Written by Sam Kohn
Born in Mexico before emigrating to the United States at the age of two, Heldáy de la Cruz is an artist, illustrator and activist who’s spirited work transcends borders. Known for his striking typography and bracing protest art, Heldáy has made a name for himself in the Portland art scene with a rich and diverse body of work. In this interview, we spoke with him about his main creative influences, the nightmare of the Trump administration and the unique anxieties of living undocumented in the United States.
Hi Heldáy! Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where were you born and where are you based now?
My name is Heldáy, (pronounced “el-dye”), and I am a queer and undocumented artist. My work focuses on graphic design, illustration, and community organizing. I was born in Ciudad Guzmán, Jalisco, México, and moved to the United States at the age of two. I now live and work in Portland, Oregon.
How did you get into illustration, and how do you go about creating your work?
I’ve loved drawing since childhood, and because of the encouragement of my parents and teachers, I just kind of kept going. I have actually seen some of my work from when I was a teenager, and it’s quite terrible to be honest. So I’m very thankful to those people around me who continued to push me to keep drawing. It took me a while to polish my style. I spent most of my time in high school concentrated on taking advanced placement courses in calculus and political science, so I never gave myself the time to draw. Because I was able to have so many of these courses out of the way before starting college, I spent my first two college years taking beginning, intermediate, and advanced art courses (illustration, painting, sculpture, and design). It was here that I really honed in my style and skills with illustration.
In terms of creating my work, I usually work off of reference photos for portraits. My medium is graphite pencils and paper, and I also work digitally. So at times, it’s a mix of the two. Over the last four years, I’ve had more intention in my body of work, creating specific pieces for exhibits.
Do you have any artistic influences that you look to for inspiration?
I vibe deeply with the works of José Clemente Orozco, Frida Kahlo, and Käthe Kollwitz. Influence for me really comes from my surroundings, my Mexican culture which weaves traces of Catholicism and my indigenous roots from Purépecha land. I am also deeply influenced by what mycommunity around me makes. So for contemporary artists that I love, I would have to certainly name Pace Taylor, Patrick Mizumoto, Chroma, and Zoe Keller.
You speak openly about your experiences living undocumented in the US (see ‘We the Dreamers’). For our UK readers, what does it actually mean to live without documentation?
What you need to know about living undocumented in the United States, is that it is a multi-layered experience. I chose to step forward publicly with this secret, but so much of my community keeps it a very quiet part of their lives. Being undocumented means that you can’t travel outside the country, you can’t get in trouble with the law or you’re out, you have fear of police, you pay into a system of social security knowing you will never see those benefits, you can be deported at any moment, and yet we live here for decades. It’s a strange in between that doesn’t allow for legal recognition of your presence, so you make the best of it. I was two when I came to the United States, and it took me a long time to make peace with the fact that my parents were just doing what felt right. Warsan Shire is one of my favourite poets and she has this line, “you have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat, unless the water is safer than the land” and that is the exact feeling. What it means to be an immigrant in this country, with or without papers.
Community activism clearly plays a big role in your work. What are some important/recurring theme
A lot of my work comes from my own experiences of oppression, my status in the country, my brown skin, my queerness. I speak to what I know, and try not to be a voice to communities that I’m not a part of. My current work dives deeper in my indigeneity, what it means to be a product of colonialism. How indigenous folks (in the U.S. and in Mexico), continue to be erased and pushed the edges of society. How we aren’t honoured for our practices and instead are tokenized, lied to, and continued to be treated in inhumane ways, like putting children in cages.
You’ve spoken on Instagram about the unwanted attention some of your work attracts (e.g. ‘No One Is Illegal on Stolen Land’). Do you ever find this intimidating?
Not really, I knew what I was getting into when I publicly named my identities. I think what’s scary is knowing there are groups around that like to terrorize my communities. I’ve seen the harassment, the blood, the violence. The type of work I do asks me to be ready for all of that.
Tumultuous feels like an understatement, it truly feels like we entered another dimension in 2016. All of the racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, groups just felt so empowered to crawl out of the woodworks. America has always been racist, these people just let us see them more clearly. I am deeply relieved to have Trump out of office, and hope that that era is dying out, and that these last four years are failed attempts at trying to stay alive and thrive. I sincerely hope the narrative shifts while we keep a close eye on these groups so they don’t rise into power. I don’t believe in Biden, I don’t believe in politics, I have never believed a politician has my best interests in mind. They won’t save us. But I do hope we can amp up the pressure to push for all of the things we want in this country. At this point, after four years of bullshit, the question moreso feels like “what do we have to lose by not pushing ourselves into a more progressive state?”
Do you think art has the capacity to drive societal change?
Absolutely. I have seen it happen firsthand now, in these uprisings, in this movements, in these historical times. I feel proud to be a small part of it. When communities are not healthy, they rise up, and in this there is yelling, there is protests, there is marching, there is signs, there is posters, there is artistic documentation of the tension.
What can we expect to see from you next? Working on any new projects?
I currently have an exhibit called Desierto a Desierto, in which I explore my identities through poetry / film. For 2021, I am cooking up a project with two other creative friends (Eric Zendejas and Kyle Yoshioka). We will be releasing a book titled Undercovers, that will be a collection of artwork by queer artists that explore sex, intimacy, sensuality, and identity through our queerness.