When Alfonso Aceves and his wife, Adriana Carranza, commit to painting a mural, a few brushstrokes become public declarations of protest, resilience or inspiration.
As they transform a flat wall into a beautiful work of art, the Boyle Heights-born couple say, they pour part of their hearts into each brushstroke through concentration, a steady hand and an eagle eye for mistakes.
Any mistake, no matter how small, Adriana catches, and with a loving voice tells Afonso to correct it. Likewise, Alfonso checks every color choice that Adriana decides to capture on a mural.
For the couple, married 29 years, these tweaks to their artwork are nothing more than affectionate dance steps to elevate themselves as spouses and self-taught artists. Alfonso and Adriana are the Kalli Arte Collective, a family of artists who have achieved recognition within the Southern California community despite not having college degrees in art and becoming parents as teenagers.
Some in their artistic community regard Adriana and Alfonso as the next Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, who became international idols not only for giving birth to Mexican Modernism through their paintings and murals but also for their political passions and their often turbulent relationship, the centerpiece of countless books, plays and films.
Adriana, 46, and Alfonso, 47, are both flattered and amused by the comparison. In their relationship, they say, there’s no emotional chaos unless one of them forgets to wash their brushes. Still, they acknowledge they’ve experienced plenty of storm and stress by entering the art world, rebelling against the crowd and confronting injustice through their works.
“In this world and in this life, every dream is possible.… Alfonso and I are the testament to it,” Adriana said recently as she swept her blue paintbrush over a sketch of a butterfly.
Months ago, as fate would have it, the couple returned to Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights to paint a mural — the same school where their dreams of being artists were initially dashed when they found out they were going to be parents.
“High school served us only to fall in love, said Adriana, who was in 11th grade when she met Alfonso, a senior.
By then, both knew they loved art. The pair had grown up in a humble neighborhood, riddled with gangs and crime but filled with colorful murals.
Alfonso expressed his taste for art by drawing faces and characters taken from the comics section of the Los Angeles Times. Adriana wanted to become a fashion designer, inspired by the natural world of flowers, birds and butterflies.
But the couple’s youthful daydreams evaporated when Adriana became pregnant at 18.
“When I found out the news, I felt surprised and ashamed with my family and society. It was obvious that my parents, Mexican immigrants, did not expect that from me,” said Adriana, one of six siblings.
Alfonso, from a fourth-generation Mexican American family, was surprised and scared, just like his girlfriend, but the thought of Adriana having an abortion did not cross his mind.
“Despite everything, I was happy to become a father,” Alfonso said as he painted a background of the mural yellow.
At the graduation ceremony, Adriana said, she was prevented from walking up to receive her diploma, for reasons that were never explained. The young woman was heartbroken, concluding that the school didn’t want the public to see her with a protruding belly, as she would set a bad example for other students.
“In society there is a stigma that pregnant adolescents, especially if you are from the minority, no longer have a future,” Adriana said. “That motivated me to continue studying.”
While Adriana took care of little Sara, she also took general education classes and child development courses at East Los Angeles College. When she turned 22, in 1998, she took a job with the Los Angeles Unified School District as an assistant educator for special needs children. By that time, her second daughter, Ione, was 3 months old.
“I put aside my love for art, and focused on the love of family,” Adriana said.
Alfonso, a shy and socially awkward young man, took various jobs to support his growing family. He studied theater lighting, sound and set construction at Los Angeles City College, played and wrote songs for a rock band called Opposition, and designed fliers and other artwork for Knott’s Berry Farm and other clients.
“I was miserable in my jobs, it was not the life I had dreamed of,” Alfonso said.
So around 2008 he told Adriana, “Come on, we’re going to explore art. We are going to do our thing against all odds.” And she accepted.
Living at the Wyvernwood Garden Apartments complex, in a rent-controlled area of Boyle Heights that limits rent increases and eliminates the right of landlords to evict tenants without cause, allowed them to make the first move. The couple began creating Indigenous metal and wood jewelry to sell at festivals, outdoor markets and exhibits in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Seattle and San Diego.
Later, while Adriana focused on making jewelry, Alfonso took up printmaking, and the couple’s enterprise, Kalli Arte Collective, was born.
“Kalli means home in Nahuatl, and with that word we set ourselves the task of reflecting through our work what we love the most — the social struggle of our neighborhood, our family, and of course our Chicano American roots,” Alfonso said.
Over the years that followed, the couple carved out their own space within the L.A. art community by creating digital prints, then screen printing, writing poetry and creating murals. Their first, fondly remembered art show as a couple was in 2014 at the renowned Highland Park gallery Avenue 50 Studio. Kathy Gallegos, founding executive and artistic director of Avenue 50 Studio, fell in love with their work after finding them on Myspace.
“I saw some of her work and it struck me that she had such an incredible sensitivity to representing her Chicano community and her history,” Gallegos said.
By then, the Wyvernwood community had risen up in protest against widening gentrification that would’ve resulted in demolition of the 150-unit complex. In August 2014, Avenue 50 Studio invited Alfonso and Adriana to exhibit 28 linocuts in a monthlong show entitled “The Town of Wyvernwood.” They created linocut portraits of the residents facing displacement and wrote their stories.
“The couple’s art managed to convey feelings straight to the heart, and that hasn’t changed,” Gallegos said. “They proudly speak of their community through subtle or bold colors, and infuse their work with Indigenous symbolism.”
“I saw that their interest in community affairs was genuine. They are Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. As artists they feed off each other,” Gallegos added.
Another major project the couple remembers fondly came one summer of 2015, when staff at Crestwood Elementary School in Las Vegas invited the couple to create their first two murals. One was of a giant sunflower surrounded by colorful insects, representing the flowering of childhood imagination. A second mural at the school celebrated ethnic identity, community, nature and love of education.
As the couple’s children have grown up — Sara is 28, Ione, 25, Diego, 20, and Emilio, 18 — Kalli Arte has evolved into a family enterprise.
Their first art exhibition was called Family First, for which they created 71 wooden panels, between 1 and 2 feet in height, in the shape of birds, carts, nopales, piñatas, the sun, the moon, eyes and figures of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The monthlong exhibition was held at Espacio 1839, an art store on 1st Street in Boyle Heights that promotes emerging artists’ work at no cost.
“The goal was not to sell, but many people wanted to buy the parts,” Adriana said. “By then, Emilio, my youngest son, was 11 and had made $300 in sales for the solo, and he was excited.”
Since then, the family has mounted an exhibition every year, as well as other pop-up projects.
Each family member contributes their specialty to the collective. Sara, a 2018 fine arts graduate of Mount Saint Mary’s University, is an expert at contrasting and combining colors. Ione, who hopes to study sustainable fashion design, like her mother has an eye for detail and spotting minor slip-ups. Diego excels at painting backgrounds. And Emilio, the youngest, helps out wherever needed. The brothers also compose hip-hop songs.
Working together has brought the family a lot of support from the artist community, allowing them to hold their shows at places such as Cal State Dominguez Hills, Fullerton Museum Center, the Cal State L.A. Library, the Sacramento Soul Collective and Galeria de la Raza in San Francisco.
Another venue, Self Help Graphics, the well-known Boyle Heights nonprofit that supports emerging low-income and minority artists, invited Kalli Arte Collective to take part in its artist residency program in February 2022. The program, called Beyond the Press, provides space, tools and the environment for artists to work on their projects for an entire year. Artists can contribute to the community by offering workshops in their specialty while connecting with other artists.
“I was blown away when I saw Kalli’s work,” said Marvella Muro, director of Self Help’s artistic programs and education. “They were linoleum prints, honoring young people killed by police in the Eastside and Boyle Heights. Their work transformed that two-dimensional art into a three-dimensional environment.”
Muro emphasized that many artists struggle for a time with paying rent and buying food, and need help obtaining the space and equipment to do their work.
“They are a role model for future generations,” Muro said of the couple. “They were young when they became parents, but they proved to be dedicated and used any means available to get ahead. The love of art and family was taught to navigate this difficult race.”
But their experience with Self Help Graphics was just a warm-up for the real work to come, which would bring the couple full circle with their bittersweet past.
In July 2022, Adriana and Alfonso received word that Kalli had been selected to paint one of three murals at Roosevelt High School. The murals are part of a Los Angeles Unified School District project approved in 2016, which includes, among other things, the construction of new classrooms, an auditorium, a gymnasium, a lunch shelter and other improvements at Roosevelt High, according to Lorena Padilla-Meléndez, director of community relations for the LAUSD Facilities Services Division.
Students, members of the community and school staff submitted more than 100 names of potential muralists, who were required to have experience with large-scale, community-relevant wall installations.
“Kalli Arte Collective is one of the artists preferred by the community. Not only are they talented, but they are inclusive and open to social issues that matter to the community,” Padilla-Melendez said.
Kalli Arte began work on the mural last October and finished in June.
Warren Brand, founder of Branded Arts, a business that curates and does gallery installations, and project manager for the murals, said that having Kalli Arte back at the school was a “perfect piece of serendipity.”
“Kalli is a testament to the fact that the Boyle Heights community is very special, with up-and-coming artists and people who don’t give up easily,” Brand said.
When Adriana and Alfonso learned that they had been selected to paint a 27-foot-high by 140-foot-long mural, at the entrance to the two-story gym, they both froze.
Kalli’s mural, titled “Reimagined,” rendered predominantly in brown, orange, blue and red, depicts student athletes, women reading, the business community, and love of family and culture.
“Returning to Roosevelt is humbling and a test of the path we set for ourselves, and how we got here on our own terms. It is special to know that I met my wife here, and that now we are leaving our mark as artists,” Alfonso said.
For Adriana, working on this project for Roosevelt High closed a circle that went from pain to joy.
“At that point in my pregnancy I felt bad about my decision, but now we go back to the community to say, ‘Look how the world turns, look what we do as a family,’” she said. “We are making history through brushes and colors.”