Ninety miles south of San Francisco, in the historical farming town of Watsonville, thousands of discarded pieces of tile are being repurposed to construct a monumental public work of art. Juan R. Fuentes, an artist deeply connected to the social and political movements of the last 50 years, was selected to have four of his woodblock prints translated into mosaic murals for the massive “Watsonville Brillante” project.

Each of Fuentes’ illustrations is representative of a diverse, proud, local community, which is fitting for a town made up of 87 percent people of color. His high-impact, black and white images measure 1,200 square feet each and will provide the large vertical anchors for this project. Other local artists will be selected to create the vibrant colorful images that will be used for the horizontal sections of the mural. The final dimension of the entire project will be 12,500 square feet.

 “Mayan Warrior,” was the first to be installed. Community members, many of whom are children of migrant field workers, as well as some adults who are as old as 92, came together to work on the project. There is signage under the mural that lists all their names. 

“It’s been an honor to have it done there [Watsonville] and have it done by these kids,” Fuentes said. “That’s pretty cool because it just extends something I created into something else; now they’ve created and are a part of [this mural] . . . that’s pretty special I think.”

Fuentes’ illustrations are enlarged to match the full scale of the mural. They are printed out in sections and are laid out on tables. Community members break recycled tile and lay them out like a puzzle over the illustration with special tools. Once all the tile pieces are positioned, Rinaldi Tile & Marble, sets up their scaffolds and installs the mosaic murals free of charge.  

Juan Fuentes and his family. Photo: Liz Lopez

Fuentes’ second installment, titled “En el Cielo,” came with all the hurdles of creating during the COVID-19 pandemic, including limiting participants, maintaining distancing and wearing facemasks. Even with these setbacks, the project still remains on schedule.

“Hermanita,” the third installment, which has yet to be constructed, depicts a portrait of a Native American woman. The fourth has yet to be selected. 

“Already people are seeing that image [“Mayan Warrior”] and reflecting themselves in it, their families in it, and I think that’s really powerful.”

This five year, $1.5 million-dollar project is led by Kathleen Crocetti, local resident, artist, educator and the executive director of the Community Arts Empowerment organization that spearheads the “Watsonville Brillante” project. 

She said that when completed, the mosaic mural will be a representation of the numerous mixed heritages in Watsonville, with each panel describing a different group and joining one family to another, as reported by Tony Nuñez of The Pajaronian.

Inspired by the work of architect Antoni Gaudi on a trip to Spain, Crocetti said she was determined to create a community based art project of grand scale in her own hometown.   

She considers Fuentes to be a visionary. “He’s amazing and it’s important,” Crocetti said. “That the artist that is featured is a native of Watsonville and he’s an icon in the Chicano Arts Movement . . . we get to honor him and at the same time hold him up as an example for young artists who are up and coming.” 

“I’m 70 years old,” said Fuentes. “So you know a lot of times these things might happen but it’s usually after you’re gone that they might do something with your work or they might do a major show or something, but it’s too late, you don’t get to see it; whereas I’m here and get to be a part of it and they [the community] get to be a part of it while I’m here.”

Origins of an Artist

Originally from the American Southwest, Fuentes’ parents moved the family to Watsonville in the 1950s. Alongside his family, Fuentes worked on the local farms and attended elementary and high school in Watsonville before moving to attend San Francisco State University.

Juan Fuentes stands in front of “Mayan Warrior,” the first of his images to be installed as part of “Watsonville Brillante” mosaic mural project, Oct. 4, 2020. Photo: Liz Lopez

As a new student walking through the hallways of SF State he serendipitously wandered into the art department, and just like that, with no prior art experience, he began his journey as an artist. 

Starting from the very beginning, he learned to draw and paint. As his skills progressed, his art evolved into a style of his own; much of which depicted his family and community. Although he became well versed in photo-realism, he was not as interested in drawing photo accurate pieces of art, as he was in telling a story.

Not all his instructors saw value in his work. One instructor called his art “too ethnic” and another threatened to lower his grade based upon his cultural artistic choices and thus he learned early on that he would have to fight to make art his way. Embodying the empowerment of the social movements of the time, and the memory of his father resisting exploitation, he developed the confidence to stand up to the many faces of injustice. 

Woodblock printing, as with much of Fuentes’ art, has ties to the fields of Watsonville. His family arrived in Watsonville during the time of the “Bracero Program,” which admitted millions of Mexican workers to temporarily work in the United States. The program was originally intended to be used during wartime shortages. Large American farm owners, who benefited from low-paid labor, lobbied Congress to allow the program to continue. For many of these braceros [laborers], their rights as legal guest workers were not protected and they were (and are) often exploited and underpaid.

As a child, Fuentes was transfixed by the carvings the braceros made from wooden irrigation plugs. Like magic, a piece of wood was transformed into fanciful creatures.

As a child, Fuentes was transfixed by the carvings the braceros made from wooden irrigation plugs. Like magic, a piece of wood was transformed into fanciful creatures. This ignited something in him that laid dormant until the opportunity presented itself. As an adult, while teaching art at a local jail he proposed learning woodblock printing, so that he could teach that process to inmates and he continues to work in that medium till this day.

Self-identified as a cultural activist, the essence of who Fuentes is and what he stands for is embedded in his art. For the majority of his life he has been a part of the political zeitgeist of the times.

“I could connect my art to the social movements; in particular the Chicano Movement,” said Fuentes. “The Chicano Movement was going on at the same time that there was a Black Panther Party, there was a Brown Berets, there was an Asian American Movement and the American Indian Movement. I participated in those things on different levels and one of the ways that I could participate was through my art . . . I did a lot of posters.” 

Juan Fuentes and his grandchild, Koa. Photo: Liz Lopez

Political activism requires posters, so over the decades his art has been associated with a multitude of social and political movements and groups. He created posters to bring attention to the revolutionary struggles in El Salvador and Nicaraguan, the Palestinian struggles of the 1970s, the first World Conference on Women that took place in Nairobi, Kenya and the plight of farm workers. He was a member of the Native American Defense Committee, an offshoot of the American Indian Movement, which did work around Native American political prisoners. And he volunteered at El Tecolote newspaper, and taught at City College, California College of the Arts in Oakland and at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Fuentes says that his closest relationship to anything political was the plight of the farm workers.  “I grew up in the farm labor camp. I could feel it. It was a struggle I felt deeply,” he said.  

Creating posters connected him to all the Chicano artists doing interesting things at that time, including the “Mujeres Muralistas,” Mike Rios, Rupert Garcia and artists at Galería de la Raza. He says it was a way to challenge the world of art, the galleries and the museums. “We weren’t connected to those things; we weren’t a part of that but we were a part of the community and community struggles and organizations. That made sense to me cause my art could fit there, my art could be something that people could relate to . . . and it was empowering to do that stuff.”

In response to the social upheaval of our time and the removal of racist monuments, Fuentes replied, “ . . . more than enough time has past that those things should come down and the challenge is that our streets and our schools and everything are named after these people, so it’s going to take time, but at least they’re chipping away at it. I didn’t think in my lifetime that would ever happen, but it’s happening. 

“Put them somewhere, put them in a museum, put them where people can say this is the way people used to think. These were the racist ideologies that permeated the country and this is what it was based on,” Fuentes continued. “It’s time to let them go; we don’t need that stuff. I see that it can be replaced with another monument that really speaks to a broader culture of America, what America really represents.”