The County of Santa Cruz has named multi-media artist Guillermo “Yermo” Aranda as the 2021 Artist of the Year.
Every year the Arts Commission presents the award to a local artist for their achievements in performing, visual or literary arts, as well as their contributions to overall cultural enrichment in the county.
Aranda, originally from San Diego, comes from a family of artists, craftsmen and musicians. He studied at San Diego City College and San Diego State, and co-founded a number of organizations and projects, including the murals of Chicano Park in 1973—now a National Historic Landmark.
After moving to Watsonville in 1983, Aranda attended Cabrillo College and Cal State Monterey Bay. Since then, he has made a name for himself through his various community projects in Santa Cruz County, especially in Watsonville. He co-founded the Whitehawk Dancers, a cultural organization offering visual and performing arts to youth that is influential in the area to this day.
Aranda currently teaches art locally and throughout the state, working with students as well as inmates at a state penitentiary. He has displayed over 80 murals throughout Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, all of which were the result of youth art projects.
“We often call him ‘Maestro,’ the teacher,” said Raymon Cancino, CEO of Community Bridges. “He’s really served as a mentor for other muralists throughout the community. That speaks highly to his values—not to be selfish, but instead be inclusive and share his passion with others.”
Cancino has worked on various projects with Aranda, including the restoration of one of his murals at Community Bridges’ headquarters at 519 Main St. He says that Aranda’s work has resonated with him over the years.
“He was one of the few artists putting people like me, people of color, in murals,” Cancino said. “I started seeing myself in art because of artists like him. Being immigrants, you often feel left out. But once you see symbols, images that are part of your heritage and culture … that perception shifts.”
For Aranda, giving back to his community, especially to young artists, is a major accomplishment.
“I’ve had a lot of young artists say, ‘Thank you for the inspiration you’ve given me; everywhere I go I see your work,’” Aranda said. “That’s very rewarding. I like to think I’ve contributed to some artistic visibility around town.”
Watsonville City Councilmember Rebecca Garcia was a teacher at Watsonville High School in 1989 when she worked with Aranda to bring a mural to campus. The project hit a series of roadblocks, the first being the Loma Prieta Earthquake, which struck only months after Aranda agreed to the project.
Then it came down to funding, which was eventually secured with help from the City of Watsonville. In 1990 things started up again, only to be halted by school staff and others claiming that the mural was “too Hispanic” and falsely claiming it contained gang imagery.
“I had to be the one to tell [Aranda] to stop,” Garcia said. “It was awful.”
Eventually, Aranda and his students completed the 40-foot long mural, entitled “Sueños” (Dreams) in October 1991. But last year, the mural was erroneously painted over during a refurbishment of the school’s cafeteria. This led to a repaint, once again under Aranda’s supervision, with help from a handful of his original painters and current Watsonville High students.
A short film by local company Calavera Media entitled “Painter of Dreams” chronicled the repainting of the mural. It screened earlier this year with the Watsonville Film Festival and is scheduled for the Big Sur Film Festival in 2022.
Aranda will be awarded at a live-streamed performance on Oct. 23 at 3pm, where he will speak about his work. The Whitehawk Dancers will also perform.
Aranda said he is honored to be chosen by the County and the greater arts community for his work, and is excited at the new creative energy that is growing in the Pajaro Valley.
“It’s an exciting time,” Aranda said. “It’s an important time for all of us … I hope to see even more focus on the arts in South County. I really look forward to it.”
Click here for information about the event and the Zoom link.