Chicano Artist Adan Hernandez has a dream, he wants to make life better for as many people as possible that need help, starting in his own barrio. He dreams of bringing prosperity to his community by opening a gallery, providing a welcoming space to hold art gatherings and for people to come view the accomplishments of Chicano artists; to be inspired by them, encouraging the Chicano Fine Arts Movement to both barrio youths and to the world.
Adan’s art has already moved many, it was a crucial component to the 1993 released film – Blood In Blood Out – that follows the intertwining lives of three Chicano relatives from 1972 to 1984. Adan created the works for actor Jesse Borrego’s artist character, Cruz Candelaria. The iconic film has become important to the Mexican-American world, it was the first feature film to showcase Chicano art. Two of Adan’s works are a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection. He also volunteers at schools talking to kids about growing up in the barrio and its culture, art and empowering them to create their own.
You can help Adan to achieve this very worthwhile dream by donating to his fund.me campaign. If you donate $50 or more you can get a signed print of an artwork from Blood In Blood Out (one of my all-time favourite movies might I add!). The gallery – El Otro Ojo – Arte Atomico – will also be a home for the film’s art including the iconic mural in the films climatic closing scene. DONATE HERE.
A couple of days ago I spoke to Adan about the gallery, his art, the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, Blood In Blood Out (he didn’t like it when he first saw it!), inspiration from Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, of the support from his friend and a collector of his art actor Cheech Marin [half of comedy duo Cheech & Chong], plus the racism they faced from art galleries across the U.S. to put on a travelling exhibition of Chicano artists and so much more.
ADAN HERNANDEZ: It’s really incredible how everybody is coming together for this gallery to make it happen. As you know, in my world, the world that I live in, you cannot go to a museum and see good Mexican-American art. The art that they have in museums here to represent our contribution are very, very inadequate. The collections clearly show that they have very poor insight into our culture and into the things that we hold dear and are things that make us different from the world around us, from the mainstream America we are surrounded by. That is why I think this gallery will be a stepping stone to a Chicano fine arts museum here in San Antonio. It will be the first museum put together by Chicanos like me, who know what we are and what is important to us in our culture and the art that we love. It’s going to be a historic event. It’s shaping up really well. We have people from L.A. like Cheech Marin, Taylor Hackford [director of Blood In Blood Out & La Bamba] and maybe even Helen Mirren who want to back us up. I have collector friends of mine that have all this Latino art that is all in storage because nobody cares to exhibit it.
BIANCA: To hear that all that beautiful, important art is in storage breaks my heart.
AH: Yes. Once I open this gallery I believe we will have people from around the world to come see this art because that is the kind of power that this art has—it stands for something. Unlike mainstream art that a lot of times, you don’t even know what it is about or what it stands for. When Cheech Marin organised Chicano Visions back in 2002, I was in the exhibition, I had four big pieces in the show, it opened here in SAMA (San Antonio Museum of Art) and there was outrage over the word “Chicano”; nobody wanted it. Even the Mexican-American rich people that lived here who were trustees at the museum were outraged because, they see themselves as descendants of Spanish royalty or something, which is stupid because they are not. They are descendants of farm workers, migrant workers like me, they’ve managed to make a lot of money and now they are looking down their nose at the word “Chicano”. Without the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, César Chávez was a part of, without that movement we would not have had the rights that we have now to pursue our dreams out of the fields. Like I said, I was a migrant worker growing up. The Chicano Civil Rights Movement gave us the privilege to get an education, to go to college and become doctors, attorneys, teachers, artists and writers—that is why I call myself a Chicano Artist.
The Chicano Visions show opened in San Antonio and travelled through the U.S. and showed in museums across the country, including the Smithsonian in Washington; guess what? It broke attendance records for all-time in all museums but not any museums, bar one, bought any of our artwork for their permanent collections. I do have two of my pieces in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York’s permanent collection, prior to this travelling exhibition, they bought from me in 1992. Cheech had to fight racism at almost every venue to have the show exhibited there, even though it had broken attendance records. They did not want to have the Chicano Visions show until Cheech threatened them with putting up billboards saying they were racist against Mexican-Americans.
B: I don’t even have words to covey how wrong it is for the museums and galleries to do that, to try to exclude your contribution to art history.
B: I recently saw The Chicano Collection documentary [you can view it at the end of this interview I embedded it for everyone to check out!] that Cheech presented that you are in and I found so many incredible Chicano artists and their work that I had never seen before. It’s making me all teary thinking about it.
AH: [Laughs] It’s brought out a lot of creativity in us, that’s the reward for the oppression that we’ve experienced. We have been able to create great literature and great art, in that respect it’s been good to us. The oppression that we have experienced, we have turned into beauty. Chicano art is revolutionary art in America. The name of my gallery is going to be called, El Otro Ojo, which means “The Other Eye” that means, the other consciousness of America.
B: I got that impression when I saw the art you had painted for the gallery’s sign and the name, in a recent post you made on Facebook. I noticed that the imagery you painted featured, The Eye of Providence, which is well-known as the art used on the American one dollar bill.
AH: You’re very insightful.
B: I understand that you went to San Antonio College on a scholarship when you were 18-years-old to study art but you feel that you didn’t learn anything because they had you drawing the model for months on end; where have you learnt about art from? You are self-taught, right?
AH: Yes. I didn’t become an artist until I was 30-years-old because I didn’t think I could make a living as an artist. There’s a reason why my education at San Antonio college… they didn’t really value anything about Mexican-American art, everything was Greco-Roman art, or you could paint Bluebonnets or Cactus, which I wasn’t going to pursue in painting. There was an artist there, Mel Casas, my peer, that was teaching there but nobody told you anything about him. He was right there but no one ever said, hey, there’s a Mexican-American artist right here teaching!
In 1980, I was living downtown on the River Walk at this place called, The Casino Building, I got an invitation to go to Jesse Treviño’s art show downtown at this place. It was close to where I was living and me and my girlfriend decided to go. When I saw the invitation, it blew my mind! Because, there was this Mexican-American artist doing scenes from the barrio. He was celebrated because he was a Vietnam Veteran who had lost his right arm in the Vietnam War and learned to paint with his left hand. We went to the art show and I was so blown away by these paintings that he did of the barrio of where I grew up; he was from the same barrio as me. It opened up my whole vision of what the possibilities of being an artist could be as you can imagine. My girlfriend, Debi Fischer Hernandez, said, you know what? You need to quit your job as a room service waiter and become an artist. So, I went to a library and taught myself about color composition and now I had a subject matter that I wanted to explore. I started doing art that was a little more modern than his. If you can find Jesse Treviño’s art check it out because the art I was doing then was like a prelude to his art. So, that’s what got me into art.
B: I’ve once read a comment from you in an interview where you said, “I started out with pencil drawings because I was afraid of color”; why were you afraid of color?
AH: I don’t know. I think maybe it’s normal. I studied different palettes by different masters like, Claude Monet, I love Impressionist art; they were similar to Chicano artists, in their time because they were revolutionaries. They were painting in a different style. If you look back at that era, everything that was painted was about people of royalty, everything was painted super polished and you couldn’t even see the brush strokes. Then here came the Impressionists and they’re painting potato pickers, like Van Gough. They were painting with broad strokes, thick paint and you can see the brush strokes—you can feel the energy of the painting when you stood in front of it. I identify with them and I studied their palette and that’s what I use in Chicano art. I also studied the art of Diego Rivera from Mexico but, it was his wife Frida Kahlo’s art that really blew me away.
B: She is one of my all-time favourites!
AH: Her work influenced me the most because her work was Surrealist. To an extent my work is surrealist too. My work started becoming more “magical realism” where I would create paintings out of my head instead of looking at a photograph all the time. We call it magical realism because it is very, very in tune with our descendants’ art in Mexico.
B: I have never heard of magical realism before.
AH: That’s what my art is. Cheech actually called it “Chicano Noir”. I love that title too because I think it suits my art.
B: I’ve heard of that term. When I hear it, it conjures up images for me of art in a kind of Pulp style. I feel that there are elements of that in your work.
AH: Oh wow, thank you.
B: Are there any particular colours that you use that have a special significance to you?
AH: Everybody is always asking me, why do you paint so dark? Why is your work so dark? Deep blues, purple, black, I love those colours. I also make sure to illuminate them, I have a light source somewhere in my work. It pertains to the hope that we have in our lives, that things can be better. The reason I paint so dark is because most of our people live in the shadows, they live in the shadows of the “American Dream” as I like to put it. A lot of them are here without documentation so they have to work in secret and move around in secret, they don’t have the documentation because they are from Mexico. If they are educated Chicano’s they tend to leave their barrio behind very quickly and try to become mainstream. I use dark colours because it attributes to our struggle, being kept out of the American Dream because most of us cannot get a good education. That’s what those colours represent to me… with a glimmer of hope, right?
B: Yes! That’s the feeling I’ve always got from your work.
AH: Another thing I have always wondered is, why does my art have so much drama? I realised years later that there is a lot of drama in the barrios; people getting shot, people trying to keep their families together, to keep them out of prison or out of the cemetery. All of that is why I think my work is so charged with drama.
B: You paint what you see!
AH: Yes. You’ve seen [the film] Blood In Blood Out?
B: Yes. It’s one of my favourites. What you were saying made me think of that line. I wanted to ask you, what you thought of that.
B: I’ll always remember that scene in the movie where Cruzito is having an art exhibition at a fancy gallery and the rich white couple says something like “you’ve painted them to look so noble” to him of his work, which is the art that you created for the film. And, he replies, “I paint what I see”. I rolled my eyes when they said that and yelled at my TV I was so angry, they were so patronizing.
AH: [Laughs], well you know Cruzito got that line from me.
AH: I contributed a lot of the dialogue in Cruzito’s character in the movie, some of it from Mel Casa too. He said: Take the money and run! [Laughs].
B: What did Blood In Blood Out mean to you?
AH: When we first finished it, I did not like the movie. I did not like a lot of the art work that I did, especially the big painting [of Juanito] that he cuts, because I was so rushed. I was doing a painting a day, those little paintings that you see in the gallery. A painting a day was so crazy, I almost went blind and I was getting cramps on my hands from painting so much. Years later, I started hearing that people loved my art.
My son and I would go to the park to go play basketball and we’d run into some teenage guys and start playing with them, they asked, what do you do? I said I was a painter. They were like, oh my dad paints houses too. I said, no, I’m an artist. They’d ask what kind of art. I told them, have you ever seen, Blood In Blood Out? They’d go, we watch that movie like every day when we get home from school and we’re doing our homework! I was like, what?! My son looked at me like, what the hell! [laughs]. More and more people started finding out about it, in America the word spreads like crazy in Chicano circles. Now 20 years later people are still going crazy over this movie. They don’t just like it they are obsessed with it, a lot of it has to do with the art. I think they are also just hungry for stories about their life. We have so many Mexican-Americans in prison. It was the first time you ever saw Chicano art ever seen in a feature film. We LOVE art.
B: I know that you feel your art is sacred to you; in what way?
AH: Thank you for bringing that up because, yes, it is sacred to me. It comes from my heritage, my farm work heritage. When you are working in the fields and you’re picking cotton, bent over and you’re pulling this really heavy sack behind you for a quarter of a mile, you have to use your imagination to escape the brutal hard work. In that respect, I developed my imagination. My imagination became very deep and acute. People always ask me where I come up with the ideas for my art, I attribute that to my upbringing as a migrant worker in the fields. It was hard work but it also taught me a lot about how to treat people because the people I worked with in the fields were the most incredible people; they were solid people, with their work, their work ethic, the way they treated each other, they would help each other… they would ever help the Rancher that was oppressing them if he needed help. That’s the kind of people that I grew up with. I believe that I became such a good artist because of this upbringing and these values that these people taught me. This is why I think my art is sacred.
B: I was going to ask you about working in the fields. Previously you’ve said: It was a simple and brutal life, but we all helped each other out and had many laughs in spite of it all.
AH: You know what’s funny Bianca? Even though I was surrounded by a lot of racism growing up, my grandparents and parents never brought it home. They never brought it to the table when we were having dinner, it was always about, what is funny? Let’s laugh! We had the most incredible, beautiful, hilarious times just being with each other, telling stories or talking about something funny that had happened. I have so many people to thank for my upbringing, I was literally raised by a town; all the people were there in the fields when I needed something. It was really beautiful, I feel with lost that now so much. Now I have become a well-known artist, I see that in a lot of other Mexican-Americans here because they all treat me with respect. It’s beautiful that this has continued into my adult life. I think Chicano’s are some of the most beautiful people in the world. If you were to read my novel, Los Vrysoso [(the Radiant Ones) -A Tale From the Varrio] you will see this. We’re trying to make it into an e-book but you can find a copy of Amazon.com. I did it as a work of art, when you read it and see the art – there’s over 43 images in it – you’re going to see that it’s a novella, it’s about life in the barrio. It’s about the violence but it is also about the hardworking people. I’m very proud of it. This white lady millionaire published it for me (Ruby Payne. She is very well known in the educational field. Check her out at Aha Process online).
B: What does your art studio look like? It’s in your backyard?
AH: Yes. They built it so I could do the art for Blood In Blood Out. I will send you a photo of it.
B: Thank you. Also, I really love reading through your Facebook posts, they’re always pretty positive. One post from recent said: My friends all over, please learn to take care of yourselves health wise! Don’t depend on meds for a happy active life! We never needed them before! Why the obsession with meds now?? Eat right! I think that what you said is really important for people to be reminded about.
AH: We have so many sick Mexican-Americans, you would not believe! It’s such a tragedy. When I was growing up in Robstown, Texas, close to Corpus Christi, where I grew up as a migrant worker, I knew all the Mexican-American people in the town because we worked the fields together. The whites lived on one side of town and the Mexican-Americans lived on the other and we made a lot of them rich with our labour. Growing up I cannot remember one person ever having cancer or diabetes or anything like that. Old people used to work in the fields in their late 80s picking cotton, that’s really brutal work. Now everyone is sick, it makes me want to cry. It’s because they’re all eating at places like McDonalds and Jack-in-the-Box; they don’t cook at home anymore, when we used to cook at home we’d put garlic in the food and really healthy herbs like cilantro. Everyone just goes out now to eat fast food.
B: You also mentioned that you do, the Tibetan Rites [a little similar to yoga poses]?
AH: Yes, I have been doing them for years and years. I’m 63 and I can play basketball if I want [laughs]. I can chase down a 15-year-old pretty good [laughs] I’m not saying I can catch them but I can make them think I am going to catch them.
B: How were you introduced to the Rites?
AH: Whenever I get sick I don’t go to a doctor. There’s a man, Don Huerta, in my barrio where I grew up and he’s been healing cancer and diabetes for over 20 years. He’s a good friend of mine. I met him in 1980. I didn’t know he was a healer because he was a maintenance man at the Hyatt Regency where I worked as a room service waiter. He did an incredible thing there; when the air conditioners wouldn’t work one summer, people were leaving in droves because it was hot. He was the one that figured out how to get it to work [laughs].
Anyway, I went on to become an artist and lost track of him… in 1998 when my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, we thought the medical system was the best thing for her because we were taught that, as time went on I realised that things were not getting a lot better they were getting worse and worse. This lady, a white lady that I know, she was a city council woman, she lived in the barrio where a healer lives, and she told me about how he’d been healing people with cancer for 50 bucks with this tea that he gives you. She told me to take my wife to him. I took her to him, it was my friend I had worked with, and he told her she didn’t have cancer, he could tell from seeing her skin tone. It was because she had such good insurance that the doctors just wanted to milk that money. We told her parents and they blew off their rocker! They were white, racist and they were like, are you going to let a “wetback” heal you from cancer? You’re crazy! They forced her back into the medical system and she died in ’99, they just put her to sleep.
B: Oh no.
AH: It is a tragedy but we have learned to live with it. My kids were younger, I have two kids, a boy and girl; they were 14 and 12 at the time. We manage to live through it. Whenever we need a doctor, I always go to my friend. His son became a doctor but when he got sick my healer saved his life when he got sick [laughs]. He couldn’t keep being a doctor because he saw the inside of what doctors do, it was horrible. Now his son does what his dad does and his son, Joseph, taught me The Tibetan Rites, which was in 2000. I’ve been doing it ever since. I take the tea every year. My girlfriend takes the tea too, she’s 55 and in good health. If we get in a car accident or shot or whatever you have to go to a doctor but if it’s a debilitating disease we go to Don Huerta. They don’t turn people away if they don’t have $50, they still take care of them. What doctor would do that? A doctor would let some child die of some disease because they don’t want to operate for free and an operation costs $40,000. They would let a child die, that’s the way they are. Huerta would never do that, they save so many people’s lives. The medical system doesn’t care. Antibiotics are dangerous, any medicine that has bad side effects.
Huerta tells you how best to live, he says don’t worry, don’t worry about things you can’t change, take care of the situation; don’t get angry too much, we have to sometimes because life can get so frustrating but don’t dwell on anger; don’t hold grudges; treat people with kindness; help people when you can. Helping people makes you feel good, right?
AH: Health is about feeling good. He tells you all of this while he is treating you so you walk out of there like you are on a cloud [laughs]. …a lot of times the body just needs the right nutrition to heal itself.
B: I have one more question for you; what is the greatest hope for your gallery?
AH: The greatest hope for my gallery is that my grandkids and all these other Mexican-American kids with these similar histories that I have and other Mexican-Americans have, will have a place where they can view our accomplishments and our contribution to the world of art. I want them to be able to see themselves reflected in this art and they can be inspired, not just kids but people from all walks of life. As you know the movie Blood In Blood Out crossed many cultural barriers! People in Germany are crazy about it, people in Hungary are crazy about it… I’m not even kidding you, a guy from Hungary came to L.A., this was a new article in he L.A. times, Taylor Hackford the film’s director forwarded it to me and said, can you believe that this guy came all the way from Hungary just to get a photo of himself in front of the El Pino, the pine tree that comes out in the movie. He didn’t come to see the Walk of Fame or the Chinese Theatre that is famous in Hollywood, he came to photograph himself in front of El Pino! [Laughs]. We were laughing about it. That’s the craziness that this movie creates in people! I’m hoping that’s going to happen here, I know it will. People will come from everywhere and allow me to bring prosperity to the barrio, which is by and large, the barrio where I grew up, is in stark poverty still to this day. I grew up there in the 60s. If you go there and you’re in the street for 15 minutes, someone will come up to you begging you for money because they haven’t eaten in two days.
I was out there not too long ago looking for a space for the museum, a mother came up to me with two kids begging me for money because she hasn’t eaten. I took her to a restaurant nearby and I gave her $20 and told her to buy whatever she wants to eat. That is the travesty that we have to deal with. I’m hoping this gallery will be a stepping stone to bring funding into the barrio for food, for housing; there’s a lot of homelessness because the home taxes here are outrageous. Old people lose their homes because they can’t pay their taxes. They’ve been in the house forever and paid it off but can’t afford the taxes and lose it. I am going to help with that anyway I can.
We are going to have a huge gift shop and sell the products that prisoners make like wallets, belt buckles, Paños (which is art on handkerchiefs and pillow cases), we’re going to sell that in our gift shop to send to their families because their fathers are in jail for 20 years and the mothers’ are out here struggling to pay the bills. It is rampant, all over America. I am hoping this will be a model for people to open up other art venues and help out in this way. That is my dream!
B That is all so wonderful Adan. I wish you the best with it all. May your dream come to pass!
AH: Before I go, I am going to do everything I can to make life better for as many people as I can that need that help. You know Bianca, all this greed and all these mean people that run everything in this world, their time is coming to an end. Because, nothing bad lasts, nothing evil like greed, lasts. It’s only here temporarily, only good things last. All countries have their native peoples and they have all survived without this technology, without all this greed and the shit we have now. I feel all this bad stuff is coming to an end pretty soon, in our lifetime, in my lifetime and I’m 63! People in general do have a good heart.
Watch the documentary, The Chicano Collection, below which features Adan:
Create forever. Be Nice. Help others.
All art/images: courtesy of Adan and his fb page. Adan art (first image) by me.