Monday, January 7, 2013

Sergio Hernandez’ Art: Mixing Mexican-American Metaphors


 

Some journalists get goofy with movie stars, others with rock stars, but me, I get weak at the knees with writers and artists. To me there is no difference between a blank page or a canvas. It is all art to me and it has always inspired me.

I’ve always said that if you want to really know Mexican-Americans, then all you have to do is study their art and music. No fluff, no sugar coating, just a raw dose of truth about life, politics and spirituality are mainly what you’ll find.

For forty years, artist/cartoonist Sergio Hernandez has kept his pulse on the Latino community and painted life as he has witnessed it. He is part political activist and part community organizer. But mostly, he is a respected artist whose work represents the best and worst of our life experiences. I’ve have also always affirmed that if you want to know the secret to marketing to Latinos, then one should study their art.

In the 1960s, Hernandez began his artistic odyssey when he met the artists and writers producing the Los Angeles-based Chicano literary magazine Con Safos - an experience that transformed his life.

Adding depth to Hernandez’ human insight is the fact that he began his adult life working with the Los Angeles County Probation Department where he counseled youth. His artistic ability inspired and helped to develop art talent in at-risk youths.

Interviewing Hernandez was engrossingly revealing and hopefully will inspire others to give their talents a chance… you never know where it will take you.

What, Sergio Hernandez, is your greatest accomplishment as an artist?

Sergio Hernandez: Probably the most enduring image and the one that I’m most proud of is the Arnie “n” Porfi cartoon strip I created in 1969 for Con Safos. There had been an incident (don’t recall the state) where a young Chicano kid was being accused of rape. When the judge (Chargin was his name, I believe) was sentencing the boy, he [the judge] launched into a racist diatribe and indictment of Chicano people.

I’m paraphrasing here, but the judge said to the boy something like this: ‘your people are lower than animals and Hitler was probably right,’ inferring that mass killing of minorities was justified. Con Safos felt the need to address this issue and thus the cartoon strip was created.

I was 19 years old when I joined the staff of Con Safos in 1968. Creating such an important and iconic cartoon strip a year later definitely stands high above all the other milestones I’ve reached in my life as an artist.

Your Arnie “n” Porfi cartoon strip is legendary and anyone involved with the Chicano student and civil rights movement during the late 60’s will remember it well. What was the inspiration for the birth of these two characters?

SH: I knew I wanted to be part of this movement but I was really unsophisticated. My dilemma was to create a strip from my limited knowledge of the movement. I decided to use my weakness as a starting point and created two juvenile kids: Arnie a ‘Tapado’ [naive one] who knew nothing of the issues and believed everything. The other, his cousin Porfi, a street-smart kid who was adventurous and willing to take chances.


Arnie “n” Porfi  has lay dormant for over 30 years. Recently, Jesus Trevino urged me to resurrect the strip and is now including it as a regular feature on his Latinopia.com site.

How did working with Con Safos affect your future career as an artist and cartoonist?

SH:  Con Safos was without a doubt my start in the art world. Here I gained experience working with writers and learned what it takes to actually put together a magazine. My association with this magazine led me to meet Magu (Gilbert Luhan) who was also one of the original artists and a pivotal personality in the art world. He introduced me to other artists and had me looking at art as a cultural expression. It was a great experience for a young artist like myself.

When did you meet Chicano singer Agustin Lira?

SH:  I met him through Phil Sonnicsen, a UCLA Ethnomusicologist. He produced and bankrolled Lira’s album. I was doing some greeting card art for a friend, Bob Martinez, who owned Germaine Litho in East Los Angeles. He connected me with Sonnicsen who was looking for album cover art for a group called ‘Los Peludos.’

Sonnicsen wanted caricature figures of the group. It just so happened that the group’s leader and songwriter was a law student named Enrique Ramirez who was a good friend of mine from CSUN. I completed the cover art several weeks later and both Sonnicsen and the group were very happy with the results and that led me to more projects.

Sonnicsen had recorded Agustin Lira sometime before when he asked me if I could do something from a photograph (of Lira) taken by Oscar Castillo. Lira was not happy with the photo and, if I recall correctly, wanted another photo taken. I took the photo and reworked it and came up with the design. Lira eventually approved the reworked photo, which became the now iconic album cover.

You also worked on a Lalo Guerrero album cover. How did that come about?

SH: Again, Sonnicsen was producing Lalo’s album where the singer changed the words to Kenny Rogers “Lucille” to “Lucila” and had built his new album around this song. Lalo had great success spoofing songs, as you well know. I was commissioned to re-work the album cover but since Rogers refused to give permission for Lalo to use his “Lucille” song, the entire project was scraped. The last project I worked with Sonnicsen was an album cover featuring Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan. The history of this Mariachi is long starting from its humble beginnings in Jalisco with several generations of musicians. I created a collage of musicians starting from the patriarch to all the succeeding members. I finished my painting and gave it to Sonnicsen. Later, I was informed that Sonnicsen had gone to Bali owing me and others money… the project never got finished and I never got fully paid.





Which album cover is your pride and joy?


SH:  I believe the “Los Peludos” cover was my favorite. It was all caricatures of people I knew who really liked the artwork. I was involved in the artistic process and sat in on the recording session. I still remain friends with Peludos leader Enrique Ramirez. I have no idea whatever became of the original artwork.

You have a history with the United Farm Workers, tell us about meeting Cesar Chavez for the first time.

SH: I had been to Norte Dame in South Bend, Indiana. On the way back, I happened to be on the same flight with Cesar Chavez. I had my stash of Con Safos magazines with me and after speaking with Cesar for awhile, I asked him to sign several of my Cesar Chavez magazine covers that I had created. He did and I offered to help the strike by doing artwork for the UFW. He thanked me and took my name and number. After our serendipitous meeting, Cesar sent me a personal letter (which I still have) thanking me for my offer and efforts. Throughout the years, I have created several illustrations for the UFW.

Tell us about your other Chicano movement work.

SH: There is so much work… I recently came across some La Causa calendars from the early 70’s that contain some of my illustrations. I didn’t recall creating them until I saw them. I also worked at Plaza de La Raz during this era and I also created a cover for the United Nations and illustrations for the book Barrio Logos, (Simon and Shuster and Harcourt Publishers). I also created story illustrations for Francisca Flores’ magazine, Regeneracion.

In 1970, I was invited by Dr. Saul Solache (CSUN professor) to participate in the first mural project at a major university, UCLA.  Prof. Solache had been a student at UCLA and was involved in politics there. He had secured the funding for the mural project but Chicano activists at UCLA wanted to dictate the content and artists participating in the project.





OMG! I know exactly what mural you are talking about. I was at UCLA in 1975 and 1976 and I spent a lot of time in Campbell Hall. There is so much interconnection here!

SH:  Yes! Well, Solache rebelled and threatened to pull the funding. So the UCLA Chicano Studies Department made concessions and agreed to let Solache control the project if they could pick one of the artists. They chose artist-activist Ramses Noriega. Solache chose journeyman artist Edward Carrillo to head up the project. He also wanted to include me because I represented the youth of the Chicano Student movement, but unfortunately I had only limited experience painting a small mural. Ed Carrillo had been my art teacher at East L.A. College and took me under his wing. He showed me techniques using light and colors that really brought my area of mural to life. Noriega resented my participation because of my youth and relative inexperience and barely spoke to me. We did later became friends. The mural which was in Campbell Hall’s Chicano Library was finished in the summer of 1970. It stayed up for about 15 years. I received a letter stating that the mural was being taken down for repairs to the building. To this day, the mural panels remain in storage. From time to time I hear rumors that the mural will be erected again or given to the Gene Autry Museum… but those are just rumors. Hopefully the mural will see the light of day somewhere, someday.


You took a break from your artistry and took a job. Tell us about this time in your life.

SH: during the late 60’s and early 70’s, I created a lot of illustrations for free because that way it was for me. I always came through when people asked me for artwork in the name of “La Causa” or “La Raza” and I would do it. But unfortunately, I wasn’t able to sustain myself especially since I was giving a lot of my work away. I took a job with the L.A. County of Probation Department in 1975 and worked there until 1985 when I transferred to the L.A. County Public Defender’s office and became a criminal defense investigator. This job afforded me more time and flexibility so I began to create art again. I participated in the Serie Artist-in-Residence project in San Antonio. I created a serigraph for this group. In San Antonio, I also did poster art for the “Conjunto Festival.” I began to get involved again and started my own line of humorous greeting and note cards.



One morning as I was walking toward the Courthouse and my office. I saw these very indigenous men sweeping, raking and leaf blowing. I thought to myself once the ancestors of these men were building great temples.Now they continue to work hard just to survive.

Then you stopped again. What happened?
The Last Slap
I worked for 35 years first as a Prob. Officer and next as a Criminal  Defense Investigator and I saw a lot of sad cases. The worst  were sexual abuse, child abuse and spousal abuse. What struck me hard was the fact that many abusers had tattoos professing their love for  mother and the virgin Mary, what hypocrisy. In my painting the wife and mother goes to fetch her drunk husband who is about to slap her for the last time...


SH:  In 1996, I suffered a stroke and was sidelined for one year. After I started to recover, my wife encouraged me to paint again. It was a form of therapy to get me out of my depression and start to feel productive again. I did eventually return to work and retired from the County in 2011. But the stroke kick started my art career again and I began to draw political cartoons. I submitted my cartoons to the Antelope Valley Press (North East Los Angeles) who both  printed and paid me for them. In 2009, a cartoon I submitted was printed by the AV Press and won second place in a National Suburban Newspaper contest competition.

Growing up, did you have support from your parents? Did they nurture your artistic talent?

SH: My father could draw well and had won a May Company art contest as a young man. But the depression and poverty did not allow him to go to art school. He needed to work. When I came along and exhibited art talent at an early age, my parents bought me a blackboard and chalk. My mother encouraged me to draw and would tell me how I would one day I would go to art school. My father worked as a maintenance supervisor at a bakery so he would bring me lots of pieces of white cardboard to draw on. They were very supportive.

In high school I won a scholarship to Otis Art Institute for the summer. I went to school with several prominent Chicano artists of today.


United Nation conference magazine on racism and xenophobia.


Any gallery shows coming up showcasing your work?

SH: Currently, there is one small group show in Lancaster. And later in the year, I have a “Mexican American Baseball” show at Plaza de la Raza that I have prepared a piece for and possible exhibit with several other artists.

Do you know Lalo Alcaraz, and what do you think of his political illustrations?

SH:  Yes, I know Lalo quite well. I met him many years ago when he was trying to get a syndication for his cartoon strip. I admire his tenacity… sticking to his goal of getting a syndication which is very difficult. Creating a cartoon strip with a political point of view is a difficult task. You take a lot of heat and criticism when you step on someone’s political views. But he has been able to hang tough and survive. I like his work.

What do you hope your artwork has contributed to the Chicano movement, UFW, or Latino community at large?

SH:  I hope that in some small way I was able to add my voice to a very important time and struggle. The struggle is far from over and I want continue to contribute by voicing my opinions through my art.

Sergio, what (if anything) did you learn as a Latino living through the crazy 2012 political year?

SH:  Well, that the struggle for racial equality in all fields is still sadly sagging. Racism and hate is very much alive in America. However we are making strides and if we vote and become involved in the political process we can effect change. We can also vote with our pocketbook - money is a powerful force.

I have also sadly learned that we as Latinos make the same kind of mistakes and succumb to the same corruption that we accuse the Gringo of.

All Rights Reserved © January 6, 2013
Edited by: Casandra Moreno Lombera


A note to Gen Y'ers: Sergio Hernandez is a Tesorosaurus (/tesoro saurus/, meaning a vanishing, treasured breed of artist/activists). One whose contributions fostered much needed awareness, validation, and respect for your aspirations and work as artists today -- particularly in media, academic, business, cultural, and political arenas. Sergio's extraordinary talent and humility were consistently coupled with integrity and concern for the transformation of his environment. I'm pointing to his footprint hoping to encourage all young artists to consider the regenerative nature of his path as one to inspire the essence of theirs.




5 comments:

  1. Terrific article and very insightful about how Mr. Hernandez kept his art-making alive while working an intense and demanding job.
    His topics don't veer away from difficult subjects, much appreciated. Additionally, to use his artwork to come back from a stroke, both in physical terms and in spiritual terms, is really a testimonial to the power of art. Thank you for the artist profile

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  2. You're very welcome! Sergio Hernandez is a wonderful artist with a heart of gold. His topics always represent the truth and sometimes that is hard to take. Very pleased you liked the article. We're venturing in more into artist and ow their creations affect our lives.

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  3. Elia ~ thanks you for expanding my horizons, introducing me to this artist. I find inspiration in this: "In 1996, I suffered a stroke and was sidelined for one year. After I started to recover, my wife encouraged me to paint again. It was a form of therapy to get me out of my depression and start to feel productive again." That's what we do, eh? Get up again and again. Keep on keeping on. That trait of "hard working Mexican" plays out in many ways. It's a survival skill. Sergio is a good example of that and I thank you for sharing his story and inspiration.

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    1. I'm so pleased you read this, El Poquito! Gosh, I miss you! I will tell Sergio about your comment and I'm sure he'll respond to you separately. He is a special man who has worked it through the trenches and survived. Hope you are well and thanks for your post here.

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    2. El Poquito.....Thank you so much for your comments. It's been a good ride and I feel blessed to have been able to dodge the bullet so to speak. Contact me by email: chiliverde@earthlink.net

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