Judithe Hernandez: Inside the Chicano movement

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In March, 1968 a group of Mexican-American students walked out of Wilson High to protest years of unequal treatment based on racial prejudice. Thousands from schools across East L.A. joined them in solidarity. The “Blowouts” came to be known as the largest Chicano youth movement ever to hit the streets of Los Angeles.

For artist Judithe Hernandez, it was a spiritual awakening. That year, she was at East LA College, doing the prerequisites to get into Otis Art Institute. When she enrolled in 1970, she would be one of only five Chicano students.

There, she met Carlos Almaraz, who would later introduce her to “Los Four,” a Chicano art collective made up of four men: Carlos Almaraz (who currently has a posthumous retrospective at LACMA), Frank Romero, Robert de la Rocha, and Gilbert Lujan. Hernandez was admitted as the honorary 5th member, and together, the group of college-educated political activists became the intellectual backbone of the Chicano art movement in the 1970s and ‘80s.

“You know it’s funny to read about yourself in the history books now that, you know, 40 years 50 years has passed,” she said. “They talk about us as if what what we did, the force that drew us together, was premeditated. But it just happened. I mean in 1968, I was 20 and that was the year of the walkouts. And there was this wave, this change in the whole world. I mean the Beatles did come here and, you know, taken over America. Women were burning their bras. And the Mexican-American Civil Rights movement just began to roll out in front of us. We were exposed to all of these influences, and it was such an exciting time. Being part of it just seemed normal. I mean you can’t sit on the sidelines.”

Hernandez painted over a dozen murals in Los Angeles, some in collaboration with Almaraz. The murals were designed to educated residents about Mexican history and identity, to reclaim that identity and turn in into a point of pride, rather than shame.

“We actually had to do a lot of homework even though we were raised in Mexican households,” she said. “We didn’t have an education in Mexican history the way American kids got a history of the United States and Europe. And I think it gave us a new appreciation for what it meant to be Mexicans; we were filled with pride. It just set off this amazing chain reaction throughout East L.A. as it did in South Central. It just poured out of people.”

Today, Hernandez feels less pressure to adhere to any one movement. Free to experiment, her pastel works are mash-ups of mythology, religion, and identity.

Earlier in her career, Hernandez never really identified as a feminist– she saw it as something for “white girls.” She chose to focus on race instead, fighting with her mostly male cohorts for social justice. But now, her feminism is starting to take shape, in the form of “Luchadoras.”

There is no exact translation for the word “Luchadora,” because Luchadoras, traditional Mexican wrestlers are always men. But Hernandez took those masks, long associated with power and masculinity, and put them on women.

Take her piece, “Les Demoiselles Del Barrio,” a direct homage to Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles D’ Avignon,” with a twist.

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“The traditional or the accepted interpretation of this piece was that these women are prostitutes. And just out of the picture plane is a client, who is choosing from among them. So they were displaying themselves. And I thought, oh no, that is not right…so my women are doing what I’ve always thought Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” should have been doing, which is saying ‘we are getting ready to arm ourselves, go back out that that entrance and face the world….only this time, we’re carrying swords, we have armor, and we are warriors. We’re not going to be objectified. We’re not going to be taken advantage of. We’re going to be thought of as human beings.”

Hernandez also plays with female trauma and empowerment in another body of work called the “Juarez Series,” which focuses on the 1990’s murders of the young women in Juarez. She says she will continue working on the series until the 800-2000 deaths are acknowledged by the Mexican government.

Hernandez’s work is currently on display as part of PST LA: LA. She said the exhibitions going on all over Southern California are exactly what Angelenos need right now.

“It is an indictment of all of the false narratives that have been coming out of the White House, about the contributions of Mexican Americans in particular,” she told the LA Times. “It could not have come at a better time.”

Judith Hernandez’s work is now on view at the Millard Sheets Art Center in Pomona, as part of PST LA. The show runs through January 28.