A Conversation with Victor Cervantes
BH: In your experience, what are some of the biggest misconceptions that people especially in the cities have about the Central Valley?
There is this idea that there is just this void - this vast emptiness - between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The truth is that a lot of people live and work here, and there are many wonderful stories that have not yet been told.
There's a lot of rich wonderful potential, not just artistically but intellectually. But it’s hard because anyone who has “potential” in these towns is encouraged to leave and go to the city. They are told there’s no future for them here. So we have to battle that cycle. It’s a tough situation because the large, industrials farms hold a lot of power in our area. There are many parallels between the history books and the present: undocumented workers are being held essentially as indentured servants and and they have taxation without representation [because they are paying income taxes but aren’t citizens so can’t vote]. Yet a lot of wealth is being produced from that labor. Central Valley agriculture is a $35 billion industry. So it's difficult to get beyond that, in terms of telling the story of our communities. But again I want to emphasize that there's a lot of talented young people and artists, even if we don’t have very many community centers or educational institutions.
What role do you see yourself playing in your community?
I see myself as an educator. I want to help students see art for themselves. When they come in I tell them that art is like any other language you just must learn to read the language. Many families tell us to find a job that will provide a good living for you because their background was one full of challenges. So they use a job that can pay bills as a point of reference. I encourage students to kind of keep with their dream. And for others that maybe they have a calling to just appreciate the arts.
My goal as an educator is to expose others to the arts and in children through the summer program or other public art projects.
As an artist, I tell the story of whatever affects me, even if it’’s something very abstract. People are like “What the hell is that?”. And they don't get it but that's OK. I also use art to talk about social issues that people may not have thought about before. And it's OK if they don't agree with it - the goal is to ask the question and stimulate conversation.
Victor painting a mural of farmwokers rights activist Cesar Chavez.
What is the role of art in social justice?
When I was in high school what I learned about the art was limited to Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. And then maybe the French impressionists. And that's pretty much what I remember. And I love those painters - they inspired me to pursue art - but it wasn't until I got to college that I was exposed to work that represented my own cultural background and experience. as a student I always remember the first time I ever heard the word empathy being explained to me by a professor. I realized how art is a powerful helps build empathy. At its essence, it can create bridges within and across communities that are different from each other. In order for justice to happen, I think those bridges need to be built. Art helps people see each other and care about each other.
For example, we did a mural project last summer in a youth center in the community nearby, with a group of students. There are a lot of things going on in those students’ lives and the art process was healing for many of them. The art itself is not really the work - it’s a byproduct. The work is the conversations that you have when you create a mural together.
Is there anything else that you want to share?
There’s a story I often share with my students, about my journey and the so-called “American Dream.” I picture the Dream as a cruise ship, where everybody's having a fun time and celebrating. But I’m out in the ocean waves, watching the party happening riding the waves up and down. The arts were my lifesaver. They kept me afloat; they were the one thing that kept me going. I always tell students and friends: you got to find your lifesaver. What is it about yourself that you just enjoy no matter what? Just continue involving yourself in that, so that you don't have to be yearning for that cruise ship. That’s what is going to help you get to your island - whatever that island is for you.