My mother used to say, “Cada cabeza es un mundo.” For the longest time I didn’t know exactly what she meant. Today, I look back at my youth and recall vivid memories from my childhood in Riverside, California. I remember the smell of cafe con canela at Christmas time. I can see my tias forming an assembly line preparing tamales for the holidays. I remember each New Year mom would hang a new calendar on the kitchen wall next to the telephone.
The calendars were my first recollections of Aztecs kings and warriors. These heroic images ignited my curiosity. My questions stimulated long conversations around the kitchen table about ancient civilizations, pyramids and treasures.
The stories were mystical Aztec legends of a warrior king and his beautiful Azteca bride. The valiant eagle and jaguar warriors were always strong and proud. The woman was erotic. I would stare at the calendars and imagine myself a time traveler to a time and place where my distant ancestors were not foreigners on their own land.
Several generations of Mexican American families have hung the calendar artwork of Jesus Helguera on the walls of their homes. Some never noticed the signature on the bottom right hand corner. Helguera’s art captures both the Christian spiritual and indigenous mystical images of Mexico’s cultural past.
Helguera’s landscapes of pre-European Mexico and the rural scenes depict an almost reverent respect for the power of nature. Smoldering volcanoes and desert hillsides teeming with the desert ecosystems remind the viewer that Tonantzin (Mother Earth) is volatile and temperamental.
In one instant, Mother Earth provides shelter and nourishment. In a different scene, she has taken a life through the forces that she holds. Man is reminded that he is not the master of his environment, but rather just a small part of the delicate balance between man, earth and nature.
Helguera’s proud Mexican cultural calendars were in stark contrast to the stereotypical portrayals of Mexican culture in the United States in the 1950s and ’60s. In those days, it was common to see dumb, lazy peon Mexican cartoon characters foolishly sleeping against a cactus wearing a zarape and broad-brimmed sombrero. This of course is absurd because no one from the Southwest would lean against a cactus and much less take his “siesta” there. Other cartoon images included the Frito Bandito, Speedy Gonzalez and his cousin Slowpoke Rodriguez, who all spoke very poor English with horrible “Mexican” accents.
There were so few positive mainstream media Mexican images in the USA in those days. The closest thing that we had was Zorro. The cowboy and indian movies usually included Mexican banditos. The Alamo movies made people believe that Mexicans had invaded the United States when in fact Texas once flew under Mexico’s flag.
Helguera’s calendars gave Mexican Americans something to be proud of, a rich Mexican culture and history. They reminded us that we are not the foreigners, but descendants of natives. Jesus Helguera’s art has for decades been adopted as Chicano art. It is prevalent and yet not intrusive. It is powerful yet blends into the background. His images were imitated and copied. These cultural calendars can still be found in countless tienditas, bakeries, liquor stores, mercados and Mexican homes. This style of art contains beautiful cultural heritage scenes.
Helguera’s strong cultural images are visuals that Mexicanos on both sides of the border continue to appreciate. The visual images first made popular by Jesus Helguera were images that depicted the rich indigenous stories of Pre-Columbian celestial gods and goddesses based on Aztec mythology. He included elaborate indigenous patterns and symbolism in his art. These strong cultural visuals have since re-ignited a passion for indigenous pride in countless young Chicano artists today.
Helguera’s most recognized painting is called “The Legend of the Volcanoes.” This image was bought by a publishing company and then reprinted in massive quantities and distributed throughout Mexico on a calendar. This image has been so powerful that it has be copied and recopied by hundreds if not thousands of contemporary artists since 1940.
Helguera’s wife, Julia Gonzalez Llanos, a native of Madrid, Spain, was his favorite model and inspiration for many of his paintings. Sometimes Julia was painted wearing traditional Mexican rural attire with a rebozo and at other times in a vibrant folklorico dress. At times, Julia was sexy and at other times she was vulnerable. Sometimes she appeared indigenous and other times she was a beautiful Mexican woman. The most popular paintings of Julia are when she modeled as a sultry Azteca goddess.
Jesus Helguera was born in Mexico on May 28,1910, but spent most of his youth in Spain. In 1917, his family moved from Chihuahua, Mexico to Spain when he was seven years old. This was during the tumultuous times following the 1910 Mexican Revolution.
A talented young artist, Jesus was encouraged by his primary school teacher to take art lessons. He began at age nine learning how to paint maps and landscapes. He enjoyed the outdoors, nature and wildlife. Yet he was also a serious art student. He would dedicate time to visit the art galleries and museums in Spain. He liked to critique and imitate the great artists whose paintings were on display at the Del Prado Museum. As his talent improved, he began to work on commercial art. He was hired to submit illustrations for books and magazines. He illustrated Great Deeds and Great Men, Brilliant Historical Episodes and A Selected Collection of Folklore From Many Countries, all published by Editorial Araluce of Barcelona.
Jesus married Julia and had two children. When the Spanish Civil War began Jesus decided to return to Mexico with his family. Mexico was repatriating its citizens. Jesus returned to the state of Veracruz where he had lived as a boy. He enjoyed the diversity of the landscape–the rivers, lakes and mountains. He spent time reading and learning about Mexican history. He had a fascination with Aztec mythology. “The Leyenda de los Volcanoes” was bought and published by Litoleosa. Jesus continued to work for them until 1953 developing other similar images for their calendars such as the “Celestial Archer”and “Aztec Grandeur.”
In 1954, Galas De Mexico commissioned Helguera. His art began to portray Mexican images, families, women and children. The sacred image of the Virgen de Guadalupe found in most Mexicano homes is also an artistic bond that we Chicanos share. He painted some religious images such as Ofrenda A La Virgen Morena.
Jesus Helguera is an artist who has personally touched my life through childhood and now as an adult. I share his artistry with my family. He is an artist whose work we have come to love and appreciate. Mexicanos and Chicanos on both sides of the border share these common visual images in our hearts.
What an irony! Jesus Helguera was a Mexican artist who left Mexico after the Mexican Revolution. He married a Spanish woman, a native of Madrid. He left Spain during the Spanish Civil War. He painted his Spanish wife’s image as a scantily clad Azteca, and as a traditional rural Mexicana. He immortalized both Aztec mythology and the Virgen de Guadalupe. Today, six decades later, we Chicanos endear these images. We adopt them as our own and reinterpret them into our Chicano arte experience. Helguera’s art is celebrated in Mexico, Spain and the United States. He died at the age of 61, but his paintings continue to inspire.