Beauty that Empowers

Lauren Guerra examines the public theology of the murals of San Diego's Chicano Park 

by Suzanne E. Miller

from Currents Fall 2015

GTU doctoral candidate Lauren Frances Guerra believes beauty can be transformative. “Beauty breathes hope into communities—and as such it is source of empowerment,” she contends. “But true beauty must always be connected to justice.” This core insight about the nature of beauty has shaped Guerra’s work throughout her studies at the GTU, first as a master’s student in Theological Aesthetics, and now as she pursues her doctorate in the field of Systematic and Philosophical Theology.

Guerra is bringing together her interest in both art and Latino/a theology in a dissertation that examines the communal importance of the murals in Chicano Park in Barrio Logan, San Diego. In the 1970s, in an effort to reclaim and beautify their neighborhood after it had been invaded by freeway construction, community members and artists began the multi-year project of painting murals on and under the freeway overpass, humanizing this impersonal, industrial space. Today, Chicano Park is home to the largest collection of outdoor murals in the country.

Lauren Guerra sees the murals as a form of public theology, and her work seeks to unpack the spiritual insights of the community that are being expressed visually through the murals. “One of the things that strikes me so much about the murals is resiliency,” she reflects. “Beauty points to a sense of resilience—that despite very difficult circumstances, daily life challenges, there’s still a sense of hopefulness. The murals serve as a visual text; they’re preserving Latin American history in a visual way. There’s a sense that this is a dangerous memory of the past; some of the murals portray figures like Frieda Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Cesar Chavez. They serve as a source of empowerment for people who are in the community. These are people who have gone before and who have overcome many obstacles, and inspire us to be more, to be better human beings.”

Guerra was drawn to the GTU because of the school’s “great track record of Latino/a doctoral graduates.” A number of the scholars whom Guerra’s admires and incorporates into her own work had come through the GTU, including Cecilia Gonzalez-Andrieu, who is serving on Guerra's dissertation committee. She also appreciates the openness to creative inquiry and dialogue across lines of difference. “GTU offers a space for important conversations that might not otherwise happen, because everyone here is coming from a place of curiosity, of respect for their fellow classmates. The GTU is a place where people take their faith seriously, and the academic discipline of religion is also very rigorous.”

Guerra has also benefitted from the interdisciplinary nature of the Graduate Theological Union. Her doctoral work builds on the insights of U.S. Latino/a theological aesthetics in which God is the most beautiful, and therefore, perspectives on God must always be paired with concepts of justice. Guerra has long been captivated by this notion of beauty and justice that she encountered while studying US Latino theology, Latin-American liberation theology, and feminist theology. “In studying those fields, I was able to find the right vocabulary for things I was experiencing or had noticed in my own faith life or within my community.”

The murals of Chicano Park and Guerra’s theological reflections highlight the importance of issues of justice and empowerment within the Latino/a American community. “It’s very hard to ignore or dismiss the power of colonization—the colonial, or the colonial past. I think many Latinos and Latin Americans still carry that in some way, and finding empowerment is really important.” For Guerra part of power of the murals in Chicano Park is their ability to inspire the community through visual representation of great individuals from its past. “These murals are an important visual documentation of the community’s self-identity and history.” She adds, “I think seeing people who look like you is really important. When you don’t have those images, you don’t feel that it’s possible to be that.”

For Guerra, the importance of seeing “people who look like you” extends beyond the murals; in fact, it is one of the primary reasons she desires to become a professor. “I noticed how few professors of color I had in my education, after high school in college and graduate programs.” Although she studied under many wonderful teachers, “I felt that very few of them fully understood where I was coming from. And, outside of Spanish Literature or Chicano Studies courses, I never heard anything about my culture, or about the history of Latin America.”

But Guerra experienced something very different when she had opportunity to take an undergraduate theology class at Loyola Marymount University under Latina theologian Michelle Gonzalez, the GTU’s 2015 Alumna of the Year. In fact, Gonzalez played a large role in inspiring Guerra to pursue graduate studies at the GTU and become an educator. Guerra fondly remembers Gonzalez saying to her, “You’re really good at this—keep going. It’s so important to have many voices represented in the academy and the classroom. We need to get there.”

Lauren Guerra’s work emphasizes the importance of crossing borders—not only in academia, but also in our physical world. Because San Diego is located on the U.S./Mexico border, Guerra’s study of the murals of Chicano Park engages political issues of immigration policy and borders. For Guerra, the realities of immigration are “very real, very fresh, and very close.” Her father immigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador in his early 20s, while her mother’s parents came from Guatemala. “I am very aware that I would have a very different life if I had grown up in Guatemala,” she reflects, “and I would not have the opportunities that I’ve had here for education. That’s why I’m so passionate about social justice and education, because I see the impact it’s had on my life—in a very concrete way.”

Guerra’s educational path has opened doors for her to study abroad in Madrid and to receive mentorship and a fellowship from the Hispanic Theological Initiative. She also was awarded a 2015 Forum for Theological Education Fellowship for Latino/a, Asian, and First Nation doctoral students.

Lauren Guerra hopes to give back to her community, inspire young minds, and empower the next generation of scholars by pursuing a professorial position in a college or university. She believes college is the perfect time to encourage young people to “start thinking about deeper questions: who they are in the world, their faith, what they want to contribute to this life.” For now, the Graduate Theological Union is very pleased to have an emerging scholar like Lauren Guerra contributing to the life of our community here in Berkeley.


Suzanne E. Miller is a doctoral student in Biblical Studies and communications assistant at the GTU.