An excerpt of Sergio Hernandez’ interview with Latinowood
By Elia Esparza
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.
Latinowood: 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.
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.
￼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.
I was at UCLA in 1975 and 1976 and I spent a lot of time in Campbell Hall. I remember the mural well.
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.
To read the rest of this amazing artist interview, click onto http://latinowood.blogspot.com
Learn about why he left his art in the 80’s, how and why he returned to it, what he thinks about fellow artist/cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, surviving life, his childhood and much more.
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.