The Rosarito painter talks about art, protest and self-assertion in Baja Norte
By George Howell
So, I find myself sitting in an old stuffed chair with worn arm rests, waiting for artist-activist Rocio Hoffmann to paint my portrait (video). As she preps her canvas with a wash of flat red acrylic, Rocio chuckles. “I always start with rojo, red, because this is the name of my gallery, ‘Roho!’”
A small, round-faced woman with a permanent smile and a sharp sense of humor, Hoffmann regularly interviews Baja artists, musicians and dancers while she does their portraits, posting the live feeds to her Facebook page as part of a project called “Conversaciones in ROHO.” Galeria RoHo, her small, but vibrant studio-school-market space, is located in the artisanal district along Boulevard Popotla, just south of the big hotels and tourist shops of downtown Rosarito.
Today, we’re switching roles. Ever since I met Rocio a few years ago at Festiarte, Tijuana’s exuberant celebration of the arts, I have wanted to interview her because she is a rich source of information about art and culture in Baja Norte.
Despite her unassuming appearance, Rocio Hoffmann is an outspoken, provocative figure, recognized for her work as a co-founder of the Rosarito Art Fest and, more recently, for her participation in the mass demonstrations that turned Baja upside down in January and February of this year.
The portrait begins with my left eye, which Hoffmann outlines in dark acrylic.
“My father told me that when I met someone for the first time, I introduced myself as ‘Rocio, the artist,’” she says, describing her early fascination with art.
Born in 1963 in Coyoacan — the artistic district of Mexico City — Hoffmann remembers her grandmother taking her to visit muralist David Alfaro Siquieres in his studio. She was 7 years old.
“Don’t let anybody change your way as an artist,” the famous painter had advised her. “You were born an artist, you are an artist, just keep it in your mind.”
“And that impressed me,” Hoffmann said.
The biggest influence on Hoffmann’s art and life was Manuel Lizarraga Garibaldi, the internationally recognized painter from Merida, Yucatan, who was her husband and creative partner.
Lizarraga died in 2014, following years of cancer and the humiliations of Alzheimer’s disease. After he passed, the Mexican news journal Milenio published a sweet and touching account of Hoffmann’s life with the painter. A student fresh from art school, Hoffmann first obsessed on his work and then on the painter himself (he was 25 years her senior and recently separated from his wife; the couple had four children). In 1989, Hoffmann started an affair with Lizarraga that turned into a 25-year marriage.
In the last few years of his life, Lizarraga was nursed and cared for by Hoffmann and poet Francisco Morales, Rocio’s next and current husband. According to Milenio, “What began as a rapturous passion between a mature painter and a young student, ended in an almost maternal affection.”
As she concentrates on the canvas, I ask Hoffmann where she learned this technique, of beginning with an abstract stain and pulling out recognizable details, like my nose and glasses. She teaches this method to students who come from both sides of the border to work with her.
“Manuel Lizarraga, my first husband and my teacher. I learned every day from him.” According to Hoffmann, he developed many techniques for encouraging creativity and bringing out the personal language each artist carries within.
She continues: “That’s why I teach my students techniques, to create a face or landscape, but I also teach them how to bring out all their feelings, and it is like a therapy. Art is very personal, more so when you develop your own language. Art is not just about making a thing; it is a way to create a language with your discipline and design, knowing the techniques and then destroying the techniques. I know that I don’t own the truth for all the universe, but it’s my truth.”
Over the course of their marriage, Hoffmann and Lizarraga traveled throughout Mexico, painting and opening up galleries in Oaxaca and San Miguel Allende before returning to Rosarito. In the late 2000s, developments in Tijuana caught their attention.
As the drug wars that had turned Tijuana into a ghost town began to settle down, a group of artists persuaded the owners of Pasaje Rodriguez, a nearly abandoned marketplace on Avenida Revolucion, to allow them to turn the empty storefronts into galleries and artist studios. The artists, who formed a working group called PRAD (Pasaje Rodriguez Art and Design), cleaned out the debris, rebuilt and repainted the trashed spaces, and, in the process, lifted the city’s spirits.
“Pasaje Rodriguez is exactly a project that I love because they captured the attention of the public with art” Hoffmann says. “It was the worst times in Tijuana and Rosarito and they created another face for this corner of Latin America — the real one. Of course, we’ve got bars, we’ve got the Revolucion, those are good, but they are not exactly what we are, we are more than that.”
Hoffmann was invited to join the artists in the pasaje. “I had a show at Antonio Escalante’s gallery, Circulo Gallery, and I was part of it as an artist. But I had my health problem with my husband.”
Unfortunately, few, if any, of those original galleries are still open. In their place are used bookstores, coffee shops, the Mamut microbrewery, a small cinema and art space, and other shops, including a dentist who is rumored to be the longest running tenant in the pasaje. Does she know what happened?
“I just have a little information because I wasn’t there. But I know one thing: when the owners of Pasaje Rodriguez saw that this was good, they raised the price a lot, and most of the artists couldn’t pay,” Hoffmann explains. “Antonio Escalante and his team were the ones that created these magical things in Pasaje Rodriquez, but then the owners just wanted to see money. I’m sorry to say, but that’s true.”
Certainly, the murals that line the walls and corrugated metal gates of Pasaje Rodriquez are an ongoing legacy of that first creative burst of energy. Hoffmann says that one of her favorites is by “Varrona” [Manuel Rodriguez], “who lives in downtown Tijuana. He paints many artists that have already passed away. But I like them all because they are all very good. David Silvah is from Rosarito, and Norteño [Alonzo Delgadillo], he’s a young artist from Tijuana and he is very good.”
How does she feel about Pasaje Rodriguez now?
“They are doing a good job because they keep the art tradition of Pasaje Rodriquez alive. And I always say to everybody, everything is in movement, nothing is going to stay like this forever,” she says.
Looking around the gallery-workshop as she paints, I realize that even during her husband’s illness, Hoffmann kept herself busy in her hometown. What projects did she take on in Rosarito?
“First of all, I created one of my youngest kids, Ivan, and he’s an artist, too,” she laughs as she continues to paint. Ivan Lizarraga, a talented dancer, is the youngest of her three children with Manuel Lizarraga.
“I cannot say that I was very active. I just did what I thought somebody had to do and nobody was doing it.
“When I came back to Rosarito, there were many, many artists living here, but they were all apart and I started to talk with the business men and the artists about the importance of joining together to create a better quality of tourists. And then I did many things, like decorating the Condo Hotel with original art because they wanted to put up reproductions, and I proposed to them to put original work from local artists and we did it.
“I started to make little festivals in various parts of Rosarito — Armando Gonzalez and me — and we named this Arte en Movimiento, Art in Movement, and I was one of the founders of the Rosarito Art Fest. Now it is the best festival in Northwest Mexico for art.”
For her efforts, Hoffmann was named Rosarito’s “Woman of the Year” in 2010.
Meanwhile, along with her gallery, Hoffmann continues to run Trastiende (Back Room), a weekly series of television interviews with artists, musicians and art promoters. Over the past seven years, the show has migrated between local channels in Rosarito and can be seen now on Channel 73.
When I point out that she is much more active than she claims, Hoffmann laughs. “I’m active because I’m probably hyperactive! But the most important thing is that I’m doing what I love — that is, painting and I’m making a living with my work. And I think all artists have a little responsibility, a social responsibility. I did what I thought I had to do.”
So I have to ask an obvious question. Is she a provocateur?
“I think I’m a cultural activist,” she resonds. “Someone has to say these things and many people don’t make the effort, or they don’t know how to. I say what I think is right, and if the people get hurt, I’m sorry. But it’s my truth. They have the opportunity to say, ‘No, you are wrong,’ but it’s my truth and I have to fight for my truth.”
On Hoffmann’s Facebook page is a photograph of the artist, microphone in hand, standing on the back of a pickup truck as she addresses hundreds of protestors. At the end of last year, the Mexican government raised the price of gasoline – the gasolinazo – at the same time that the governor of Baja California called for the privatization of water. Citizens in Baja Norte, already hit by a declining peso, took to the streets. Hoffmann joined them.
“I can’t help myself!” she exclaims. “I had to say something and I’m not shy!”
Hoffmann caught the attention of the Mexican edition of Newsweek and she was interviewed for an article on the protests.
According to Newsweek, Baja California is often considered to be less politically active than other parts of Mexico. Things changed in January. Protestors shut down the border crossing at San Ysidro and the Pemex oil refinery in Rosarito, posing a potential economic crisis in the region. The government mobilized armed troops to keep the plant open.
“I became part of the manifestations because I’m angry with the government,,” she says. “They make the reform, telling us that it is not going to raise the price of the gasoline. Now they change their mind.”
Hoffmann is convinced that the Mexican government is selling oil to American companies and that is driving the price hikes. “And these few Mexicans — the government, [President] Peña Nieto and all these stuck up people — they believe that they have the guts to sell what is owned by all the Mexicans. Why? It’s not theirs. It belongs to us.”
How did she get to speak at the rallies?
“I heard that many people were going to meet together to tell the government that we did not agree with the gasolinazo and I just joined them.
“I’m very bocona. In Mexico we say, bocona — I have a big mouth! Because they were talking and I said I have to talk about the art part and I jumped in and I talked. They didn’t tell me, ‘Rocio, could you talk now?’ No, no. I jumped in. When you are sure of what you have to say, I think nobody is going to stop me. “
Hoffmann told Newsweek that she was frustrated with the lack of support for local artists and disappointed when the mayor of Rosarito, whom she voted for, decided to use city funds to purchase a luxury car for “official business.” (Mayor Mirna Rincon later thought better of her decision.)
“They asked me about how I became an activist. I didn’t became an activist — I was born an ‘artivist!'” she says with a smile. “I’m not afraid to say or do whatever I like. I know that I have just one life and I am going live it!”
On that supremely confident note, our interview is over and the portrait complete. As we talked, I lost track of the painting and, not surprisingly, when I see it, I love it. And then I move out of the way as Hoffmann greets dancer and Tijuana native, Iliana Edith (video). Hoffmann immediately settles Iliana into the old chair I just occupied and launches into her second interview of the day. She starts the portrait with a wash of flat red acrylic.
More information about Rocio Hoffmann Silva (in Spanish):
Writer and artist George Howell moved to Wonder Valley, a unique desert community outside of Twentynine Palms, California, in December 2013. His articles, reviews and artist interviews have appeared in Art Papers, Sculpture, Raw Vision and other publications.