Ernesto Aguirre AKA “Medicine Man” is president of Sabor Latino Car Club in the Oakland/East Bay Areas of Northern California. The club began about five years ago. At one time, there were about 30 members. Today, there are 16 members. Sabor Latino is a club that includes family involvement. Ernesto explains that Sabor Latino helps other larger car clubs in their efforts for community involvement in special events and fund raisers like Toys for Tots. The big difference between custom car clubs and gangs is “There is no banging and no colors.” They enjoy customizing cars and bikes, and using their imagination and arte to take pride in the Chicano culture.
Medicine Man is best known in the Bay Area for his airbrush custom car murals. He is relatively new to this art expression, but in six years he has already made a name for himself. “My art is something that I have taken pride ever since I was a kid. My jefita reminds me that I was drawing all the time at age six.” He wasn’t a very good student in school. By the ninth grade he had begun to cut class. About this time, Ernesto met Mr. Starr, an art teacher from Fremont High. He encouraged Ernesto and let him put up his art sketches on the classroom bulletin board. He talked to Ernesto about goals and the importance of focus and developing his talents.
Ernesto took those consejos to heart. He stayed in schooI and eventually studied to become a paramedic in Oakland. He worked in this profession for 20 years, thus earning the title Medicine Man. In 1992, Oakland was a very crazy city. There were so many homeless, addicts and victims of the abuse barely surviving on the streets of the East Bay. Medicine Man recalls that on some nights he picked up some former classmates from Fremont High who were injured or who had O. D.’d on drugs.
Ernesto’s most vivid memories of those days as a paramedic were the dozens of times that he delivered babies. “Que chevere que suave to bring life into the world,” he says. “It should be a feeling of pride and elation, but it felt more like a bummer to bring these innocent souls into a world that sucks! Pobrecillos they entered the world as crack babies and cocaine addicts.”
Living life on the edge like that for 20 years begins to take a toll on you, sin querer. Medicine Man began to be consumed with a cynical view of life. It was hard to see beyond the messed up image of society that confronted his daily reality. There were harsh cold nights that he and his partner would see homeless huddled in corners of the city. He could see and feel their pain. He would sketch their plight and realize that most of the general society just wanted to look away. The homeless were the disposable human commodity, easier to be ignored. Medicine Man couldn’t do that. On several occasions, he and his medic partner would take blankets from the hospitals and distribute them to those suffering in the harsh bitter cold of the East Bay. “Most people don’t seem to see the homeless,” he says. “The general public prefers to remain oblivious to the suffering around them.”
Art was a way for Medicine Man to purge the images from his psyche. The images that flowed out of his head were not images of pain for shock value nor for commercial hype. The images that he painted and sketched were filled with death and pain and suffering because he painted his world. Some 20 years of engaging in the endless cycle of violence, and morbid attempts to cheat death on the streets for one more day.
Medicine Man claims his art is a mix of emotions. He likes to see others happy by painting something they request. When he’s finished he is satisfied. “If they smile,” Medicine Man maintains. “I’m happy for them.” Most of the themes that are requested are redundant. They are the reoccurring themes of typical lowrider arte such as the girls, skulls, Azteca themes.” He would like to introduce other images but unfortunately they are probably to heavy to paint because they would introduce hard social issues.
Medicine Man has a series of art work that he completed about the homeless of the East Bay over the last 20 years. He has some poster work and creative graphics that he is working on. Right now, time is limited to painting for his clients. Life is about “taking care of my four kids and my responsibilities.”
Ernesto’s parents were from Chihuahua, Mexico. He was born in East Los Angeles, California, but the family migrated to the Bay Area when he was very young. Although Medicine Man was not exposed to working the fields his father was supportive of “La Causa” de Cesar Chavez. Ernesto would attend huelga meetings with his parents. At that time, he didn’t realize that Cesar Chavez would one day be recognized as a Chicano hero. Ernesto did get a positive vibe from attending the functions. “Cesar Chavez was very strong,” he remembers. “When he spoke everyone listened. My father and mother said that he wasn’t a typical politician who promises you this or that. According to my parents, he lived his word. He did what he said he would do.”
There are times when Medicine Man wants to paint the days of “Las Marchas” or the “Plight of the Homeless,” but there never seems to be enough time and unfortunately these images are not currently commercial. Medicine Man shared a very personal family tragedy with me. His one-year-old toddler, Julian, was born with a vision defect. At present, there is no cure for his condition. The current prognosis is that eventually little Julian may gradually lose his sight. Medicine Man has dedicated 20 years of his life to alleviate pain and suffering in the barrios of East Bay. “I have seen life through very different eyes as a paramedic. I was in situations that put me at the edge of death.” There were many times he put his life on the line to bring life saving medical attention to those in need. Now he finds himself incapable of finding a cure or treatment for his son’s condition.
Medicine Man finds balance in his world by painting the images that make others happy. He paints custom car mural designs because they bring others joy. His own private artistic images, however, are tormented and reveal a sense of betrayal and sorrow. Maybe one day he will paint the world through the innocent eyes of a child. If only the world were really that way. Today, Ernesto lives for his kids. His biggest dream is to find the means to restore his son’s sight. He begins most projects by first painting the eyes. “I feel the eyes tell you what words can’t,” he says. “I always start with the eyes once I capture that I’ve captured to message.” Look carefully at his art. Do you feel the pain in the eyes of the people he paints? The eyes are the windows to the soul.
Medicine Man’s psyche holds a sad, limbo region of suffering, sorrow and pain swirling around in his head and erupting on the canvas. He paints his world, as he sees it and feels it. Medicine Man confessed, “I would exchange my artistic talent. I would surrender my own sight if I could to give it to my son Julian.” Medicine Man is carrying a heavy pain that only parents can relate to. His biggest motivation is also his deepest remorse. “I want to see my arte through the eyes of my little boy, Julian Blade Aguirre.”
En este mundo todo es posible, Ernesto. Don’t lose your spirit. Focus on your goals. That ’63 Chevy Impala that you’ve been working will be firme when it’s completed. We can’t wait to see it.