Born in 1944 to a Mexican/Yaqui farmworker family in California’s Joaquin Valley, Ester Hernandez was aware from an early age of her artistic and social activism talents. As a young woman, the noted Chicana visual artist immersed herself in the nascent farmworkers' movement and devoted much of her art to exposing the toxic effects of agribusiness on both the land and the workers. In addition to weaving environmental concerns throughout her work, Hernandez’s art also speaks to political and social issues such as LGBTQ+ rights and her pride as a queer Latina woman.
Her activism and artistic practice led us to include Hernandez in the new series Drawn to Art: Tales of Inspiring Women Artists. The web comic “Ester Hernandez: A Better World,” is Illustrated by Stephanie Bravo, a student at the Ringling College of Art and Design (and one of our extraordinary 2022 summer interns). The comic takes these threads and weaves them into a visually rich story. Early in the creative process, we reached out to Ester who shared photos from her childhood, including of her as a young girl wearing a dress her mother made for her from a flour sack with a motif of watermelon slices.
One of my favorite images (and really, every page is filled with favorites) is a full-page depiction of Ester as a young woman attending a performance by El Teatro Campesino, a traveling theater troupe that combined the arts and social justice. As it was "the first time Ester saw art as a tool for change," the drawing shows Ester enraptured by a guitar player, a man wearing a sign belonging to the United Farmworkers Movement, and a woman in a pose reminiscent of the Virgin Guadalupe, an image we’ve seen earlier in the comic, and will encounter again.
The comic concludes with a look at Ester’s deeply felt graphic work, including her Sun Raid screenprint that speaks to the issue of immigration and echoes her now iconic Sun Maid print, which addresses the hazards of the farming industry on the land and its workers. Included, too, is an illustration of a queer couple admiring a print of Ester’s then partner with a tattoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe on her back.
The final image of the comic brings us back to Ester’s childhood: a young girl playing in the mud wearing a special watermelon dress, just beginning to investigate the world—a world she would make better through her art and activism.
We invite you to read the comic and share with your friends and young people in your life.
This comic is part of a series Drawn to Art: Tales of Inspiring Women Artists that illuminates the stories of women artists in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Inspired by graphic novels, these short takes on artists’ lives were each drawn by a student-illustrator from the Ringling College of Art and Design.