Keynote Speaker Rev. Dr. William Barber II face emanates neon purple rays against a background of dark blue with dark teal concentric pentagonal shapes that subtly meet one another to create a cohesive pattern as they radiate out in to space. Race Forward Presents Facing Race: A National Conference.

Born and raised in the border town of El Centro, Calif., the Chicano/Native/Yaqui artist Yerena Montejano explores questions of identity, gender norms, politics and spirituality in his lush illustrations, precise prints and thought provoking collages.Yerena’s most recent projects are influenced by the #NoDAPL movement. Last November, as part of a delegation of artists from Los Angeles, Montejano stayed in the Red Warrior Camp at Standing Rock for a week. “I didn’t go for art reasons. I was basically a gopher: One day I was stripping pine trees for tipis, another day I was putting in insulation and flooring. But I met people willing to die for Mother Earth and it was incredibly powerful.” Since the trip, Yerena has raised several thousand dollars through his artwork to help other artists and photographers document the movement and the xenophobia of the Trump administration. “Trump has so many White supremacist connections, he doesn’t care about Indigenous peoples or anyone else that’s working-class or poor. He’s making a lot of moves and laws that are harmful and predatory,” says Yerena, a former assistant to artist Shepard Fairey. “This is the time to create art in solidarity and resistance. Fascism is becoming normalized, and we’re going to be pushing back against that.” Much of Yerena’s previous work is about fair immigration. He is the founder and curator of the Alto Arizona Art campaign and co-founder of the “We Are Human” campaign. Yerena has also collaborated on politically charged projects with artists  Zack de la Rocha, Manu Chao, Ana Tijoux and Chuck D. Collaborator Ayşe Gürsöz tells his story.

Ayşe Gürsöz is a producer, photographer and digital storyteller dedicated to producing content that challenges, educates and instills compassion. At Standing Rock, she co-launched Indigenous Rising Media, an Indigenous-led media collective in collaboration with the Indigenous Environmental Network. In San Francisco, she’s produced for the Al Jazeera’s  AJ+ Real Time news team. She has also produced for Grassroots Global Justice at the Republican and Democratic national conventions. Most recently, her photography work has been featured in the Amplifier Foundation’s “We The People” campaign.  

  • Image

    Yerena passes out 4,000 of his posters within 15 minutes at the Women’s March on L.A. on January 21, 2017. He had teamed up with street artist Shepard Fairey and Colombian artist Jessica Sabogal to create a series in the wake of Trump’s xenophobia-fueled campaign. The series, “We The People,” was launched by The Amplifier Foundation with the intent to provide images for protests surrounding Trump’s inauguration. The Kickstarter campaign goal was $60,000. It raised $1.3 million. Photo: Ayşe Gürsöz

  • Image

    “My relationship with the U.S. is very complicated," says Yerena, pictured here at Standing Rock in November 2016. "I was born here, I live here, but the government is like an occupying force on this land. The colonization process was so violent. It outlawed people from being able to practice Indigenous traditions and languages. How, through all that, have people been able to survive? Considering how hostile the attempted erasure was toward everything to do with our people, Indigenous people, it’s incredible. That’s resilience.” Photo: Ayşe Gürsöz

  • Image

    Yerena, in his L.A. studio, Hecho Con Ganas (which translates to “Made With Motivation”), begins the stenciling process for a piece titled “We the Resilient.” The image features Lakota elder Helen “Granny” Redfeather, a frontline warrior fighting against the Dakota Access Pipeline. “It means a lot to see an elder standing so strong,” says Montejano. “Talking to her on the phone, she definitely never lost the fire.” Ayşe Gürsöz, the photojournalist who created this photo essay, took the picture upon which Yerena's image is based. Photo: Ayşe Gürsöz

  • Image

    Yerena adds dimension and depth to his work through collage. In the “We The Resilient” mixed-media illustration on canvas, he included photos from Standing Rock taken by photographer and film producer Josue Rivas and photojournalist Ayşe Gürsöz. Photo: Ayşe Gürsöz

  • Image

    A banner version of "We the Resilient" piece hangs on an L.A. wall. Says Yerena: “Art has the ability to connect with people without using words. It becomes popular education. Cesar Chavez, whenever he got a grant, the first thing he got was a printer. He wanted to be able to control the message. Since some of the printers were connected to the Teamsters, they wouldn’t print the message if they didn’t agree with it. That actually happened to me once in Arizona. A printer wouldn't print my work because they didn’t like my message.” Photo: Ayşe Gürsöz

  • Image

    Yerena connects at his L.A. studio with fellow Chicano/Native artists who have been documenting the pipeline resistance from Oceti Sakowin Camp at Standing Rock throughout the fall and winter. "I think Standing Rock is the epicenter of the modern civil rights movement," says collaborator Josue Rivas (at left). "Everything is heightened there spiritually. Jesus Christ would have liked Standing Rock; it's about being human," adds musician and poet Cempoalli Twenny. Photo: Ayşe Gürsöz

  • Image

    The day before Trump’s January 20, 2017 inauguration, Yerena takes a moment to rest in “Deconstruction Space,” a room of his exhibition at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes in Los Angeles that displays stencil and collage elements of his pieces. “Trump is the Chernobyl of colonialism, but I don’t want to make artwork that’s against him; it gets too dark. I want to make artwork that’s for something. I’m for dignity. I’m for resilience. I’m for Mother Earth. I’m for honoring elders. I’m for working with my friends. I’m for making positive messages." Photo: Ayşe Gürsöz

  • Image

    Art to be shipped out to Yerena's first solo show, “Full Circle,” at Treason Gallery in Seattle. The February 2017 show exposes the weight of colonization and the effects of Westernization of Indigenous cultures. "I remember going to school and thinking the term ‘artist’ sounded so pretentious, but that’s almost looking at it too colonially," says Yerena "In the Mexican or Indigenous tradition, artists have always been a part of society. Whether it’s making baskets, patterns or spiritual art that’s a prayer, it’s a part of who we are.” Photo: Ayşe Gürsöz

  • Image

    Yerena’s design for a Red Bull can incorporates his signature rose which symbolizes dignity and a calavera (Mexican sugar skull). “Sometimes corporations will hire me because they want to tap into the ‘Latino’ market. I take some of the jobs because I need to keep paying rent, but it’s a fine line. What I really want is to make critical, challenging work. A lot of times I have to self-fund [these pieces] or work with a small stipend. Unfortunately, the people with the best are ideas don’t have a lot of money.” Photo: Ayşe Gürsöz

  • Image

    “I’m working on a piece asking White people to check their people on White supremacy. I couldn’t ask them to do that if I wasn’t going to be able to do that for myself, because I know that when White people confront other White people on White supremacy, they don’t get invited to the barbecue anymore." Photo courtesy of Ayşe Gürsöz

  • Image

    "[I am a] straight cis-gender Mexican-American Chicano male. We definitely have a lot of machismo, patriarchy and toxic masculinity in our community," says Yerena. "With every movement we’ve fought to be able to be complex but now some people are so slick being part-movement, part-social justice and still perpetuating the same patriarchy bullshit. I wanted to make this piece, 'Conquistador,' calling out those people.. It’s not always healthy to call people out, but if you have intentions to find a greater healing, we need more of that.” Photo: Ayşe Gürsöz

  • Image

    The background collage of “Conquistador” includes statistics on femicide in Mexico, over-romanticized images of Chicano culture and the over-sexualization of women. “As a Brown person, the culture doesn’t fully cater to me, but as a straight man it does," says Yerena."I’m blinded by some of the privileges that I have as a straight male. I think we need more women and trans folks to make art. They have experiences beyond mine that have widened their perspectives.” Photo: Ayşe Gürsöz

  • Image

    “There’s a story here and it’s about resilience," says Yerena who is seen here at his L.A. studio. "Maybe we don’t speak all the languages and we might not know all the traditional ways, but we’re trying to recover it. Some of us still have it.” Photo: Ayşe Gürsöz