My brother, Salomón Huerta, is an internationally recognized visual artist. When I think about his rise in the art world, I can’t help but reflect on how far he came, from experiencing abject poverty and violence in a Mexican neighborhood and an American barrio to inclusion in the prestigious Whitney Biennial at age 33.
Here’s his story, as only a brother could tell it.
During the early 1960s, to escape the violence of a small Mexican rancho, Zajo Grande, in the beautiful state of Michoacán, our abuelo Martin Huerta Hernandez relocated most of our familia to Libertad, Tijuana, Baja California. The Huertas joined an informal settlement on a hill, the Cañón Otay. Part of an impoverished border city, the Cañón lacked clean water, paved roads, and other basic amenities. Our large Mexican familia included most of our 11 tías and tíos, along with many primas and primos. Salomón was born in Tijuana and spent his first six years there. I was born in Sacramento, California, and spent my first four years in Tijuana.
During the early 1970s, our extended familia migrated to Los Angeles. Like countless new immigrants in the U.S., my relatives pooled their resources and supported each other. We originally settled in a three-story Craftsman house in Hollywood. It had four bedrooms, two bathrooms, an attic, and a basement. At any given time, about 30 adults and kids lived there.
Amidst the overcrowded living conditions, we housed pollos—a dehumanizing term used for smuggled migrants—in the locked basement. One of our tíos was the main coyote, or human smuggler. Older family members helped smuggle migrants into the U.S. for $500 per person—collecting half up front and the rest after they held the migrants for several days and then delivered them to their destinations. Our tías cooked and cleaned. Not to be left out, we kids also played a role in the informal negocio. As my tía would fondly say, “Álvaro, lleva estos frijoles y el arroz a los pollos. No olvides las tortillas.” (“Álvaro, take beans and rice to the migrants. Don’t forget the tortillas.”)
After two years in Hollywood, our immediate familia moved to the Ramona Gardens public housing project in East Los Angeles—better known as the Big Hazard projects, after the notorious gang. Without knowing, our parents moved us into one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the nation. Poverty, violence, drugs, and police abuse were omnipresent. When we moved in, Salomón was eight years old and I was six.
While attending Murchison Street Elementary, Salomón first realized his passion for art. He entered a drawing contest in sixth grade and lost to a kid named José. Just like when his bike was stolen in the projects (my fault!), Salomón was robbed. During this period, Salomón was initiated (beaten by a group of kids for 10 seconds) into the Hill Boys, where, as a wannabe tween “gangster,” he utilized his art skills to graffiti the neighborhood walls with the placasos, or nicknames, of the homeboys.
Later, he painted murals at Lincoln High School in Lincoln Heights and Woodrow Wilson High School in El Sereno. He attended Pasadena City College, where he took advanced art classes and decided to pursue a career as an artist, and transferred to the prestigious ArtCenter College of Design, on a scholarship, in the spring of 1989.
While initially intimidated, since he was one of the few brown faces on campus (excluding the kitchen workers and custodians), Salomón slowly mastered the rules of the game, embraced his identity, and graduated at the top of his class. A testament to his success at ArtCenter, his mural-size painting of homeboys from the projects, “Hanging Out” (1991), was featured in the college catalog and related materials.
ArtCenter introduced Salomón to European art masters. In 1992, my brother reimagined the Flemish Baroque painter Sir Peter Paul Rubens’ “The Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt” (1616), transforming Arab hunters into Chicano homeboys in his large painting “Los Tres Caballeros” (“The Three Gentlemen”). The prey is no longer a hippo, but pigs—a reflection on Salomón’s experiences with police abuse, which is prevalent in brown communities, especially in impoverished and segregated places like the Big Hazard projects. The same year, Salomón painted a mural in memory of Arturo “Smokey” Jimenez—an unarmed neighborhood resident who was killed by a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s officer on August 3, 1991.
My brother’s career quickly took off. The Latina-owned Julie Rico Gallery in Santa Monica included him in a two-person show in 1993 and gave him a solo show in 1994. For the first, Salomón primarily painted members of our familia; for the second, he depicted homeboys and homegirls from the projects. In 1995, Salomón started the graduate program in art at UCLA—another prestigious program with very few students of color from the barrio.
During his second year at UCLA, Salomón began painting portraits of the backs of people’s heads–an artistic breakthrough that would bring him national and international acclaim. He secured his first major solo show in a mainstream gallery in 1998, at the Patricia Faure Gallery in Santa Monica. Salomón was reimagining and redefining the meaning of portraiture, forcing us—the audience—to question the identity (or identities) of his subjects, as well as our own.
Reviewing a 2000 group show at the California Center for the Arts, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight described the power in Salomón’s challenge to the conventions of painting. “Salomón Huerta is the only straightforward figurative painter among the 10, but his hypnotic ‘Untitled Figure’ is perhaps the most powerful, conceptually disconcerting work on view. Against an uninflected field of bright blue oil paint, a life-size standing figure of a man—head shaved, feet apart, arms at his side, clothing casual—is rendered in a manner both precise and simplified. Unlike ordinary figure paintings, the man in this one is shown from behind, so that a viewer scrutinizes his back.”
Riffs on identity suffuse Salomón’s work across genres. His minimalist, immaculate depictions of houses have the appearance of American suburban wealth—but are in fact homes of the working poor. His series of Mexican luchadores exhibited in a solo show called “Mask” at the Patrick Painter Gallery in Santa Monica in 2008 emerges from a fascination we shared as kids in Tijuana. While American kids loved Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man, we loved El Santo, Mil Máscaras, and Blue Demon, the Mexican heroes of lucha libre.
In a series of paintings featured in a 2018 solo show, “Still Lifes,” at the gallery there-there in Los Angeles, Salomón used our father’s gun as his subject, posing it with various drinks and food items: tequila, milk, water, coffee, pan dulce, butter, oranges, cacti, etc. The juxtaposition offers an unexpected take on childhood memories of a loving home. Salomón often brought drinks and food to our father’s nightstand, where our father kept his gun. On several occasions, when crossing the border as a kid, he had to hide our father’s gun in his pants to evade inspection. The gun was part of my relationship with our father, too. Once, when I was 13, our father gave it to me so I could serve as his armed back-up. A group of homeboys were stalking him to jump him (beat him up) for an early incident and misunderstanding.
Speaking of guns, did I mention that a cop pulled a gun on me when I was 16 years old for making a rolling stop in my 1967 Ford Mustang—a car my sister Catalina had gifted me?
Over the past 30 years, Salomón has established himself as one the best artists of his generation. He has exhibited his artwork at many prestigious gallery and museum exhibitions, nationally and internationally. He had a sold-out solo show, “Salomón Huerta: New Paintings,” at the Gagosian Gallery in London. He made it to the Whitney!
These are incredible accomplishments for an artist of Mexican origin who grew up in an impoverished Tijuana and a violent East Los Angeles. As the late, great Chicano historian Juan Gómez-Quiñones writes, anti-Mexicanism is integral to this nation and the bleak plight of brown people in America. Hence, it’s imperative that we recognize individuals of Mexican origin, like Salomón, who can compete against the best in the world in the fine arts and beyond.
I am two years younger than Salomón, with accomplishments of my own: success as a scholar-activist, degrees from UCLA and Berkeley, affiliation with Harvard, etc. I will always promote my brother’s groundbreaking work, without apologies. It is creative and imaginative and humanizes los de abajo, those on the bottom—from our Mexican familia to our childhood homeboys and homegirls. While they are no longer with us physically, I’m happy that our parents—Carmen Huerta Mejía and Salomón Huerta Chavez—lived to see their children succeed against great odds, proudly representing the salt of the earth.