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Luna, the Stars and the Moon

What calls artist Heriberto Luna to juxtapose Mayans and celestial backgrounds and not place them in everyday situations?

By Yadhira De Leon, La Vida Yaya
Published on LatinoLA: June 3, 2012


Luna, the Stars and the Moon


Originally posted on La Vida Yaya.

This post is not about art saving a young, impressionable boy from the barrio. It's not about how he would be dead right now if not for art. It's not about Highland Park or Mexico City. That would all be superficial, convenient, passive.

It all made sense sitting there at 2 Tracks studio which Heriberto Luna shares with the equally talented New Mexico artist Pola Lopez, in the Northeast LA neighborhood of Highland Park, watching him move about, waving his hands in the air as if to control its direction and flow. Is there something in that air or is it just the haze in our eyes from a long day winding to a close?

Outside, passersby walk hurriedly against the fading light of day. Teen boys posturing macho bullshit about girls they hope to conquer. Old men lusting after a cold can of beer. Mothers eager to get home. Inside, Luna paces on edge wondering what I'm about to ask him. He takes me into the Avenue 50 Studio in the next room over. Frank Romero's pastel giclees hang in silence. Familiar cars and streets with city lights and a comforting aesthetic. In between, an examination of what appears to be a rainbow of rust on canvas by Isabel Martinez. Where to begin.

Always begin at the beginning, family. Two brothers, three sisters, divorced parents, from Mexico City. As I attempt to delve deeper into his family dynamics, the conversation leads back to his teen years. Growing up in Highland Park, Luna was surrounded by gang activity. His friends and neighborhood kids were gang members. It was part of life to hear bullets ring out nearby, friends getting shot at while riding their bikes, and being asked to join.

However, Luna never felt the pressure to join. Instead, he was drawn to the beat of the Aztec drums at nearby community art center Tierra de la Culebra. "That was the first time I saw Aztec dancers," said Luna. "I was 16 and joined Lazaro's dance circle at 19. His was the first Aztec dance group in LA."

Luna is a wealth of knowledge taking the history of Aztec dancing in LA back to Florencio Yeska from Mexico City who arrived in LA to do performances. Yeska competed in Pow Wows in the late 1960s and was a consistent winner in the fancy dance category. He realized that dancing in the US was much more lenient than in Mexico. The fancier and faster dances were crowd favorites so he adapted. "Danza was slow. You'd mark the steps to work with the heartbeat of the earth," said Luna. "Florencio studied dance and was a traditional Aztec dancer. His group was called Esplendor Azteca."

Feeling safe at Culebra, Luna started hanging around the center. At the age of 10, Luna was already drawing intricate spaceships that amazed his family. "Tricia Ward was a crazy white lady who bugged me to be part of the program," Luna jokes. Artists like Leo Limon, Frank Romero, Andy Ledesma, Raul Baltazar and even some graffiti artists were regular mentors at Culebra, but it was Margaret Garcia who recognized Luna's talent and taught him the business side of art.

"She taught me how to sell. She was a tough lady. People didn't want to mess with her but she took me in. Not a lot of artists do that. She saw something in me. 'This guy is going to make it,' she thought," recalls Luna. By his early 30s, Luna was the Art Director as well as the tree trimmer and gang deflector. "The gang members used to climb up the trees at Culebra to hide so I had to go out there and trim the branches or ask the gang members to leave."

In college, Luna studied art, science, and biology. "I just wanted to learn things," said Luna. "A pre-Columbian class taught by an Aztec dancer from Arizona was the best experience of my life." I being to see the common thread of Mayan and Aztec cultures found in his work today.

"My family wasn't supportive. Art to them wasn't a choice. They didn't think I would make it so I became a car salesman in Cerritos." Because Luna was shy, the salesman job helped him come out of his shell. There he learned from the top salesman on how to manipulate people into buying a car. "Don Luis . . . that guy was intense." Now you can find Luna in front of teenagers at Juvenile Hall teaching a mural class with not a hint of shyness to be found.

To see Luna's work in person, is to be transported to another time and galaxy. His celestial Mayan figures and hieroglyphs are bold in size and color saturation. Just like Luna, they let their quiet presence be felt in a room.

What calls Luna to juxtapose Mayans and celestial backgrounds and not place them in everyday situations? Where is the Mayan mother with her baby? What about the Mayan farmer looking over his crops? Or does he see them as super-human beings that are watching over us today? "All artists connect with the spiritual side of their art, Van Gogh, Picasso, Diego Rivera, Caravaggio. I feel those artists. The art spoke to them," he says. The spiritual connection to his art is evident. "Only with the study and the teaching of our cultural past, our ancestry, is it possible to accept the strength and spiritual capacities of humanity in the present and future," reads his bio.

Could it also be his love of science and movies such as the new Avengers or classics like E.T. that draws him to super-humans and outerspace?

Behind the serene imagery on his canvases, there's an insatiable quest for knowledge. Luna, like many more people today, feel that there are truths and information about the world that are hidden from us by governments, secret societies, those in power, the 1%. "Even in movies such as The Avengers, if you are a superhero, you are not the one in control. They talk to the elite group. Who are those people?" After about an hour of conspiracy theories, I ask "So, what do you do with the knowledge that things are being kept from us?" Without hesitation, Luna responds, "You talk about it. We have to be conscious about who controls society, the world. There is power in knowledge, in pushing the issue. The Mayans controlled their civilization. Where did they go? That's the million dollar question."

Perhaps by removing the Mayan figures from earth in his paintings, Luna seeks to infer that their knowledge is above it all, that it cannot be kept secret for long. Perhaps that knowledge, known to the Mayans of our past, is stronger than what is humanly possible to control.

Or is it that Luna's own grandmother was a Mayan medicine woman? A powerful healer that people sought out and never accepted a dime in payment for her miraculous services. Was that her way of rejecting a capitalist society? Or was it that she was so giving that the taking of her legacy stirs Luna enough to learn about it and explore it on his canvas? Is it that art is a process and not the final product?

It seems every time I visit, he has a new concept to work on. What first started off as a study in saturation and textures, turned into the addition of hieroglyphs within each figure. Now he has something new up his sleeve. What it is, only time will reveal. More celestial Mayans? I hope so.

About Yadhira De Leon, La Vida Yaya:
There is never a dull moment in the City of Angels. La Vida Yaya is about my personal experiences with people and places and how I am inspired by them. I hope you like what you read.
Author's website
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