Environment & Social Activism through Art

Carolann Espino - My Life in Art 

Artist Biography


 San Jose, California in mid 19th-Century

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 Artist, CAROLANN ESPINO shares memories that are significant to San Jose history and her upbringing. Her family has lived in her hometown of San Jose for over a century and have historical significance in the area. She spent a great deal of time with her grandparents.They taught her Spanish and showed her a rich Mexican culture. They arrived as poor iundocumented immigrants to seek a better life. They worked as migrant farm workers, manual laborers and eventually employees of Del Monte Cannery.

A cherished  childhood memory was accompanying her father to the local landfill  in Alviso at the southern tip of the Bay. It was home to Mexican undocumented and legal immigrants. This place sat below sea level and flooded every year. It had unpaved streets, no post office and few services. As a child ,Carolann accompanied her father to the largest dump in the area. Discarded free toys was a treasure hunt for Carolann. Carlos, her father, rescued bikes, house items, and miscellaneous tools later to reuse. Visitors could freely roam through garbage for hours. Carolann learned to value what others discarded from her father. Recycling is one segment of her art; imprinted in her consciousness from her treasure hunts.

San Jose is the technology center of the worldi. This of course had a tremendous affect on the future trajectory of the city. Residents living near the landfill were becoming ill. The electronic and silicon wafer industries freely dumped toxic chemicals in the landfill and sewer systems.  Protecting residents of Alviso was not a priority for city officials. People became ill with disease, and cancer from the exposure to toxic waste. Carolann could no longer run all over one of her favorite childhood places. Today areas of Alviso are underwater, with a long abandoned railway station. The rails are no longer used leading hikers to an abandoned ghost town. Chemicals continued to be dumped for years  and this went to our ocean due to flooding.The landfill caused toxic waste to seep into the water sheds.  Carolann painfully describes witnessing her employer at the time, dumping the worst toxic chemicals into the sewer systems. The affected people had to fight for legal representation,  health compensation and many died before much changed. 

Fortunately, Carolann grew up surrounded by farmland, fruit orchards and open spaces. Her parents moved to Saratoga, California in early 1960. She was raised with farm animals and pets which were crucial in her early life. Money and having six children was the major source of conflict between her parents. Her early memories when describing her childhood are, "We grew up in a war zone of confusing emotions of love fear and despair. Her father was trained in the army as an electrician. Rosemary, her mother was a homemaker raising their six children. She was a victim of domestic violence and it spilled over to the children. Her mother and her children suffered and so did her father. 

When beginning school she experienced racism from other children. She was called names she never heard before. School books ommitted her cultures contribution to our country. The dolls she played with did not represent her and the cartoons she watched were racist. She uses collectable vintage doll heads in her work sometimes;. Many of them are in damaged condition but she repairs them as part of her process. 


Saturday morning cartoons consisted of characters such as Speedy Gonzales a rat, Black Sambo, and Asians with slanted eyes, a long braid and buck teeth. Native Americans always portrayed as savages in cowboy movies.  Mexican people were depicted as lazy, and uneducated. Watching Walt Disney on Sunday night gave her the clear message that she could never be a fairy princess.Cartoons back  then were violent as well.

 She has many role models that affected her deeply. Her uncle was a Catholic Priest, the first Chicano, head of a church in San Jose. He served at our Lady de Guadalupe. for decades. After leaving the priesthood, he married Carolann's aunt, becoming part of her large extended family. Her aunt and uncle were activist and were a great influence. Father Soto was close friends with Cesar Chavez and Robert Kennedy.They met at his church and remained friends until their deaths.

In 1965, Carolann was eleven years old. She was visiting her aunt and uncle in Compton, California. It was one of the poorest communities in Los Angeles with a large African American population.In August, 1965 her visit became a terrifyng experience. Riots broke out all over the country, Carolann hid traumatized as they watched and heard gunfire and witnessed the neighborhood burning. A tall locked cyclone fence protected them from the rioters.

Carolann had her first babysitting job at the age of fifteen. A young boy and a neighbor boy against their  mother's orders went into the family garage. They were playing with matches and started a fire. Carolann saved one child, a little girl whose life would change forever. The two boys could not be saved and burned to death. Mexican parents did not take their children to psychiatrist and it was never discussed after that day. Unforunately, her life changed forever as well after these events which framed her early life. In desperation, as an adult she sought help. She was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.)  She shares this not for shock value nor for sympathy. When she speaks about traumatic experiences, she is emotionally dettached after years of therapy. She wishes to explain why the environment and social issues are important to her. Her motivation is from her own experiences which shaped her life,. She is very  receptive if someone reaches out but not unless approached.

Art is one of the powerful healing forces in her life.  She has tremendous capacity for empathy, forgiveness, and self examination. She brings this awareness to visual art and social change.  She is a single mother with  one adult son ,Adam. She closed her business after 14 years to raise her son and moved to the Central Valley.

She took up art to share an activity with her boy. Two years later she applied for consideration to Arbor Gallery in Merced. The Board rejected her work but after two attempts she becamae a member. A  painting she created was featured in the Merced Sun Star. The  first week, at the gallery, Merced College brought a class to view her work. She vividly recalls that day as one of many peak moments in her life. She returned to San Jose after six years and enrolled iin  college. She eventually graduated from San Jose State wtih a BFA 2017.


 Carolann understands the power of her actions, art and voice. She is focused pjassionately on the environment and social issues such as domestic violence, child abuse, chemical dependency, mental illness and homelessness .

Alviso of the past South SF Bay

Ghost Town

Carolann & son Adam

Family in Compton California - Rt to lt - Baby sister Rosemary, Carolann, Cousin Rachael and Counsin FreddyCousins at Riots

Cesar Chavez Founder of  the Farmworkers Movement - Former Resident of San Jose, CA.

Luz  Armas, my beloved grandmother

Immigrated from Mexico and Tio Goyo 



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