Artist Impact Stories

A Living Legacy: Meet Artist and Activist Jeanette Lazam

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Launched in October 2022,  Yerba Buena Center for the Arts,  convened a coalition of San Francisco-based arts and culture organizations Black Freighter PressChinese Culture Center of San Francisco (CCCSF), Compton’s Transgender DistrictDance Mission TheaterGaleria de la Raza, and the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Company (SFBATCO)  to implement a $1.3 million, 18-month guaranteed income program. Funded by #StartSmall, the Creative Communities Coalition (“the Coalition)” is a part of #StartSmall’s $3.5 million investment in YBCA to expand the organization’s guaranteed income work with and for artists.

Jeanette Lazam, 73, is a civil and human rights advocate, artist, scholar, and survivor who has endured eviction, cancer, state-sanctioned violence, and an ever-changing San Francisco. With a vibrant, restorative art practice that deepens by the day, she’s far from done.

Lazam was born on February 22, 1949, in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York. A first generation Filipino with a political and artistic career rooted in spirituality, nature, and queer wisdom, Lazam’s legacy spans decades and borders.

Lazam was a 28-year-old activist when she lived through one of the country’s most infamous mass evictions, along with 55 Filipino and Chinese elders, from the International Hotel (“I-Hotel”) in San Francisco’s historic Manilatown. On August 4, 1977, armed police and firefighters forced Lazam, her friends, and neighbors into the streets–clearing a once-thriving cultural anchor for demolition and redevelopment. For Lazam, whose father worked and played in the barbershops and pool halls by the I-Hotel decades ago, the act was a total uprooting.

“If you have never been evicted, you will never know the humiliation, the complete degradation, the assault, that eviction has on your heart, your psyche, your community,” said Lazam.

“One minute, you’re fighting for your home, your dignity. Then, you’re dragged out [by government officials]. You’re never able to go back into your room again.”

An ocean away and two years after the I-Hotel eviction, Lazam re-experienced state violence during the dictatorship of the Philippines’ former President Ferdinand Marcos, who declared martial law and sparked an era of fear, surveillance, and violence in the 1970s and 1980s. While Lazam traveled through an airport in the Philippines, armed officers threatened her life. 

“I was carrying documents and articles critical of the Marcos regime and heading back to America. Before the plane took off, I was taken to an interrogation room, and guns were held to my head. The officers demanded that I give up the names of friends and colleagues,” said Lazam. “In that moment, I asked myself, ‘What legacy will I leave if I die here? What side of history will I be on?’” Lazam resisted the officers’ commands and flew back to the United States, but the regime banned her from re-entering the Philippines, along with approximately 500 other human rights activists, until the nonviolent People Power Revolution overthrew the Marcos government in 1986.

“During the Marcos dictatorship, my cousin, a journalist, was disappeared by authorities, never to be seen again. I was not allowed to see my mom and family in the Philippines for twenty years. Too many paid the price for speaking out,” said Lazam. 

Seeking solace, Lazam’s cross-border journey continued for the next several decades, taking her from California to Hawaii, and later, from Ashland, Oregon to Taos, New Mexico. She found peace and power in creativity and the arts, first by playing music in bands and feminist circles, and later, through exploration of the visual arts fused with queer power, spirituality, and Indigenous and cultural studies. In researching her ancestors’ mythology while honing her art practice, Lazam learned that trans and queer Filipino deities were alive in written text, but drawn artistic depictions were difficult to find.

“Filipinos are a storytelling people. However, for queer Indigenous deities, that storytelling isn’t often exhibited in art, drawing, or painting,” said Lazam. “As a storyteller, my artwork depicts what I believe in–social injustice, climate change, and LGBTQ+ rights.”

Nature, too, is an inspiration in Lazam’s creations. Her latest pieces honor natural elements from her heritage and travels, including the majestic blue-green saguaro and desert plants of Arizona and New Mexico, bathed in purple, green, and orange light. 

After decades as an interdisciplinary activist and a 15-year battle with cancer and cardiomyopathy that began in 1996, Lazam made her way back to the site of her eviction in San Francisco nearly half a century ago. 

“I could no longer live in the altitude of New Mexico after my surgeries, my pacemaker, and my diagnoses. After recovering enough to leave hospice, I found myself back in the Bay Area, and ultimately, back at the I-Hotel,” said Lazam. 

As the last American Filipino resident of the original I-Hotel to return to the new development–today, a Single Room Occupancy building primarily for Chinese and Filipino seniors–Lazam misses the comradery and joy stolen by the evictions. Covered in her artwork and photos of friends and family, her residential unit is a tribute to the love Lazam has experienced and nurtured across generations and continents. 

“For years, I refused to deal with the memory of the I-Hotel [because] I didn’t want to feel that pain, that loss. Our community was so tight. Everyone I cared for got scattered to the winds after the eviction. That’s why it took me so long to come back,” said Lazam. “In returning, there’s part of me that is coming full circle. Each time I walk into the lobby, I see the people I hung out with. Now, they’re etched on the walls.”

Lazam’s newest home addition is an art desk–the very first purchase she made after learning of her selection to participate in the Creative Communities Coalition for Guaranteed Income. Being part of the Coalition, a guaranteed income program paying San Francisco artists $1,000 for 18 months, has sparked renewed curiosity, creativity, and expansiveness for Lazam.

“Before, I was down to my last set of pastel pencils, with nothing to draw on and no supplies,” said Lazam. “This guaranteed income has meant a great deal to me because it gives me the support to be 100 percent involved in my art, to be free-flowing in my creation.” 

With her artwork recently displayed at Bay Area sites such as the I-Hotel and the Manilatown Heritage Foundation Center, and with a new documentary, Manilatown Manang, shining a light on her story, Lazam continues to incite new generations of artists and activists.

As she approaches her 74th birthday, Lazam’s desire to create is rooted in not only therapy, but exigency.

“With all I have left, I want to draw as much as I can. I’ve beaten cancer three times. I’ve lived through not one, but now, two Marcos dictatorships [with the 2022 election of the Philippines’ President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.],” said Lazam. “The urgency with which to get the artwork out is very dear to me.”