Judith Francisca Baca, a second-generation Chicana, was born in south central Los Angeles on September 20, 1946. As a young child, Baca was raised in a female-dominated household that included her mother, Ortensia Baca, her grandmother, and two aunts. Baca’s grandmother raised her, while her mother worked in a tire factory to support the family. Baca’s father, Valentino Marcel, was not a part of her life. Baca never knew her musician father, but has stated in interviews that her childhood was quite happily spent in the women-only household. One of Baca’s aunts had developmental problems, and her mental age of five meant that Baca had a built-in playmate at home.
When Baca was six years old, her mother married Clarence Ferrari, and the family moved from their Huntington Park neighborhood to Pacoima, California. The change was a dramatic one for Baca, whose grandmother and aunts remained behind in their south central Los Angeles home. Although the new town was only about twenty miles north of Los Angeles, it was a new and completely different world for Baca. In Pacoima, Baca entered a school where the primary language was English. Baca’s earlier childhood had been in a Spanish-speaking household, and now she struggled in school. Ironically, it was the struggle with language that led to Baca’s interest in art. Because of the language problems, Baca’s teacher permitted the young girl to sit at a corner desk and paint, while the other students continued with their studies.
In spite of her initial language problems, Baca quickly mastered English, and in 1964 she graduated from Bishop Alemany High School, a Catholic school in Mission Hills, California. Baca married at age 19, but within six years the marriage ended, and she returned to Bishop Alemany to teach, after having received a bachelor’s degree from California State University at Northridge in 1969. This first teaching job served as a predictor for how Baca would connect art and community. Soon after she began teaching, Baca enticed a number of ethnically diverse students to paint a mural at the school, thus anticipating the ways in which she would eventually interconnect art and social action.
As an arts activist, Baca founded the first City of Los Angeles mural program in 1974, which produced over 250 murals and hired over 2,000 participants in its ten years of operation. In 1976, she founded the Social and Public Arts Resource Center (SPARC) in Venice, California, where she still serves as Artistic Director. In 1988, at the request of then Mayor Tom Bradley, she developed another Los Angeles Mural program based on the model of the Great Wall. Entitled Great Walls Unlimited: Neighborhood Pride, it operated under contract with the City’s Cultural Affairs Department and has produced 73 murals in almost every ethnic community in Los Angeles.
She is a founding faculty member of the new California state University, Monterey Bay, and serves as a senior faculty member at UCLA’s Cesar Chavez Institute. She lives and works in Venice, California.