When LA-based artist Ernesto Yerena Montejano was a small child, he painted the same wagon – over and over again. At one point silver flames covered the wagon, another time its initials were painted in graffiti style on the front.
This wagon was only the first of Yerena’s works of art.
Since then he has collaborated with notable artists including graffiti artist Shepard Fairey, known for Obama’s presidential campaign image “Hope” and founder of the OBEY clothing line. One of Yerena’s projects – the posters teachers proudly carried during the 2019 United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) strike – hangs at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Now Yerena’s job is in downtown Phoenix.
On November 12, her latest project – a mural commissioned by the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) and Resilience Force for its #immigrantsareessential campaign – was unveiled. The artwork is located at 706 W. Taylor St. This is Yerena’s fifth mural project.
“The mural is dedicated to the lives of immigrants lost during COVID,” Yerena said. “And not just the people who have died, but all the frontline workers and immigrant workers who have helped this country through the pandemic. This fresco is for them, to honor them and elevate them for the heroes that they are.
Yerena focused on the stories of minority groups
Growing up in the Imperial Valley in California, just an hour from Yuma, Yerena grew up along the Mexican border.
Her mother worked as a teacher, her father as a car painter. Spray paint – heavy-duty car paint – quickly became Yerena’s friend. At 7, he knew how to cut stencils.
“I was still drawing, I was still painting,” said Yerena, 34.
Graphic design school was Yerena’s next stop after high school. It was these four years that paved the way for his career. During this time, Yerena worked with Fairey, a political activist and street artist. They collaborated on the OBEY Dia De Los Muertos Calavera design, as well as a 2015 piece called “Not One More Deportation”.
Projects with political declarations continued. From creating images to push immigration reform to creating posters that encourage change within the education system to designing print materials for the Black Lives Matter movement, each of Yerena’s projects focus on the dignity and empowerment of minority groups.
“When I was a kid I didn’t see myself in the history books, I rarely saw myself on TV,” said Yerena, who identifies as both Chicano and Native. “Although it’s more common, I still don’t see myself the way I want to. I always want to work by asking, “Where is the void? ”
Yerena wanted the mural to feature real people
It all started when NILC and Resilience Force contacted Branded Arts, an art services company, to find an artist to paint the mural. Their campaign, #immigrantsareessential, is an initiative that finds artists to tell stories of immigrant workers. Through these visual stories, the campaign works to push for more government involvement, support and protection for undocumented frontline workers. According to FWD.us, 69% of immigrant workers are frontline workers, with more than 5 million immigrants in the core workforce.
Branded Arts asked Yerena to paint the mural and the project matched her artistic and activist goals.
For Yerena, it was essential that the mural depicted people who actually carried the weight of its meaning. A friend, Phoenix artist and activist Diane Ovalle, found people in her community and photographed them. Yerena would later use the images as models for the mural.
“I called Diane and just said, ‘Can you find me two people who are essential workers who identify as immigrants and who would like to fight for better pay and more dignified conditions? And she found them. There are hardly any people in my posters or in my pictures that I don’t know. They are always real people with real stories.
The illustration process took over 100 hours, Yerena said. Then, on November 3-4, Yerena painted the mural alongside a team of artists from Phoenix.
“I came here to help them, I didn’t ask any questions and I said, ‘Just tell me what to do,’” said local muralist Adrian Garcia. “It means a lot to me because my grandfather was an immigrant. It struck me that my grandfather was proud of me and what I do.”
The mural resembles Grant Wood’s famous 1930s “American Gothic” painting – but with a twist, Yerena said.
Take a stroll down Taylor Street and viewers will see a man and woman standing side by side, both in masks. Man looks up hopefully with paint roller in hand, woman looks straight ahead with spatula in hand. Next to them are three superimposed words: “Pay. Protect. Honor.’ And all along the wall reads another statement: “Immigrants are essential.
Yerena hopes mural will empower immigrant workers
They are called Juan Miguel Cornejo Millán and Sandra Ojeda.
The married couple moved to the United States in 2000 and are still awaiting documents, Cornejo Millan said. He paints houses, and after years of working as a cook in the restaurant business, Ojeda works alongside her husband. Both have worked within and for their communities throughout the duration of the pandemic.
“During the pandemic, we were on the danger line and we never backed down, we always moved forward,” said Cornejo Milln. “The government has forgotten our families. A lot of people quit their jobs because they received an economic boost because of the pandemic, but the immigrant community, the undocumented people, we never had that support and we risked our lives to continue supporting our families and continuing to generate economy for the United States.
The hope, Yerena says, is that the mural not only empowers immigrant workers, but also encourages immigration reform in Arizona.
“It’s just to take care of the people who took care of us,” he said.
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