Interview from 1997

Juan Fuentes, the noted San Francisco artist, has been doing beautiful and important art work in the Mission District for more than twenty-five years. Currently he is teaching at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Art in San Francisco. He also teaches art to inmates at the San Francisco County Jail.

TGT: How did you become interested in art?

Fuentes: I guess I’ve always been interested in art, and I guess in the early period I was interested in how things got made. I was really interested in the construction of things. In high school, I wasn’t really able to take art classes, primarily because a lot of Chicanos were directed into auto repair or wood shop, or those kinds of classes. The school where I went was predominately Chicano and Anglo, and a lot of the Chicano kids were tracked into the industrial arts. I actually liked it because I learned how to use saws and how to measure things and cut things, which is really useful now when I make stuff around the house — I can make bookshelves, I can make all kinds of stuff. But, ah, I couldn’t take the fine art classes that were offered to other students. The closest I came to it was a drafting class — mechanical drawing as it was called — which actually helped me out later on when I got into graphic work because I learned how to use a tee square, triangle, and other drafting tools. I learned how to be very precise with things. But in high school, I was basically webbed in.

I got into an art class at San Francisco State. I was going there in 1969, and an instructor named Ralph Putzner was basically the one who turned me on to art. He was such a dynamic guy — the way he taught and the things he exposed us to. And he had a certain vision of why people made art, and it really got me excited. I started taking art classes though I couldn’t draw worth beans. I mean I couldn’t draw. I’d never had a drawing class before, you know. I was basically used to making things with my hands. And that’s the other thing that really struck me about the art process is that you can use your hands and it is very visual, and I liked that kind of stuff. I like that process.

TGT: What did this teacher do to get you excited about art?

Fuentes: I think it was his approach, his own personal approach to life and how it was connected to what he did that was really exciting to me. I saw a connection. The way he lived and the art work that he did — what it exposed people to. And it made sense to me. It’s kinda hard to describe, you know. It’s not like a set formula.

TGT: You studied at San Francisco State, right?

Fuentes: I started studying there in 1969. I got there a year after the strike (The Third World Student Strike) which instituted Ethnic Studies. So I was one of the students who came through the Educational Opportunity Program that was instituted during those years. And it was really as the result of the struggles that happened in Berkeley and at San Francisco State, and other campuses at that time. People were really fighting for the right to have an Ethnic Studies Department, and that’s why they recruited students from various Third World communities to come to the schools. And so I got into the program just by mere luck — one of my friend’s parents was involved in the recruiting. So I decided to do it.

TGT: So what was it like at that time, directly following the Third World Strike?

Fuentes: It was still kinda going on when I was there. Sixty-nine, seventy. It was an exciting time, and interesting too, because I was coming from a really small town. My family were farmworkers. They had come from Texas, had followed the crops in the fifties. From Texas they had gone to New Mexico, and then from New Mexico to the Salinas Valley. And basically they were looking for work, you know. So we lived in farm labor camps for the first twelve years — until we bought a house and I went to high school. So when I came to San Francisco State, my experience was basically, really, kinda small town — Watsonville. And I really didn’t have a sense of why we had that certain kind of poverty that we lived under, and it wasn’t until I got to SF State that started to really kinda understand it.

TGT: How do you view those sorts of things now?

Fuentes: Well, it’s really different now. I’ve gone through a lot of changes since then, but at that time, I guess my understanding was — I really didn’t see it as an all encompassing system. You know what I mean? We dealt with the ranchers and the land owners and — those were the people that we dealt with. I didn’t really see it much further than that. And it was really tied to agri-business. It was a much bigger conglomerate. It wasn’t until way later that I began to understand that.

TGT: You’ve done a lot of political posters over the years. What motivated you to start doing that?

Fuentes: I started doing posters as a way to basically try to give something back to the community. I was doing art work in school as part of an art school project, but I didn’t see a connection — it didn’t really connect to what I was doing outside of the school. And so I was trying to figure out a way to connect the poster work with issues that were happening in the community that I was interested in and involved with. And, ah, I guess part of it was trying to do art work that would have an artistic quality to it, but would also have meaning for somebody else besides just art for arts sake. I was also influenced by other artists that were already involved in the art process — in the print making and poster making process. You know, people like Rubert Garcia and Malaquiez Montoya. Malaquiez was working at Cal and Rubert was working at San Francisco State, so I learned to silk screen, to do screen printing from them. I also saw it as a way to — we could do art work and still be tied to a community. They were sort of my mentors in terms of learning how to do the art work and why we were doing the art work. It was really connected to trying to advance community issues.

TGT: You still connect your art work to community issues and issues of social justice. It probably would have been pretty easy for you to do what some people might call “selling out,” to go to work for a big corporation and make a lot of money. You’ve probably had many opportunities to do things that — well, where you could make a lot of bread.

Fuentes: It’s pretty hard not to sell out in any kind of way in this society. You know what I mean? I think we sell out every day in one way or another. . .

TGT: Well, people have to get by . . .

Fuentes: Yeah, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to live. But, um, well I guess working around community issues, working on community based projects, to me it still gives me a sense of identity that I don’t think I would have if I didn’t do that. And I think that’s really important to me. I think we’re like modern — I guess we’re like … well in the old days, the artisans did art because that’s what they liked to do. They didn’t necessarily do it to prove anything to anybody. They basically did it because that was part of their existence, like somebody who makes music, or someone who writes poetry, or somebody who does visual art like I do. This is what validates us, what makes us feel like we’re alive and human and connected to something.

Other artists approach it in a different way, and it’s not as important to them. They can sit at a computer and do it for a corporation and do designs, which is fine, you know, but that’s not what’s important for me. I guess you have to follow those ideas that are important to one’s self. That’s as close as I can get to it in terms of being able to do it and still feel connected — where I don’t feel like the corporations or capitalism is dictating how I should live. That’s the most difficult thing because basically it does — that’s what I’m saying. There’s always contradictions, right? We’re full of contradictions in this society. We can’t function without having to pay bills and to have a car to drive to get to work and to get home — that whole thing.

TGT: But how have you managed to do it? It’s pretty damned hard.

Fuentes: It’s not easy . . .

TGT: You’ve got a great family, you’ve raised great kids…

Fuentes: I think I’ve partially managed to do it because I have support. I have great support. I have a great family and friends that support me. And also, we just, ah — I don’t really spend a lot of money on things that aren’t valuable for me, you know what I mean? I don’t really — um — I don’t buy the all American Dream, I guess. A lot of things aren’t important to me that they try to sell in this society. That’s not what makes it real for me. That’s not what validates. For us it’s people. I could be making ninety thousand dollars a year and that would be great — it would be great for my kids, I’m sure they would love it. (Fuentes laughs)

TGT: But they’re dong great, though.

Fuentes: Yeah, they’re doing great and it’s not easy — you’re constantly struggling with them everyday, you know. But that’s — that’s what it takes.

TGT: You’ve also very calm and, uh — well, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but — well, a very steady person whereas some people like myself and others I know are up and down and up and down.

Fuentes: We’re all up and down. You only see one side of it! (Fuentes laughs) I have my ups and downs. I mean it’s constant. That’s just the way it is, you know. That’s why I think — sometimes I think I was born in the wrong time period. You know, man, I think — I was born in the wrong time — this is not when I was supposed to be born! Like I think I was supposed to be born when the Mayan and Aztecs were doing stuff to live, you know, and not have to produce stuff for somebody else. But we have to live with it, you know what I’m saying? I never thought I’d live in the city, either. I like it in the country. But here I am, I live in the city. Sometimes I wake up and I say, man! I’m here and I have to do this …today! This is it! (Laughs) But you just go on, you just do it.

TGT: Okay. Well, for people who haven’t had a chance to see some of your art work, how would you explain to them the type of work that you do, what your vision is .

Fuentes: Vision, well — that’s a hard one. Um …Basically all of my art work deals with people. A lot of it is figurative, or faces. That’s what I’ve done. In the past I used to do a lot of black and white pencil drawings, and I used to do a lot of pencil and ink drawings. I’m doing linoleum cuts now which is kinda what I used to do twenty years ago. Now I’m back to it again, and I’m working with black and white again. For a lot of years I worked with pastels. I’ve done a lot of posters for a lot of different organizations. Especially — there was a lot of political activity in the mid-seventies until, well — eighty three, maybe at about the most. And as a result of a lot of the political struggles and crises that came up, there was the need for a lot of visual representation of what was happening. So, for instance, I did a lot of things for the struggles that were going on in Latin America — El Salvador, Nicaragua — and then I’ve done things around the Middle East — around Palestine, Lebanon. I’ve done posters around woman’s issues, and community organizations… a lot of them were for fund raisers, for benefits, for dances. I think there’s a need for that. But I guess from the mid-eighties until now, basically it’s been, I do maybe one or two a year, whereas sometimes we used to do like ten or more a year because of the different things that were happening. But now there’s not as much going on so we don’t do as many. (This interview was conducted in 1997).

Now what I’m trying to investigate more is I’m trying to retrace some of the steps that my own family took. I don’t call it “a migrant roots,” but basically I’m trying to do work now that retraces some of the changes and things that my own family went through. I guess from the nineteen fifties up to the nineteen nineties.

TGT: You’ve also done some things that link different struggles. For instance, the poster you did around Proposition 187 (an anti-immigrant ballot measure in California passed in 1997). It didn’t just depict Latinos and Asians but also African Americans. You asked: “Who is next?”

Fuentes: Right … Well, I guess a lot of my work still continues to be that way today. Like the linoleum cuts I’m doing. I’m doing a series on a mother-child thing; I’ve done a few pieces depicting Latinas, Black women, Asian, Native Americans. I’m doing images that are important to me. And I basically tend to pretty much do people of color. That’s kinda what I tend to do. I don’t know, I feel very comfortable doing them. I guess part of the reason why I do that is that I feel that they’re aren’t enough positive images reflected of ourselves — that it’s important for me to always strive to do that. You know, I want to see a positive reflection of our own people.

TGT: What do you think there aren’t more positive images?

Fuentes: There are a lot of reasons. Probably one of the biggest reasons is that we don’t control the media in this country. Television, radio, etc. — especially the film industry or Hollywood, major magazines. And they basically determine who are the people who are going to be seen. We don’t see ourselves as much as we should, you know? I just went with my daughter and one of her friends to see Selena (the film). If you think of the amount of movies where we see ourselves reflected in a positive way — there aren’t that many. You can count them on your hand. And even though I enjoyed the movie Selena — it was — there were some good things to it — the music was really nice and the actors — like Olmos and the woman who plays Selena did an excellent job there. But it was still a Hollywood movie.

On the other hand, the one thing I liked about it was that you finally see a Latino family in a positive way. And by positive I mean they’re functional. They’re not a dysfunctional family. They actually work and they’re trying to make a living, and they’re trying to get their kids to do something artistic — which is something really positive. Not something that we usually see (in films). The movies usually depict something dysfunctional happening within our lives and nothing positive. So I guess what I’m saying in relation to my art is that — that’s why to do imagery that shows us in a positive way is really important to me because I can do images of ourselves as cholos, as gangsters, and it can be very glorified and all that. That’s not what I want to show. You know what I mean? I want to show images that are really strong and positive. Those images — it could be somebody Asian, it could be somebody Black, it could be somebody Latino, or it can be a combination of all three — or somebody Anglo, too, you know…. But the thing is basically to make the image positive.

TGT: Is there a difference between the youth culture and the way it is portrayed now and they way it portrayed when you were going to college — when Latinos and other people of color were getting organized?

Fuentes: Images that we are making of ourselves?

TGT: Well, the images that are on television are obviously not being made by the people themselves — these are big companies . . .

Fuentes: Right . . .

TGT: But these images are still something that a lot of young people identify with, like the gangster culture, and buying expensive athletic shoes. Do you think there’s anything positive at all about the youth culture, especially the way it’s being marketed by Hollywood and the companies that are making big money from it? Is there a positive aspect to that at all?

Fuentes: That’s kinda hard to say. There are some positive images but you have to decipher them. That’s the critical element to it. You have to be able to judge and say which of this movie is positive, or which image is positive and which isn’t.

TGT: I used to have a lot of good friends who were cholos, or, ah, retired cholos so to speak, with youngsters coming up in that culture, and it seemed largely a self protection thing, really. And there was a certain positive element to it in the sense that a lot of people were standing up and reacting to racism and other conditions. There was also a certain identity where, ah, well…. For some people it was the only way that people would respect them on any level. It seems like that might be one of the positive things. On the other hand, they hurt their own people, brought violence into the community, all that stuff the media covers every night. It’s a mixed bag, really — the image thing. What do you think is the long term impact of those kinds of images and identifying with them?

Fuentes: I don’t know, it’s a really hard question because I feel like I don’t identify myself necessarily in that way and with those images. I think for our youth today it’s a really difficult thing. One of the reasons why youth create their own identity and their own imagery is that they don’t see in the general culture a reflection of themselves in a positive way. So they re-invent themselves. I mean we saw it in the nineteen-fifties. We saw it with the pachuco. And the pachuco basically re-invented himself as a way to, as a sub-culture, to try to fit in because the pachuco did not fit — these were Mexican-American kids that did not fit in with the Anglo culture and at the same time it was hard for them to fit in with their Mexican background as well because they had a little bit of both worlds. They spoke some English and they spoke Spanish, and — so they were kinda divided. They had the old world or old thinking that came from Mexico and then they had the American way of thinking. So they basically created their own sub-culture within the larger “American” culture and they really couldn’t quite fit into either, you know. They fit a little better into the Latino culture, but they weren’t totally accepted.

In a way I see that with the gangs now. It’s like people are trying to fit in somewhere where they can be validated as persons, you know? And the validation, sometimes it comes from your friends on the street because you may have like a single parent family or you may have no family at all or you might have a really dysfunctional family. And then you’re basically looking for validation somewhere. So you go to your friends. You can create your own language, you can create your own dress, your own style and it’s like — hey! I’m somebody. And that’s okay to a certain extent. I think that those things are important. But then there’s all the negative aspects of it because you’re tied to a sub-culture that is basically uneducated to some extent — even though some of these kids on the street are probably brighter than most kids going to college, you know. But still, they can’t get a job because you dress a certain way and look a certain way.

TGT: What about the art that’s coming from some of these kids?

Fuentes: Well, that’s why it’s kinda a contradiction because I’ve seen kids in the streets that do graffiti — and I’m not talking about people who just go tag — there’s a lot of kids who just go out and tag things and just deface things. They’re not really doing anything creative. But then there’s kids who are really creative, you know… I’ve seen young people — well, I work at the jail. I teach art at the jail, and I’ve seen young men come through there who are really quite talented. But they need the direction and they need somewhere to do the art work. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s positive and negative aspects to that sub-culture, but it’s also something that is constantly being put down. Because it doesn’t fit. It doesn’t fit the criteria of being a “wholesome American.” And you get it from both sides. You get it from your own people and you get it from the powers that be. So you’re constantly under attack. So they do images of themselves to try to validate who they are. But they don’t have the avenues, the venues, to be able to do that imagery, so they have to do it illegally. They have to do it on people’s walls.

TGT: How important is it nowadays for young people to learn and preserve the art forms from their ancestors, especially those whose culture has been deliberately hidden or buried by the ruling class?

Fuentes: Well, I think it’s really important, but one of the things that happens in this society is that we — it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important in terms of our own culture and heritage. It’s easy to get away from it and think that it’s not important anymore — to look back and see what has been done by our own people, right? And I think because the modern, ah — our modern society is so engulfing — it sucks you in. If you don’t have a way to be exposed to your own cultural roots, you get sucked in. It’s hard to define it but you don’t have clear a sense that what you’re doing is important or valid.

TGT: What kind of advice would you give to a young person  that doesn’t have many opportunities?

Fuentes: Yeah…. It’s hard, it’s difficult for a fine artist to make a living in this country. And it’s difficult for a lot of different reasons because there aren’t enough avenues set up for people to be able to succeed with their art work. Not that it’s impossible, but if you’re not doing art work that follows a mainstream art trend, it’s going to be very difficult to do it. Most communities of color are under-represented and under-financed in the arts to begin with. So, if your own people are struggling to pay the bills and to raise their families and get a job, they’re not going to go buy art. Art is like a luxury in a way. How can you pay three thousand dollars for a painting, or four thousand or ten thousand, or how could you pay six hundred dollars for a print, or four hundred dollars for a print when you have a family to raise and you’ve got to pay bills? So it’s kinda a Catch 22 situation because you have communities that can produce the work but then can’t sell it or can’t buy it because they don’t have the means to buy it. So it’s really difficult. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t still make it. We still have to find ways to produce the work and to be able to sell the work and make a living selling the work.

I think that young people today actually have access to more art because of the computer. They actually have access to more imagery than what we had and they have access to making more artwork — if you can use a computer, if you can get access to one. In terms of graphics, I know that’s really a way to make art now. I think it’s there. I think in our own communities we need to set up institutions that will help artists sell their work, produce their work — studio spaces for them to work in, whether they’re working on a computer or a canvas. But they’ve got to have the access to it. That’s what we’re lacking, you know, is more access to be able to produce it. There’s enough of a market for it but you have to be able to tap into it, and that means resources.

TGT: What kinds of things are you hoping to do at The Mission Cultural Center for Latino Art (in San Francisco) now that you’re going to be working there?

Fuentes: Well, at this point I’m basically interested in getting the Mission Graphica back into working order and institute a program that will be able to teach young people how to do different types of art work — that’s what we teach — screen printing as well as etching, mono print, wood block printing. What we’re trying to do is to set it up so it’s a taller — it’s a place where we can do print making, so it can serve both the artistic needs of individuals. I mean like students that what to come in and learn how to do certain kinds of printing techniques, and at the same time will also produce posters for the community. So that if there’s a dance or if there are certain kinds of issues that are coming up, we can produce those posters with high quality graphics and designs and at the same time, at a low cost, hopefully.

TGT: What do you see yourself doing five or ten years from now? With your art?

Fuentes: Well,I never know with my art what I’m going to be doing. I mean basically I think the imagery will be similar in that I have a certain sense of what kinds of images I like to do. But I might change to a different medium. I don’t know. I think I’d like to move into three dimensional things at some point — more like sculptural pieces. But for now I’d like to just get to a point where I’m doing my art work and nothing else. That would be nice, you know. But that’s very difficult to do financially. And I think part of the reason why it’s hard to do, too, is that I’m not necessarily doing my art work just to sell it. So that’s part of the contradiction. If you’re doing art work just to sell then you have to get out there and you have to market it. I think for younger people, that’s one of the things that they need to learn about art when they get into it. That’s one of the things I didn’t learn — I didn’t learn it until later on, and I’m still learning it now — how to market your art work. You have to create markets, or you have to get into markets that are already created. You have to work with agents — there’s a lot of different things that you have to do in order to survive as an artist and do your art work. Otherwise — a lot of artists I know are still doing their art, but they’re working in other places to survive. So they might be driving a bus for the city, or they might be working in a factory or downtown in a business, and then they’re doing art work on the side. I mean that’s true not only for visual artists but I have a lot of musician friends that do the same thing. Writers, you know — you’re doing other things to try to pay the bills and all that . . .

TGT: Final question, Juan: Are you optimistic about the future? Especially with the younger generation. Do you think there will be a new movement of young people to try to change things and make the world a better place?

Fuentes: I think so. I think — I mean, I can’t speak for them, but from what I’ve seen, and since I have kids that are basically teenagers and growing into adulthood — from what I see from them and their friends, I think there’s some skepticism — but at the same time, young people today, they have a lot more tools than what I had — than what we had when we were younger. They’re exposed to a lot more, so I think they’re a lot more attuned to what’s going on in the world. I think when we grew up. I mentioned earlier that when I came from Watsonville to San Francisco, you know, I had a very small outlook of the world. It was only through Third World Struggles — struggles that were happening in Latin America, Africa and Asia — it was those struggles and the war in Vietnam that really kinda opened my eyes to a much larger community that we were connected to. I think that young people today, they already have that connection. They have a much broader vision of what and how we’re connected to people in other parts of the world. And that’s because the electronic media has brought us closer together — the visual stuff they see in TV and movies and all that, and the written word — the exposure is much more out there for them to see and grasp. I think they have a better concept of internationalism than we had when we were young, you know what I mean? In some ways …that part of it is positive. They’re not as isolated as we were when we were young. My kids are listening to music from the Caribbean, they’re aware of Nelson Mandela, of what is happening in Asia and the Middle East — they’re aware of what’s going on in different parts of the world and how they’re connected to it. And I don’t think I had that sense when I was their age. And then they have the internet. They can connect with people in Africa or Latin America in just a matter of minutes, or even in seconds. It can be a really powerful organizing tool for youth. And it will be. Things happen in cycles. I think that right now we’re at a mid-point. I think that another cycle is coming and when it does the youth are going to be able to move things forward. I’m confident of that.