BY Chandrea Miller
Dayanara Saucedo’s journey to the USC 2022 Commencement Ceremony began with a simple question: How was school?
The person asking was Saucedo’s grandfather Eduardo Rodriguez.
“He would ask that question often–daily–it was my earliest memory of him,” Saucedo said. “He was really invested in my education, he wanted me to do more than he was able to do.”
Higher education was important to the family patriarch. He dreamt of his granddaughter becoming the first in their family to attend college.
However, it was a dream that was likely out of reach.
Saucedo’s parents, Mayra and Marcos, immigrated from Mexico, settled in Los Angeles and found what work they could selling baked goods and washing dishes. Eventually, the Saucedo’s earned enough money to rent a two-bedroom apartment in South Los Angeles where they raised their two daughters, Dayanara and Yelena.
Their apartment was a block from USC—a destination that was close but world’s away for the Saucedo family and their eldest daughter Dayanara who had aspirations of going to college and becoming an artist.
“At my school there wasn’t a lot of opportunities to do anything related to arts or fine arts,” Saucedo said. “The school just didn’t have the funding for it–the programs were either cut or didn’t exist.
Then fate stepped in.
While attending the Foshay Learning Center, the then 11-year-old Dayanara was scouted by a member from USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative. NAI is a program that helps to bridge the gap between low-income, high achieving students and access to higher education.
“Many of our NAI scholars find motivation in the NAI program to climb over multiple barriers to be able to access higher education,” said Associate Senior Vice President of USC Educational Partnerships Kim Thomas-Barrios. “The NAI exists to support scholars in the community on the pathway to college, starting in the fifth grade and culminating in their first undergraduate degree.”
The seven-year preparatory college enrichment program is designed to prepare students from South and East Los Angeles for admission to any college or university including, the University of Southern California.
Saucedo invested more than 100 hours a year for seven years during Saturday Academies – studying extra writing, math, and science – as well as learning about each step of the process to successfully apply and attend college.
“We don’t call it sacrifice, but we try to insert the fact that what the students and families are doing is investing,” Thomas-Barrios said. “We are very fond of motivational quotes at the NAI and start our Saturday Academies with them. So, in this case, I’d like to quote President Abraham Lincoln who said, ‘If I only had an hour to chop down a tree, I would spend the first 45 minutes sharpening my axe’–these children and families are sharpening the tools they will need to get to and through college.”
Saucedo’s grandfather was a constant support, offering daily encouragement throughout the arduous process.
“He was there to make sure that I never gave up,” Saucedo said.
In 2017, the hard work paid off when Saucedo finished the NAI program and was accepted into USC. While studying at the Roski School of Art and Design, the young artist received awards and accolades for their photography.
However, it was Saucedo’s 2021 Spring Photo book exhibit titled Absence and Loss that garnered considerable attention. The artwork featured photos of the artist’s beloved grandfather, Eduardo Rodriguez, who inspired the budding young photographer to attend college.
“I was doing these photographs for this photography book on the subject of my grandfather,” Saucedo said. “It was about the healing process and what it’s like to be healing in a collective form.”
In 2020, during the height of the pandemic and just days before Christmas, Saucedo’s beloved grandfather passed away from COVID-19. After the devastating loss, the artist spent the next two years creating artwork dedicated to their grandfather’s memory.
“The first things that I had to do in order to get this project started was to look for these images, so my mom pulled out a box in our basement full of old photographs,” Saucedo said. “I decided to look through every single photograph and pick out the ones that I really wanted to work with and the ones that I really wanted to keep seeing every single day and that’s how I got those images for the project. It was really comforting to see them.”
USC Roski Professor David Kelley taught Saucedo’s advanced photo book course.
“Dayanara used documentary photo skills with the large-format camera and 35mm to make touching documentary images of their family’s rituals and grieving process that included performance elements of staged photos and posed for self-portraits, which sometimes included written text,” Kelley said. “This experimental approach is a central strength of Dayanara’s work that sets them apart from other documentary artists.”
For Saucedo’s thesis project, the artist created a photo and video installation about the Los Angeles Metro Rail. The presentation contained a mix of photographs and 8mm film with narration about the Saucedo family and their history living near that public transit line.
Despite many artistic accomplishments, Saucedo admits they still felt intense feelings of anxiety and grief.
“With the pandemic and the recent death of my grandfather, I felt really overwhelmed,” Saucedo said. “So, every Sunday my family would go to the cemetery to just be there in the presence of my grandfather’s grave where I felt like I could hear his voice saying, “How was school?’”
It was all the motivation that Saucedo needed to keep going.
Last month, Dayanara Saucedo walked at the USC 2022 Commencement, graduating with a BFA from the USC Roski School of Art and Design.
“Dayanara represents the best of what the Roski community produces – perseverance, talent, and intelligence,” said USC School of Roski Art and Design Dean Haven Lin-Kirk.
Saucedo’s goal is to become a professional photographer and pursue outreach opportunities to aid Los Angeles public schools that lack art programs.