Boyle Heights artist and Imperial Valley native Ernesto Yerena Montejano (left) and Los Angeles muralist Josh Valencia use spray cans to work on the final details of Yerena’s state-commissioned COVID mural at 739 N. Imperial Ave. in El Centro on Saturday night, May 29. They finished early the next morning. | RICHARD MONTENEGRO BROWN PHOTO
EL CENTRO — Some of the paint was still tacky on the massive 13-foot by 75-foot COVID mural on the south wall of a former flower shop when handwritten messages started to appear within hours of the stucco canvas’ completion.
Four names, one of which was immediately recognizable as a high-profile community death from the disease, El Centro policer Officer Efren Coronel — and more privately known individuals Hector J. Meza, Sofia Silva, and Victor Torres — were printed in black ink on a tiled area just below a sign affixed to the COVID-19 mural giving credit to those involved in the project.
“I think it’s gonna become a memorial wall of COVID victims. … When we were there last night, we were all talking about that it would be cool, so someone must (have) done it after we left,” said the chief architect of the project, Boyle Heights artist and El Centro native Ernesto Yerena Montejano.
With 730 Imperial County residents dead from the coronavirus since a pandemic was declared in early 2020, it stands to reason that any mural meant to strike a tone of hope and awareness in the community moving forward should also stand as a testament to loss, and the hand-scrawled names appear to ensure the deceased are given their due.
“I love it,” Yerena said of the additions on Sunday afternoon, May 30, which he said he discovered after returning to the site following the final night/morning of work. “It really does make it for the people.”
The still officially untitled mural, strikingly large in its vivid pastel hues of purple, teal, and yellow in Yerena’s immediately recognizable printmakers’ style, was painted over the course of mostly eight nights/early mornings, from May 22 through May 30, by Yerena and members of his team, including experienced Los Angeles muralist Josh Valencia of Branded Arts.
The art itself was designed by Yerena, photographer Arlene Mejorado, and Ayerim Leon, who is Yerena’s sister-in-law-to-be and served as inspiration for the central masked image in her job as a nurse. The piece was a commission by the California Department of Public Health as part of its “Your Actions Save Lives” campaign.
The basis for the design formulated long before the 34-year-old Yerena was contacted by the state in February to be one of about 20 artists to work on COVID-themed public art pieces in some of the state’s hardest-hit communities.
As he tells it, Yerena had wanted to design a piece around COVID and Leon in her nursing gear, but the timing wasn’t right at the midpoint of the pandemic, so when he was approached to create one of 14 pieces, he had the image of Leon already in his back pocket.
“When they hit me up to do this, they wanted a hopeful image,” he said during a break from painting on Saturday night, May 29, so Yerena returned to the idea of a portrait of Leon, brother Eduardo’s fiancé. Eduardo Yerena Montejano is also a nurse, Ernesto said.
What was rendered checked all the boxes of what the state was looking for as it continues to push forth the message of awareness, vigilance, and increased vaccination as California readies to move beyond the current color-coded system and lifts almost all masking requirements on June 15.
But for Yerena, an artist who is very much aware of his roots and his place in the social justice landscape, this was a chance to meet the state’s needs and his own at once.
He dissected the imagery, which on its surface, seems simple enough as a masked woman holding a bouquet of flowers, the obvious tie-in to the location of the mural itself, which at the time the piece was started was Cynthia’s Flower Connection at 739 N. Imperial Ave. As the mural was being finished, the tenants of the recently sold building moved their business a few blocks north.
“She’s holding flowers, because she’s greeting the new day; it’s a hopeful image. But if you notice, and you look at the graphic (central image), there’s still the palm in there to the far right. The palm comes from funerals, so it does have a nod to mourning,” he said.
“This is a piece about remembering” those who have died, Yerena said, as much as it is about bringing awareness to wearing masks or moving forward.
“This is a place for people that if they lost someone, they can come and celebrate them here. Like you come for flowers (at the flower shop) or hang out, whatever, this is dedicated for those folks,” said Yerena, adding that he had a few conversations with flower shop owner Cynthia Derma, who told him they sold so many flowers and wreaths for all the funerals that had occurred over the past year and longer.
And the themes of the mural, he said, were also connected to the loss of freedom and the loss of youth of all the local students forced to stay indoors, apart from friends, not getting to go out to play or do something as simple as see a movie.
“This is dedicated to these young kids that were locked up at home for a whole year, not locked up but quarantining,” Yerena said. “I know it’s taken a toll on everyone’s mental health. I think all of that went into the thought of this.”
Design-wise, he said the use of color was a traditional Mexican-style palate, adding that when he thinks of purples he thinks of “salud,” or “health.” There are other nods to his ancestry in the piece as well, including the use of certain geometric patterns and designs.
“Being a mestizo, or mixed person, but also coming from indigenous identity, you know, indigenous roots, I wanted to honor that we’re on Kumeyaay land, and so on the side of the bars you see those triangles,” Yerena said. “That’s roughly based, you know, to honor the community. They have a lot of (those) designs on their pottery.
“And the flowers (not the bouquet, but the yellow flower designs on the teal field) are more of the kind of ornate Mexican-style flowers,” he explained. “It’s a little bit of a nod to like the Mexican American community here. You know, obviously, (the image based on Leon is) Mexican, but that was just something that kind of tied it all together.”
Yerena said a lot of people pitched in to make the project a reality, from concept to execution, and he thanked them in abundance on the plaque to the left edge of the mural.
Primarily a fine art printmaker, this is only the fourth mural Yerena has done, and he said to make the project a reality he assembled a team of familiars and also people who are accomplished in taking on such large projects.
One of the men who was seen slinging paint with Yerena throughout the eight days was Josh Valencia, which Yerena said came through the Branded Arts association. He said Valencia is a master muralist.
And although the state credits Yerena as the artist, he clearly gives equal billing to Leon and Arlene Mejorado, who he has known for many years and who has worked on projects with Yerena’s longtime mentor-turned-creative-equal Shepard Fairey, of Obama “Hope” poster/Obey fame.
As an artist from that precise, stencil-oriented background, Yerena said getting the right photo to base a design on is “everything,” and Mejorado achieved that with her photo of Leon used to create the final design.
Also among those credited on the printed sign are Yerena’s parents, Ernesto and Vicky, and other family members, friends, and associates, including friend, former El Centro resident and Starts with Arts Foundation co-founder David Varela.
Until Branded Arts got involved and also took on the function as Yerena’s public relations/outreach arm, Varela did a lot of the early heavy-lifting to help scout locations and be a link between the state and Yerena and Cynthia Derma from the flower shop.
“He’s the one that contacted me, he came and visited Cynthia’s flower shop, he explained to them the whole thing, and he made it happen,” Yerena said. “Without him, it wouldn’t have happened because I didn’t have time to come down. I was too slammed.”
Varela, who now lives in Temecula, said he was contacted by the state earlier this year when they were in search of connections to the arts community in Imperial County. Varela said they found him on the internet through his Start with Arts nonprofit, and he said he suggested Yerena straightaway.
“I told them Ernesto would work really well, just because of the background that he has. I’ve just liked how socially he’s been involved in advocacy for such a long time and knowing that he would really put his heart into something like this for the Imperial Valley,” Varela said in a phone interview on May 29.
It took a few trips to find the right place, Varela said, as an initial location near the Department of Motor Vehicles office on South Imperial Avenue was turned down by Yerena, who Varela said did not want his mural competing for space with commercial signage in the immediate vicinity.
Once Cynthia’s Flower Connection was found, everyone got on board after some back and forth between all parties.
Yerena’s mural appears to be one of the last of the 14 public art pieces to be finished, which range in media from murals and gallery art installations to performances and literary works in “disproportionately impacted communities.”
The community arts initiative was developed in partnership with the Center at Sierra Health Foundation “to raise awareness of critical actions Californians have taken to help stop the spread of COVID-19 — and to encourage people to continue those practices — such as wearing a mask, washing hands, physical distancing, and getting vaccinated,” according to state campaign materials.
Varela and Yerena were both surprised to hear that the building would no longer be a flower shop, and Yerena said he has no idea what that means for the future of the mural. But he says he can’t imagine someone not wanting a high-profile art piece on their wall.
Cynthia Derma of Cynthia’s Flower Connection explained during an interview last week that she was clear with the state that the building was in escrow when all parties agreed to move forward, but she honestly did not think the escrow would go through so soon. In fact, she was saddened to be moving out of her location of the last nine years just as such a significant piece of art was being finished.
“It’s very beautiful. … It’s (the mural) kind of a miracle to help give the Imperial Valley hope to the community that there’s always a bright side at the end of the tunnel. And like I said, they chose our beautiful little city with a local-born artist to speak out through the art,” Derma said.
Derma and her husband, Rick, both came down with COVID in August, so the mural has meaning for them beyond the flower connection.
Yerena has not spoken with the new owners of the building, and no one knows for certain what is planned for the location, but a pretty good idea can be found on the city of El Centro’s website, under the Community Development Department subsection on cannabis information, where the building’s address is listed as one of 13 pending applications for cannabis dispensaries in the city. Norma Villicaña, community development director, said none of the listed applications have been approved by the city as of yet.
Meanwhile, the state awareness campaign reminded Varela of one he had seen a few years earlier titled “Love Letters to Detroit,” in which accomplished artists beautified their community with public pieces.
“I always thought Ernesto would do something like that, like he would do something that would help beautify the community and have a strong message behind it,” Varela added.
For certain, striking imagery and messaging are one in the same for Yerena, who has tied the two together for many years now, one of the earlier known local efforts being his role as the artist behind the “Justice for Bubba” posters and stickers that came to represent the 2010 death of Edmund “Bubba” Gutierrez while in Imperial police custody.
Yerena later created pieces as a solo artist and collaborator for movements against controversial longtime Maricopa (Arizona) County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the national Black Lives Matter movement, to name a few.
COVID inspired no less involvement, and even a nuanced one within that realm. He explained that while he was vaccinated, the El Centro mural contains no reference to vaccination intentionally, as he knows this country’s uneasy relationship with medical racism and experimentation has given many people of color pause.
“For me, I just looked at the numbers (of those dying from COVID), and I saw who was getting killed at the highest rates, Black and Brown men and women or people that live in low-income communities,” Yerena said of his decision to participate in the state project. “I was like, I wanted to take the vaccine, I’m willing to take the risk, because who knows if I would have gotten that. Most people in the Valley, either know someone or are related to someone that passed away from COVID.”