Text and Textile :The works of Ester Hernandez By Amalia Mesa-Bains Within the movements for social justice, the language of change has often been expressed through visual images, so powerful that they inspire critical transformations in the public. The works of Ester Hernandez are part of this revolutionary iconography. Hernandez embodies the artist as cultural citizen, expressive of the community’s values, their struggle for rights, space, and identity. Ester Hernandez has taken her place as a cultural citizen whose works have given voice to the rights of the indigenous and Chicana/o communities. Her visual representation of the battles in the fields captures the labor history of Chicanas. The early years of life in the San Juaquin Valley, laboring with her family and living close to the land have brought a sincere insight to the work of the artist. She has crystallized the intense indignation of her own experience into a wider view of the symbolic and the social. She is most known for a dramatic iconography of women from the Gualalupe as karate fighter and the Statue of Liberty as a Mayan stele to the legendary image of Sun Mad. Her own family history is tied to the labor of her parents and grandparents. After the artist discovered in 1979 that the water table of her region was poisoned with pesticides she began Sun Mad, her 1981 screen print. The artist creates the paradoxical as she asserts the subtext of the lyrical image of the Sun Maid raisin box. The winsome and pastoral image of the innocent young maid offering her abundant riches to America's tables is revealed in all her menacing reality. In the fashion of the Mexican popular arts printer, Posada, Hernandez applies the muertitos tradition of satire to America's sweetheart. It is an enduring work of art understood in the popular culture but meaningful in a critical cultural world as well. The calavera figure brings stark attention to the pesticides and acute labor conditions of underpaid Mexican, indigenous, Central American and Filipino farm workers. In contemporary Aztlan in the Chicano Southwest , Dia de los Muertos has been the inspiration for a new genre of installation work. This marking of space in a memorial site reaches its most elegant and persuasive form in Ester Hernandez's ceremonial ofrenda to her father. The ofrenda integrates her earlier image of Sun Mad. The circle of stones and the earth are the signs of nature in a cultural landscape. The placement of the farm worker's hat and scarf are a poignant reminder of a life of toil and dignity in one of America’s most shamefully exploitative industries. Her newest installations honor the migration of indigenous workers into the fields of California and in the industry of agriculture. Bringing with them their native languages and customs, they must battle anew the discrimination and exploitation. Hernandez’s activism began with native peoples of the Southwest. Her concerns also embrace the new communities in their struggle. Her homenaje is in the language of the ancient. Her use of flowers reminds us of the nahuatl iconography of speech, where blossoms were synonymous with words. Her flowers acknowledge the new communities of the indigenous and their ancient cultures. Her work carries a social commentary; a melancholy remembrance of community struggle and suffering that has gone unrecognized. In this provocative aspect of the sacred, Hernandez demonstrates the complexity and power of the traditions honoring the living and the dead. It is emblematic of a politicizing spirituality. Her consistent commitment to the manifest social issues of our time is also expressed in metaphors of beauty and memory within the feminine. Her pieces form a text of meaning that links the aspects of her installations, prints and pastel drawings. In her newest installation work she turns again to the textile or weaving. The new works are connected to the past installation, Tejido de los Desaparecidos, where the ikat weave of the rebozo references civil war through woven patterns of skeletons and helicopters. The shawl is invested with the psychic knowledge gained from its wearer. The trace of the body and the intimacy of the carnal inhabit the textile and give it its power. Hernandez’s cloth is a repository of the cultural wealth of her ancestors and binds her to the condition of indigenous struggle. The textile she has created is in many respects a text that is woven of knowledge and narrative. The Immigrant’s Dress is a garment of diaphanous threads woven, stitched and bound to the family history of her antepasados. Held secret, disguised and veiled from the viewer in the folds of the dress, is the wealth of a cultural treasure. Like her own grandmother’s hidden money found after her death, the metaphor of inner value is understood in the text of the dress. We see through the textile to the maize, the sign of our sustenance and ancient way of life. The text is one of women, protecting, saving, and treasuring memory. The dress is a repository of history for the family, a collective and communal fabric of life. In her new work, Huipil, she revisits the mythic, as the snake skins retrace the beauty of Cuatlique across the fabric. The huipil, the ancient dress of Mesoamerica, bears the imprint of the fierce Mother goddess and the emblem of nature’s capacity for regeneration. The Tzin Tzun Tzan, the humming bird, associated with unrequited love hangs as a symbol of the natural, a healing power endowed with magic charm. In these latest works, Hernandez carries forward the two threads of her previous work, the social and the mythic, the warp and the weft of her text. Her art is imbued with a sense of the spiritual that unites memory and nature. This ethical vision is ensouled in the practices of a political, historical, cultural, and geographic investigation that gives spirit to her communities. Ester Hernandez is artist and cultural citizen who serves as she continues to provoke and inspire.