A Conversation With Ernesto Yerena of ‘The Canvas: Los Angeles’ on Injustice, Identity and the Power of Art

Ernesto Yerena BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of guayaki.com

The lifeline of any culture is its art. It is the eternal voice whose ring echoes without any end in sight, which is why its value should never be underestimated. 

Ernesto Yerena, a political artist, gets this to its core.

Yerena, whose style is embedded in mixed media art, is one of the artists featured on Fuse/Fuse+’s “The Canvas: Los Angeles.” During his episode, he talks about using his creative expression to further the voices of movements that hold meaning to him, for example, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, and immigrant rights. 

The Canvas: Los Angeles, a docuseries that goes inside the world of eight self-taught and self-made artisans whose creative vision is inspired by their vibrant and distinct communities of Los Angeles, walks us through Yerena’s story as he creates art in Boyle Heights. 

Growing up in Imperial Valley, California, specifically in the city of El Centro — a city about 10 minutes away from Mexico — he quickly realized the need to understand the duality of his identity. In part because he was sensitive to how others started perceiving the manifestation of his rich cultural heritage through his language, accent, and behaviors. And this became a key element to his fascination with art and social justice from a young age. 

Since then, he’s immersed himself in speaking through his creations. 

Considering the many injustices that trace every crevice of the historically excluded communities like the Black, Latinx, and Indigenous community, he feels like he needs to create as much as he can. 

His art is also known to shine a light on the mistreatment of Indigenous people.

“In order for me not to lose my shit, I have to make art, ” he says during the episode. 

His tenacity to provide visibility for others through his art left us wanting to learn more about Yerena, so we sat down with him a few afternoons ago, and this is what he told us:

Ernesto Yerena artist working BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of hechoconganas.com

The interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

On his upbringing

I’m from the city called El Centro, and it’s a city that’s maybe ten minutes away from the Mexican border. Across the border is the city of Mexicali, California. That’s where my parents are from. So, I grew up on the border. My dad painted cars, and my mom was a teacher before I was born. 

On his constant exposure to creativity

My dad painted cars. Eventually, he got a job at the prison teaching painting. So, I was always around creative energy, and I was always around that kind of creative problem-solving.

Whether it was seeing a piece of metal bend back to how it looked before the crash or matching colors, that physical and visual aspect of creative problem-solving was constantly going on around me, that really informed me and led me to start cutting stencils at a very young age. In fact, my dad showed me how to cut stuff at around eight years old. And my grandpa bought me a  bootleg 99 cent version of an exacto blade when I was a boy, which set it off for me.

On contemplating whether or not to make art his career

I don’t know if I knew there was a plan. I used to think that when I got older, I was going to have a regular job, and then this [art]  was going to be my hobby. My parents never put that in my head. It was sort of how I would hear society talk about artists or how they were spoken about in my community. It was almost like they instilled in me that there were categories to life; one was hobbies, and then there was an actual career — and art was not a career. 

A lot of my friends’ parents saw the arts as an extracurricular thing, too. None of my parents’ friends were okay with me pursuing the arts, but my parents were never against that.

On his serendipitous path towards becoming an artist

I thought about being an artist but by fate. I ended up going to an art school because I wasn’t really doing anything after high school, and my dad was pressuring me to either go to school or get a job. At around that same time, those schools that are kind of predatory, incessantly calling you when you graduate, were calling me. And one of the schools that called me convinced me to join their art program. They actually called me about a culinary department, and I went to see the culinary department. But I figured I didn’t really want to do that, and I’d rather do the arts. 

On his favorite piece of artwork (up until now)

The “Yaqui Day of the Dead” is probably one of my favorite pieces. I think it’s really strong. The design was really well-balanced, but it’s also one of the pieces I think tells the most of my journey as an artist. It’s a combination of both things: finding my artistic voice moving into Los Angeles and pulling back from my own identity. 

My family actually comes from Yaqui ancestry. And I know it’s much more than just bloodline. But that has always been really important to me because when I was a kid, my great-grandparents still spoke the language. It was something that I never forgot. When I was a kid, I remember I’d hear people speaking English or Spanish, but then my great-grandparents would be speaking something else. And that was always intriguing to me. 

Ernesto Yerena pieces BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of dogstreets.com

On advice for emerging artists

Ultimately, if anyone wants to be an artist or if anyone wants to go on to a creative career, I just say, go for it. But you have to really commit to whatever you’re going to do. And I think that’s the main takeaway I’ve had from my career. You know, it’s just you. Now, we don’t want to ignore that different people face different obstacles. I’m sure it’s way harder for Latina artists, women artists, or queer and trans folks to do what I’ve been able to do. My journey would have been way harder than it was if I wasn’t a straight, cisgender man. However, I think, in general, people do face adversity — people do face pushback and pressure.

But it’s all about trying to stay focused and being around people that are supportive, and trying to keep it moving.

If you want to learn more about Yerena’s journey, make sure to tune in to his episode of “The Canvas: Los Angeles” on Fuse/Fuse+.