Art Defined by the Border

Ernesto Yerena Montejano galvanizez graphic artists to contribute to the ?íAlto Arizona! art campaign

By Kristopher Fortin - Caf?® Media
Published on LatinoLA: July 28, 2010

Art Defined by the Border

Originally published on Caf?® Media

Ernesto Yerena Montejano's life has been like a ping-pong ball, bouncing across the border between Mexico and the United States.

Yerena never felt quite Mexican, because he was teased in Mexico for not speaking fluent Spanish, and never quite American because he would insert Spanish in his speech at school in the U.S. "It made me jump to different types of cultures all the time," Yerena says.

Yerena would travel across the border almost daily from his home in El Centro in the Imperial Valley to see his family in Mexicali. Yerena's grandfather lived in Mexicali but worked in the fields of Coachella and the Imperial Valley. The constant travel became too strenuous for his grandfather, so he moved to the U.S. in 1975 with his family, including Yerena's mother.

After school, Yerena would cross the border, be with his family and friends until the evening when he returned to the U.S. As a child, Yerena can remember being patted down by law enforcement before he crossed the U.S.-Mexico Border. Yerena didn't know why he went to school in the U.S., but his two lives were never apart.

Now at 23, Yerena is an artist on the rise thanks not only for his collaboration with Shepard Fairey, the force behind the iconoclastic sticker campaign turned graphic design company Obey Giant, but also for his involvement in the campaign for immigration reform.

Yerena galvanized graphic artists to contribute to the ?íAlto Arizona! art campaign in response to Arizona's SB 1070 law, which criminalizes undocumented immigrants. Through social media and word of mouth, the art campaign received 200 designs in two weeks, 69 of which are posted on the ?íAlto Arizona! website.

Yerena's career took off after he interned four years ago with Fairey, the street artist that created the Obama "Hope" image. While Yerena was in art school in San Diego he and a friend drove up to Los Angeles to hear Fairey speak at Santa Monica College. Yerena showed Fairey his portfolio after the seminar and asked Fairey for an internship, which Fairey gave him on the spot.

Yerena moved to Los Angeles two months later and worked out of Fairey's studio, inside his garage. Yerena would research, cut stencil, or aid in t-shirt designs. "I was always around that kind of shop when I was a kid," Yerena says, "My dad was painting all the time, it was almost like a natural environment for me to be in."

Yerena worked as an intern for two and a half years until Fairey hired him. Yerena learned Fairey's technique, style, and how to market and make images go viral. His most fulfilling collaboration with Fairey, Yerena says, was their work in 2009 on the "We are Human Campaign."

Activists Marco Amador and Zach de La Rocha, former Rage Against the Machine vocalist, reached out to Fairey to work on an image for the campaign, which aimed to keep comprehensive immigration reform an issue in the political spectrum. They needed a poster for a march in Arizona to protest the actions of Maricopa County's Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who directed his police force to enforce immigration laws.

Fairey and Yerena designed different images aimed at humanizing undocumented immigrants such as a poster with a middle-aged Latino with his fist raised to the sky, and a sign in his other hand with the campaign slogan. Another was an image of a girl with a vase of roses in one hand while her other hand is clenched

Yerena left Obey Giant almost a year ago to pursue a solo art career. As he prepares for his first solo exhibition in November at White Walls Gallery in San Francisco, he continues to stay active with immigration reform.

Yerena was folding flyers in Arizona with other activists, he says, when he saw on television the enactment of SB1070. Before SB1070 passed, he visited Arizona more than five times in the past year to learn about the situation in a more comprehensive way. The National Day Labor Organizing network recruited Yerena after the SB 1070 law passed to make the first image of the ?íAlto Arizona?í art campaign, an image of a thumbprint over the state of Arizona. He wants to continue to work on the campaign as long as he has time, he says, to help out his friends and the Latino community that live there.

"Making art about Arizona has everything to do with borders," Yerena says.

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