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SOMERVILLE, Mass. — Raúl Gonzalez was born in El Paso, Texas, and grew up going back and forth between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, México. Juárez was, for a time, one of the most violent cities in the world. Drug cartel violence killed thousands while hundreds of women were abducted and murdered, or simply disappeared. Few of these crimes were ever solved, and at times the Mexican Army was brought in to Juárez in an effort to restore order.
Against this backdrop, Gonzalez has created a series of 101 drawings called Los Nuevos Guerreros (The New Warriors) that explores the inhabitants of Juárez: shopkeepers, boxers, kingpins, and killers, all flailing about, all struggling in their own way to make it through another day. What Gonzalez captures is the essence of lives lived on the precipice of uncertainty, and sometimes despair. The work is currently on view at Carroll and Sons in Boston. We spoke recently.
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Robert Moeller: The unruliness of Juárez was, for a time, of almost fantastic proportions. Can the level of violence present in a place ever begin to seem normal?
Raúl Gonzalez: That is a question I have been asking myself for years, ever since I began investigating this in previous incarnations with my series Lookum Here (it might could’ve been), which dealt with early American history, specifically the dehumanization of Native Americans and the stereotypes used to define the other as something less than human. I have continued to build on this within the last two years in Tranquilandia, of which Los Nuevos Guerreros is a part.
Violence in Juárez affected most of the citizenry but most especially the poor and working class, who had their lives affected both economically and spiritually. I grew up in and out of Juárez as a youth, and for me it has been troubling to view these developments from afar, considering that I remembered a city filled with hustle and bustle wherein many were busy and happily working. When I last visited four years ago, Juárez was basically a ghost town, and most of the tourist and clients who would visit the mercados and bars were nowhere to be found. There was an underlying tension and desperation that was evident in its populace. The violence becomes so commonplace because in a city where no one is to be trusted, silence is your best friend and speaking out can result in death for either you or your loved ones.
RM: And yet beneath the silence, life must take place. Trust, even in the smallest circles, must be established. Certainly some of that still exists?
RG: Absolutely. The overall wish is a return to normalcy, and in the meantime survival by continuing to live life as normally as possible. I know that my family would love for the tourists to return in full force and that so many of the city’s youth and citizens stage protests against the violence. These are the heroes of the city and are helping it to heal and, eventually, recover.
RM: Your work doesn’t focus specifically on what one might generally call “normal life” but rather its polar opposite. Why is that?
RG: “Employee of the Month” portrays an official from La Pinche Migra doing what he does best, and there are portrayals of shopkeepers and their wares, musicians, boxers, performers, vagabonds, authority figures, and of course victims of actions so violent you want to turn away from them or simply ignore that such a thing is truly possible. The work portrays a normality that is not normally portrayed, and perhaps that is what is abnormal about the work.
RM: Given that Mexico has a vibrant tabloid media, how has that reporting influenced the drawings? It seems that you are providing an alternate type of “coverage,” almost as a visual historian might.
RG: There are many things that I am considering when I create a guerrero. The first is the pose of the samurai that I am building on top of. The general idea for a guerrero will come to me as I sketch in the gesture of the figure. I am working from many different timelines historically and artistically, so how I form the guerrero depends on the story he is trying to tell.
In “El Ultimo Cigarro” a man, beaten and bruised, with his arms tied behind his back, kneels down with a cigarette between his lips. Above him a machete begins its downward trajectory, and a rooster holds a lit match in its beak. The ideas for this image possibly came from the writings of Charles Bowden or Stella Pope Duarte and images seen in my childhood in Alarma! [Alarma! is a Mexican news magazine noted for the images of graphic violence it publishes.] The drawings share an experience without telling much of the story, which means the viewer becomes the journalist and perhaps can begin to understand the origins of the drawing’s narrative.
RM: Given the elegance and complexity of these drawings, it’s hard to imagine that there’s another component that drives them. Could you explain the significance of the samurai warrior in the work?
RG: The samurai were used as a foundation to build my own cast of characters. I was interested in the heroic pose of the samurai, along with the discipline and philosophy of their warrior mentality in contrast to the guerreros I was creating. Unlike the samurai, a lot of my guerreros lack discipline and training, so their actions are fearful and clumsy.
I have always been interested in the outcasts and those who are never represented in works of art, and Los Nuevos Guerreros is filled with a Howard Zinn–like People’s History cast of characters. I have always wanted to see a museum filled with paintings of the horrors committed by our heroes over the centuries laid out next to a portrait of each person.
Whenever I walk into the American Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the true stories are never told — there are no paintings of Indians being slaughtered, slaves being auctioned off or whipped, children working in factories, and it is because these people never had the opportunity to express themselves. My work is about these types of moments.
RM: Is it correct to suggest that you are looking (metaphorically, at least) outside of Mexican society for an imposed order of the sort the samurai tradition might provide? If so, isn’t that dangerous? In some regards, don’t the samurai resemble the modern–day narco-terrorists of the cartels?
RG: I was looking more for the imposed order that a complete series with historical weight and meaning could provide, as something to build on. Los Nuevos Guerreros is a series that crosses many boundaries. Elements from early American folk art, political cartoons, the chapbooks of [José Guadalupe] Posada and [Manuel] Manilla, Mexican murals, and even my own family’s set up for their puestos [stalls] in the mercado — all find their way into any given drawing. Unless it is made clear, the viewer never realizes where the drawings originate. The populace of Los Nuevos Guerreros is so diverse that having them all serve a daimyo [Japanese landowners that the Samurai served] would have been counterproductive. They are all guerreros in that every waking moment is a lucha [struggle] in some way or another.
RM: Was it difficult to animate this struggle that each guerrero faces? The tension present in the drawings is powerful. Was it hard to resummon the energy to depict each character?
RG: I drew the series over the span of two years, and it was relentless. The Guerreros each brought a wide gamut of expression and emotion. Some were a trip down memory lane, as in “Titere” that depicts an old man who has made hand-carved puppets. This man once sold puppets to my family to sell at their puesto. When my mother saw the drawing she wondered how I could have remembered him, as he had passed away when I was about three.
“El Mata Amigos” is a vicious killer, and he came to be inspired by the gang members whose nicknames — El Barbie, El Guapo, El Caldo de Rez — initially inspired the series. “El Desconectado” and “El Mojado” are incredibly sad ones that imagine the difficult journeys of the border-crossers along El Camino del Diablo. Many of the drawings have details that are laugh-out-loud funny, and this helps to ease the tension of some of the more shocking works. Each drawing brings something new to the table and enriches the series by deepening the story line of these souls interconnected by location and circumstance.
RM: Boxing plays such an important role in Mexican cultural life, and the story lines of the sport are followed widely. Can you talk about the boxers in this series?
RG: Boxing is a sport that was very important to me as a child growing up. It was the thing we did with my dad on Thursday or Friday nights, and he would regale us with stories of heroes past. It was also a time on television as a preteen/teenager when shows like Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, and Friends dominated the airwaves, and I’m proud to say I never saw a single episode of any of that shit — the reason being that everyone was white, and they had absolutely nothing to do with the lives the people I knew lived. Besides, whenever I saw a Latino on American television they were portrayed as drug lords, gardeners, or maids.
Boxing on ESPN or USA Network was where I tuned in to find people whose lives and actions I understood. With their intense devotion and training they taught me what I had to do to make it as an artist. If Carbajal or De La Hoya had to train so many hours a day, I knew that I had to devote as many hours a day to my profession as well, so I drew and drew. I also loved the simple story line that was the same for every boxer but different because their individual personalities were so strong.
My favorite boxer from Los Nuevos Guerreros is Los Guantes. He is a man holding onto a pole for support, and he has been badly beaten. He is wearing what appear to be boxing gloves, but upon closer inspection we see that his hands are pulsating hearts. “Sus manos son corazones” (His hands are hearts) is scrawled on the bottom. His hands are the instruments he uses to express himself, and they are no longer functioning.
Raúl Gonzalez: Los Nuevos Guerreros is on view at Carroll and Sons (450 Harrison Avenue, Boston) through August 31.