Welcome to back in America, the podcast.
Part 1/2 - Cadex Herrera Lead Artist of George Floyd's Mural
Back in America is a podcast exploring America's culture, values, and identity. The death of George Floyd, a black man…
Stanislas Berteloot 0:24
This is part one of two episodes dedicated to the drug fraud mirror. If you want to see a picture of the mural, go to the podcast website at back in America the podcast.com I am Stan Berteloot, and this is back in America. The death of George Floyd, a black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer has triggered protests against police brutality, police racism, and lack of police accountability. Three days after Floyd’s death, a group of artists painted a mural on the cup full building at the corner of where Josh Floyd was killed on May 25. The artists started at about 7 am on May 28, and finished the mural at 5:30 pm. The same day. Most of us have seen the image of the mural since almost every American TV station, live stream the drums Floyd funeral, whose backdrop was a digital version of this mural. Inspired by this work, artists across the globe started producing a similar tribute to George Floyd, and a digital database of such art as gathered, a repository of 1324 pieces of art so far. My guest today is one of the leading artists behind this iconic mural of George Floyd, the man who immigrated to the United States from Belize when he was 19 today at 45 he walks As an elementary school behavior or specialist, and social justice is his passion. Welcome to back in America Cadex Herrera.
Cadex Herrera 2:11
Thank you very much, Stan, thank you for having me
Stanislas Berteloot 2:14
Cadex. This mural that you produced with two other artists, Xena, Goldman and Gretta. McLean is your first mural. Tell me What went through your head when you got a call from Xena Goldman asking you to work on the mural. When did she call you? How much time did you have to prepare this work?
Cadex Herrera 2:37
Xena Goldman had called me on Wednesday night. I had returned from joining the demonstrations on Wednesday evening. On Tuesday night when the news started coming out. And we all saw the length of video that went viral. I went to downtown Minneapolis That was Tuesday night to take some photographs. I’m a photographer as well. And when I, when I saw the movement when I saw the people there, I put my camera down and decided to be a participant rather than an observer. I decided not to take any photographs and just joined the demonstrators that were there. And I just wanted to be a part of that. On Wednesday, I went back out again, and when I came back, I saw that I had a message from Xena. And she just post one question to me, which was you want to paint the mural? I just said, Yes, I knew exactly where she was coming from. Then she said, You know, I have a portrait here that I’m going to use and I would and I would like to see if you’d be interested in painting this mural with me and she asked me to design something for it. And I said, Of course, I got it. it right away, I made a really quick sketch took me three minutes. And I sent it to her. And she looked at it and she saw it. And she really understood the idea right away and what I was trying to convey, and she’s like, yes, this is it, this is perfect, this will work. And then I said, wait a few more minutes. Let me send you something more detail a bit more elaborate. About half an hour later, I texted her back with another picture of the sketch of the actual realized idea that’s now on the mural. And she said, yeah, that’s perfect. Let’s do it. Let’s meet tomorrow morning, which was a Thursday, seven o’clock and I said I’m there and once we got there, you know, that’s when I first met Gretta. I did know her work as a muralist in the in the Twin Cities amazing work just a fantastic artist. We decided Okay, you know, this is the place where it happened. And Xena earlier asked different folks in the community if you know where would it be appropriate to put your loved one and you know everyone she asked said it should go into building and so we looked at it and it was a billboard of advertisement for produce and farm goods I remember right it was it was this very folk drawing of a painting of a barn and a field very elementary done and I believe a box of milk or something like that. So we looked at each other and said all right, let’s get to work. You know, we get our brought out the primer, and we painted it. We painted over it right away. And then we started realizing the sketch on the wall.
Stanislas Berteloot 6:05
So, two questions. Was it commissioned on how did that happen? Did you get an agreement from the store to pan on it? Was it commissioned by the city?
Cadex Herrera 6:17
No, it was not commissioned. This was a, it was a call to action. It was an immediate and spontaneous effort by Xena, and I and Gretta. And then also the other folks who came and join us through the process. Typically, you know, if you were going to paint a mural, you would go to the community and get consensus and work with the community, apply for a grant. Try to find a wall for permission and then wait for that permission to be granted. And it’s not guaranteed if you’re going to get it or not. So this is not what we were doing. This wasn’t a grant base mural, and no, we did not ask permission. I’m the owner of the building, we saw a wall and we never even thought about, or considered the owners of the buildings feelings, you know, that wasn’t part of our, at least of my, of my process through this. Mm hmm.
Stanislas Berteloot 7:18
And so you spoke about it briefly. But how does the creative process works when you are in a group of artists who decide, I’m going to do the board read, I’m going to do the background. You know, what happened? How does that work? The original
Cadex Herrera 7:34
sketch that I created, the one that we worked off of, for the mural was was fully realized. So the letterforms they were the way they were. The only thing that was not in the sketch that I brought, I believe was a realized portrait because Xena was taking care of that part. When I showed them the sketch I you know, we talked about the color choices, and initially it was going to be A black background rather than the blue background, I started explaining to the three artists that we needed to be very conscious of about the color use because it’s also as symbolic as all of the different elements in the piece. You know, I explained why it was important to use a brighter color, like for example, the sky blue that we use, and the yellows and the blacks and I didn’t have as much input on the way the portrait was treated. Xena has a very specific and peculiar and beautiful style of the way she apply paints. So you know, we both for full our full trust in her process. The consistence came from sort of the explanation of what those colors meant and why they should be the way they came up being.
Stanislas Berteloot 8:53
And if people are not familiar with the painting, could you take a minute to describe what it looks like?
Cadex Herrera 9:00
Sure, this whole piece was painted freehand. And we didn’t consider the dimensions all I knew for the design is that it was rectangular. The whole piece is, is laid on top of a, of a sky blue background that spreads from a light blue center to a dark blue, outer. And then on top of that is a sunflower with very large black seed pod. That’s where we have the names of other black Americans who have been killed by police. At the top of, of that flower is the word say our names in in reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, and also to honor and remember those who have been killed by police and inside where the seeds are supposed to be. Our names are their actual names on top of that is George Floyd. treated in a very bold manner. It’s has a outline of purples and that sort of blends into that sky blue. And the inside of it is a yellow part of that yellow. Some folks have asked me why we use that yellow. So the Black Lives Matter movement has a color scheme, and a lot of their material that is sent out and it’s sort of a little bit of I think their signature color to color and it’s yellow and black. And so that yellow was important to add there as a symbolic gesture to the cars inside the name are sort of abstract, very simple, Lee drawn human forms, raising their fist and that represents the community and sort of the tones of the sky is coming through Through them as they’re raising their fist inside the letterforms at the foreground is the portrait of George Floyd. And then in front of that is the word I can breathe in now, right before we completed the mural, Xena went out in the community and the folks that were watching us through the process and through the day, and who also helped, you know, what would be the most appropriate thing to put there. We didn’t want to put words in George Floyd’s mouth, either. And so the consensus was from the people that were gathered there that I can breathe now was the most appropriate thing to put there. And so we asked a young man who was there, if he would do us the honor of actually writing it, so none of the artists who were part of it actually wrote that last statement.
Stanislas Berteloot 11:54
Now, I would like you to help me understand and visualize you know, if you close your eyes And revisit that time on the day you did the painting. How was it? I mean, it must have been quite hectic, right? It was all over the news. That video at went viral. And you were there painting? What has become a symbol of the movement? How was it during the day? You know, were you looking at each other? Were you speaking with each other? Were people talking to you?
Cadex Herrera 12:26
Um, yes, all those things. Personally, it was an incredibly surreal experience that had all of the emotions built into them and all the unexpected things. We started at seven o’clock in the morning again, just on adrenaline alone, you know, we wanted to get this done. And one thing that we knew was that we had to get it completed that day it needed to be finished that day. When we first got there, there was already People gathering around the memorial was starting to form there was a lot of nerves anxiety about, you know how we was going to turn out an incredibly hot day as the an hour into it, you know, people that were walking by came and ask us, what are you doing? You know, what’s what’s going on here. And we explain to folks is like, oh, we’re creating a memorial for George Floyd here, a mural This is and we would show him the sketch and they right away, they would get it, you know, and their eyes would sort of light up and they would go, Oh, my God, this is amazing. And all this Thank you. And we start proceeding through the day at 10 o’clock. There are a lot more people coming together. There was a film crew on a street corner that was watching us work and I only was aware of them when they came towards us and asked us to do an interview and then people started gathering and asking questions and they would ask questions, and we would stop and say, yeah, this is what we’re doing this what it means. And I remember there was this just beautiful grandmother who came at about eight o’clock that morning as she was one of the first people to ask us what we were doing. And she was so touched and so grateful. And our spirit really gave me a lot of energy, you know, just that idea of like, keep going, I support you in this. And she would leave and then she would come back. And she did that throughout the day. And towards the later afternoon, she brought her grandchild. And she asked us if we would let her grandchild you know, paint on it. And we said, of course, so we gave the young person a brush and they got on the, you know, and throughout the day, people from the community would come and ask us if they could paint and we’re like, yes, you know, here’s a brush paint this part paint that part. Work on this, you know, and they were sometimes very shy. They just wanted to add a touch here or there. Um, About 11 or so in the morning, all Sharpton came to speak, he is a minister and part of the civil rights movement, very incredibly moving speech, you know, and that, again, was just giving me more energy and folks were coming. Do you guys need water? Do you need food? What do you need, you know, an incredibly moving part for me because again, we’re just it’s just a generally driven, we’re working as a team is very fluid. It was like we’ve worked for, you know, 20 years together, we all understood what our roles were. You were We were editing and taking stuff off and working on the color and taking things on. And so it was very, very fluid. And we all sort of understood that there was a bigger picture, you know, not to pun intended, I guess. It wasn’t about us individually, necessarily. But it was about this thing that we had created. And now we want it to complete. I was very involved in this and just Oh, focus and, you know, trying to absorb all of that energy that was coming. And I saw the Reverend Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leader walk behind us. And he stopped, you know, for a brief moment, and he looked at us working and I wanted to say hello to him, you know, he’s been a hero of mine. And then he went to the corner, where he was going to speak to a group of people, I went over to the corner where Jesse Jackson was speaking, and he was incredibly moving. And he, he did this call and response, you know, with the crowd and I was so pumped up, you know, my heart was just full of emotion and and sort of sadness, but also it was, it was it was filled with the sense of hope, you know, that there’s this change happening. And so, after he was done, I went back and you know, the The rest of the day was just sort of that energy blur until it was all of a sudden, we’re done with him. we’re stepping back and we’re going wow, you know, it is
Stanislas Berteloot 17:12
let’s move forward in time. Now three months later, your walk is one of the most recognizable image that came out of the protests raging around the world. You’ve been interviewed as you said complex time, what do you make of all that you know, looking back at what happened three months ago and and where I took you now, what what lessons have you learned
Cadex Herrera 17:39
going into this creating this mural? Never that have crossed my mind that it would be that we would get the response that this mural received. Um, I was honestly again, acting upon you know, action acting on Trying to show my support for the movement and as an art activist, you know, this is a lot of my work is like speaking about these things and bringing awareness. I honestly thought it was gonna be just locally, you know that it was something that we were doing for that community that was for us as artists to show that specific community that we supported them that we love them that we cared that we cared for George Floyd and what happened to him should never ever happen to anyone again, the response of the greater community of Minnesota and then the world was totally I, I did not see that coming. I did not expect it and it was overwhelming. However, I never let it get to my head because I always kept this in sort of my general thinking was that none of this is about Me, you know, therefore, I did not let that sort of change my my patterns and sort of my daily communications with people. My daily work that I have to do, it was something else that was happening separate from who I am as a person and as an artist. And when whenever that was happening, you know, then I took care of it, but then I moved right away to something else. Um, I work and as a behavioral specialist, and one of the things that we are trained to do because we work with students with behavioral issues and a lot of things that happen in their lives and sometimes they can get really personal and really try to hurt your feelings or hurt you physically as a person has to work with every day. You have to always remember that you have to leave that at the door. And so I use that training to sort of compartmentalize everything. thing that was happening so that is happening on the side and uh, you know, I try my best to take care of it and balance it but at the same time I have a family I have a profession I have my, my social work that I have to do so
Stanislas Berteloot 20:16
did the sort of the fam that you got through this more Did that help with your, your heart and your social media presence? And?
Cadex Herrera 20:26
Um, yes, absolutely. It did. It was um, you know, overwhelming all the other people and that reached out to me thanking me and offering me you know, jobs and offering to pay me for for prints of the mural and all of these things in the group and decided from from as soon as we were done with that mural that we were not going to commercialize or profit from it. And so we have not
We have kept through to that. And you know that I’m really proud of that fact. But, you know, it’s definitely given me exposure and which I’m thankful for. And it’s also given exposure to my work, which is, to me the most important thing, you know, is bringing awareness to the social and justices that are happening not only in this country but but around. Yeah, as well as in justices.
Stanislas Berteloot 21:28
And I read of a, of a controversy that that came up after you painted this mural. And I’m going to quote here, Keno Evol, the executive director of Black Table Art, said that the mural was created not by black folks, and without the process of engaging with black people. And indeed you are from Belize in Central America. And the two other artists are white American. Can you speak about that? You know, you you are your walk is is a board trait of black experience. Isn’t it a bit ironic? Couldn’t it be misinterpreted maybe as control appropriation? That you white people and and you know, I’m white too. So we are discussing a topic that that would require maybe feedback from a black American, but how does that make you feel?
Cadex Herrera 22:21
Hmmm sure and the criticism is valid and I respect I respect where they’re coming from. And I honor their their voice and, and their perspective. First of all, I am not white. I’m mestizo. Originally from Belize. As I said, I have a mixed background ethnically, Spanish, Maya and Afro Caribbean. As part of the team, Xena contacted me, and I said, Yes, I’ll go I’ll go work on this mural. Thank you for you know, for inviting me to it. I believe there was an open call to whomever was available to do it, even though we, you know, we didn’t have a black artists as part of the main group of artists. Like I mentioned earlier, there’s evil in the community that came and added to that mural. Yes. Not only black, but Muslim and Hmong and white, and you name it, you know, there was just a whole diverse group of people that came on. And we’re, they’re part of spectators watching us do it and supporting us, and encouraging us to continue. And then also folks who just wanted to add a little bit of paint on the mural. And also, like I said earlier to you know, this was not a grant base. It was, it was a call to action. It was just something that we did. There is, I believe, a space for conversation to talk about if there was appropriation of events that happened. I didn’t see myself as, you know, a Latino going to paint a mural of a black man. I saw myself as an artist trying to raise awareness about an issue that’s affecting people of color, Native Americans, immigrants, and black blacks in America. And the other thing it was was, it never crossed my mind that we should have invited, you know, specifically because to me, the whole project was people were coming in to contribute to this. Right. And when I didn’t have a list of people that were coming or who was invited to it. And everyone that came by and at least one of the artists who helped on the mural was just a person who just came by and asked us what we were doing and they said it You know, can I help? And we said, Yep. And the person went and grabbed their supplies and came back and started painting with us. And none of us really knew who this artist was. Anyone was was welcome and you know,
Stanislas Berteloot 25:12
so Keno Evol is not really right when he said that it was done without the process of engaging with black people. I mean, what you described from the start is really, yes, you led the project. You were the three artists, but you welcomed in. anybody that wanted to take a brush and participate, right? Yes. Yeah. Yeah. And I mean, that that asked the question, do you think that activist art need to be produced by the people it wants to serve?
Cadex Herrera 25:43
You know, I think that art should be created by artists. And if you are an activist in any way you should speak your truth. My truth is art my medium and And the causes that I’m trying to fight for. I think that there’s strength in numbers. And the more the more solidarity we have with each other, because we’re all sort of fighting for justice. I think that the stronger and the more amplified our voices will become.
Stanislas Berteloot 26:22
Did this controversy left a bittersweet taste? in you?
Cadex Herrera 26:28
I think that there’s some level of distraction to this controversy. However, I am incredibly honored and proud of what we did that day of how we came together. And the the effect and that this mural has had on that community and the world, like any public art, there’s always going to be some controversy that surrounds it for for Devon dependent
Unknown Speaker 27:00
Cadex Herrera 27:01
yes, I am incredibly proud of that day and and what
Stanislas Berteloot 27:07
is the status of the second mural that you were planning to do not far from from the first?
Cadex Herrera 27:13
Yes, so that mural was great as a group project. I was one of the painters and we all collaborated again, just just with the hardest and it is hanging on Lake Street, I believe and Chicago. It was completed it took us about what five days? Yeah, it’s hanging now. And then I also went out and put up one other personal piece that I that I created as a sort of a small, small mural that I just put on some of the the boards that were used to cover up the businesses and in mania
Stanislas Berteloot 27:55
so the the first mural was covered with black paint on August 19, I believe, what did it mean to you and what’s going to happen to the mural?
Cadex Herrera 28:09
So right now we’re speaking to different artists in the community as to what their decision is going to be about the mural, right? So initially, we were accused of not including the community. So now that it was the face, it opened up the opportunity to speak to the community as to what it is that they want to do with them, you know, as the artists, you know, we have left it up to do them to sort of tell us what to do next. whatever that might be. We’re going to support it because it’s their voice. And once I was done with that mural, you know, one of the things that I said is like, it doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to the people of this community and whatever they asked us to do, what objects what direction does, it seems to be taking There’s multiple, I still don’t know exactly what they’re planning to do with it. There’s a talk about fixing it, repairing the damage and having some adjustments made and having the community be involved in a tune when, what artists should be invited to do it. And so yeah,
Stanislas Berteloot 29:18
I would like to understand a little bit about yourself, you know, you came to this country when you were 19. Why did you come to the US? And, and when did you really feel that you wanted to be an activist artist?
Cadex Herrera 29:32
I’ve always wanted to study art. When I was 19. I, there wasn’t that opportunity in Belize. It’s very difficult for, you know, someone of low economic status to sort of even think about getting into higher level education. I do. I didn’t know that I had opportunity in America that there was schools and I came up here to This study, I want to study hard and that was a that was my goal was to, to pursue that, because I’ve always been interested in art and I’ve always been pursuing it. You know, ever since I was a small child. I went to college of visual arts that’s in St. Paul. And I have a bachelor’s in Communication Design. And I did a minor in photography, as well. I, after college, I started working at creative arts high school as an as a media arts educator. I taught there for about 13 years, and then I lost my position. Since then, I’ve been a behavioral specialist for the district of St. Paul. And I help students with behavioral issues and I use art as a way to calm students down as a meditative A sort of way of getting to students and working with them.
Stanislas Berteloot 31:06
So, it seems that if you’ve always been interested in art and as always wanted to be an artist, what about activism?
Cadex Herrera 31:14
You know, I grew up in Belize and I was once we start getting information through the news, we you know, you start looking at the world from from our perspective and Belize’s was typically is typically a peaceful country. You’ve never had any serious sort of revolutions or wars, but we’ve always had the threat of Guatemala invading beliefs. So there’s always a lot of anxiety over that and sort of my political leanings and activism started from that, you know, is trying to understand some of the issues with Guatemala, but then there was conflict and revolutions in all around Latin America, including Guatemala. gr pas en doula sobre la Nicaragua. And so being surrounded by this as I was growing up, I was exposed to a lot of the atrocities that are being committed against especially indigenous people and farmers in these Latin American countries. And so, from very early on, I you know, I have always sort of leaned towards that type of human rights awareness. Once I graduated from college, I, you know, I was doing typical art as everybody else. However, once I started using social media, like Instagram, where I started just posting art photography at the beginning, because you know, I thought, Hey, this is this is cool i can i could showcase my work. And I was trying to encourage my students to to sort of use social media platforms to showcase their artwork and use those as galleries so anyone can see their work. As I was going through that process. I started thinking what else can can I do with this platform? You know? And at the same time there was bush was in power. And there was there was a need to start speaking up and out about what I was seeing happening in, in my community and in our society. And I started evolving into sort of creating art that spoke to the things that I felt, and that I saw were injustice as being created and human rights being violated. And that sort of that started and then I started sort of creating artwork to honor people who had been leaders and in different causes and civil rights and social justice. And then also started speaking out about the injustices that I saw and using art to do that. Hmm.
Stanislas Berteloot 33:51
Okay, finally, question I always ask him Back in America is: what is America to you
Cadex Herrera 33:57
America still means freedom to me
Despite of everything that’s going on artists and activists and people who want to speak up and still have that opportunity, we might be losing it with the Korean administration. But it still means freedom and liberty, quote unquote, right? But the idea that I can can be an artist and criticize and stand up and speak against these in justices without being too afraid of GitHub retributions I think is a great thing. And that’s something that you can casually do in other parts of the world. So, you know, I’m grateful that that I live in a country where that all sides are viewed and taken in consideration and you are, to some extent free to To speak and speak your truth. Right.
Stanislas Berteloot 35:03
Okay. Thank you. Would you recommend our audience to read or watch any particular books or movie? I’ve always
Unknown Speaker 35:14
been an incredible fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Yeah. And one of my favorite books, is 100 Years of Solitude. And just amazing. magical realism and incredibly picturesque book. Yeah, really helped me made tons of images and read it many times over the course of my life. And there is this fantastic movie that I’ve just saw. It’s called the Platform. And it’s a Spanish movie, I believe it’s on one of the streaming services. And it’s, it’s a movie about this prison and it’s an allegory about class and our decisions that we as humans, make to maintain our class and status I suppose. But the platform, check it out. It’s a fantastic, fantastic tale. And you know, just one of the most amazing movies that I’ve ever seen is the movie things I like and things I don’t like. It’s a French short, black and white, The Things I Like and the The Things that Don’t like an incredibly influential movie in my life as an artist, so check out that short.
Stanislas Berteloot 36:28
Okay, absolutely. Cadex Herrara, thank you so much. Anything else you want to add before we hang up?
Cadex Herrera 36:38
Um, no, thank you for the opportunity to talk and, you know, tell the folks out there in your listening community about who I am and about the George Floyd mural. I believe that together we can really create change and make positive change in this world and we have to stand up and say Speak up and use all our talents, whatever it is artists, dancer, poet writer, you need to stand up and speak against against social injustice.
Stanislas Berteloot 37:08
Thank you. Thank you cadex. As I became more familiar with this story, I realized that I had to speak to a black American. Listen to what Eric mouch a black activist from Philadelphia has to say about the job Floyd Moore in part two of this episode.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai