(Left) Ernesto Yerena’s “Not One More” (2015), made in collaboration with Shepard Fairey. (Center) Ernesto Yerena’s poster for the “Justice for Bubba” campaign seeking justice for Imperial resident Edmund Gutierrez, who died at the hands of Imperial police officers several years ago. (Right) One of Ernesto Yerena’s images he has made various versions of and prints of over the years. | COURTESY IMAGES
Growing up in an El Centro family that owned an autobody and paint shop, Ernesto Yerena Montejano was exposed to art from an early age. He saw the different forms art could take, from cars to canvas, which led the 33-year-old to recognize the versatility and power of art and use these qualities to bring awareness to social justice issues.
Some of the causes the Boyle Heights artist has created works for include the movements against controversial longtime Maricopa (Arizona) County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, for the “Justice for Bubba” campaign seeking justice for Imperial resident Edmund Gutierrez, who died at the hands of Imperial police several years ago, and the Black Lives Matter movement, all tailored around a message that inspires engagement.
Yerena Montejano spoke on how creating awareness through art is a priority and the purpose behind his work.
“Art to me is about helping people become more critical, becoming critical thinkers, not just accepting what you are told to think. No, I want (people) to read between the lines and examine and cross-examine and make sure that this is something that makes sense to (them) before subscribing to it,” Yerena Montejano said. “And that is always the place I come from in all of my pieces, always, and I think my work also comes from a love for my people.”
Throughout his career he has created art for communities throughout California, Arizona, and Texas, before settling in Boyle Heights. His most recent work has been with the Listos California campaign, alongside his friend and fellow El Centro artist Mark Beltran.
The purpose of the campaign is to inform, bring awareness to Californians for disaster preparedness. All reasons that are central to Yerena Monetjano’s style of starting conversations through art, which he developed in his Imperial Valley upbringing.
“As a kid, I was always asking questions. I have experiences that I remember, like being in Mexicali as a 4-year-old and hearing my great grandparents speaking Yaqui (or Hiaki), their indigenous tongue … experiencing something like and then reading U.S. history that never tells us we are indigenous and that we come from tribes, is when I knew my own truth was not being accepted in the current education system. And it made it hard for me to excel in that situation … but in a way it worked for me because it made me extra critical of everything I did,” Yerena Montejano said.
Besides wanting to be critical of the information he took early on, Yerena Montejano tended to have leftist and anti-establishment views that he felt others did not understand. But he found support in his family, who even though did not agree with all of his views, respected him because they knew he was someone who chose to be careful with what he believed in.
“I didn’t do things just to be trendy. I’ve always been very critical, I am very intentional about everything I do and I research everything I am about, so even though they (my parents) didn’t agree with (my views). they knew there was a reason I had the political views that I did or the way I felt,” Yerena Montejano explained.
Yerena Montejano shared that he is very close to his parents and his grandparents, like his Mama Magui and Papa Oscar from Calexico. His family is what got him into art in the first place and influenced his work.
One memory that stood out for him was growing up in an autobody environment.
“My dad and my grandpa both painted cars for a living, and I was hanging out their all of the time. One of the times I saw one of his co-workers had a fender of a Harley-Davidson, with flames and cool designs, and I remember asking my dad how they did it. It was airbrushed … he couldn’t show me how to airbrush but he could show me how to stencil,” Yerena Montejano said. “I was 8 years old, and I have been stenciling ever since.”
He credits these early memories and to forming his artistic interests and style, chief among the stenciling that makes much of his work so distinct, with its sharp lines and defined layers.
“I used to use razor blades to cut stencils, and when I was 9 my grandpa gave me an Exacto blade, and I used that for years as one of my tools of choice, cutting stencils and making drawings and using spray paint — that sort of thing,” Yerena Montejano said. “Those are my roots. I come from an autobody family and became an artist because I grew up around that.”
His publishing company, Hecho Con Ganas, or “Made with Desire,” also is rooted in his family. In particular, from spending time with his grandparents in El Centro.
“Hecho Con Ganas is based on my grandpa. Whenever I’d visit his house and hang out with him, he’d never say bye, he’d always say, ‘échale ganas mijo.’ You know, put effort into everything you do, be passionate, have pride in your work, be diligent, stay on top of it. It was a motivational thing but also a farewell, wishing you luck but about putting your all into things, and I wanted to call my company that,” Yerena Montejano said.
Questions about where one is from and why that is the instance are the cornerstone of his art and everything he does. And is a reason why he will showcase in “¡Printing the Revolution! The Rise and Impact of Chicano Graphics, 1965 to Now” in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., which opens this year.
His work’s tendency to lean toward activism and identity is a distinction that his friend and fellow artist, Arlene Mejorado, believes is what makes his legacy unique.
“I think that at the forefront of Ernesto’s work, it’s very much about how artwork can serve community service and how art uplifts individuals, ideas, and agendas that serve Black, indigenous, and people of color,” Mejorado said. “And I think what is most incredible of Ernesto’s work is that often the vast impact that it has globally but also the process that he takes to make his work is essential … he is very much dedicated to building community as he does his work.”
Yerena Montejano’s character is also a large part of what Mejorado views as his unique artistic lens and style.
“I think he is very sharp on what his ideals are, and he is incredibly intelligent. He’s brilliant, but at the same time, I think that’s not the only narrative that his legacy is going to leave behind. … I think that what makes his work really important and working with him is that he is a good listener, and that is hard to find … and he cares about justice on a social level, political level but also on the personal level and interpersonal level — spiraling from the personal to the global,” Mejorado said.