The extraordinary work of the late artist Sergio “Serg” Hernandez is currently on exhibit at California State University at Channel Islands.
The much loved artist, considered an “artivist,” along with his wife Diane Velarde-Hernandez, an educator, are notable in the Northeast San Fernando Valley and in Greater Los Angeles. Velarde-Hernandez worked as a teacher at San Fernando High School for 33½ years.
The popular artist passed away last June after a long illness, but because of the pandemic, a memorial service was postponed. The Dia de los Muertos exhibit at CSUCI is a beginning to what is hoped to be additional exhibits and tributes that can display more facets of his substantial body of work.
This exhibit successfully provides a window into his many decades as a pillar in the Chicano Art movement. It includes the infamous literary journal,“Con Safos,” that emerged from the “Movement” in East L.A in the 60s and 70s.
Hernandez is also noted for his work for “Artino,” a nonprofit organization of Valley artists.
A renaissance artist, Hernandez had the gift to paint a vibrant work of fine art to his much loved pen-and-ink satirical and fun comic strips, “Arni & Porfi.”
The wooden turquoise bench in the exhibit was repurposed from the couple’s old bed and carved with indigenous symbols — including three stars to represent each of his daughters. Remarkably, Hernandez built and carved the bench after suffering a stroke that affected one side of his body.
At the center of this exhibit is a moving tribute — a Dia de los Muertos altar built in honor of him. On the tier below his photo, it holds the very last painting Hernandez created, titled, “Slipping Away.”
Fitting for the artist, the altar was created by students who also adorned it with other photos of those they mutually admired, including the late labor leader, Cesar Chavez.
Also in the exhibit is Hernandez’ paint-stained cup that holds his paintbrushes, his easel and his artist’s smock with the UFW logo.
His widow addressed the crowd at the recent opening.
Noting his ability to draw a political cartoon or take a concept and express a very complicated issue through his art, Velarde-Hernandez said some considered it “genius.”
“It’s hard to summarize all of the work that he’s done,” Velarde-Hernandez said.
She also shared some of the personal experiences he had that formed the “kind man who communicated through art.”
“He hated his name Sergio as a kid because his teachers would always mangle it,” she said. “[But] he was named for his father’s brother, Sergio. His father’s brother was killed at the Battle of the Bulge on his 21st birthday. And he is buried at the American cemetery in Luxemburg. And [when her husband] found that out, he carried that name with pride.
“But one of the hurtful things, was that through the years with his cartoons and some of the artwork he put out there, we would get anonymous hate letters, we had our home egged, had our mailbox vandalized because people didn’t like his positions on certain issues.”
Not only was it hurtful, Velarde-Hernandez said, it was offensive to her husband that others wouldn’t consider him and his family Americans. Along with the fact his Uncle Sergio was killed at the Battle of the Bulge, his Uncle Nick served in Guadalcanal; and another uncle served in the South Pacific — as the gunner and photographer in the Valleys of the Liberators.
“So for people to tell him, ‘go back where you came from,”’ it was ‘[No], we didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us,’” Velarde-Hernandez said.
She said her late husband was always proud of the service and many contributions his family gave to this country. “He was always very proud of that,” she said.
“He grew up during the Civil Rights movement. In 1965, when the Watts riots broke out, he lived on 60th Street, between Holmes and Central. And the National Guard set up a 50-caliber machine gun in their yard. We lived through those marches. He participated in the Chicano Moratorium. We marched with Chavez. So social issues were always important to him and expressed in his work.”
Raymundo Jacque, Jr., a cousin of the late artist, pointed out that few can say that their lives had inspired another generation of artists.
“To look within themselves and question their own cultural identity. In these young artists the seeds of political consciousness were placed in motion for the tides of social change,” Jacque said.
“Through art, Sergio made us think of social issues and to see ourselves in his art and ultimately about our own identity as both Chicanos and Americans. He both inspired and provoked. He challenged us to look beyond ourselves.”
“The 12th Annual Celebration Day of the Dead/A Tribute to El Maestro Sergio Hernandez” is now running through Dec. 3, on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.