If it is true that there has never been a movement for justice without the arts, and I believe it is, then the recent history of movement building in the Bay Area exists in part through the work of Melanie Cervantes and Dignidad Rebelde, the collaborative project of Cervantes and Jesus Barraza. If you have ever attended a protest in the Bay Area organized by a coalition of social justice organizations and activists or the Occupy movement, you have seen their work: bold digital and screenprints depicting community members demanding justice and accountability, and telling the story of their struggle and resistance in their own words. Since 2005 they have created a prolific amount of posters illustrating the demands, successes, struggles, and resiliency of communities of color, immigrants, poor people, and those who continue to fight for self-determination in the face of state repression. These posters bring awareness to issues of immigration, the prison system, the history of colonization, and gang injunctions, and are created with and for those most impacted by the issues they depict. Cervantes and Dignidad Rebelde are, in so many ways, the face of the recent uprisings, or as some of us often say, the revolution.
Adrienne Skye Roberts: We are less than a week away from the major actions planned for May Day, International Workers’ Day. Can you describe the poster you made to promote the upcoming May Day actions?
Melanie Cervantes: I created the May Day piece called Toma Las Calles, or “Take to the Streets,” at the invitation of a cooperative effort called Indig-nación. This group of folks came together in response to the Occupied Wall Street Journal that was published in New York and written entirely in English. People had a strong response to the newspaper; they felt like it was a useful tool. Indig-nación wanted to create a Spanish-language newspaper with the same idea. They asked if I would create a poster for a Spanish-speaking audience, and later Occuprint reprinted the poster en masse.
I started researching May Day posters, and eventually I landed on a poster created by the Soviet artist Nikolai Kochergin, from 1920. The image was strong and had so much ideology behind. It featured three central figures: two men and one woman and children in front of them toppling over symbols of the old regime. The design elements, the use of shapes, and the format were super engaging to me as a viewer. I wanted to play off this historic poster with its basic structure of a circular background and grid pattern. I chose to use the Toltec stone stamp created 3,000 years ago. In this design, this juxtaposition of ancient and new imagery brings together printmakers across generations — pre-colonial, current, and post-colonial.
The characters I used are different races, multigender, to invoke a vision of a multiracial, cross-class movement that connects a lot of different people. The three figures are all looking in the same direction, so it is not a vanguard but a mass movement of people with a shared horizon. The crowd is based on a photo that I took at Occupy Oakland. It is always important to me to show a reference to the real movement in my images because that is where I’m at, that is where I produce from.
ASR: How was the process of creating the May Day poster different from or similar to your process of creating other posters?
MC: I categorize my work into two different groups. There are pieces that are more of an explicit collaboration between an organization and myself. A recent example of this is my work with Detention Watch Network, a national organization that builds awareness around mandatory detention for migrants. The poster is part of their visual campaign to call attention to how people are getting integrated into the prison industrial complex as a result of immigration laws, how criminalization and immigration are colliding in people’s lives, and how detention is affecting not just the people incarcerated but society at large.
Then there are pieces that are collaborations with artists. In another recent project, I collaborated with my partner, Jesus Barraza, and the poet Mark Gonzales to create a piece commissioned by Stanford’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts for the “Current Preoccupations (Palestine, Oakland, and Arizona)” section of an Occupy Art class led by Jeff Chang. Our piece is a reflection on the triangulation of Palestine, Oakland, and Arizona. So, it’s very broad and it’s open to interpretation. When we collaborate with organizations, my belief is that we are collaborating with organizations that work with the people most impacted by the issues we are addressing. With an artistic collaboration, it’s more about working with artists who have something to say about what is happening in the world.
ASR: How does the function of the poster differ between the two different forms of collaboration?
MC: With the first one, there is clarity around the function: it is going to be used for promoting a standing campaign, with a clear strategy in place for how it falls into the organizing. It could be about promoting an event, a campaign, or a broad vision based in ideology. The artistic collaborations are more like, “Let’s create this, and then let’s see what legs it has in the world.” It is a little more esoteric in terms of its purpose.
ASR: Dignidad Rebelde is everywhere! In the office of the grassroots organization I volunteer with is the Young Mothers’ Bill of Rights and Brown and Proud Todos Somos Arizona, in the hallway of my house is the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike Solidarity poster. Can you talk about your decisions about how to disseminate the work?
MC: We are committed to putting our work out through creative commons. We offer PDF downloads of our pieces. This frees the work up; we are not the only ones determining how it is going to be used. For all we know, the image could become a flyer a week later! We know we’ve made something meaningful if people start bootlegging images, making T-shirts, maybe they’ve changed the text to say something else, or they’ve made buttons. Sometimes we get phone calls or text photos of our work replicated in different forms, including a piece of ours that was painted into a mural in Chiapas. For us, it isn’t about trying to control the image. We talk about our purpose of creating work that reflects the struggles, the dreams, the visions of communities and putting the image back in their hands, so they can determine how it should live in the world. How is it useful? How is it inspiring? How does it make sense?
ASR: Putting the image back into the hands of those communities whose struggles are reflected in the image itself is then part of how you define “people’s art”?
MC: Absolutely. It is up to the people we see as the inspiration for that work to determine how it should live. It breaks the original form. My hope is that it gets used functionally. The images should outlive any idea that I could have.
Creating the work itself is a collaboration; there is so much that I get exposed to, that I see and experience, the ideas are not just mine. I didn’t pop out of a hole in the ground … I learned some skills and have some things to say. I get exposed to a lot of really smart people, and I listen. Within that continuum of experience — and the artists that have existed before me — I insert myself and make something that is hopefully useful.
Recently, a big icon for printmaking, Elizabeth Catlett, died. She was 96. She was African American, and in the 1940s she moved to Mexico and joined the Taller de Gráfica Popular and became a bi-national treasure. When she died people were posting her obituary to Facebook, and there was this moment when I was reading the comments that I realized that in one thread there were six generations of printmakers going back to the turn of the century — one person who was taught by this person who was taught by the person who learned from them and so on. There is a multiracial lineage of artists who are connected across nations. So, I can’t create a piece without thinking about the generations of people who created this medium.
ASR: What keeps people from believing that “people’s art” is quality art? As someone who exists both in art contexts and political organizing, I am constantly trying to figure this out. A lot of what you are saying is (refreshingly) in opposition to the “art world,” a Western grip on success, value, the individual artist, the marketplace, etc. Can you say more about this?
MC: Neither Jesus or myself went to art school. We weren’t trained in our universities in art. Jesus studied Raza Studies, and I studied Ethnic Studies — this already positions us with a world-view about things that is different. In a lot of art schools value is put only on a certain kind of art practice. I don’t think this is universal, but there is a dominant way of looking at the world and then looking at art in the context of that world. I talk to artists who are going through art school now, and they are getting torn apart for making work that is considered political or doing anything that has a perspective on something that is happening in the world and impacting them! We haven’t had to deal with that. The art we practice, “people’s art,” is valuable because those particular wounds haven’t traumatized us!
There is also the question of where we are exhibiting work. A poster that we give out for free by the hundreds in the street at a protest is the same poster that we frame and exhibit in a museum or gets hung on a wall in a high school classroom. In some ways, it is more important to me to have it in that classroom because of the impact it might have. We have chosen the medium we’ve chosen because we believe we have to get the ideas out to as many people as possible and in the same way that the form serves that function, we also try to use venues that will serve that purpose, as well.
ASR: I love knowing that it is the same image that is stapled to a stick and held at a demonstration that is also framed and viewed inside a gallery. I know that the image you made in response to Oscar Grant’s murder was approached differently. Can you describe this process and experience?
MC: When we printed posters after Oscar Grant was killed, we only gave out pieces at the action. We never sold the piece. We were very intentional about that and debated what was right in that instance to do. We talked to his aunties to get permission.
There are those ways of being really intentional about the spaces in which the work gets to exist, and then there is the stuff we don’t control. We taught a workshop at a high school, and by the end of it all the students put the Oscar Grant print into the front of their view notebook, where you can insert photographs, so then Oscar Grant images were all over that school. In that moment we were transformed. The image was so meaningful and powerful to people that it became their own.
The Oscar Grant image was one of the instances where it went way beyond its original form. It was reproduced in so many ways, we couldn’t keep track, and no way we could have known. From that moment to now I can look back and see every way that that image lived. When Trayvon Martin was killed, we see the same messaging was repeated in the community. People are connecting the dots, and the fact that art has some role in that blows my mind!
ASR: What is your background in arts and activism? How did you come to both? Were there are any particularly politicizing moments for you as an artist or activist?
MC: I was born in Harbor City and spent the first 25 years of my life in Los Angeles. My parents met in the city I live in now, San Leandro, in the 1960s at the height of political activism of that time. My mom was a migrant from Central Mexico, and my dad was a border kid, he grew up in Nogales, Arizona. There were two impactful moments growing up in L.A., the first being the L.A. uprising in 1992. I was 16 years old and remember the curfew that was called in the city, and the militarized presence on the street where I grew up, the cops and military telling us we had to go inside. I wasn’t necessarily activated, but I was very curious about what was happening and deeply impacted by all of the racial dynamics. The news was telling us that the riots impacted the African American community only, but I remember going to school after the uprising and there were all these Central American youth that had been arrested. Actually if you look back at the arrest statistics one of the highest was Guatemalans. That doesn’t make it into the narrative of what happens, but in my lived experience, I went back to school and those people weren’t there. That moment was about coming into consciousness and getting to the point where we couldn’t take it any more. It was very lived for me.
The next flashpoint for me was when Prop 187 was on the ballot and Pete Wilson was governor of California. It was the same year I was running for homecoming queen — which really speaks to the big shifts in my life. I was in a poofy dress in a car in the homecoming parade the same day there were walkouts in protest of Prop 187. I remember having this moment of dissonance. There were helicopters all over the area, and students were trying to jump the fence but the metal had been greased so students couldn’t get out. Latino students understood what Prop 187 meant. It didn’t take a whole lot of agitation to get them to demonstrate. These were really formative moments for me. It wasn’t until I went to El Camino Community College that I became a student leader with Student Organization of Latinos (SOL). We were incredibly multiracial even though were were a “Latino” organization. Many of our events used collective arts–based approaches for our events and organizing.
ASR: At what point did you learn to print?
MC: I learned to print in 2005 when I took a class at Laney College. At the time, I was doing paintings that were very big, 5 x 7’, and stylistically laid out like a print with big, bold spaces of color. Shortly thereafter I met Favianna Rodriguez and Jesus. Jesus became a mentor of mine. He was taught by Juan Fuentes — he is a maestro! A few years later we started Dignidad Rebelde. This collaboration is one way we embody the push-back against the fetishization of the individual artist.
ASR: What are your thoughts and feelings about the Occupy movement?
MC: I view the initial moments of encampments as catalyzing and a demonstration for people who were not involved or were minimally involved in the broad issues that were surfaced through Occupy. Now I see the organizing has gotten more pointed, for example, the big action that happened against Wells Fargo on April 24. More people are getting involved in the organizing, and there is a target and people trying to do really specific things. People are also looking at new forms of how to act cooperatively, like starting arts co-ops where people come together to teach each other.
The next phase of Occupy is people developing practices beyond these catalyzing moments. When I look out the window of my day job over the plaza where Occupy Oakland was, every week there are people who come together and they make a piece of chalk art, people were having a dance party, having fun together. There was no one creating artwork or being creative once a week in the plaza before Occupy. It is hard to track everything that came out of Occupy because there was so much. It wasn’t about just one thing. Some of it was controversial, like the split between calling Occupy Oakland “Occupy” versus “Decolonize Oakland” — even the fact that that conversation took place and pushed people was important. There is a lot to learn from it and its continuing movement around the world. That momentum is important. Our insurgent spirits haven’t been quelled by the loss of the encampments. People are willing to fight for their vision of what that society can be. I’m going to keep making images that hopefully capture those visions, help focus them and reflect them back, so the people can see what they are a part of.