Born in Mexico City to a mother who was a portrait painter and a Mexican jeweler father, she moved with her family to Santa Barbara, California when she was age 5. The family traveled frequently to Mexico where she became fascinated by ceremonies involving masks, such as the Day of the Dead. It was the bringing together of drama and color, and that combination underlies her paintings. In 1968, her family moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico so her sister could attend the School for the Deaf. Susan got interested in photography from a high school class, studied at the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, and then became a photo-illustrator in Dallas, Texas. However, she found the medium constraining and turned to painting, a looser, freer medium. She studied figure painting at the Skowhegan School in Maine, and then returned to Santa Fe where she married painter Elias Rivera.