Ester Hernández (born 1944) is a San Francisco-based Chicana visual artist best known for her pastels, paintings, and prints of Chicana/Latina women. Her work contains political, social, ecological, and spiritual themes that reflect her interest in community and political action. Her pieces also celebrate the ability of women to adapt and recreate themselves in foreign circumstances and environments.
"As a Chicana artist, I believe it is important to produce and disseminate positive images of our varied lives: my work counteracts the stereotypes of Latina women as either passive victims or demonized creatures. My subjects range from grandmothers to folk singers to truck drivers, and in a very real sense, my artwork becomes a form of iconography. In honoring the experiences of these bold women, I gain a renewed understanding of myself." -Ester Hernandez
Hernández is a Chicana of Yaqui and Mexican heritage. She was born and raised by farm worker parents in Dinuba, a small town in the central San Joaquin Valley of California, an area often associated with the struggle of farm workers.
She was influenced by her family's involvement in the Farm Workers Movement and the politically charged atmosphere at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received her BA in 1976. In 1974 she joined the Mujeres Muralistas, the first established all-Latina mural activist group in San Francisco. By 1977, she had completed eleven murals in the San Francisco area. After receiving her B.A., she worked as an art instructor at several schools and universities in the Bay Area.
Hernández is best known for representing the Latinx/Chicanx culture and hardships of the working class in San Francisco during the Farmers Workers Movement. Growing up in Dinuba, California, she was a spectator of the riots and strikes organized by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. In the early mid 1900s, labor movements began to take form and shaped the political and social climate. Mark D. Johnson, Professor of Art at San Francisco State University, states “At one time, the strongest and most important artists in California made art about labor.” Many artists were inspired and began to reflect the life of the working class through their art. During her education at Grove Street College in Oakland, California, Ester Hernandez began to learn more about her own culture and the unfair treatment of the working Latina women. There, she began focusing on using her art as an outlet for her anger about the treatment of her community.
Hernández works with a variety of media, using painting for more personal work and screen-printing for more political work. Art critic Amalia Mesa-Bains has noted:
In the 1980s, Hernandez began to develop a counterpoint to her screen printing tradition, using the medium of the pastel to create a more narrative and naturalistic rendering of characters influential within her own life. The pastel work almost serves as a pleasurable respite from the demands of a cultural critique in its joyful celebration of community.
Continues Mesa Baines, "As with her artwork of her close friend and artistic madrina (godmother) Tejana singer Lydia Mendoza, she subverts, re-contextualizes, and transforms culturally traditional images into a series of feminist icons, elevating their status to that of role models." In an interview with the Mujeres Muralists, Chicana feminists art collective, her female colleagues commented about her noteworthy works: “She is best known for her depiction of Latina and Native women through her paste prints and installations.”
One of Hernández's most renowned works of art is Sun Mad, a screen print that "speaks of the impact of the overuse of pesticides and the effect they have on the farm workers, consumers and the environment." In speaking about the work, she said, "I focused on something personal, the Sun Maid box." "Slowly I began to realize how to transform the Sun Maid and unmask the truth behind the wholesome figures of agribusiness. Sun Mad evolved out of my anger and my fear of what would happen to my family, my community, and to myself." San Francisco Chronicle art critic, Kenneth Baker, says of this print that "Ester Hernandez's bitterly comic revisionist screen print, Sun Mad, successfully dovetails artistic intervention, political animus, and pop culture raw material."
With her screen print Sun Mad, Hernández brought awareness to the injustices faced within her community. She created Sun Mad in 1982 after learning that her hometown in Dinuba, California had “polluted water and [laborers who] worked in an environment contaminated by pesticides.” Depicted in Sun Mad are a bright red background, a “yellow disk of sun,” and a red bonneted skeletal figure holding a basket of grapes.  To add, the skeletal woman is smiling and wearing a white shirt with two black stripes on the sleeves. Below the skeleton are the words, “Sun mad raisins, unnaturally grown with insecticides - miticides - herbicides - fungicides.” Here the words “sun mad” are printed in a bold, yellow font, while the rest of the font is in a smaller and finer white. Additionally, Hernández's palette consists of cool and warm colors; for instance, the green grapes and leaves, as well as the brown basket and skeleton’s hair, illustrate cool colors. On the other hand, the red background and bonnet plus the yellow disk and “Sun mad” logo illustrate warm colors. The artwork’s surface is flat but contains bright, expressive colors alongside a recognizable symbol; here Hernández offers deep messages within the screen print.
Sun Mad’s warm palette expresses feelings of anger; also, Hernández's appropriation of the popular Sun Maid emblem emphasizes the damage being done to her community. Specifically, the scarlet red background and yellow/white print catch the viewer’s attention. Because red and yellow are primary colors, placing a pronounced, yellow logo in front of a red background makes it stand out. Thus, this brings attention to Hernández's use of wordplay where she printed “Sun mad” instead of the well-known Sun Maid label. Similarly, the white words below the yellow “Sun mad” logo stand out against the red background because of their neutral color. Hence, the news of the use of pesticides on staple foods is subtle yet explicit because viewers learn that they are being harmed. Likewise, by placing the white skeletal woman in the center and in front of the contrasting red background makes her the focal point of the screen print. Moreover, the replacement of the Sun Maid with a skeletal figure surprises viewers in the way that “this figure is turned against itself to comment on the corporate use of the female body to sell commodities.”  In various societies, women are seen as innocent, maternal, and trustworthy, so appropriating the youthful, beautiful Sun-Maid and replacing her with a skeleton signifies how the Sun-Maid company has deceived members of Hernández's community. Furthermore, Hernández's skeleton exemplifies the deadly use of pesticides and its harmful effects on consumers.
Overall, the skeleton is an important symbol in Mexican culture that represents a celebration of departed loved ones; yet, Hernández twists this positive Mexican image into an eerie symbol of poison. Being such a recognizable symbol, the skeletal woman bearing poisonous grapes represents the looming faith of the farm workers who worked in a polluted environment and of the people of Dinuba who drank contaminated water and ate contaminated food. Specifically, in the screen print, the dark shading of the grapes may illustrate the “lethal consequences of pesticides.” If Hernández were to draw naturally grown grapes, there may be less harsh shading and instead lighter shading to enhance a wholesome and nourishing appearance. Although many people associate Sun-Maid raisins with “the innocent pleasure of childhood,” this subversive alteration of the vibrant Sun-Maid depicts the “death-dealing lie” fed to the innocent people of Dinuba. In conclusion, Ester Hernández protested the use of pesticides through her screen print, Sun Mad, believing it would reach hundreds of people in her community and spark a discussion about the tainted environment, food, and water they encountered.
Sun Raid, with The Serie Project
In 2008, Hernández was an artist in residence at The Serie Project, a workshop founded by Sam Coronado, where underrepresented artists could produce special editions of serigraphs. There, she printed Sun Raid, an edited version of Sun Mad, in which she depicted the skeletal farm worker, wearing a global GPS "security-monitoring bracelet labeled ICE, for the Immigrations and Customs Agents, signifying looming deportation." Just as in Sun Mad, Hernández changes the words on the appropriation of the original Sun Maid imagery to address immigration concerns, saying the following phrases: "Un-naturally harvested," "Guaranteed Deportation: Mixtecos, Zapotecos, Triques, Purepechas" (in reference to indigenous Mexican farmers working in the U.S. from the Oaxaca region), and "By-Product of NAFTA" at the bottom. On the right side of the box, it says, "Hecho in Mexico" (Made in Mexico) and on the right it says, "Mad in USA" (instead of what one might expect it to say: "Made in the USA"). This again references Hernández's original and iconic Sun Mad print while also referencing both the outrage and concern caused by ICE raids in 2008.
La Virgen De Las Calles
Hernández has played a key role in the Chicano Civil Rights Movement. She uses her art as a medium to express her overflowing gratitude and admiration for Latina women, who are so often mistreated in society (both in the past and present). In 2001, Hernández created La Virgen de las Calles (Virgin of the Streets), a pastel print, to represent the hard working Latina women in a glorified and divine perspective. In this work of art, Hernández portrays an older Latina women selling roses on the street against a black background. She is wearing regular blue jeans and a bright red oversized sweater with a logo saying "USA" written across her chest in bold black letters. Near her plain black shoes, there lies a white construction bucket with a logo featuring a Mexican elote and the word "future" pasted across the front side. The bucket holds red and white roses that she is presumably selling on the streets. Most notable is the green shawl, with red stripes and white stars, that she wears around her head and shoulder.
The shawl, the roses, and the bright red and green colors all represent and allude to Mexico’s depiction of the Virgen de Guadalupe (The Virgin Mary). In "Art and La Virgen de Guadalupe," Surage reveals that the reimagining of La Virgen de Guadalupe “is actually part of an ongoing Chicana artistic tradition”. (See works by other artists such as Yolanda Lopez's "Virgen de Guadalupe" series, for instance.) Hernández does this to show the importance and significance of women of color. On her personal website, Ester Hernández describes the purpose of the piece: “ [to pay] tribute to the dignity, strength and perseverance of immigrant women as they strive for a better life for themselves and their families.” Furthermore, many Chicana artists are known for using this image because it represents the Mexican community. Most of Hernández's art is controversial but she creates with the purpose of progressing the rights of the underrepresented. Hernández often draws inspiration from her personal heroines, who include Frida Kahlo, Dolores Huerta, and Lydia Mendoza. She finds strength and inspiration not only in her heroines, but also in Latina women with whom she has worked. She uses her art as an attempt to communicate a very crucial message to the audience: the infinite loyalty Latina women have for their family and the sheer volume of sacrifices they make for them. La Virgen de las Calles was special to Hernández because it was important for her to depict the love a Chicana mother has for her family, and how many Chicana mothers just like the one in this piece “‘…[often] work day and night to educate their children because they know this is the greatest gift a parent can give a child.’" Hernández strives for her artwork to communicate a sense of belonging, so that her audience can gaze upon her piece and think, “these images represent my family, my mother, my uncles, cousins, grandparents, and community." Hernández uses immigrants, women of color, and other underrepresented minorities to depict the working class and their struggles in a positive and divine light in order to appreciate their sacrifices and their hardships. Artists like Hernández possess an imperative piece of knowledge that sometimes, in order for change to happen, it is necessary to be an “effective agitator”. Hernández’s artwork embodies her deep understanding behind the value of “…finding a place where you, me, and everybody can feel that they are safe and accepted."
The National Museum of Mexican Art is home to Hernández's 1987 etching Libertad (Liberty). The 12" by 6" artwork portrays a multitude of ways that Hernández is proud to be both a feminist and Chicana. The viewer gets the opportunity to witness a postmodern modification of The United States' beloved gift from France, The Statue of Liberty. As the inside of the monument is exposed, intricate Aztec carvings take center stage. At the monument's foundation, the inscription "Aztlán" translates to "White Land" or Aztec homeland, suggesting that America's roots are necessarily tied to Mexico and Mexican indigenous origins. A nod to feminism is included via the female sculptor carving the monument, granting her the agency to correct history. As Guisela M. Latorre writes, "[i]mages such as Ester Hernández’s 1976 etching Libertad depicting a young Chicana resculpting the Statue of Liberty to resemble a Maya carving, and Yolanda López’s pastel drawings (1978) that depicted herself, her mother, and her grandmother in the role of the Virgin of Guadalupe were examples of early Chicana art that placed women at the center of discourses on liberation and decolonization." The subtle detail of the New York skyline symbolizes the modern world, and its lesser importance in comparison to the origins of the United States.
La Ofrenda (The Offering)
In 1988, Ester Hernández produced a serigraph titled La Ofrenda (The Offering). La Ofrenda (1988) depicts a woman with a punk-style haircut facing away from spectators while showcasing La Virgen de Guadalupe (The Virgin Mary) tattooed on her back. La Virgen de Guadalupe is a symbol representing womanhood and femininity throughout Chicanx history. Clara Román-odio mentions how La Virgen de Guadalupe is a tattoo commonly displayed on men that symbolizes "an all-forgiving" and "all-sacrificing" mother. By depicting this tattoo on a woman, Vincent Carillo argues that Hernández "questions the gendered power dynamics" that restrict women to the domestic sphere. Hernández's artistic choice in portraying a queer woman rather than a heterosexual woman honors the sexual diversity amongst the Chincanx community.
Hernández has said that art is how she contextualizes the world around her and her subject matter:
- In many ways my artwork has always been a futile attempt to capture time, to create beauty, and most importantly, to make sense of the complex, ever changing, globalized world we live in. So many things separate us. I hope I will see a time when we will all unite, regardless of race, size, age, economic status, ability, gender or any other ism that exists to separate us. I aspire to create artwork that helps to bridge that dialogue.
Hernández uses screen printing for the purposes of disseminating affordable work using socio-political imagery. For instance, her screen print "Sun Mad" illustrates the deadly impact of pesticides on farm workers, consumers and the environment. The poster was included in Latin American Posters: Public Aesthetics and Mass Politics, a retrospective "trac[ing] four decades of Latin American social and political history during a time of widespread crisis and unrest." Another print, Jesus Barazza, addressed the anti-immigration act SB1070 by creating an image of La Virgen de Guadalupe as a wanted terrorist. In 1974, she joined Las Mujeres Muralistas, an influential group of female mural artists based in the San Francisco Mission District. Ideas from her work also engaged with the Chicana/Chicano civil rights movement. With her long effort over the years, her art and activism has led her to become a main leader in the civil rights movement towards the advancement of Chicana/o rights.
Hernández's work has been exhibited both nationally and internationally since 1973. Her work is included in the permanent collections of the National Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art and the Mexican Museum in San Francisco, the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum in Chicago, and the Frida Kahlo Studio Museum in Mexico City. In 1988 her first major solo exhibition, titled The Defiant Eye, was held at Galería de la Raza in San Francisco. Since that time her work has appeared in such exhibitions as Day of the Dead (Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, Chicago, 1989), Meeting of the Madonnas (Ethnographic Museum, Warsaw, Poland, 1991), Mostra América (Museu da Gravura, Curitiba, Brazil, 1992), The Art of Provocation: Ester Hernández, A Retrospect (University of California, Davis, 1995), Transformations: The Art of Ester Hernández (MACLA Center for Latino Arts, San Jose, CA, 1998) and Ester Hernández: Everyday Passions (Galería de la Raza, 2001), as well as touring exhibitions including Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation (CARA) (1990–93), Ceremony of Spirit (1994–96), Chicano Expressions (1994–96), The Role of Paper (1998-2001), Chicano (2002–03), and One Heart, One World (2002). She has received awards and commissions from organizations ranging from the California Arts Council to the National Endowment for the Arts.
Artwork by Hernández was recently featured in the inaugural opening of the Museo Alameda—Smithsonian in San Antonio, Texas. Additionally, her work is in permanent collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Stanford University has recently acquired her artistic and personal archives as well.
Hernández's work has been a part of the exhibition, "Estampas de la Raza: Contemporary Prints from the Romo Collection," which provides a comprehensive look at Chicano printmaking from 1984-2011. Beginning at the McNay Museum in San Antonio, TX, the show will travel to multiple institutions throughout New Mexico, North Carolina, and California.
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- Smithsonian American Art Museum
- The Ester M. Hernandez Collection, 1960-2000(call number M1301; 67 linear ft.) are housed in the Department of Special Collections and University Archives at Stanford University Libraries
- Ester Hernandez Papers, 1972-2005