Artist: Lili Navarro • Words by Maria Manuela • Photography by Kate Dash
Like most superheros, artist and activist Lili Navarro has an origin story.
When she was a senior in high school in Tracy, California her AP Art teacher was openly racist towards her. She created a portrait of Benjamin Bratt in Indigenous face paint for the class, and received a 70 out of 100. Lili sought the teacher out and asked why she had only gotten a 70 on the project; she wanted to understand—she wanted creative criticism.
“I felt really proud of it. And his reaction was that he didn’t understand it, and it didn’t sit well with me. This was something that he—as a straight, CIS man—wouldn’t understand. When I called out the fact that I thought he was being racist, he took it very personally. A lot of people invalidated me and what I was feeling.”
So, Lili painted a self-portrait. “I made my self portrait Brown Warrior and it was a very, very important piece to me. It was really—please excuse my language–a “fuck you” to my art teacher. It was me saying I don't care if you don't understand it and if you feel some white guilt about me calling out your racism. Here I am, this is what it’s going to be.”
That was the beginning of Lili’s activism. Today she’s known for her portraiture, which focuses on brown beauty and Chicano pride. In her self-portrait Brown Warrior, Lili dons a pin that reads Chicano Power. As a brown woman living in California—her father is from Zacatecas and her mother is from San Jose—it was hard to Lili to feel connected with the Mexican identity; she didn’t fluently speak Spanish. But she also felt like she didn’t fit in with Californians from Tracy either.
“When I started identifying with Chicano it felt empowering for me. From what I was seeing and reading and feeling, Chicano meant to be strong, to be empowering. Chicano power and advocating for it meant I was doing something that not only was going to help me find my identity, but also help others find sanctuary.”
As Lili painted and shared her portraits, her platform grew. Today she has nearly 14,000 followers on Instagram, and she says positive feedback fuels her work. “A lot of people have messaged me saying I made them feel proud to be Latino and Chicano. That’s really what has inspired me to keep doing what I do.”
Lili’s work is about representation. Her paintings depict brown people in celebratory ways; bathed in gold rays like the Virgin of Guadalupe, or surrounded by roses. Her subjects are beautiful, powerful and present. A hint of the lowrider culture she grew up in runs through her work.
She loves the Italian painter Caravaggio, who was known for pulling people off the streets to model for his romantic works. Lili also uses people she knows, she has painted friends and loved ones. “I want to paint people who come off very strong and very powerful; and more specifically very brown. I love being able to depict people who are unapologetically themselves, in their skin.I paint brown women so my little cousins, or little brown girls everywhere can look and say, “oh, that looks like me.””
Lili recalls a time when her art did just that. The mother of a 13-year-old girl at one of Lili’s shows approached her and said her daughter loved Brown Warrior; the young girl thought it looked like her.
“This little girl was beautiful, she had beautiful brown skin. Her mom was telling me she had been mentioning whitening creams, and it really resonated with me. When I was younger I used to beg my parents to buy me lightening creams and I spent summers in the shade because I didn’t want to get darker. It really meant a lot to me that the little girl could see the painting, and see herself in it. And also see that this painting is getting so much recognition from the people around her, and being told the painting is beautiful. I want that little girl to see that in herself as well.”
This spring, Lili is looking forward to all of her creative endeavors and painting more. She is also working on an album cover for an artist whose identity must remain top secret right now. Keep up with her on her Instagram @lordlili to see what she does next.