decided to pick one from the three best schools I got into. I had the opportunity to choose between Johns Hopkins University, ranked #12, USC, ranked #23 and UC San Diego, ranked #39 — all of which I’d been admitted to for pre-med because I was planning to become a doctor. Since I really only wanted to go to USC because of the movie “Love and Basketball” it was really a tie between Johns Hopkins and UCSD. Going purely by ranking, it was obvious where I should’ve gone to college. But I said no to #12 Johns Hopkins, no to #23 USC and yes to #39 UCSD.

Now why didn’t I choose one of the top medical schools in the nation as an aspiring young doctor? I remember saying out loud to myself, “I do not want to go to Johns Hopkins because there are not enough “me’s” there.” I couldn’t imagine another young gay Latina woman walking around the halls of that place. Who would I study with? Who would I learn from and look up to? Who would be in my crew? Who would become my familia?

At 17, having killed it in school up until that point, I still felt I did not belong at an institution like that, and feared being surrounded by people that didn’t look and talk like me. I chose to leave myself out when, in fact, they had let me in. In fact, I didn’t even visit Johns Hopkins, I just assumed that the lower ranked school would have more me’s, more familia, more comfort. At 17, I had already internalized so deeply a sense of limitations and self-imposed oppression because, truthfully, there had never been a lot of me’s in any of my schools growing up.

What if I hadn’t held myself back?

What if I wasn’t afraid of my race or class or gender or sexuality?

What if I felt like I belonged?

As Latinos living in America we are told:

A. It is a privilege to be here: Go unnoticed. Smile. Avoid conflict. Say yes. Tenemos que ser sympaticos con los de mas.

B. Assimilate: white is right. Learn their history. Learn their language. Read their books. We are in their home.

C. Work hard: because our parents worked harder to get us here. Keep your head down. Make a living. Eyes on the prize.

On the one hand, we want so much to win playing by the rules so that we can make our parents proud. On the other hand, as Latinos we are made to feel like it’s NOT our right to even enter the game.

Story #2:

Now let’s check in with 19-year-old Jessi walking around the halls of UC San Diego.

College is less about memorizing facts and more about learning how to think. For the first time in my life I was able to choose for myself what I wanted to learn. I soon realized that my wanting to become a doctor had nothing to do with saving lives or curing cancer. I was pursuing it because it was my parents’ and therefore my definition of success in America. It was in that moment that I decided I wanted to be someone that brought about an enormous amount of change on a very large scale by studying something other than medicine.

So I asked myself, “Who does this? Who has the most power to influence movements? Who can change things on a massive scale?” And then it hit me. My brilliant college self decided that I would become the next president of the United States of America. You think I’m kidding?

I immediately switched my major to Political Science so I could learn all the laws possible so that I would know how to change them once I landed the presidency.

As Cherrie Moraga has said, “Consciousness spoils your time.” And that’s the purpose of college – to become conscious. To arm yourself with history, their story, yourstory, all the story you can get. So you can decide what to pursue and why.

Story #3: Still with me? Good.

Fast forward to college graduation — it was 2009 and no one was hiring new college grads with humanities degrees, and shockingly no one was putting out job postings in search of future presidents… so I was given the gift of time.

Banksy and Shepard Fairey were just beginning to get noticed by the art world, and I remember seeing a painting made up of stencils and spray paint for the first time.

These guys found ways to show their political views and manipulate public space with a simple image. This thrilled me. So after graduating I went to Home Depot and bought three cans of spray paint. I watched about 27 youtube videos on how to make stencils, and after several attempts, I had my very own, Jessica Sabogal, one layer stencil.

I must’ve sprayed that stencil a thousand times I was so proud of that thing.

I also fell in love and moved across the country to live in a small community of artists in the middle of western Massachusetts. On the east coast there was shit tons of snow but there wasn’t much pressure to become a doctor or to get married or to start a family or to get a real job. I just had to live on my girlfriend’s couch and make art in the basement of her dorm.

I was so brave in those days. Going door to door to coffee shops, hair salons, shoe stores, you name it, proposing that they let me hang my art on their walls. My hands were wet with paint. ______ I was broke. Some of my best stuff sold for $40 bucks back then because I just needed the quick cash. But I worked hard at it. And that part came easy because I loved it. I felt brave and bold and invincible.

Next thing I know, I received an email from Penguin books asking me to design the 20th anniversary cover of Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. Soon Facebook headquarters commissioned me for their old offices in Palo Alto, making me the first female artist to grace their walls.

I made national news, showed at multiple venues, ran a pop-up shop, launched my “Women are Perfect” campaign, and even returned to my homeland of Colombia to do a mural in the midst of an agrarian strike.

And suddenly, despite all these extraordinary things happening to me, I started to feel like that 17-year-old kid back in high school — unable to see myself worthy of Johns Hopkins. I was consumed with this sudden fear that all these really important people were entrusting me to do these really important things because I was somehow tricking them into thinking I was an artist.

But I remember being told: “The only difference between you and Shepard Fairey is that he is out there making murals all over the world, and you are sitting here on the couch with no murals because you are scared.”

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel like I want to quit, where I didn’t think I was grand enough to show in galleries or give keynote speeches such as this. But I’ve sought out other people of color who believe for me when I can’t. Their belief carries me forward, pushing me to ignore the imposter syndrome within me and to embrace my abilities. But it took a long time to find these people… so I want to save each of you all of that precious time and tell you here and now that you are enough. You are worthy of all opportunity.


So now let's tie it all together with one final list. Here it is. It’s time to enter the home-stretch. Ready? Here are the Top Five Musings of a First generation Colombian American Lesbian Graffiti artist.

1.) As Latinos we are not being represented in politics, technology, medicine, art, and many other fields, so people not like us are deciding things for us, even though there are millions of us here in America. Go out and become those decision makers. Go out and become storytellers. Go out and become the leaders we so desperately need.

The first step is college. College is waiting for you. I need you to be here. You need you to be here. People you haven’t met yet are counting on you to move, inspire, and support them. Someone has to choose #1, 12, and 39, why not you?

2.) There will be many days throughout your life in which you’ll wake up feeling like an imposter. You’ll get down on yourself. Maybe you didn’t get up early enough, or you ate too much, or you waited until the last minute… whatever it is, you will at times make yourself feel “not good enough.” That feeling of inadequacy, that feeling of not belonging or deserving, will threaten your existence, will attempt to blind you from seeing CHOICE. No one is telling you more loud and clear to choose #39 than you yourself.

3.) You will not be hindered by your choices, so make them boldly.

Don’t take the safe route every time. And if you don't get into #1 act like you’re from #1 (I’ve learned that can mean the same thing).

4) If you stay true to your dreams, if you do the hardest part which is to work at it — to truly WORK at it DAY AFTER DAY AFTER DAY — if you get off the couch and DO, I promise you that all the “what the fuck am I doing” days will add up to something.

The constant self doubt. The shitty minimum wage jobs. The blisters from hours of stencil cutting. The long bike rides to the art supply store and back. The hours spent sleeping in late because you’ve been up all night birthing 28 paintings, stress-eating your way through projects, or waiting until the last minute because being in love and spending money you don’t have seems way more important. Those days will be the before and after moments of consciousness.

Those days will be the bookends of an education.

5.) Here’s the last thing I want to leave you with. When I was in Cuba I worked with a printmaker who offered to make me a set of handmade business cards for two bucks. I went back and forth on what the business cards should say. Email? Phone? FB? Website? And after much deliberation, I ended up printing a simple card that said four words:

Jessica Sabogal

Google Me

Which brings me to my final point. And if you don’t remember anything else I’ve said or have totally tuned out, sit up and listen to this one last thing:

Be proud of who you are and what you do. Don’t hide behind your gayness or straightness, your light skin or dark skin, your femininity or masculinity or your love of art. Don’t hide from other “me’s” and other “you’s.” Be the lighthouse. Be the boat. But either way, be visible. Be brave. Be bold. Be proud. Be the imposter and the real thing.

Now go to it. We who have come before, we got you. Thank you.

Jessica Sabogal is a first generation Colombian American graffiti artist who has consistently reinvented what it means to be a female graffiti artist in a male-dominated medium. Since 2011, Sabogal has made front page on CNN.com with her time-lapse tribute to Egyptian revolution, designed the 20th Anniversary Cover for Plume Book’s Bastard Out of Carolina, and is the first female artist commissioned to paint murals at Facebook Headquarters in Menlo Park, CA. She’s been inspired by literary works written by poets, authors, and women of color, and have utilized their experiences and their existence as the sole muse for her creations. But most recently, she has created a line of work that honors the woman and female body as perfect. Her newest campaign entitled, “Women Are Perfect (If You Let Them)” attempts to spread this simple but necessary notion worldwide. Sabogal is an artist who continues to grow with resilience, prosper with purpose, and paint without fear. She seeks to connect the world around us with art that reminds all that women are to be valued, glorified, respected, and above all, loved.