When my friend Ernesto Yerena approached me to collaborate with him on the art piece “Nuestros Éxitos”, I knew that working with him would be a great experience because I respect his work ethic, vision, and art career. He was inspired by a portrait I published and he understood the photo was about confidence, triumph and love. We discussed the goals of families that have relocated to the US due to economic hardship and the experience of being a first or second-generation child growing up in the US. Many parents strive for a better quality life for their children and make due with what they can handle at the time but the end goal never changes. Youth are like the sunrise because they promise a new day and the orange colors are the radiation of good fortune. Our path to accomplish new things and to triumph challenges ahead are given foundation by our ancestors but also those that are still alive and still giving us life. We have sat on their shoulders.
We wanted to mark a moment of accomplishment after generations of struggle with the image of a young person radiating confidence, self-love, and ambition. Arriving to this point can be a result of generations of struggle. For both of us, this served as a source of inspiration for the piece. This isn’t to ignore other narratives such as the child that perhaps did not grow up in a nuclear family and was forced to become independent early in life, or the child that survived neglect and/or abuse. I personally endured some difficult obstacles on my own but I also want to pay tribute to being raised with a single mother that ultimately tried to protect me from abuse and compensate for the neglect from my father.
The portrait used is of Tanya, age 21. In the original photo she stands singular and confident. Her look is piercing and bold; her smile is subtle, almost introverted or hidden. Her high cheekbones are accentuated by the angled light overhead; creating dramatic shadow that dips from her ear to her mouth. Along with this shadow, her extra dark brown/black pupils dominate the shot. These eyes are a family signature. My Abuelito described them as ojos de balazo, or bullet eyes because of their resemblance to a dark piercing holes left by a bullet’s permeation. Softness in the image is brought by the texture and body of her hair which giving a cloud-like edge. The idea to begin shooting portraits of my primas-hermanas began with my search for a challenge. The four little women that I spend most of my quality time with have never been the subject of my lens. Unlike my traditional street portrait with strangers, capturing their faces and environment was a new venture that flexed the trust and cariño I have established with them over the years.
Tanya is the oldest of 4 girls and she caries all the characteristics of the oldest child in a family. Her parents met in Mexico then married young and migrated to the San Fernando Valley to join the rest of my family building a life in the northern Los Angeles area. I have watched her blossom into the most confident young woman I know. Acquiring responsibility in the family is carried like a badge of honor and she has become the right hand to her parents. She has accepted the role of her sister’s keeper and a family protector. Since the age of 14 she has been the bookkeeper of all household bills and determines what flexibility is available with the monthly income. She remembers the “dog days” receiving eviction notices, being harassed by debt collectors, counting the change for the week’s groceries and then staying on a frijoles diet to make ends meet. She carries the memories of the frustrations and tense environment in the home due to financial instability. She tells me “the younger ones didn’t go through that. They don’t remember those times.”
Tanya is a millennial with everything at her fingertips and I have never heard her express limitations for herself. I don’t know if she sees them but she doesn’t believe in excuses for herself. She has a grip on her personal interests and dreams, as well as her responsibilities and commitment to her family. She is pursuing a degree in psychology at Cal Poly Pomona. Her happiness and groundedness seems to come from the work ethic and solution-based perspective instilled in her by both my Tio Hugo and my Tia Angelica. The family today lives in El Monte, CA.
My Tia Georgina, the matriarch, the spiritual guide and a Santera once sent me off with the blessings of San Cristobal. I am not catholic and I do not worship saints but her prayer was for me to be protected as I ventured away from the family. She explained that for her children, she was not able to give them everything but she reminded them that though she was not able to be involved in all aspects of their life the way the gringa moms were, she was present in the clothes they wore and food she prepared for them. This is how she was able to demonstrate her love for her children as a mother working two jobs. She assured me that I had the tools in me to endure the world and the women in our family have followed a legacy of strength and resistance. I am proud to work with inspiring artists such as Ernesto and with this print we pay tribute to our parents and relatives that have enabled us to not only survive but flourish and prosper in our adulthood.
Each print is signed by both of us and if you would like to purchase this piece or any other art prints by Ernesto Yerena, visit his website: hechoconganas.com