When the sun comes up over the uniquely industrial-cum-residential neighborhood of Boyle Heights, just east of downtown Los Angeles, artist Ernesto Yerena gets up and greets the day. He's welcomed by a symphony of auditory sounds: there's the tamale lady loudly announcing her presence, the chattering of the neighborhood women watering their plants, and the ringihong of bicycle bells. “There’ an element that feels like you’re in ‘Little Mexico,’” he says. “I see a lot of hand-painted signage for restaurants or grocery markets; a lot of them are in Spanish. It reminds me of the border, where I’m from, with the Mexican American community.”
Yerena grew up in El Centro, a small border town across from Mexicali, the capital of Baja California. It was there he developed his aesthetic—graphic street-style elements mixed with a bit of social and cultural awareness. “By the end of high school, I was like, ‘My people aren’t ‘undocumented’; they’re native to here,” he says with a laugh.
“The Europeans set up the borders.’ I was that kid in high school: tripping out my teachers politically and getting sent to the principal’s office.”
When Yerena came to Los Angeles, he was even further empowered by the 2006 immigration reform protests in downtown Los Angeles, for which over 500,000 people marched. This inspired Yerena to start up Hecho Con Ganas, a publishing endeavor dedicated to producing socially conscious prints, in 2008, and to work with other politically minded musicians and artists such as Zack de la Rocha from Rage Against the Machine, Manu Chao, Ana Tijoux, and Shepard Fairey. He moved away, living in Arizona and Texas, but recently returned to the friendly creative atmosphere where he built his career.
Yerena’s GOOD Cities Project billboard love letter to Los Angeles mixes together everything he loves about the city and his own attraction to forgotten or underrepresented cultures. First off, there are acorns that signify the first settlers of the area, the Tongva people. “I wanted to figure out a way to represent [them],” says Yerena, who explains that there is still a smattering of Tongva people living in the area. “Acorns are part of their traditional food. They use acorns in their traditional tribal shields.”
Musical notations border the billboard, as Yerena cites the music of Los Angeles as his biggest inspiration. He also included abstractions of ocean waves and even a depiction of the Hollywood sign, both icons of the city, because his friends told him no love letter to L.A. would be complete without those elements. But the crux of the& billboard revolves around a hummingbird.
“The hummingbird represents a hard worker,” says Yerena. “Hummingbirds are constantly working to eat. They’re flying so fast that they’re constantly burning a lot of calories. They just live to work, and I feel like a lot of people in L.A. are working so hard in the city.”
Which is exactly what Yerena is doing from his studio—adding to the vibrant streets of Los Angeles, hearing the sounds, working hard, and making his way in a city that seems big, but is, as Yerena puts it, made up of a cluster of distinctly different neighborhoods. “Each neighborhood is dense in its own culture,” he says.
As he flits from neighborhood to neighborhood like a hummingbird, he feels like there’s much to offer, especially for a creative person like himself. “It’s a city of hope,” Yerena says. “I came back because of the opportunity.”
Yerena’s visual love letter to Los Angeles is currently on exhibition as part of the GOOD Cities Project. And, if you’re in the Los Angeles area in November, keep an eye out to see his work displayed on local billboards.
The GOOD Cities Project is a five-month collaboration with Ford, exploring how we make our cities and how our cities make us. As part of the project, GOOD and Ford have commissioned cultural creatives across the country to help illuminate and celebrate the rich and vastly diverse points of view that make up each city's individual character. Each week, we will be exploring attributes that we believe are fundamental to living meaningful urban lives.