Mural artist Yermo Aranda at work.
(Via Santa Cruz County Parks)
The Here & Now

Man behind the murals: County names Yermo Aranda Artist of the Year

“You’re giving people the tools to create something that is monumental,” Yermo Aranda says of enlisting community members — often schoolchildren — in creating culturally significant murals in and around his adopted hometown of Watsonville. He’ll be honored Saturday in a virtual event that also features the dance troupe he co-founded.

Occasionally, it still happens. Occasionally, someone will approach Guillermo Aranda at the supermarket or hardware store and tell him some variation of this: “Um, you don’t know (sometimes ‘remember’) me, but I worked with you on the (insert Watsonville locale, sometimes other regional reference) mural back (insert number between five and 30, expressed approximately or uncertainly) years ago.” Then, with varying degrees of embarrassment and performance anxiety, they’ll tell him just how memorable or influential that imperfectly recalled moment was for them.

That’s what happens when you spend decades painting scores of large-scale murals in dozens of places, and your habitual way of working is to recruit as many volunteers as possible, even if (or especially because) they are schoolchildren.

Recognition of that influence was formalized this week when Aranda — known across the community as “Yermo” — was named Santa Cruz County’s Artist of the Year by the county’s arts commission. He will be honored in a live online event on Saturday, in which he’ll talk about his long career muraling up and down the West Coast, but mostly in his adopted hometown of Watsonville. That chat will be followed by a live performance at the Watsonville High School cafeteria of the Whitehawk Dancers, a local troupe devoted to traditional Aztec dance forms.

Though he is known primarily as a visual artist, the presence of the Whitehawk Dancers to mark Aranda’s career is significant. Captivated by Aztec dance as a youth, Aranda actually co-founded the Whitehawk Dancers. The group represents the performance side of a theme that has preoccupied Aranda for years, particularly when it comes to Chicanos and Latinos: Know where you came from.

“I don’t dance anymore,” said the 77-year-old Artist of the Year. “But I danced for close to 40 years, and made the outfits. I showed them how to put their shakers together and make drums. And I shared a lot of that information and knowledge to different dancers.”

Historical Mural/Chicano Park, by Guillermo Aranda.
(Courtesy Califas Legacy Project)

Aranda is originally from San Diego, and it was in Southern California as a young man he got swept up in a new awareness of cultural heritage among many people of Latino descent. He co-founded an influential cultural arts center and began painting murals with cultural and historical themes in what soon became Chicano Park, today a National Historic Landmark in San Diego.

Aranda landed in Watsonville in the early 1980s, and quickly began enlisting local schools and young people in helping him create culturally significant murals in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. Early on, he said, he favored nature imagery, particularly of the rainforests, shying away from Mexican/Latino cultural themes because such images were discouraged. Today, by contrast, the cultural images — Aztec dancers, the symbolic quetzal bird — are embraced.

“Now, they’re asking me, ‘Hey, can you put something (cultural or historical) in there,” he said.

By his count, Aranda has painted about 90 murals around the Monterey Bay and other parts of California and the West Coast. He teaches everyone from children to prison inmates about the planning and execution of murals. On some projects, he said, he can have literally hundreds of volunteer assistants. He is still engaged in creating murals in public settings, having finished one earlier this year at the building that houses the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program on East Lake Avenue in Watsonville.

“It goes through phases,” he said about the popularity of murals in the community. Now, he said, is again a boom time for community murals, and Aranda has three planned for the coming months, an unusually busy schedule for him.

“I’m not really the norm of what you would call an ‘artist,’” said Aranda. “I like working with the community and that’s where murals come in. I can pull kids in off the street. I can invite people just passing by. People just come up and say, ‘Hey, can I help?’ It’s a collaboration. And you’re giving people the tools to create something that is monumental.”

The Santa Cruz County Artist of the Year virtual performance, featuring Guillermo “Yermo” Aranda, takes places Saturday from 3 to 4:30 p.m. To participate in the Zoom event, go here (passcode 644488).