Hello, please introduce yourself.
My name is Diego Arturo Mendoza Ramos.
And you are an artist, correct? What type of artist are you?
I guess I am a jack of all trades. I feel in a sense when you label yourself as a certain artist it kind of sucks because you put yourself in your own pigeon hole. I like to go as just plain artist. I do anything from mixed media, to murals, graphic design, realism, surrealism, pop art, street art, graffiti art, all that good stuff.
You say by labeling yourself, you limit yourself. Explain that.
Lets say you are a hip-hop dancer and you try to do ballet or contemporary. No one will look at you in that way because you have already put yourself in that box. Like, "Oh this is what you do, stick to what you do." Its like, "No, fuck that." We are human and the goal is to grow.
And you are from?
I am originally born in Tecate, Mexico. They call it Baja California but I feel that is like an insult so I'd rather say Mexico. It's like bro I am a fucken wetback. I don't care. And it's funny because this Vela mural really opened the gate for me feeling the sense of pride in being Mexican. And not just being Chicano or being Mexican, but also in the sense that the Hispanic community values family. Because I come from a broken home, so that sense of family gets very tainted to the point where you start to lose the value of it. Especially being a teenager, you say to yourself, "Get away from me with all that shit!" But as you start growing older you really start to value family. A lot of people wish they had family and I am here pushing it away. This event (the painting of the mural) really helped give me the clarity that I needed after a year of pure chaos and destruction.
The event being the painting of the Carlos Vela mural? The painting or the repainting?
Diego and Jiovanny Lopez painted a large mural of Carlos Vela in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. Carlos Vela is a soccer player for Los Angeles FC and the Mexican National Team. The mural was vandalized with colors from crosstown rival LA Galaxy.
The original, unfortunately they are not letting us repaint it. The landlord said, "There is so much controversy on this wall and so much drama that I am literally just going to paint it all black."
Luckily, blessings come in disguise. LAFC gave us the opportunity to paint a mural in the stadium. So that's going to be fucken tight! So I'm not even mad about it. You would imagine us being mad about it, but we're from the graffiti culture and so you are used to your work being painted over. That's what is awesome about graffiti. It teaches you this Buddhist lesson of impermanence. You know where they do grains of sand. Hundreds of thousands of grains of sand and use it to form an image that gets symmetrical and the colors are fucken amazing. And after all that is done, they just sweep it. So all those days and weeks of working on this giant masterpiece to then just sweep is a giant lesson in itself about impermanence. So with graffiti you learn the same shit. Where you could be going hours and hours working on a fucken mural and the next thing you know (Diego snaps fingers for emphasis), a minute later, it could be gone. You get me? But it's one of those things where once you learn the lesson you don't even trip about it anymore. You're like, "It is what it is."
So a sort of Buddhist sense of detachment?
I would have expected you to not be as accepting of it. How long did it take to paint the mural?
We literally did it in three days, nonstop. Just like two hours of sleep everyday. We would go home and try to take a power nap because he lived down the street (Jiovanny Lopez). Which is funny because he reached out to me to work on this project. The fact that I had not met him before that. I was like, "Where do you stay?" He's like, "I live around 112th." I was like, "What the fuck? Ok." And that helped us really for time's sake (living near each other). We would come home and try to sleep but we were so excited and hyped up to paint that we would just sleep like two hours and be like, "Ok, you ready?" And he'd be like, "Yeah, yeah, I'm ready, I been awake the whole time!" So overall, it took three days. Total of six or max eight hours of sleep (during those three days).
That is efficient work. You were speaking of the Mexican sense of family earlier. Could you tell us about the inspiration behind the mural?
Especially right now with this time and age, with the whole Trump presidency, and this immigration stuff happening. Especially in LA, when you start losing so much hope now that... "Oh shit! ICE is setting up something here! Fuck! What if my uncle doesn't make it home? What if my cousin doesn't make it home? You know. What's going to happen?"
So, all this type of negative energy and this fear. Well, my buddy hit me up with this Vela thing. He says, "He is a big player in Mexico and he is coming to the US to play for MLS (Major League Soccer). It is a very big thing for MLS and it is just a big thing overall for the community!"
Why? Because it also shows that someone who is a Dreamer and someone who wants to achieve their dreams and fulfill that and inspire people coming here. He serves like a representation, like an icon or idol, for hope for the Mexican community in LA. That is why in a lot of interviews with Telemundo, or actually the LAFC interview that we had, I explained that when I was approached for this project to do the wall we were going to do a regular wall. But when I saw how much Vela would mean to the community, we said "Yo, we need to go big. We need to make this one of the biggest murals that we have worked on." That is why the mural was so big and we felt that it would make such a big impact for the Hispanic community to give a sense of hope. And a sense to realize that people can achieve their dreams against all obstacles. I am pretty sure Vela had to go through his share of shit to get to where he is at. So that just goes to a representation of all of us. We all have to go through it but it is one of those things where if you fight through all that and if you are passionate about it, you will fulfill!
Did you follow soccer before this?
Yes, if you want to take an embarrassing photo, there is a picture of me in my room. Remember AYSO? Those cheesy ass pictures? I used to play soccer and played in a tournament at the Home Depot Center. Well, I kicked the floor and twisted it. Bro! That fucked my foot up so bad.
Ended your career?
Yes, I stopped because I was so paranoid. Now I have to think about my job and everything I enjoy doing that requires a fucken foot. My dad is a very big soccer fan. He is excited for tonight. America is playing against Chivas.
Where is your dad from?
My dad is from Ciudad Guzman, Guadalajara. Me and my mom are both from Tecate. My dad is from Guadalajara but goes for America. He even named my baby sister America. America Nicole. We thought that was so bad and asked, "Why would you do that to a kid?" Until we saw that the nurse that helped my step-mother give labor. Her name was America too. So we were like, "Dammit!"
So is your dad living in America?
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. This is actually my childhood home. I was born and raised here. Three years ago I was living in Whittier in my first apartment. My dad was like, "Hey, I am moving out. I just want to let you know that I am moving to Palmdale. I finally got the house of my dreams." As soon as I saw that, I knew I wanted the house. I spoke to the landlord and got the house. This is my childhood home and my dad lives in Palmdale with the rest of my family.
So your dad immigrated from Mexico?
Yeah, he immigrated at the age of fifteen I believe. He started high school here and ended up in honor roll in English and Spanish. My dad is a beast. He is very hardworking and very admirable dude. He had me at seventeen and after he had me he got his diploma and got into construction and then just killed it. He is like one of the main people. He already built spots. Like LACMA he built. He is building the new extension to LACMA. The Broad, the honeycombed building. His name is on it. Even though he gave me a hard ass time about art growing up; it is one of those things that it is nice that he is getting into that. He is an iron worker so he does all the ground work. So all that meshing with art is tight and with soccer. It's all meshing with that one Vela project.
Our company is named Chicano Perspectives. We try to highlight positive aspects of Chicano Culture. Do you consider yourself Mexican or Chicano? Is that something you have thought about?
I consider myself Mexican. However, I consider myself Chicano in the sense that how you think and how you view things. I remember going to this classroom, Chicano Studies exactly, in El Camino College. The professor said, "Chicano is state of mind." You get me? It is the way you think and perceive things.
There was a black dude in there and he is like, "What if I say I am Chicano?" And he was like, "Well, you are Chicano, because that is how you think." We were having that argument and my friend said, "How can you be Chicano if you don't embrace Chicano culture?" It's like, well think about it this way. I feel like Chicano is a very strong word that represents a very strong mindset that comes with its values and ethics.
Do you consider yourself Mexican and Chicano?
I'm considering both. Bro, if I can make any reference that would best explain this, it is Blood In Blood Out. When he is talking to Santana in the prison and he's like, "You are not Chicano. You are light-skinned and your colored eyes." He responds, "Chicano isn't a color, it's a way you think, its a way you see, and its a way you feel." After that, I'm like, "That's it!"
We define Chicanos as a chosen identity by Americans of Mexican descent.
Well, I hope to be a Mexican role model. Well, when I go to Mexico I don't want to be seen as different. I want them to be like "He is Mexican and he fucken made it!" And when I come over here (USA) I want to be seen the same way. But it goes back to that first topic of labeling yourself. I don't want to do that either. If I am inspiring, I want to inspire like every single aspect of everything that I touch. Not just Chicano people.
We started this company because we feel Chicanos are underrepresented in media. We want to share positive aspects of the culture. We are not exclusively for Chicanos. To be pro-Chicano is not to be against something else. But we do want to promote our culture because we feel it is underappreciated.
What are you currently working on?
I just finished doing a Vans Warped Tour promo which was a fucken blessing. Shout out to Terry. We are painting the stadium. I am doing my solo show. I really been practicing my realism. We have Artifesto coming up and I am really hoping to gather up a lot of artists. From me being homeless when I was 17 and trying to participate in LA shows. Even then, I felt a sense of exclusion because I was too young or didn't match with anyone else that was there. So I was like, "Why am I paying money to be in LA (as opposed to Inglewood)?" So I ended doing shows here (at his home/studio).
So the goal is to meet more artists and grow with artists and kind of give them the opportunity. Especially right now that I feel so blessed. Like I said, after a year of hell, I feel like I am truly so blessed that it would be unfair for me not to share that blessing. And so that is what I hope to do with Artifesto. Provide opportunities for other artists.
I will also be flying to Portland to paint a mural. I am going back to El Paso to paint for a show. I am keeping myself busy.
Were you homeless in Los Angeles?
I was homeless here in the South Bay area just because I was still attending college. I was couch surfing here and there. I remember my dad had kicked me out actually. That's part of the story. My dad kicked me out because he didn't really support my art and because he was afraid that I was going to end up like my mom. Because my mom got into art when I was like ten years old. No wait, like eight or nine years old and in elementary school.
When she got into art she was into a lot of low-rider art and a lot of Chicano art, which adds to this entire interview. She does Chicano art and she got so deep into that so she started embracing the culture. It has a lot of things to be proud of but like anything, it also has a lot of things to be scared of or worried about. She got into the gangs and they ended up calling her "La Lonely Girl." She got that tattooed on her back. She really and truly dove into this Chicano gang lifestyle. Once she got in that, one day she just ended up running away. She is like, "I don't want to be around anymore and I want to live this life." So we went looking for her and finding her in my hometown. When we found her we took her to rehab.
Your hometown being?
Tecate. We found her in Tecate, Mexico. Once we found her and after rehab, we asked her. We asked her, "Are you ready to come back?" She was like, "No, I am still standing by my choice." That is the reason my parents ended up splitting. But ever since that moment, when I would do art, my dad would take away all my supplies, even my crayola markers, everything! He would take it away, break it in front of me. He would basically burn all my sketchbooks because he didn't want me to... He was so scared of me following that path that he did everything in his power to try to prevent that. You get me?
Yeah, for a sense of protection. It's funny because now that I am older. Well, he was being a bit of a dick, I am not going to lie. But now that I am older, he tells me like, "Yeah it was one: to protect you, and two: to really challenge you." And I was like, "What do you mean?" I feel like he is just saying that to justify it. He tells me that if I really wanted it, I would have not ever listened to what he said and kept going for it. He says, "Like you did, and you really wanted it. You proved me wrong and now this is what you do for a living. This is what you do, you are on fucken tv doing this for a living. So you proved me wrong!"
How did I get into that?
The homeless part.
So through that. I remember I was seventeen and I had just got out of high school. I was in my first year in college and I was in Puente, which is a transfer program for Chicanos and Mexicans. I was in that program and I really started tapping into coordinating events. Me being seventeen years old and coordinating big events, it began taking a lot of my time. And my dad saw that and says, "Hey, it is either you do your art shows and find somewhere else to live or you stop and you are able to stay here." He gave me an ultimatum. I was like, "But I can't stop, I mean I love doing this!" And he was like, "Well you know you have to start to find somewhere to stay at."
I didn't know really know where to stay at. The first night I stayed with my girlfriend at the time. I didn't want to tell her because I was insecure about it. My mind wasn't at that state of acceptance because that machismo in our community is strong. To tell your girl, "Hey babe, you know I am going through shit." It's like, "Nahhh, it's more like nah, I just got my bags real quick." I would like sleep at parks around the area. Sleep in parks right by my college and take the chance to go to locker rooms to shower and stuff. You find ways, you find ways dude. When you truly believe in shit, you find ways to make things happen. There is no excuse about it, at all. And I was homeless for like six months until my girlfriend finally caught on. She was like, "Why do you always carry that bag?" I was like, "Fuck me dude!" And so she found out and let me stay with her for a while. And I am thankful for that even though it didn't work out. I thank her and her family for that.
After that I ended up meeting a girl I was with for four years. She went to Whittier College and so I would go to Whittier all the time. I got to meet the people over there and I got to take a train and a bus just to get there. She had her own dorm room because she was one of the dorm leaders there. So I was like, "Fuck, I have a place to stay!" Luckily, I was blessed enough that she really really cared about me that much that I had a place to stay at the time. But after that we got our first apartment over there (Whittier) and then came over here (Inglewood).
Then my mom's situation happened. Because my mom after ten years, after she ran away, she ended up. Like we would contact each other, over Facebook and over the phone we would call and wish each other happy birthday. And just talk here and there. But it was weird because after not really seeing my mom for so long, you lose that sense of what a mother really is. So it's more like I am just talking to this woman that I really love and care for, but it's like...
Like the connection isn't there?
Exactly, like the mother to son connection wasn't really there. And so I felt bad about that. I felt fucken horrible about it. This is the woman who raised me, this is the woman who taught me how to do art. Because she taught me how to do art before she left. I remember seeing the low-rider magazine and the graffiti section caught my eye. I was like, "Can you teach me how to do that? It's like cool." My first name was Joker (audible laughter from everyone). Of course! Cliche as fuck! It was Joker and then. This is the first time I ever admit that shit! I won't say that it said "Lil Joker" I will just say that it said "Joker."
Yes, from my mom I got that because I am always cracking up and can never be too serious, even when I am handling business. I don't feel like I have a stick up my ass so why am I going to take shit too seriously?
So your art will always be connected to your mother?
Yeah, everything that I do now is connected to her. And it is in memory of her and to keep her with me. Even when I was ten years old to now that I am doing giant murals. Every single bit of it, I can't express how much credit I give to my mom for that. Everything from being creative, to having heart and putting your heart into it; it's all my mom.
Going back to the story, we moved here to this house. My mom came to visit after ten years of just that distance. My girlfriend at that time, I told her the history about my mom. And she got very like.. Well I told her, "Hey, my mom is coming next week, and you know, let's make room because you know we have an extra room."
I remember my girl telling me, "You know, I took my laptop, my jewelry, and all my stuff to my mom's house while your mom is here." And I'm like, "Why would you do that? That's weird." And she was like, "Well, after what you told me, like I don't know, I don't feel so comfortable." And I was like, "You know, don't put my mom out to be like this very bad person." And it bummed me out because one: this is my mother, and two: it just shows that sometimes people don't really understand how other people are able to grow on their own. You get me? They can outgrow situations or things they have done in the past. You get me? It is part of life to outgrow yourself. Even right now, this interview, we are going to outgrow ourselves in twenty minutes because we are not the same people as we were twenty minutes ago.
That aside, she told me that. So right off the bat it was already off on a weird foot. And so when my mom came I didn't know what to say. I hugged my mom and was cool. And so my girlfriend hugged her but it still wasn't a welcoming mood. So the whole time, it was just one day. My mom was supposed to stay for a week, one day. We are just here with the projector watching a movie and the whole time my girlfriend is just giving a very bad vibe. You get me? And my mom felt that because me and my mom have that thing where we are both very emotionally and spiritually intelligent, where we are able to feel people's vibes. It's so weird we sound like hippies because what I mean. Trust me, trust me.
Through that, my mom the next day in the morning is like, "I'm packing my things, I am ready to go." And I'm like, "What do you mean?" It is like, "I am not stupid Diego, I am not welcomed here." I say, "Can I make you breakfast for old time's sake? You know, since now I'm a grown man and let me make you something to eat." And so while we were having breakfast I made her her favorite oatmeal. So that was cute. I made her that and we were sitting at that table that is in my studio. That's right here in my office. That table is actually the last table I had breakfast with my mom.
We got the closure that we wanted from those ten years of me feeling the resentment of my mom and her feeling that guilt. And so we finally got that closure. And through that closure I told her, "Hey, I want you to start drawing again. I have galleries that would be interested in your work." So I was ready to open these floodgates that had been waiting for my mother to give me that closure. She was excited for it. It was going to happen.
She left that same day because she still didn't feel welcomed. She left that same day and keep in mind that she is supposed to stay for a week. During that week we actually get word that she ended up getting kidnapped by the cartel. And after that we have been looking for her ever since. It is already been like a year and a half. My aunt's an investigator over there and a general in Mexico, in my hometown. So she put all her power to try to find my mom. That is how we found out that a cartel even took her. You know what I mean? After we found that out, we tried negotiating with them and eventually they just stopped responding. Yeah, we have not heard from her ever since.
That is why after that year of trying to find her and me not knowing how to deal with that. Me getting out of that relationship because I felt that sense of resentment towards my girlfriend, kind of blaming her for what happened. In reality, it is like what my dad told me, "People make their own choices, so your mom left on her own behalf." Just going through all that by myself.
So that was that year of hell you mentioned?
That year of hell dude. Don't get me wrong, a lot of blessings did come from it. Through pressure comes diamonds. That's cliche as fuck but whatever. But it's true. It's true as fuck. Through all that happening, one: I would not have quit my fucken shitty, soul-sucking job at LAX. Yeah, it paid me twenty bucks, but what it put in my pocket, it took from my soul. It would not have made me quit that and just have the courage to pursuit art full-time. It would not have given me the courage to establish myself and try to discover myself. It would not have given me the opportunity to go to New York and back. Like, "Hey, can i get a day off?" Like, "NO!" I was able to have this complete sense of freedom to fully recollect on everything that was going on because at the same time I wasn't the only one going through with this. It was my dad going through it, because even though they were separated, my dad tells me that she is still the love of his life. She is still the mother of his kids. That's that. And my brother who didn't really get to bond with her too much, he also was in pain. So me trying to serve to them, but also trying to take care of myself the whole year that was hell.
And with this mural (Carlos Vela) everything started getting better?
This mural is a point of realization of how far I have come compared to where I was last year. The contrast between all that. Having felt so defeated the entire year and feel like, "Fuck, what is the fucken point of anything?" To then in October getting hired for Secret Walls and then slowly developing myself again and after all that happening. Since I was still in tunnel vision mode because I didn't want to process the fact that my mother was gone. And after watching so many cartel fucken movies and narcos and all that. You can only start to imagine what the fuck is going on.
Yes, exactly. So that happening and starting to grow but not really acknowledge your victories throughout that path because you are too busy trying to distract yourself to the point where you don't really see how much progress you have done. This mural was that one pause. In between the interviews I remember just being like "Holy shit! Ok!" I felt like it kicked me in the face. Dude, I was just like, "Oh fuck! I'm here! Like, ok!"
I remember one day. One of the only days I came back home actually. I came in here and sat right there where you are sitting. Actually no, I sat on the comfy side. I was sitting there and I had this window open and I just saw a light pass by and was like, "What have you done this past year?" I started recollecting everything leading up this mural and yeah dude. This mural is one of those things that was a big eye opener in terms of family, culture, community affiliation, inspiring. How me being an immigrant, and being a Mexican, and a Chicano. On the editing emphasize the Chicano. How going through my own path and my own journey I am able to truly inspire others and motivate other people to do the same. Knowing that there are not limitations. That we are unstoppable. That the only thing stopping us is ourselves. Even though us as Chicanos, we already deal with our own issues as is, just being Chicano. It is one of those things where once you start seeing the world in a bigger scope and thinking of being a Chicano on a world-wide scope, you truly open up your own doors. You don't close your own box, you open up your own doors.