Jose De Jesus Cervantes: Unsung Artist of the Chicano Art Movement

cervantes_chilelaspalmas_series _2.jpeg

The 60s-70s were like no other time for the Chicano Art Movement.

In the Big Picture of its collective memory, many Chicano artists that were involved in the beginning of movement will probably be forgotten. However, it was through their contributions, their faces, their ideas and artwork that gave inertia to the movement. Among the unsung artists of the time, Jose De Jesus Cervantes was one whose face you saw whenever you visited Mechicano Art Center in East Los Angeles. He at many times single-handedly kept the sun in the sky, kept Mechicano up and running. He breathed Mechicano, his mind was always occupied with what else to do to keep the Chicano Art movement alive and breathing.

"JC" as everyone at Mechicano called him, studied at one of the world's most prestigious art institutes - Chouinard (now CalArts) in Los Angeles. There he polished his thinking skills and perfected an abstract style similar to Frank Stella. His large canvas designs rendered sparkling edges of diamond segments, full of rich colors. The shapes in Cervantes's paintings truly revealed his evolved gift in abstract art.

Story continues below

Joseph De Jesus Cervantes grew up in an Anglo community where his family was the only Mexican Americans in the neighborhood. He was so sheltered from his culture that when he first learned about "Chicanismo" from Richard Valdez at Chouinard, he felt awakened. Richard added to his revelation by mentioning the concept of La Raza, and this foreign place in East Los Angeles where everyone there was Mexican.


Among the poets, intellectuals, writers, musicians, dreamers, and painters, at Choinard, Cervantes was being groomed and dressed to become an abstract artist. He lived within a talented circle of artists that rivaled the masters from Europe and Mexíco.

It was at this time that Cervantes met Victor Franco, who was starting a Cultural Arts Center at the corner of Whittier and Gage in East Los Angeles, with fellow Choinard artist Leonardo Castellaños as its executive director. The rest is history: Cervantes became the artist in residence and a fixture at Mechicano. If you needed help to get started with your artwork, or if you needed ideas to stimulate your creativity, you would simply ask "JC".

As a result of Cervantes becoming well known in the Chicano Art Movement, artists Victor Ocho and Mario Torero recruited him to join El Centro Cultural de La Raza in Balboa Park, San Diego to work on a mural project. Cervantes recalls, "that first day turned out to be the most spontaneous painting session I have ever seen. We had all the brushes and paints ready as we all looked at each other nervously and uncertain because we did not have a preconceived plan or sketch; we stood there and stared blankly at the wall. A young man named Roset took a paint roller extension, taped a brush to the end of it and handed it to me. I began to paint and the rest of them instantaneously attacked the wall with colors and the ideas from our times. From my brush strokes emerged steps climbing up to the top of a pyramid where the sun stood still while we revolved around it." This mural was known as The First Wall of Attack.

So there you have it, another artist who contributed to the Chicano Art Movement, and by the way Cervantes to this day still has that creative energy that doesn't stop.

Sonya Fe is a painter and muralist long affiliated with the Chicano Art Movement. She directed the screen printing workshop at Mechicano Arts Center 

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading