“Dying was my biggest blessing”

A woman paints on a large mural outside. The mural is colorful and has a picture of a woman with tree branches as hands.
Moakeah Rivera’s first mural showcased an Indigenous woman who was a tree. (Photo courtesy of Moakeah Rivera)

“Dying was my biggest blessing because it showed me how precious life is,” said Moakeah Rivera, a muralist and junior majoring in anthropology.

When Rivera experienced a brush with death, she relied on her childhood love for art to resuscitate her back to life. 

Rivera grew up with artists in her family and was exposed to a variety of art at a young age. 

“I grew up a lot with Indigenous art, meaning my parents did want me to be exposed to museums and they wanted me to take all that in,” Rivera said. “But my father in particular put more reassurance on different kinds of art. He’d take me to Mexico, and we’d visit different kinds of museums.”

Her family trips consisted of visiting Oaxaca, Mexico, a special place for Rivera. Oaxaca became the haven where her family resettled after the California bounty hunt for Native Americans. Here, Rivera discovered Frida Kahlo’s work, a prominent Mexican painter, whose work cultivated up to cultural icon status for her use of energetic colors in her self-portraits.

Rivera’s passion and interest in murals only augmented after her family members showed her the possibilities of life as an artist.

“One of my uncles is actually a professional artist, so he always talked to me about art as if it were not rather a job but an actual lifestyle,” Rivera said. 

Mural artwork was an almost accidental blessing for Rivera, who hadn’t done mural art until her senior year in high school. While muraling for Rivera is an expression of her artistic side, she always views murals as a platform for a greater message: activism. 

“My art is very realist. It’s a lot of realism. I tend to just paint what I see,” Rivera said. “Even through art, I was able to find a lot of activism.” 

Jetsy Fernandez, Rivera’s friend and a junior majoring in public relations, said Rivera’s openness and energetic personality shines through her work and beyond. 

“There is some energy about her that makes you happy, she is such a happy person … she is so open and welcoming,” Fernandez said. “Whatever she does, she does it with pure intentions and dedication … she wants to explore everything and bring awareness and just show everyone art in all different forms.” 

As an Indigenous woman, Rivera has reckoned with the dark realities of racial injustice and inequalities that have plagued her heritage for generations. She has experienced the sexual fetishism some associate with her ethnic background. 

“My first mural was about missing murdered Indigenous woman and the sexualization of the Indigenous women, because I was the only Native American woman in my high school,” Rivera said. “And yet I was always called exotic, and I was always sexualized.”

Rivera uses her mural art as a form of peaceful political expression to call attention to the mistreatment of women in her culture. To combat the misconceived notions about her heritage, Rivera used her first mural to send a clear message: Freedom. 

Lucy Jordan, a senior majoring in public relations, recalls how she felt empowered after seeing one of Rivera’s art pieces in high school. 

“She cares so much about other people and she shows that through her artwork. She uses her artwork to empower other women as well,” Jordan said. “It makes me feel really good about myself, and I can always tell there is so much dedication put into it as well.” 

Each aspect of Rivera’s art is thoroughly analyzed to portray a personal story. Each brush stroke carries detailed intention to paint the full story. The use of eye-catching colors and specific brush techniques all come together to symbolize the process of her activism through art. 

“To describe my first mural: It was a Native woman who was a tree. She was growing from the ground. Her arms were out and she crossed her chest and said, ‘Believe me.’ There were hummingbirds on the sides, representing freedom,” Rivera said. “As an Indigenous woman, it has been one of the only ways I’ve been able to express myself without seeing retaliation.” 

During the stillness of the night, Rivera stands, unchallenged and determined, the movement of her brilliant strokes of vibrant colors covering over the red-brick walls. Her bright paint is often the only source of color filling the dark alleyways. While she enjoys painting out her visions, getting commissioned for each of her mural pieces comes with its highs and lows.

“It’s stressful, I never know what kind of wall I’m gonna encounter next,” Rivera said. “It’s always a good challenge because I’m always still learning, but muraling, it’s like a perfect median because I always found it hard to do small canvas work because I felt there wasn’t enough I could show, but with muraling, you can tell an entire story.” 

A mural typically takes three full nights to complete, but during those three days are when she feels the most alive.

“I see myself using art as a coping mechanism now and as a form of survival,” Rivera said. “ My commission work is basically the only work I have that I can like to have for myself because I do so much for my family. It’s not just an option for me. It’s a part of survival.”

A part of survival is no understatement, when last December, Rivera found herself in the hospital flatlining. 

“I have heart disease, and my condition is so rare that there’s really no funding, no research in it,” Rivera said. “My mom had estimated I had about like five to 10 minutes left to the point they couldn’t resuscitate me. By the time we had gotten to the hospital, I had no heartbeat at all. I was completely unconscious. I had died. I had literally flatlined.”

Through her near brush with death, her love and appreciation of art only deepened. Oftentimes, holding the paintbrush in hand was the only escape, providing a sense of healing. 

“When I came back to life, that’s when I realized that my greatest blessing is not remembering,” Rivera said. “I had to learn about who I was prior, and my art really showed me who I was.”

Now, Rivera is working on a new mural that is set to be displayed on the third floor of USC’s Student Union building, in hopes to send a message of empowerment to other Indigenous students at USC.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article included sensitive information that has since been removed.