Judith Francisca Baca was born in Los Angeles to Mexican American parents. Her mother, Ortencia, worked in a tire factory. She was raised in Watts, Los Angeles (a predominately African-American and Mexican-American neighborhood), in an all-female household. Her grandmother was an herbal healer and practiced curanderismo, which profoundly influenced her sense of indigenous Chicano culture.
Judith's mother later married Clarence Ferrari in 1952, and Judith has a half-brother Gary and half-sister Diane. Afterward the three of them moved to Pacoima, Los Angeles. This neighborhood was drastically different from Watts - Mexican-Americans were minorities in Pacoima.
Judith was not allowed to speak Spanish in elementary school, as it was prohibited, and did not know English very well. Her teacher would tell her to go paint in the corner while the others studied. It took some time, but Judith started getting better in classes once she was able to understand the textbooks. With the encouragement of her art teacher, she began drawing and painting. She later graduated from Bishop Alemany High School in 1964.
She then attended California State University, Northridge (CSUN) and earned her bachelor's degree in 1969 and master's degree in art in 1979. She wanted to make art that was accessible beyond the constraints of the gallery and the museum. She wanted to make art for the people she loved, but she knew that they didn't go to galleries. After completing graduate school, Judith continued her education, studying muralism at Taller Siqueiros in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
When she graduated from CSUN she got a job teaching at her former high school. Her students were not very friendly with each other, and she thought she had an idea about how to teach them to cooperate with each other. She had a group of her students make a mural on one side of the school's wall. Everybody wanted to work on it, and it encouraged them to work things out without fighting. Judith was present at the 1970 Chicano Moratorium, an anti-war action of the Chicano Movement. The principal of the school believed teachers should not take part in the protest marches, and she was fired with several other teachers. After being fired, she thought she could never get another job because of her involvement in the protests.
She would find her next job at the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department. Her new job was teaching art for a summer program in the city's public parks. At that time Boyle Heights, Los Angeles had the most Mexican-Americans and the highest number of gangs in the country. Members of different gangs loitered in the parks she worked at, and she noticed the graffiti and knew they were territorial markings.
In the summer of 1970, Judith decided to create a mural in Boyle Heights in order to bring community together. In the first team she had twenty members from four different gangs, and the group decided on the name Las Vistas Nuevas ("New Views"). The mural they would create would show images that would be familiar to the Mexican-Americans who were living in the neighborhood.
Their first project was on three walls of an outdoor stage in Hollenbeck Park. Mi Abuelita ("My Grandmother") was a mural that depicted a Mexican-American grandmother with her arms outstretched as if to give a hug. Local police did not like the idea of rival gang members working together, fearing it would spark gang violence. Judith also began to work on the mural without permission from the city or the manager of Hollenbeck Park, which engendered questions from her supervisor and other city officials.
Despite all these troubles, Judith wanted to finish the project. She had lookouts who would signal the mural team if rival gang members were headed toward the work site, or if the police were coming. One day a city official came to the park because he had been getting complaints about the project. After seeing the progress done and team members working so well with each other, he gave Judith permission from the city to complete the mural.
After its completion, the community loved Mi Abuelita. Judith said, "Everybody related to it. People brought candles to that site. For 12 years people put flowers at the base of the grandmother image." Las Vistas Nuevas would complete a total of three murals that summer.
After the murals she was offered a job in 1970 as the director of a new citywide mural program. She was in charge of creating this program from the ground up, which included choosing where murals would go, designing the murals, and supervising the mural painting teams, which would consist of teenagers who were in trouble with the police. Members of the original Las Vistas Nuevas group were hired to help run Judith's multi-site program. This group would go on to paint more than 500 murals.
In this new job she encountered her first problems with censorship. People in neighborhoods where murals were being created wanted to show all parts of life in their neighborhood, both the good and bad. The city, however, did not want any controversial subjects depicted in these murals. In one case, when the city objected to a mural that showed people struggling with police, they threatened to stop funding the program if Judith did not remove it. Rather than give in, she formed the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) in 1976 to continue funding the creation of murals in public.
Judith's efforts to include community in her artistic processes make her unique to her time. Bringing youth together to create art left a lasting impression in Los Angeles, shifting Chicano/a culture. The involvement of poor youth of color in Judith's artistic processes changed the way white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal culture perceived their place in society. Perhaps even more importantly, Judith's Citywide Mural Program strengthened community and gave people a sense of purpose.
Their first project was the Great Wall of Los Angeles. She was hired by the United States Army Corps of Engineers to help improve the area around a San Fernando Valley flood control channel called the Tujunga Wash. It's essentially a ditch that contained a large concrete retaining wall. Her idea for a mural was to paint a history of the city of Los Angeles, but not the version found in history books. The events that were overlooked were the ones that interested her.
At the beginning of the muraling project in 1976, Judith began work alongside 80 young people who had been referred to the program by the criminal justice department. For Judith, this marling project was about more than just painting a mural, but rather about investing in the community in ways that had not been done before.
Working with young people was important for Judith because she noticed that many of them who were involved in gangs were also using graffiti to express themselves and claim territory. Judith felt that muralism was one way to redirect these young people's energy and build community through positive experiences.
Even though Judith made a lot of progress in building community with gang involved young people, she struggled with how gendered muraling projects and spaces were. Most of the young people she worked with were young men because boys were the only ones parents would allow. But Judith also found that there was hostility towards the idea of women in these public spaces and to feminist ideals in general. Because of this, when it came to the Great Wall of LA project, Judith began to actively work to connect to other feminist artists and to actively recruit young women to participate in her muraling projects.
She had people from all different ages and backgrounds participate. Some were scholars and artists, but the majority were just community members. 400 people came out to help paint the mural, which took seven summers to complete, and was finished in 1984. By the end of the project, the mural measured half a mile in length (2,754 feet), and had provided over 400 people with employment and leadership development opportunities. It's interesting to note that although the original project called for a mural that represented a history of California from the days of the dinosaurs to the year 1910, Baca instead kept the project going, adding about 350 feet to the mural each year. Although the mural now measures 2,754 feet in length, the mural is not yet complete. The project is proposed to continue until the mural reaches about a mile in length so that it may portray not only contemporary times, but also a vision of the future.
Her first teaching job at her former high school, Alemany high school, was short lived as she was let go, due to being involved in public protests against the Vietnam war. Judith began a professorship at University of California, Irvine in 1980, and left in 1994. The next year, she implemented the Muralist Training Workshop to teach people the techniques she had picked up. She also served as a professor at California State University, Monterey Bay from 1994 to 1996, where she co-founded the Visual & Public Arts Institute Department. Judy Baca has been teaching art in the UC system for just over 28 years, 15 of those years have been at the UCLA Caesar E. Chavez department of chicana/o studies. In 2002 she was joint appointed to the World's arts and culture department, and in 2014 she was appointed a full professor of the department.
In 1996 she moved to University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and took on multiple roles. In 1993, she co-founded UCLA's Cesar Chavez Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, an institution for which she serves as vice chair. In 1998, she served as a master artist in residence with the Role of the Arts in Civic Dialogue at Harvard University.
In 1987 she began painting The World Wall: A Vision of the Future Without Fear, a painting that showed the world with no-violence. She believed the first step to world peace was imagining it, and she wanted artists from all over the world to help her paint it. She wanted it to be painted in panels so it could moved around to different places. After years of planning and contributions made by artists from other countries, the painting had its debut in Finland in 1990. The idea was that when the panels traveled around the world each host country would add their own panel to the collection. Some of the countries included Russia, Israel/Palestine, Mexico, and Canada.
In 1988 Mayor of Los Angeles Tom Bradley commissioned her to create the Neighborhood Pride Program, a citywide project to paint murals. The project employed over 1,800 at-risk youth and has been responsible for the creation of over 105 murals throughout the city.
In 1996 she created La Memoria de Nuestra Tierra ("Our Land Has Memory") for the Denver International Airport. This one was personal for Judith, as her grandparents fled Mexico during the Mexican Revolution and came to La Junta, Colorado, Colorado. It was completed in 2000.
Judy Baca has not slowed down in recent years, she continues to be actively involved in her community, whether that be through her artwork, teaching, community projects, or holding workshops. In March 2010, Baca was part of a mural project in the East Bay, Northern California, the Richmond Mural Project. She was also part of a group that successfully preserved her mural, Danza Indigenas, in Baldwin Park, after there were violent protests and vandalism towards the artwork. Judith has also had a huge part in the group Mural Rescue Program, which is a program that works to restore, preserve/stabilize, and conserve murals (both painted and digital) that have been painted or printed on substrates and walls built in public environments.