Home is Where the Art is: Interview with Cadex Herrera
How does being from Belize influence your identity?
Belize is a former British colony. It’s the only Central American country where English is the National Language. But the language Belizeans speak depends on what part of the country they grew up in. In the central and southern regions, people speak English, Creole, and Mayan. I was raised in a town bordering Guatemala and my father is from the north, at the border of Mexico. I grew up speaking mostly Spanish.
My ethnic background is Mestizo. Mestizo is a Spanish term meaning ‘mixed.’ It dates from colonial times and was used to create a class system. People of pure Spanish or English descent were placed in the highest class, if you were Indigenous or Black you were at the bottom and you had little access to services and resources. I am a Mestizo, of Mayan, Spanish and African ancestry.
Where I grew up, the strongest prejudice is against the Mayan people. My older brother looks very Spanish—he is light skinned. I look very native, or Mayan, and my sister has more Creole, or Black, features. Growing up in Belize, you are encouraged to hide your “Indian” side. Everyone wants to be more European or Spanish. But I can’t hide my heritage. I couldn’t say I am Spanish, because I don’t look Spanish; even though that is part of my heritage. Finally, I just started embracing it. I started to embrace my grandfather’s way of dressing—when all my friends were wearing hip hop and American clothes, but I wore guayaberas and sandals, purposely to show that this is who I am.
What is the guiding wisdom of your life?
During my elementary school years, there were many civil wars going on in Central America. Many immigrants from Central America fled to Belize. When I was 9, we lived on the outskirts of town. At this point we were fairly well off. My dad had gotten a new job as manager at a carpentry shop. I remember one stormy rainy night, we were all sitting inside, being warm and cozy as a family, when we heard a knock on the door. My father answered, and when he opened the door there was a woman and three little kids there. From what I overheard, we could tell my father was being rude and unwelcoming. “Go away,” and “We don’t need you,” he said. I was surprised to hear my father speak to the stranger in this way.
Then, my mom stepped in, which was even more surprising due to the machismo culture that is prevalent in my country. My mom told my dad, “Go back in the house and sit down.”
My mother spoke with the woman and then asked me to come outside, where she gave me five Belizean dollars, which I remember seemed like a lot. She told me to run to the corner store, about four or five blocks away, and pick up some food for this family. I remember being filled with energy and adrenalin to do the right thing for the woman and her kids. I had watched the interaction of my mom and dad, and the idea of going against my father was incredible and sort of liberating. Even at that age I understood that my mom was standing up to my father and doing something good.
I remember, I went to the store and I picked up bread, canned meat, sausage and cheese as well as some chips and candy for the kids. When I returned home, I watched my mom give the food to the lady, who began to weep. I’ll always remember the look on those kids’ faces: a combination of gratitude but also of pain and discomfort, which I understood, since our family had also seen some very hard and lean times.
That was a formative experience in my life—that feeling of doing good without reciprocity. Although at the time I couldn’t name it, it was pride and dignity that I saw in the eyes of those refugees. I realized that it doesn’t take much to help someone. If the need is genuine, a small gesture can change someone’s life. It can be transformative, even if the person who is doing the giving doesn’t think that it’s a big deal. So, if you can help, then you should help. This is one of the life lessons I took from that event and it informs so much of what I do artistically and how I try to align my values to this day.
When did you start making art?
I grew up poor and didn’t have many opportunities for art education, but I’ve always been a creative person. I remember once my mom used the little resources we had to buy a collection of Encyclopedia Britannica from a garage sale. I can remember my father being very upset because she had spent money on this encyclopedia set. Each encyclopedia had a few blank pages at the beginning and at the end. We didn’t have access to paper and my family couldn’t afford to buy sketchbooks. I drew on those blank pages. I remember the freedom and inner peace that I felt when I was drawing on the blank pages of the encyclopedias, though when my mother discovered my drawings, she was not very happy.
That feeling of freedom in the creative process never left me. I have always been fascinated, also, with the idea of invention in the art process. Really I think that artists are visual inventors, we invent new languages every day—new ways of seeing the world.
I kept making art, even though there were no art classes. Our exposure to art was limited, but something kept driving me because I realized that there was power in the process—a kind of healing. It wasn’t something that I understood academically, but I knew that when I drew, I could forget that I was hungry, I could forget that my mother and brothers were hungry, and that it was a really hard workday. It put me in a different world and mindset and that is what my art does for me to this day. It’s a way for me to heal every day. It’s a way to meditate, to reflect, and to let the difficult things go. They disappear into the process of hand-to-eye coordination and of inventing things in the moment.
Can you talk a little more about what you’ve described as the healing properties of art?
When I was 14 my mom became very ill. Initially she was treated by traditional medicine, but at my brother’s urging, she went to Guatemala City to receive a medical diagnosis. When she came back a week later, she was distressed and sad. She sat us all down and told us she’d been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. “It’s incurable, and I only have a few years to live,” she said.
My whole world changed then. Making art became the counterbalance and escape from the disruptive, rebellious and violent life that I engaged in as a result of not knowing how to deal with losing my mother.
When did you start pursuing art professionally?
My first opportunity for formal training in art was when my mother was sick with cancer. An artist from Guatemala started a workshop in my hometown. I told my dad I really wanted to do this, and he said we couldn’t afford the price, which was 20 dollars a month. My dad did not approve of my art. He didn’t think you could make money doing it. I went to the workshop anyway and asked if there was some way I could join. The teacher told me about a scholarship I could apply for in the city. I told my mom that I planned to go and see if I could get the scholarship. She was very encouraging and gave me the money I needed to get to the city.
I arrived at the Bliss Centre for Performing Arts that morning at 9 a.m. The lady at the front desk told me that I needed an appointment. But I didn’t leave. I waited, and eventually a woman and man walked in. They were very well dressed, like politicians. There I was in short pants, t-shirt and beat-up tennis shoes. The front desk lady pointed out that this was the lady I needed to talk to. I jumped up and said, “Ma’am my name is Cadex Herrera and I need a scholarship for this workshop that is happening in Benque Viejo Del Carmen and I have no money.” She looked me over, then told me I needed to write an essay, which she would read and judge, then went into her office.
I sat back down in the lobby. I knew she would have to come back out at some point, so I waited and waited. Eventually, she came out again and I said, “Hello, my name is Cadex Herrera and I just talked to you this morning and I wonder if you would reconsider. If you want an essay, I can talk to you right now about my need to do art.” She seemed surprised but told me to go ahead. So, I told her about how important art was to me, the situation I was in, and how much this opportunity meant to me. “Okay,” she said, “I’m going to lunch and will think about it.”
When she came back I was still there and by this time the front desk lady was urging me on. I told the woman, “I will not go until you say yes. I’ll come back tomorrow if you say no.” When she asked why I wasn’t in school, I told her I had skipped because this was so important to me.
I waited until the very end of the day. The front desk lady shared her drink and food with me. When the important woman came out at the end of her workday she said, “Wow you are incredibly persistent. Okay, you can have the money and I’ll talk to the school.” You can imagine how happy I was. I went home and told my mom.
Being a part of the art workshop was my first experience studying art. Materials were available for our use, and I thinned out the paint so it would last. That practice has carried on through to today—I use as few materials as I can and make use of found things to create art. It was all based on that time in the workshop. Then, I wasn’t doing it for environmental reasons—it was a financial necessity.
The next time I studied art was many years later, after I moved to the United States when I was 19. After my mother passed away I became homeless and had no prospects or opportunities in Belize. I came to the US. I worked and saved for about two and a half years, and then began attending The College of Visual Arts.
Going to art college was one of the best experiences of my life. It was so important to meet other artists, and to understand that I had a lot of work to do. I realized I wasn’t as talented as I had thought. I made it my goal to learn and do as much as I could. I graduated with a bachelor’s in communication design and a minor in photography.
Your art addresses issues of immigration and social justice. Can you explain a little your motivation and perspective?
After I graduated from college, I got a job at a high school teaching photography and media arts. When I started my Instagram account, I was mostly using it for photography, and as a teaching tool. I wanted my students to know they could use their phones to take pictures and didn’t need expensive cameras to create art. But when I started using social media, I also began putting my own work out there on different platforms, and that’s when I really started thinking about what I want to say and how I want to say it.
I also realized I wanted to talk more about my people, the plight of immigrants, and environmental and social justice issues. I did a series on immigrants, and began to experiment with different media, ranging from creating photography pieces using folded paper, to using salt as a drawing medium to create portraits of civil rights leaders and people who have influenced me. This progressed into me creating a series every month based on social justice issues. I use the techniques and mediums that best compliment the theme and post the series on my various social media sites.
The mural you painted of George Floyd in the days after his death has become iconic. Can you tell us a little about how this piece came to be?
A few years ago Philando Castile was murdered in front of his child, while he sat in a car. He worked for the St. Paul school district, as did I. Although I didn’t know him personally, our paths had crossed on a couple of occasions. After he was killed, I did a piece of art to honor him, a salt piece. But I felt like I didn’t speak loudly enough for him. I wondered where the movement was for Philando. There were no protests, no marches—he was just another Black man who was killed by the police.
When I saw how George Floyd was murdered, I knew I needed to do something and speak to the violence that’s been happening. I watched about ten seconds of the video—that’s all I could watch before I became enraged. I was so angry. I couldn’t believe the inhumanity. And this was right after the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery by the three white men in the pick-up truck while he was jogging. I had done a piece called Justice for Ahmaud. I had been doing a lot of work for Black History Month. I was really dealing with the question of what was going on, and why, and how little was being done.
I wanted to do something. On Tuesday night, the day after George Floyd was murdered, I went out to the streets and protested with the crowds. I went as a photographer but once I got there I put my camera away and joined the march. I went back the next night as well.
After I returned on Wednesday night I received a text from another Minneapolis-based artist, Xena Goldman, asking me if I would be interested in painting a mural with her and other artists to honor George Floyd, and if I would design it. I accepted.
We met at the site Thursday morning at 8 a.m. with a sketch in hand and began the process of painting the mural. As the day progressed, the community brought us food and water. We told people to grab brushes if they wanted to contribute. I don’t know how the other artists were feeling but as we worked on the mural I was overwhelmed by the support and spirit of the people that were gathered there, expressing themselves in their unique ways and sharing the same mutual need for justice.
I never expected that it would become one of the central art works of this movement. That was never the intention. I was there for George Floyd and to speak truth to power. I left feeling empowered, and that I had done right by George Floyd. I felt that we had created a work of art that honored him, as well as the many others who have been killed by the police. As an artist, I will continue to use my work to speak up and fight for social justice.
Cadex Herrera: As a multi-disciplinary artist, originally from Belize, I strive to bring awareness to humanitarian and social and environmental injustices by championing my culture and history, and people of color, immigrants and marginalized peoples. I aim to create art that elevates and empowers the viewer as well as the subjects and themes that I explore through my creative processes.
Many of my pieces live temporarily as salt on black paper; line art on a dry erase board; or watercolors between glass. I also produce short animations and photographic series.