Artist Melanie Cervantes Reflects on Change, Mortality, and Trauma in “The Future is Bright”

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By Gabrielle Garcia

As the co-founder of Dignidad Rebelde, a graphic arts collaboration formed with her partner and fellow artist Jesus Barraza in 2007, Melanie Cervantes is a prolific Xicana printmaker, artist, and recent lung cancer survivor whose work is intentionally political in capturing and representing community stories of struggle, resistance, and triumph. As Cervantes puts it, “There’s forces that want us to be obliterated, but we fight like hell for the dignity of life.” Dignidad Rebelde is self characterized as being grounded in “Third World and indigenous movements that build people’s power to transform the conditions of fragmentation, displacement and loss of culture that result from histories of colonialism, patriarchy, genocide, and exploitation.” After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in Ethnic Studies, Cervantes has gone on to have her work exhibited in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, France, Slovenia, and Mexico at renowned institutions. Her work has also joined the permanent collections of a variety of public and private institutions, including the Library of Congress.

With a recent recovery from surgery for a rare form of lung cancer, Melanie Cervantes’ resilience is as deeply imbued in her person as it is in all corners of her work. Cervantes captures this resilience in a new form, a self portrait serigraph titled “The Future is Bright.” This self portrait is deeply reflective, modeled off a past photograph of Cervantes after graduating from college in moving into her first apartment using a scheme of vibrant phosphorous colors that reflect a love for life and a new appreciation for one’s own happiness no matter what others thought. Although self portraiture is a new form in Cervantes’ body of work, she is drawing upon tremendous legacy of Chicana art that involves self portraiture as a mode of expression, resistance, and representation.

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While otherwise unsuspecting at a superficial glance, this self portrait harbors Cervantes’ reflections on trauma, healing, survival, and injustice from her own experiences with the healthcare system with the diagnosis, care, and surgery for her lung cancer. She had developed the conceptual background for this work during her post-surgery healing period where she had contemplated her own mortality and complicated nature of her experience. “I started to get pretty angry, you know there’s a lot of people that probably have these kinds of illnesses and they don’t find them until... if they have an autopsy,” Cervantes began. “There’s probably people walking around not knowing that they’re ill because it doesn’t get diagnosed correctly or it looks like other things. Most doctors only have one day of training in medical school on the type of cancer I was diagnosed with, which is called neuroendocrine cancer. It definitely made me think of the medical industry, how it’s structured in the United States, and how it’s monetized.” 

Staying true to the political and activist trajectory of her past work, Cervantes draws attention to the experiences of people of color with healthcare, especially with a lack of access and lack of tools to properly navigate their care. While mortality and death may be a universal experience amongst humanity, the conditions and treatment of such are not equal. This is true especially for folks from marginalized backgrounds who are forced to choose between their health and other necessities for their families, or face accessibility issues getting care, such as language. 

Reflecting on her aims for the future Cervantes said, “I want to be an old lady that tells stories, like ‘when I was young there was Self Help…’ I want to be that person. I think that when I talk about goals now it’s so different. My goal is to make it to elderhood and to be able to say I lived a life where I made a positive impact by being here and that I’m actually leaving something behind that makes things better not worse for people beyond myself, but also for myself. I can’t step back so far that I lose myself. I’m part of the communities that are going to benefit, not outside of it.”

Check out works by Cervantes and others all week from the Annual Print Fair! Arts enthusiasts and collectors can also purchase prints at SHG’s online shop anytime or may make an appointment to view works for sale during business hours.

Gabrielle Garcia is a Self Help Graphics & Art Getty Marrow Undergraduate Intern and a recent graduate of Scripps College.