Alumna Kaelyn Rodríguez explores connections of ethnicity, history and art in LA

Alumna Kaelyn Rodríguez in her Ph.D. robes from UCLA.

“Some of my earliest memories are of making art when I was maybe three years old, so in a lot of ways, it is how I see the world, or how I see myself. I love that it can be anything, come from any materials and made by people of all ages or abilities! I love that it is something that humans do not need to do for survival, yet for some reason, it is one thing all peoples throughout the history of the world have engaged in and still engage in today! I think it is one of the many beautiful things that help us express ourselves and connect to others.” ~ Dr. Kaelyn Rodríguez

Alumna Kaelyn Rodríguez reclines inside a circular piece of outdoor art
Kaelyn Rodríguez in her UCLA Doctorial Gown.

Dr. Kaelyn Rodríguez, Fresno State alumna and Assistant Professor of Art History at Santa Monica College, began her journey in higher education at Fresno as an Art/Art History major. Following her graduation in 2012, she went on to get her Master’s in Art History from UC Riverside in 2014, followed by a Master’s in Chicana/o Studies from UCLA in 2016. Just months ago, she achieved her Ph.D. in Chicana/o Studies from UCLA.

As an Afro-Latina and Black Chicana from Los Angeles, Rodríguez scholarship primarily reflects her passion for art, ethnicity, and home city, Los Angeles. While working on her UCLA Master’s project, creating a mural in Watts that celebrated the history of Watts since the 1965 rebellion, she began to see the deep historical connections of Black and Brown history in South Central Los Angeles. Working with her mentor and co-founder of SPARC, Professor Judy Baca, and with some help from the community, they designed a mural.

“My interest was in remembering and highlighting a city with an important Black history while also representing its Brown history without erasing one or the other,” Rodríguez explained. “This was important because migrants from Mexico and Central America settled in South Central for the same reasons that Black people settled there in the early 20th century. They faced structural limitations—segregation, legal or otherwise—from moving into other areas, and it was affordable for them.”

Kaelyn works on a mural in south-central Los Angeles.
Kaelyn works on a mural in south-central Los Angeles.

In her dissertation, “Afro-Latinx Futurism: A History of Black and Brown Art in Los Angeles from 1781-2018,” Rodríguez pressed her themes further. Looking at a much larger period and a larger geographical area, she went back to the very beginning of Los Angeles in 1781. Chapter after chapter, she shares stories of “Black and Brown or Afro-Latinx people living together, sharing space, making art, inspiring and supporting each other.”

“Black histories and Latinx histories in the U.S. have pretty much never been easy. They’ve been full of incredible challenges, losses and disparities. But our folks before us also always were creating—music, food, dance, art—and those traditions can help us connect to our personal and collective freedom in a way that politics can’t even touch,” Rodríguez said. “[My] communities deserve joy, rest, play, ease and beauty as forms or practices of freedom and art, and art history, can get us there.”

During her time at Fresno State, Rodríguez had the opportunity to study abroad twice, once in London and once in Florence. 

“Both of those experiences stoked my passion for the arts and for learning.”

But it was during the London trip that she realized she wanted to teach. Once she made the decision, Rodríguez said she found immense support from her Fresno State professors. Chief among these was Art History associate professors Dr. Laura Meyer and Dr. Keith Jordan, who also served as mentors.

“Kaelyn has always been passionate—and perceptive—about the human problems and aspirations that visual art can illuminate. Her presence in my Fresno State classes on modern and contemporary art have left a lasting impression,” said Meyer. “[She] sees how the same human drive for connection—and transcendence—can be found in the artistic creations of Renaissance masters, modern rebels, and today’s young people seeking recognition that their lives matter.”

Daniel Chavez and Kaelyn Rodríguez wedding photo
Daniel Chavez and Kaelyn Rodríguez

While at Fresno State, Rodríguez met Daniel Chavez just before leaving for London. While in London, the two Skyped daily, and when she returned home, he picked her up and asked her out. They continued dating through their grad school years, even while in different cities, and in April in a small ceremony due to COVID-19, they were married in Los Angeles.

“Our jobs and our values are very parallel—we both believe in service, in supporting our communities, we love to travel, and we want to live with as much joy as we can! This is the life we got; we’re going to live them!”

Rodríguez is now an Assistant Professor of Art History at Santa Monica College. She serves on the Global Citizenship Committee and is also working with her colleague Dr. Briana Simmons in leading a series of workshops for students who are interested in transferring to UC as an art history major. 

Rodríguez says she also makes the best breakfast burritos.

Posted by

Fresno State College of Arts and Humanities Communication Specialist

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