Creatives have long discussed their role in shaping the information they communicate, but do we consider where and for who creatives choose to share their talents with? As creatives, we must ask ourselves what role we play in the narratives surrounding us.
In 2017, I recalled experiencing a true contrast between my memories of growing up in the Valley and the way home was portrayed on mainstream media. At the time, McAllen was on the news a lot due to the topic of immigration being at the forefront of American politics. It’s where a border wall was being built, and it was even labeled “America’s New Ellis Island,” according to the New York Times. Headlines like that felt strange to read about my hometown, especially as I witnessed how political divisions took hold of our community. When I read about children being detained in cages, women being sterilized against their will with forced hysterectomies, and Pence’s ridiculous defense of the conditions at detention centers where teenagers lay dead for hours, there was a helplessness that weighed on me. It no longer made sense to me to remain passive and just read about what was happening at home. Sure, donating to nonprofits and social justice causes could potentially alleviate this strange guilt I felt about being born north of the border, but it didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to get involved and help in a way that felt more actionable, but how?
In a 2020 survey by Working Not Working, creatives were asked what Top 50 Companies they wanted to work at, and the responses are what you would imagine: Google, Nike, Apple, Netflix, Spotify, etc.
While I understand how our capitalistic culture has encouraged us to value brands like Google, Nike, Apple, Netflix, and Spotify, I struggle to grasp the connection designers have with the work they create for global conglomerates. If creatives claim they wield a lot of power, shouldn’t we use it for good? The survey did allude to a finding that I believe could alter the decision-making of creatives. When surveyed, 26% of creatives were most motivated by “creative independence.” There is no better place for creative freedom than contributing work for a campaign for social justice or with a local non-profit.
This is a call for creatives to get involved and make work that calls for action from our community to put pressure on decision-makers. One way to do this is through independent publications like zines. This model of independent publications was born in the 1960s and 1970s when underground papers flourished, embedded in communities motivated by their political ideologies to bring about change. To create, write, and express what was not seen in mainstream publications.
Independent publications were the primary news source for local communities performing the roles of watchdog and informer. They worked to increase and improve communications within the Chicano community and mobilize their readers toward action. The community-based Chicano press encouraged and educated their readers to engage in matters of politics, economics, heritage, history, and customs to drive their political self-determination and economic independence. These publications called readers to organize and fight for justice, subjectively and passionately focused on local concerns faced by the Chicano community. Throughout the Chicano movement, over 300 publications were designed and distributed, acting as an “internal organ” of communication and motivation for the 150 parallel activist communities across the United States. Here in the Rio Grande Valley, we had El Cuhamil, which chronicled the struggles of the Texas Farm Workers’ Union mobilizing for social justice. It aimed to be the voice of Chicano people and utilized culturally familiar bilingual jargon to convey a friendly tone.
The content relied on imagery to bring to life the political events of the time in a way that readers could easily understand. The cartoons of Carlos Marentes, El Cuhamil’s cartoonist for three years beginning in 1977, pointed out the absurdity of the working conditions by drawing on a rich and sophisticated tradition of Mexican political humor. Marentes used stereotyped characters like his farm worker with the hat and his bulging belly and bigote to make his argument. These illustrations follow the stylistic patterns of cartoonist Andy Zermeño from the United Farm Workers’ newspaper, El Malcriado. Like Zermeño, Marentes drew many caricatures of local political figures. In El Cuhamil, we see cartoons of Texas Governor Bill Clements and Mayor of McAllen Othal Brand, a vegetable grower who was notorious for mistreating his workers. In one of Marentes’ cartoons, he draws a farmworker on the ground, which has been beaten and bludgeoned by a Texas Ranger as he holds a “huelga” sign. It looks like the farmworker is being interviewed by a detective with a speech bubble “Tell me sir: have your human rights been violated?” Marentes had a way of making the ridiculousness of the situation visual. The cartoons showcase the community’s perspective and the struggles that plagued them. El Cuhamil serves as an example of a publication that worked to correct the disinformation or lack of information in the traditional white press or mass media portrayals of the Mexican American experience. Publications like El Cuhamil helped tell the complete story, giving the power of authorship to the people experiencing hardships firsthand.