5 Notable Hispanics in Underground Art
Fine Art and Real Estate Broker Anna D. Smith celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month by honoring Hispanic artists working outside of the gatekeeping established art world. Here are five underground artists whose works are worth collecting.
It is my personal preference when highlighting 5-notable persons in Art or Real Estate, is to talk about the environments in which these notable men or women find themselves. This usually entails the commercial side to Art or Real Estate, in other words, the market!
The following is an assessment of the current state of the Hispanic Art Market.
2020 saw the release of professor Arlene Dávila’s book Latinx Art: Artists, Markets, and Politics. It draws on interviews with artists, dealers, and curators to explain the nonexistent Hispanic art market. Dávila’s work comes on the heels of Diana Ledesma’s 2016 paper After the Chicano Rights Movement: Mapping the Art Market for Contemporary Mexican American Artists. Ledesma notes, “There is a severe lack of representation of Mexican American artists in important American institutions. This, coupled with the hindrance of identity politics and a resistance to diversity, have made the art market for Mexican Americans practically non-existent.”
It is important for readers to understand the origin stories of group identity in the United States. That these identities are normally well thought out and debated within the group prior to asking the larger body politics of U.S. cultural life to identify them as such.
According to Ledesma:
Coming of age in the civil rights era, the Chican@ rights movement was a way for Mexican Americans to self-identify after years of enduring being labeled “greasers” and “wetbacks” in segments of American society. Four years after state-sanctioned segregation ended with the Civil Rights Act in 1964, close to 1,500 Mexican Americans from all over the country gathered in Colorado for what became known as the Denver Youth Council; they reflected on ethnic identity and their position in the United States (US). The conference produced a manifesto titled, El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, wherein the education, self-defense, and political liberation of Mexican Americans, among other topics were addressed. The document also called on creative people to produce literature and art “that is appealing to our people, and relates to our revolutionary culture.” The term Chicano was reclaimed as a way to reconnect Mexican Americans to a withheld indigenous past.
Cristina Mora in her 2014 book Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New American, explains how several distinct cultures and nationalities, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Cubans become portrayed as one, Hispanics.
During the 1960 census, Latin American immigrants were classified as White, grouping them with European Americans. This enraged Latino activists, as it hindered their ability to portray their constituents as underrepresented minorities.
President Richard Nixon pressured the Census Bureau to create an advisory board composed of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans, for the purpose of determining what they desired to be called on the census form.
Some of the advisory members said, “Hey, why not use ‘brown’? We don’t fit into these white, black, Asian categories. That’s not us.” Now, if you’re a demographer, if you’re a statistician, that seems like an incredible nightmare. You know, brown can mean Filipinos. Brown can be Native Americans. Brown can be South Asian Indians. That was a non-starter. They went down a list that included Latin American. However, Latinos were seen as foreigners, invaders, and not inherently American. And one of the jobs of the advisory board was to really show that Latinos were an American minority group, like African-Americans — a minority that stretched from coast to coast and that were patriotic, that fought in wars, that contributed to American history, that built American cities. So when a term like Latin American was used, right away, it seemed to strike discord because it was seen as too foreign.
Hispanic was never a term that everybody loved, but it was a term that got the most support from the advisory board; and during the 1980s, Latino political organizations started to demand that not only should the Hispanic category be included in the census, but on birth certificates as well.
The purpose of this brief art detour, is to let the Hispanic community know, I am fully conscious that not everyone was accepting of the term Hispanic, although it got the majority vote; and the current political debate within the community for the emergence of the term Latinx.
Here are two relevant questions that Dávila was asked in an Artnews interview, “Arlene Dávila Discusses Her Latest Book about Latinx Art.”
One example that you bring up is Carmen Herrera, who is always referred to as being born in Cuba even though she’s been based in New York for decades.
There is this myth in the art world that race doesn’t matter, identity doesn’t matter. Quality is quality, and we should only be looking at artists based on their work. Of course, that is so pathetically untrue, but people go around saying that to maintain and defend the white male art world. What I try to do is show that in fact the art world thrives on national differences as an important variable for value and for evaluating artists. I think the art world is very nationalistic. Cosmopolitanism, internationalism, anything that is worldly ranks as valuable in opposition to anything that is regarded as diasporic, racialized, ethnic. It’s obvious that certain categories sell more than others, so I wanted to explore that. I kept wondering why is Latinx bad and Latin American good—what accounts for that?
Juxtapose Dávila’s statement with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Philip Kennicott. Kennicott, who is white, wrote, “Is it even possible to organize a major art exhibition devoted to an ethnic or minority group? Latino art is a meaningless category. When Latino art—rich with content informed by various styles, moments of time, and a myriad of cultures is grouped together, you get a big mess.”
Yet, as Dávila has noted, that is precisely what the Art Market has become, worldly and cosmopolitan. As New York City Mayor Eric Adams stated at a press conference, “New York has a Brand, Kansas does not.”
That distinction is important for people to know about, and it also ties in with other poignant issues that you write about: issues of national privilege, class privilege, and racial privilege. To use your phrase from earlier, there’s always been a “polite silence” around saying that there are white Latin Americans, for example.
It was very important for me to address that head-on not as something that is rarefied: This is “Latinx” and this is “Latin American,” and the two should never meet. When we’re talking about Latinx artists, we’re also talking about artists who are immigrants to the United States; many of them are Dreamers, not all of them are born and raised in the U.S. What I wanted to highlight was that there are different art worlds in which some artists are included and others are not. That’s central to understanding when we’re talking about Latinx artists, many of whom work primarily in the context of the United States and many of whom are Black and Brown and don’t have what I call “national privilege”—a connection to a Latin American country. Those artists are the most marginalized. I think it’s important to talk about Latinx artists because we have so many other spaces where we recognize Latinos/Latinas/Latinxs as a demographic—consumers, voters, workers. And yet, when we go to the realm of the arts, we immediately fuse them with Latin American art.
That slipperiness benefits the market and the definitions of a market that says, “We’re very open, inclusive—we’re all Latin, there’s no distinctions.” Well, actually, no—there are huge distinctions that have to do not only with the histories and racialization of different groups but also class. It’s important that people understand that conversation, and it’s not exclusive to the art world. It’s also coming up in the context of media, film. Cultural industries, in particular, are having a big reckoning right now because, for many years, this slipperiness [has meant] that any Latin American producer or director becomes Latinx and then counts for diversity or representation. It is a disservice to our community to not be specific. It provides the illusion of representation when what you actually have is the invisibility and erasure of Latinx, and primarily Black and Brown, creatives. That’s important to highlight because these white faces do not recognize us. That’s a problem. It’s often white stakeholders who are making assumptions about Latinx identity, and this invisibility is propagated in a way that hurts all of us. It’s not acceptable that curators I interviewed, when I talked about Latinx artists, mentioned Latin American artists and did not understand the irony of the incredible erasure caused by their ignorance.
This cultural erasure by the dominant culture in the United States of its minorities extends to African Americans in higher education, as well.
Selective colleges, universities, and graduate programs first created affirmative action admissions policies in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At that time, due to the historical impact of racism on American society, the “one-drop rule” classified any person with some African ancestry as black. The predominance of the one-drop rule meant that children born from black and white parents were brought up to consider themselves black. In addition, a very small percentage of blacks of college age-and thus potential beneficiaries of these admission policies-had a foreign-born black parent. As a result, at this time the general rule about the overwhelming majority of blacks who were of college age was that they were descendants of blacks originally brought to the United States as chattel slaves. This was a fundamental assumption upon which affirmative action was developed. See “Demise of the Talented Tenth: Affirmative Action and the Increasing Underrepresentation of Ascendant Blacks at Selective Educational Institutions.”
By the 1980s, there were rumblings amongst the African-American intelligentsia that affirmative action admissions were going to Black immigrants of African or Caribbean descent, to the college admissions determinant of native born, generational, U.S. citizens of former slaves to which these admission programs were conceived for.
African American, and former California UC Regent Ward Connerly had stated in 2005, “Over the years, preference programs, affirmative action programs, have really not benefited low-income blacks, those who were the descendants of slaves. They have benefited middle- and upper-income blacks, and recent immigrants are the beneficiaries of this terribly flawed program. The institutions don’t care, all they care about is the numbers. To a large extent, this has flown beneath the radar. We (regents) have not discussed it, and I don’t think we ever will.”
Here are two examples that the dominant culture in the United States sees its own minority citizens as invisible, however, uses the phenotype similarities of the non-native minority to virtue-signal they are doing good work towards the native minority.
These faux virtue signals have real world economic impact towards labor market access, as well as art market access.
Another observer of the nonexistent Hispanic Art Market can be found in Ledesma’s paper, who cites the comments of Art Historian and Director of the Latino Studies program at Tufts University, Adriana Zavala. Zavala drives home the point and theme discussed by Dávila and the African American education case study regarding the erasure of the U.S. minority culture by inappropriately mixing it with those outside of the U.S. who do not have long tail roots in the U.S..
“It is important to study Latin American and Latin@ artists independently from one another,” states Zavala. “They are not parallel tracks of study, because when we’re talking about US Latinos and Chicanos, we’re talking about people whose history, their political experience, their cultural experience is conditioned in some form by a state of colonization within the US.”
Another notable opinion in Ledesma’s paper were the observations made by Conceptual artist, photographer, and media professor at the California Institute of the Arts, Harry Gamboa, who has spent his career examining the Chican@ market. Gamboa had concluded that there is no “Chicano market” when he states bluntly, “Type in the word ‘Chicano’ on the web sites of Sotheby’s and Christie’s and you get a big fat zero.” He points to institutional neglect when he summarizes, “look at the collections of the major museums. That will also tell you something.”
Even Gamboa cannot be found on either auction house’s website—this celebrated artist who has exhibited at Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne in Switzerland (2009), the Centre Pompidou in Paris (2006); the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporaneous (2008) and the Museo Nacional de la Estampa (2005) in Mexico City, along with a number of domestic museums.ooo
Amber Padilla [https://www.amberpadilla.com/] is a cartoonist and illustrator based in Oakland, California, who works at Schulz Studio, home to the Peanuts Gang of Charlie Brown and Snoopy.
In 2022, the Frontline Comics Project published Adrift, a comic strip written by Luis Manriquez and illustrated by Padilla. Adrift is a part of a series of comic strips published online that reenacts true stories by frontline health care workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.
During the early days of the 2020 pandemic, with a scarcity of resources and an absence of institutional guidance, healthcare workers began to spontaneously form groups on social media to share information about treatments for COVID patients, self-protection when PPE wasn’t available, and quarantine strategies for COVID workers who were exposed to the virus.
These groups also became a safe space for catharsis where frontline workers could share their personal experiences, hopes, fears, dread, and despair. Many frontline workers had pandemic-related stories to tell, but no means or platform to bring the stories to light.
In response to this dilemma, the board of the Graphic Medicine International Collective started the Frontline Comics Project. A project to connect frontline workers with cartoonists to co-create comics about stories from the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each of the collaborations between a frontline storyteller and a cartoonist were designed to serve as a means for catharsis, education, activism and as a historical record of those extraordinary times.
Manriquez and Padilla’s work in Adrift is a moving, tear-jerking display of troubling and racist discrimination during the Covid-19 crises.
In 2019, Padilla wrote and did the illustration in Brown and Monolingual. It is a short exploration of her personal struggle around language and identity as an American woman of Latin descent.
In 2021, her first graphic novel as an illustrator was The Secret Garden on 81st Street: A Modern Graphic Retelling of The Secret Garden, a retelling of the classic 1911 graphic children’s novel The Secret Garden by Author Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Illustrators M. L. Kirk, and Charles Robinson.
Jesus Martinez [https://www.jemt888.com/] is a Los Angeles Mexican-American who grew up in poverty. He sold flowers with his parents on the streets of Los Angeles from preschool to high-school, and has become the first professional in his entire family tree.
While working at Disney, Martinez was exposed to the power of storytelling by the mentorship of academy award winning writers or producers. This mentorship gave him the power to unlock hidden meanings through narrative, a power reflected in his NFTs. “Artwork is all about storytelling,” says Martinez. “People don’t just buy art, they want to be a part of the story.”
In 2015, he began to dabble with cryptocurrency. He discovered that bitcoin was being used as a currency that you could transact money from anywhere around the world without a bank. Bitcoin and other related Blockchain utilities convinced him to learn about using artwork as a Non Fungible Token (NFT).
After much press coverage, and the selling of his NFT Genesis for $80,000, his NFTs are now sought after by institutions, public figures, celebrities, and more.
Michael Blanco [https://www.instagram.com/mike88hunter/]
Abel Blanco [https://www.instagram.com/abelblanco014/]
Michael and Abel Blanco are two very talented artists who find themselves confined in the California prison system. They have been trying to support themselves while confined through Art. One of their most popular art styles is doing custom hand paintings on baseball caps. For them, these hats are like the blank canvases to a Pablo Picasso.
Despite, through legislation, California had abandoned the medieval concept of strict `civil death’ upon conviction [In re van Geldern (1971) 489 P. 2d 578], and prisoners have the right to both own and to sell their manuscripts and artwork; however, Pelican Bay State Prison is not allowing them to mail out their custom handcrafted baseball hats, despite the demand. “It’s just the rule at the moment,” states Michael. “Which is dumb, since it’s not state property. It’s my art work. But we are trying to petition the warden to allow us to send them out.”
Here is my interview with these brothers:
Anna: Does art help you in other areas of your life?
Abel: Yes, art has helped me in other areas of my life. I feel a lot more relaxed when I’m drawing at ease.
Micheal: Yes my art work helps me in lots of ways. Financially. It’s also therapeutic.
Anna: How do you develop your art skills?
Abel: I develop my skills by asking people who know more than me, read books on how to get better, and just practice. You’ll notice little things here and there.
Michael: I’ve always drawn. Since I was in 3rd grade. I saw a girl who could draw dinosaurs in my class and she was better than me. I wanted to be better than her, so I worked on it. I just started taking it seriously in here.
Anna: How has your style changed over time?
Michael: I just started experimenting with different styles until I found my own. I don’t like to get stuck on one style and try new things all the time. Just started acrylic paint about 1 year ago when we were allowed to buy paint. I’m in a high security prison and before we couldn’t buy it.
Abel: I’ve tried to do more realistic drawings. I started with simple cartoons and developed my style to be more realistic. I still have a long way to go
Anna: What factors influence the price of your work?
Abel: I priced my art, how complicated it was, how much time I spent on the actual drawing.
Michael: Depends on the time I take and if the customer is my friend they get discounts.
Anna: Why do you want to make and sell art?
Michael: Lots of things. But the best motivation is seeing someone who has better work than me.
Abel: To show people the talent that is in here. My style is just alright. I’ve only been drawing for a little over 10 years. The talent in here is amazing.
Anna: Anything else you would like the readers to know?
Michael: Keep us in your thoughts and prayers. Hopefully we go home with the passing of Senate Bill 775.
Abel: Keep your eyes open. I still have a long way to go. I would like to be the best. Thanks for helping us out. That’s really cool of you.
Pedro “AMOS” Rodriguez [https://www.pedroamos.com/] better known as AMOS, is a Miami native who began doing graffiti in 1994. He has since become an artrepreneur. His Pedro AMOS L.L.C. is a full-service art cooperative that includes art curation, such as his Miami’s Best Graffiti Guide L.L.C., a tour company that provides the artists’ perspective on street art culture and the people behind it.
Besides Miami Street scene tour guides, his company also provides corporate team building events, scenic backgrounds for film & TV, and commercial advertisement, just to name a few of his services.
As a Graffiti artist, he has left his mark on half of the world’s continents, in cities such as Taipei, Medellin, Montreal, Amsterdam, New York City, and many more.
Gabriela Alemán [https://www.smugmorenita.com/] was born and raised in the Mission District of San Francisco, California. As an interdisciplinary artivist, her Works give rise to those invisible forces that go underappreciated, but yet, without them, the United States would cease to function as a country.
“My work consists of boldly colored graphics that highlight Latinx subjects and cultural iconography not found in most mainstream or Latinx art,” states Alemán. “I’m devoted to using the rich colors of my community and my lens as a Latinx creative to bring visibility to the Central American diaspora.”
Self-taught, with the help of artists in her community, and the university of YouTube, she began drawing and experimenting with different materials and mediums as a means to explore her experiences as a first-generation, queer, child of Central American immigrants. This did not go unnoticed by Disney+ executives, who asked her to create an illustration for Pride month.
Besides working with Disney, she did work for Wells Fargo, and their Open for Business campaign for small businesses during the Covid pandemic. You can find Alemán on social media under the name Smug Morenita (@smugmorenita).
When it comes to women of color, we are not allowed to be smug. To me it means unapologetic, confident and knowing that I’m good at what I do.
—-Gabriela Alemán aka Smug Morenita
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I am a Fine Art and Real Estate Broker with 40 years of experience in all aspects of the Real Estate Industry. A member of the National Association of REALTORS®. I advocate for Prison Artist C-Note. With the right wall art, your room will go from functional to functionally enchanting. Contact me for your Fine Art & Real Estate problems.