|Text and Textile :The works of Ester Hernandez|
By Amalia Mesa-Bains
Within the movements for social justice, the language of change has often been expressed through visual images, so powerful that they inspire critical transformations in the public. The works of Ester Hernandez are part of this revolutionary iconography. Hernandez embodies the artist as cultural citizen, expressive of the communityís values, their struggle for rights, space, and identity. Ester Hernandez has taken her place as a cultural citizen whose works have given voice to the rights of the indigenous and Chicana/o communities.
Her visual representation of the battles in the fields captures the labor history of Chicanas. The early years of life in the San Juaquin Valley, laboring with her family and living close to the land have brought a sincere insight to the work of the artist. She has crystallized the intense indignation of her own experience into a wider view of the symbolic and the social. She is most known for a dramatic iconography of women from the Gualalupe as karate fighter and the Statue of Liberty as a Mayan stele to the legendary image of Sun Mad. Her own family history is tied to the labor of her parents and grandparents. After the artist discovered in 1979 that the water table of her region was poisoned with pesticides she began Sun Mad, her 1981 screen print. The artist creates the paradoxical as she asserts the subtext of the lyrical image of the Sun Maid raisin box. The winsome and pastoral image of the innocent young maid offering her abundant riches to America's tables is revealed in all her menacing reality. In the fashion of the Mexican popular arts printer, Posada, Hernandez applies the muertitos tradition of satire to America's sweetheart. It is an enduring work of art understood in the popular culture but meaningful in a critical cultural world as well. The calavera figure brings stark attention to the pesticides and acute labor conditions of underpaid Mexican, indigenous, Central American and Filipino farm workers.
In contemporary Aztlan in the Chicano Southwest , Dia de los Muertos has been the inspiration for a new genre of installation work. This marking of space in a memorial site reaches its most elegant and persuasive form in Ester Hernandez's ceremonial ofrenda to her father. The ofrenda integrates her earlier image of Sun Mad. The circle of stones and the earth are the signs of nature in a cultural landscape. The placement of the farm worker's hat and scarf are a poignant reminder of a life of toil and dignity in one of Americaís most shamefully exploitative industries.
Her newest installations honor the migration of indigenous workers into the fields of California and in the industry of agriculture. Bringing with them their native languages and customs, they must battle anew the discrimination and exploitation. Hernandezís activism began with native peoples of the Southwest. Her concerns also embrace the new communities in their struggle. Her homenaje is in the language of the ancient. Her use of flowers reminds us of the nahuatl iconography of speech, where blossoms were synonymous with words. Her flowers acknowledge the new communities of the indigenous and their ancient cultures. Her work carries a social commentary; a melancholy remembrance of community struggle and suffering that has gone unrecognized. In this provocative aspect of the sacred, Hernandez demonstrates the complexity and power of the traditions honoring the living and the dead. It is emblematic of a politicizing spirituality.
Her consistent commitment to the manifest social issues of our time is also expressed in metaphors of beauty and memory within the feminine. Her pieces form a text of meaning that links the aspects of her installations, prints and pastel drawings. In her newest installation work she turns again to the textile or weaving. The new works are connected to the past installation, Tejido de los Desaparecidos, where the ikat weave of the rebozo references civil war through woven patterns of skeletons and helicopters. The shawl is invested with the psychic knowledge gained from its wearer. The trace of the body and the intimacy of the carnal inhabit the textile and give it its power. Hernandezís cloth is a repository of the cultural wealth of her ancestors and binds her to the condition of indigenous struggle.
The textile she has created is in many respects a text that is woven of knowledge and narrative. The Immigrantís Dress is a garment of diaphanous threads woven, stitched and bound to the family history of her antepasados. Held secret, disguised and veiled from the viewer in the folds of the dress, is the wealth of a cultural treasure. Like her own grandmotherís hidden money found after her death, the metaphor of inner value is understood in the text of the dress. We see through the textile to the maize, the sign of our sustenance and ancient way of life. The text is one of women, protecting, saving, and treasuring memory. The dress is a repository of history for the family, a collective and communal fabric of life.
In her new work, Huipil, she revisits the mythic, as the snake skins retrace the beauty of Cuatlique across the fabric. The huipil, the ancient dress of Mesoamerica, bears the imprint of the fierce Mother goddess and the emblem of natureís capacity for regeneration. The Tzin Tzun Tzan, the humming bird, associated with unrequited love hangs as a symbol of the natural, a healing power endowed with magic charm. In these latest works, Hernandez carries forward the two threads of her previous work, the social and the mythic, the warp and the weft of her text. Her art is imbued with a sense of the spiritual that unites memory and nature. This ethical vision is ensouled in the practices of a political, historical, cultural, and geographic investigation that gives spirit to her communities. Ester Hernandez is artist and cultural citizen who serves as she continues to provoke and inspire.
Interview With Ester Hernandez
Conducted Thursday, Aug 9, 2001. Cafť Macondo, San Francisco, CA.
Jaime Cortez: You were born in 1944 in Dinuba, California, which is a Central Valley farming town. What was your hometown like during that era?
Ester Hernandez: It always described itself as a sleepy little farming community. It was sleepy on the surface, but if you looked beneath the surface, you could see that it was very segregated, like most smaller towns and even big cities. There was a lot of a tension, particularly between Mexicanos and the powers that be, particularly agribusiness. I grew up in the post-WWII era. The Japoneses were sort of pushed into the barrios, which created a really interesting mix. That was the beginning of the civil rights movimiento for me. Soldiers like my uncles had given so much of their life and youth during WWII, that they refused to come back and accept second-class status.
JC: So the movimiento started in your home before the mass civic movimiento got rolling?
EH: If you talk to people, youíll find that out. We were all inspired by our elders.
JC: What did your family do in Dinuba?
EH: My parents were both farm workers. They worked in agribusiness. My mother was born in Mexico. She was the eldest of 12 children, and she was pulled out of school to help support the family, so at a very young age, she became a farm laborer. My father was born in Texas. During the Depression he moved out into the San Joaquin Valley where there was a lot of work and laborers were being recruited. As a young man, he started working as a farm laborer. When we were growing up, weíd work weekends and summers to help support our family. This was crucial because because farm labor is seasonal, so youíve really got to earn as much money as possible in order to survive the winter.
One of the things that is very important to me is that although my parents were both pulled out of school at an early age, they both educated themselves. My father would take correspondence courses in electronics, so he knew how to do a great number of things. He was also an amateur photographer. My mother did gardening and embroidery. The arts were part of our family life. Our lives were bleak economically, but extremely rich culturally.
JC: You mentioned that your father was a photographer and your mother was an embroiderer. Was it easy for you to make the leap of imagination necessary to decide you were going to be an artist?
EH: To be perfectly honest, I canít remember anyone talking about a person being an artist. Art was just part of life, to try to create beauty. It was just part of what people did, with what little they had. It wasnít until I was much older that I even became aware of art as a way of life. To me, art was was just a part of living . . .
JC: When you talk about your family, you talk a lot about the work they did for pay and for pleasure. What did they tell you about work?
EH: I was not brought up with the notion that I was an individual, but with the idea that I was part of a family and community. That was a big responsibility, but it gave me support. I never really felt alone, because everything I did to contribute to my family was well-received and respected. I felt that I had a responsibility. That has really affected my life.
JC: My parents were also farm workers and they would take us to work from the time we were very young. Theyíd tell usíthis is what we do. If you want to do this kind of work, the path is clear, if you donít want to do this, there are choices you have to make now.Ē
JC: Right. Did your parents tell you a similar thing? Did they tell you farmwork was something they didnít want you to do?
EH: There was so much prejudice against Mexicans, and especially farmworkers, that my parents made a point of telling me ďall work is honorable.Ē That prepared us for people making fun of us in stores or in school. Plus it was seen to be very honorable to help your family. There was a lot of respect for that.
Under different circumstances, my parents would have gone to school and done very well. They were extremely intelligent. They did not want to see us have that kind of hard life. The pay is terrible, the conditions are dangerous and brutal out in the fields. So they, like so many families, worked day and night to keep us in school. They did not want to see us pulled out of school and set up for a life of poverty like they had been. They sacrificed their lives for their younger siblings, and then sacrificed for their children. They wanted the children to have what they didnít have, to have an education, to make in impact in the world, and to have an easier life.
JC: Farmworker life is hard and often focused on subsistence. Coming from that, do you ever struggle with a sense that art is frivilous, pampered or priveledged?
EH: I never really questioned whether it was frivolous or not. Maybe others have that notion, but in general, it has always been a part of who I am and all my family and community knew that. I never questioned what other people thought in that regard, I just had to do it. I can tell you for sure that I would have had an easier life doing other things. There have been sometimes when I questioned choosing art, but it was more for the economic part of it. In some ways, when I got into the Chicano Movement, I was always focused on community and people. I think that kept me away from feeling art was frivolous. I feel like I play a role. I contribute. Iím not doing work that has no meaning to other people. Iím not just out to make money.
JC: So your sense of cultural connection and political service keep you from feeling that art is self indulgent or frivolous, because you know your work is geared towards a greater good.
EH: Absolutely. But there have been times when I really have had to question whether I should be out there marching in the street, or organizing instead of being in my studio and creating images. Iíve had people like Dolores Huerta tell me that what Iím doing is important. That kind of feedback has encouraged me to stay on the path, because itís difficult. The art world is really brutal, economically. The minute you start doing work that is political, about women or people of color, the art world becomes smaller. The doors close on you. But it is who I am and what Iím about and Iím not giving it up.
JC: A number of your pieces focus on pesticides. Can you tell me about your very earliest memories of knowing that you had pesticides around you?
EH: The hard thing about it is that we were not aware of pesticides. Iím still shocked by thatÖpeople arenít aware. Even consumers arenít aware. Certainly when youíre a child you arenít aware. You see the crop dusters. Youíre breathing it in. Youíre taking it in. Your nails are falling apart. Youíre sick. Nobody has told you anything. The farmers havenít told you anything. Itís not until youíre dead Thatís what moves me. (grows quiet) sorry Iím getting so emotional. Iíve lost so much family.
JC: Heavy topic.
EH: I canít dwell on pesticides all the time, because itís such a heavy topic. Thatís why I go in and out of it. Especially now with what is happening in Mexico. All of those toxic chemicals we donít want here are getting dumped over there as pesticides, and who is doing the work?
JC: One researcher called that the boomerang effect, where the pesticide companies have products that are not legal in the U.S., so they ship them around to other, usually poorer countries, where it is used on crops that are harvested and sent back to us anyway.
EH: Yes. Dr. Marion Moses will talk about all this stuff at the panel weíre going to have at GalerŪa.
JC: This has really affected you as an artist.
EH: I feel a personal responsibility on the topic of pesticides. Going home and finding that the water table under my hometown was contaminated really inspired ďSun Mad.Ē That was a real turning point in my life in terms of my awareness. I considered myself pretty educated. Iíd come out of a university, and I was part of the movimiento, but it hit me really hard to realize that the water was contaminated in my barrio. I couldnít just ignore it, pretend it wasnít a problem. It took me two years, and then it just sort of evolved. I didnít go out of my way to say something about pesticides, but it came out of my experiences. For good or for bad, my background gives me a unique perspective and I do feel a responsibility to speak for the people who are unable to.
JC: Through the work of the United Farm Workers and other organizations, conditions have improved for farm workers, yet this issue is current and urgent for you still. Youíve stayed with it and it seems like youíll come back to it. Talk about that persistence.
EH: Itís a topic that I am always interested in and working on. When GalerŪa offered me the opportunity to exhibit some work focused on pesticides, I initially felt nervous because I was worried about how I could go beyond Sun Mad. You know, the waves that it made, the way it has been collected. But then I began doing research and talking to all these people, and I realized that in a lot of ways, it has really gotten worse. Today we have this situation with NAFTA, and conditions are now even worse for people in Mexico. Then you have the issue of genetically-altered and modified food.
JC: One of the things the bioengineering industry is promising is that through bioengineering, they will create new strains of fruit that look better, taste better, and produce higher yields. Can you address that promise?
EH: What is shocking to me is that they never talk about nutrition.
JC: Thatís true. Iíve never heard that promise.
EH: Theyíve also never talked about people who might be allergic. I donít really have the answers on all this stuff, Iím just teaching myself. But the direction itís all going in is towards the cosmetic. The ones who really benefit are agribusiness. . . But even when fruit is cosmetically beautiful, you pay a dear price for it. To have a ďperfectĒ strawberry, 80% of the chemicals that they use in the fields are geared towards cosmetic beauty. It has nothing to do with anything else. It may be killing everything else around it to create this so-called beautiful fruit.
JC: Which generally doesnít even taste good!
EH: Has no flavor. Itís all been taken away. Itís all about long shelf life and beautiful product that is dead as far as nutritional value goes.
JC: You mentioned how overwhelming it can be and I think of how you are a powerful artist, and the UFW is a great organization, yet you are challenging such broad, systemic corporate and governmental interests. Itís a David and Goliath situation.
EH: Yes, it is.
JC: So tell me about staying inspired.
EH: I enjoy meeting a variety of people and seeing them in new situations. In particular, women. Iím really interested in people who are doing things that are a little off, or who are creating new lives for themselves. Iím interested in the role of latinas, not only within our families and communities, but within the broader picture. Iím constantly inspired by people. Whether itís the woman on the corner selling flowers, or Astrid Hadaad. Lydia Mendoza, people who are just way out there. I look for them and they constantly inspire me to give form to their spirits.
JC: Sun Mad is your signature piece. Can you tell me about your relationship to her?
EH: (laughs) Sheís another valley girl! My relationship stems from the contamination of the water table in Tulare county, where I was raised. If you know anything about the areaís agribusiness, you know it is the center of the raisin industry. Anywhere you drive in that part of the valley, you will see that farms have the image of the Sun Maid girl. In the summertime, weíd work in the raisin fields. That is how I ended up selecting that image. Itís something very personal.
JC: Do you feel that being strongly associated with a single image expands you or limits you? Or neither?
EH: I donít look to the outside. Iíve got so much inside of me that I need to say and do that I donít really care what people think. If I did, I would have never done anything. Because there have always been walls around me of one kind or another, I really donít think from the outside-in. If itís inside of me, and I need to give form to it, Iím gonna do it and I donít really donít care if it will open or close doors.
JC: Just do it!
EH: When I did Sun Mad, I had zero money. I couldnít afford paper! I printed it in my kitchen, and my ten year old son helped me. When I presented it to the public, I couldnít sell it for $20. Nobody wanted it. It wasnít clear, nobody could make sense of it. Then someone wrote about it, and talked about how Sun Mad took pesticides from being a ďfarmworker issueĒ to a ďconsumer issue.Ē Initially people were just not interested and took years and years before it got the point where it made an impact.
So no, I donít think about public opinion. When I think about a lot of the pieces Iíve done that have been controversial Ė forget it! I wouldnít have done anything. Iíve always been in and out of trouble for my work. Whenever you do work of women of color or anything like that, it always limits whoís going to invite you to shows. Some people have sort of categorized me, but in other ways, it has opened doors for me. Initially, when we were doing Chicano Art, we were doing it for ourselves. Now itís at a point where itís almost global. I get people interested in my work who have seen it on the net from the other side of the world. Itís grown in leaps and bounds and reached new audiences.
JC: In an essay on your work, Teresa Harlan said, ďSun Mad occupies a rare position of an enduring work of art understood in the popular culture.but active in the critical cultural world.Ē When I hear that, I hear saying there is ďlow artĒ and ďhigh art.Ē Do you believe in that distinction?
EH: I donít really think about those things. Iíve always had a strong inner voice. I keep an ear open and try to hear different things, but Iíve never allowed myself to get into an inner dialogue about that. Everybody is always laying claims to me, putting me high or putting me low. I just do what I have to do. I trust my judgement. In the 30 years Iíve been an artist, Iíve seen it all about my work. Iíve learned a lot about inclusion and exclusion. Iíve experienced everything you can imagine, like so many of my compaŮeros and compaŮeras and I donít care. I fucking donít care. I have to do this. I have to give form to what Iím seeing, thinking and seeing. Punto. (laughter)
JC: In this exhibition, you are doing an installation. Tell me about that.
EH: Yeah. Iíll be doing something Iíve been doing for years - using images of farm workers. Iím getting photos of faces and people working, pictures of farm workers to make an installation dedicated to all those peole out there struggling and sacrificing for their families and the spirits of those who died of pesticide poisoning.
Iím going out for the next few weekends to do photography. In particular, Iíll be looking for the Mixteco Indians. One of the things Iím interested in is how when people immigrate or travel, they carry something with them that tells them who they are. It could be a medalla, or a picture of children. It keeps our spirit going.
JC: My sister has been telling me about the Mixteco Indians who have arrived in my hometown of Watsonville. They come without knowing English or Spanish and they have become an underclass within an underclass.
JC: Throughout the social service sector, people are in a panic because there is no one to translate and
EH: Iím really interested because Iíve been hearing about it, and because Iíve met several families through my family in the San Joaquin Valley. Also, Iím doing this show in Oaxaca and I thought it would be fascinating to take back some information.
JC: In closing, Iíd like to ask, what does it mean to be a Chicana artist in 2001?
EH: Itís an fascinating time, but also a bit frightening. Iím talking about the shift in population and how the Chicano/Mexicano/Latino community has grown in leaps and bounds. There is all kinds of energy focused on us, whether itís people trying to sell things to us, or to get us to vote.
JC: Weíre being courted.
EH: Exactly. On the other hand, there is the high Latino school dropout rate, and looking at prisons and who is there, it is really shocking. All these people coming from Mexico, and what are they going to do. There is so much room for exploitation, even from us. Itís exciting and frightening.
I have hopes and dreams that weíll get a handle on things, but I think itís really going to have to come from us in terms of us getting educated, working hard and getting quality education for everybody. Voting and getting people out there who are raza, but who are going to get out there and protect our interests. I would like to think that the arts will play a vital role in all of this. Artists have been the voice, the eyes and ears of the community, but have also kept our spirits alive and really shown the beauty of our culture. I think thatís why I feel so proud to be a Mexicana because we have this legacy of activism in the arts, beauty in the arts. Our roots are ancient, and the arts are highly respected in our community . . . Iím proud to be part of that whole.
Everyday Passions: The Art of Ester Hernandez
By Carolina Ponce de Leůn
In these dark days, which challenge our sense of self, we have our cultural patrimony to help us restore our understanding of who we are. This symbolic wealth consists of the actions, words, and images of thoseówho against all oddsóhave shaped our memory, our political energy, and the history of resistance. Everyday Passions brings us together to share a significant example of this wealth.
In Everyday Passions, Ester Hernandez uncovers stories of farm labor, migration, memory, pesticides, and the everyday endurance of farmworkers and women. Her art reveals the hidden histories irrevocably etched into their expressions, their icons, and identity. As Dr. Amalia Mesa-Bains so accurately states, "Ester embodies the artist as cultural citizen, expressive of the communityís values, their struggle for rights, space, and identity."
With Everyday Passions, Ester Hernandez brings her artwork back to GalerŪa. She was one of GalerŪa's founders, exhibiting in the gallery's earliest shows. She has since then built an international reputation for herself, as a major Chicana artist, activist, and educator. To this day, her work stands out for its humor, high craft and political bite.
We are very honored to present the art of Ester Hernandez and to celebrate her career-long commitment to giving voice to those who are silenced. She continues to play a key role in the GalerŪa's activities as a trusted advisor to the organization and most importantly, as a mentor for young Latino artists. We are also thankful for the inspiration her work provides us in finding light and meaning in our actions.
Gracias and welcome home, querida Ester.