By Melanie Cervantes
This piece is taken from an CR’s Drawing Inspiration event in 2011, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Attica Rebellion and the assassination of George Jackson.
In 2007 my partner Jesus Barraza and I founded a graphic arts collaborative called Dignidad Rebelde. We don’t do art for art’s sake. We do it to recover the dignity of our people and our communities. This is our purpose. We believe art can be an empowering reflection of a community’s struggles, dreams and visions. We are largely influenced by Xicanisma and Zapatismo amongst many other philosophies of revolution and change. We produce art in order to transform people’s stories of struggle and resilience into a graphic visual language that gets put right back into their hands.
This image is the first image we created the day before the first rally to protest the murder of Oscar Grant by BART police officer [Johannes Mehserle]. This is how it was adopted, how people made it their own, and an example of how we see art being put back into people’s hands.
We believe that movements are necessary to transform the conditions we face in society. Our analysis understands what the root causes are: colonialism, genocide, exploitation, capitalism. The challenge for us is, how do we represent these movements in visual art in a way that doesn’t just reflect our racial or ethnic community but really reflects the complexity of who we are and who our communities are, and that connects those dots between movements?
How we integrate our values into our practice is important. One of the values that we have around depicting movements is actually reflecting real people. That means reflecting people that are organizing and fighting for a better world. It’s critically important to move people that are often marginalized from view into the center.
This is a piece I designed for Center for Young Women’s Development (CYWD) [in San Francisco]. They wanted to create a piece that would popularize and help make evident the fact that they had won this young mothers’ bill of rights and to give young mothers and young fathers tools and information about their rights. When making palm cards and posters I felt it was important to reflect some young people that had come through CYWD, so the piece includes representations of their members.
Another value that is important to our work is collaboration. A lot of people ask why we have a name for ourselves when it’s just the two of us. Our analysis of the problems we face today includes how hyper-individualism is key in maintaining dominant culture. Creating the space that Dignidad Rebelde holds is like saying to the world that our interconnectedness is important and the least you’ll ever get is two of us working together. And that’s just the beginning, because we also believe that it has to build beyond this.
In 2010 we invited people in the coalition that organizes the May 1st mobilizations in Oakland to produce handmade art that we would pass out to marchers. This was after Arizona Governor, Jan Brewer, had signed Senate Bill 1070 into law. I wanted to see the streets flooded with art on May 1st. Everyone was struggling, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was knocking on people’s doors, and those without the documentation of permitted migration were ending up in detention or being deported. Young people were really struggling with the cuts in their programs and their schools. It was just a very depressing moment and I wanted to do something different. This is one example of how we encourage collaboration. About 40 people from five different organizations showed up and together we collectively produced 500 handmade prints that were given out for free at that May Day march.
A week later a group of artists did another run of four different artists’ posters to send to Arizona. Within two or three months we sent 3000 handmade posters to Arizona. All funded by grassroots fundraising, all “pass-the-bucket foundation” fund raising, and all just really the labor of love; people putting their hands to the work.
The most obvious layer of collaboration is the collaboration that we do with base building or community based organizations. We know it is important to be artists that that are accountable to more than ourselves. By creating these works in collaboration we create a mechanism for being accountable, for putting images out that are speaking to a group of people who have actually been through what’s reflected in the images.
I don’t really consider myself an organizer. I see myself as providing an arm of work, within a larger movement, that’s necessary to support the organizing. I have these moments when I’m holding my camera taking a picture and imagining a poster and it’s so clear to me that as bad as it gets, it’s going to get much better, because in that moment of clarity although it’s fleeting, I feel like all the impacts people make will culminate into something much bigger.
Melanie Cervantes, a member of Dignidad Rebelde, is a Xicana graphic artist who creates images that reflect the hopes and dreams of social movements and that catalyze people to action.