Growing up on the U.S./Mexico border community of El Centro, CA provided a unique experience for Ernesto Yerena. He would often travel to Mexicali to visit family and in that process, he was able to witness first-hand the many economic and political inconsistencies between both nations as well as discrimination. Being influenced by the cultural and social elements of the border, Ernesto chose art as an outlet and vehicle to question everything he was confronted with. In 2006, his artistic talent earned him an internship at OBEY Giant—an art campaign turned brand. That experience allowed him to expand his knowledge essentially helping him develop his own artistic style. His work titled “Hecho Con Ganas” focuses primarily on cultural topics and political issues within the Chicano community. Ernesto has collaborated with social activists Zach De La Rocha as well as his mentor, Shepard Fairey. Ernesto will be painting live at Neon Desert Music Fest on Memorial Day weekend. Fusion spoke with Ernesto about his work and his start with OBEY.
What is your first memory of art?
Two memories come to my mind. Like a lot of us, I grew up Catholic. My grandma’s house had images of La Virgen, San Judas de Tadeo, but specifically this portrait, this image, this photo. It was one of those still life paintings. She had a reproduction of it and it was just sitting there. It was something you would find at a thrift shop. It was a really dark, almost like a Rembrandt kind of dark; very dark painting. Its of a table and it has bread and it has a little wine and some grapes and its kind of representing the body of Christ, the blood of Christ. It was really dark and a super somber looking painting. That’s one of the first images I remember. I think the Virgen Maria is one of the first images I remember. I started drawing by the time I was two!
What does art mean to you?
I feel like art’s purpose is to transfer information and to create some sort of mental stimulus. One of the most valuable things to me is that I’m a critical thinker; I question things, I just don’t take what’s given to me. I try and take it apart and see what’s really in front of me, and I think that’s a survival skill for people of color. That’s a survival skill for all of us now in this day in age of capitalism, war, racism and all this kind of shit. For me, I like to make art that’s not just decorative; it doesn’t just look pretty, it says something.
Tell me a little bit about your work?
The name of my project is “Hecho Con Ganas” which means, If someone says,“Orale! Hasta luego, hechale ganas,” like kind of “move forward.” Its a norteño thing. I am about the working class. I am about the workers. I like when people work hard. My background, I’m Yaqui as well, so for our people working hard is sacred and work is sacred. Specifically, I felt like I was seeing a lot of art nowadays being made for the elite. A lot of art is expensive and it’s not accessible to working class people. Working class people wouldn’t even think of buying a print because it’s beyond. We’re just trying to survive. You’re thinking about paying the bills and getting by. I want to bring art and the stories back to the working class. I want to do messages and art that we can relate to. I don’t want to make just cultural art, I want to say something with it and that’s what I’m about. The purpose of my work is to bring some kind of consciousness, to bring some kind of cultural awareness.
How did you get involved with OBEY?
I was politicized very young. Even though I had a lot of good grades, I could have gone to a really nice university, but I just felt so disenfranchised. I grew up on the border. Going back and forth almost twice a week, I would see how my family wasn’t allowed to come over here (to the U.S.). It was because I was born here. I thought there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for people in my neighborhood unless we were going to the military or sign up for crazy loans. I didn’t feel like I had as many opportunities as Anglo kids. It wasn’t set up for me. I never saw myself in the history books. I decided I didn’t want to go to a university, so I graduated school without a plan.
My dad started getting on my ass, “Hey man you got to go do something. You got to get a job or do something.” Finally, I got called by a school trying to find people—it’s a corporate school, its an institute, its a tech school but for art, for artists. They hit me up and I was interested in their culinary program at first. When I checked out the school, I liked the designs and I instantly switched my interest. For one of the classes we had to do an image of one of our favorite artists in their style, so I did Shepard. A couple of months later I ended up moving to L.A. and I saw that Shepard was going to be speaking at some seminar. So, I went to it and took the image I had done on him, and I gifted him and asked him for an internship. That was in 2006; I started working for him and doing my own stuff, and we collaborated on a couple of pieces.
What are you creating at Neon Desert Music Fest?
When I lived out in Texas I started collecting a lot of vinyl, a lot of Tex-Mex vinyl music. I have maybe two hundred 45’s and about another two hundred LP’s. I have like, 40 Little Joe records, Flaco Jiménez, Narciso Martinez…I have all kinds of crazy Tejano records—Tejano music, Spanish music, polka music is part of the Texas tradition. So, I’m going to do a calavera, I made it last year. We’re actually doing the shirt too, the Neon Desert shirt. It’s a calavera but its all Tex-Mex’d out. I also want to add that I’m accessible and if anyone wants to work with me or get ahold of me they can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TEXT: ALEX DURAN | PHOTO CREDIT: RAFAEL CARDENAS