How Border Crossing Inspired Mexican Artist Jorge R. Gutierrez's Vibrant New BookEXPAND
Courtesy Jorge R. Gutierrez

How Border Crossing Inspired Mexican Artist Jorge R. Gutierrez's Vibrant New Book

“When I say ‘Border Bang,’ I mean literally, the border just took me, and did its thing, and had its way with me,” Tijuana-born animator, filmmaker, actor and artist Jorge R. Gutierrez says of his new book, Border Bang, out in early November. Gutierrez, who directed and co-wrote the 2014 animated feature The Book of Life and co-created the Emmy Award–winning animated series El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera with his wife, Sandra Equihua (the first Latina artist to ever win an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation), explores the pop culture impact of trans-borderism via his signature brightly colored, beautifully detailed animation.

The border’s "banging" on Gutierrez’s psyche began at an early, formative age. Every day, from the time he was in elementary school until he graduated high school, Gutierrez carpooled two hours each way across the border to a Catholic all-boys school in Coronado. As with other children of middle-class Mexican families, the goal was to learn English and get the best education possible. Attending private school in the United States was and still is a privilege, and Gutierrez says it required more than a family who could afford to make it possible: It required fortitude.

“You get a student visa as a little kid and every year, [you] would have to get up at 3 a.m. and [stand in] a 10-hour line and prove to the government on the U.S. side that your parents made enough money in Mexico that you weren’t gonna stay on this [U.S.] side," he says. "And it’s still that way today.”

Riding along the same road every day for several years, leaving his homeland for schooling in a foreign country, young Jorge saw the unfolding of trans-national pop culture before his eyes.

“I would see all the toys and paraphernalia and T-shirts of all these things together that I had never seen before,” Gutierrez explains. “I had never seen The Simpsons, but I saw these Bart Sanchez T-shirts everywhere. The first I time I watched The Simpsons, I was excited because I thought there was a character named Bart Sanchez, but sure enough, he never happened.”

Over the years and what amounts to more than 7,200 hours in a car, between homework and naps, Gutierrez absorbed his experiences. He and his schoolmates, a mom at the wheel, idled in line daily on the road to a different life; maybe one day similar to the kids they shared school space with — mostly the white offspring of naval personnel from the nearby base and the children of the extremely wealthy cartel lawyers and accountants who lived in mansions and were picked up by glamorous mothers in luxury cars.

In the border's crossing lines, statues and portraits of Jesus rested for sale next to portraits of Tupac and dead rock stars. “I didn’t know who they were and so I thought, well, these are holy people who blessed us with their presence,” Gutierrez recalls of what he saw amidst racks of other fantastical displays. "Hip-hop Bugs Bunny and Fred Flintstone wearing an Oakland Raiders jersey ... all these bastardized version of things that I imagined existed. And they didn’t.”

Through the windows of the car taking him to school, Gutierrez also was exposed to narco-culture — images of Jesus Malverde, the patron saint of narcotrafficantes (drug trafficking), seen as a Robin Hood figure by many, and murdered narcocorrido  (drug ballad) singer Chalino Sanchez, whose death in 1992 elevated his status in Hispanic culture to legend. Bootlegged cartoon characters such as Dora the Explorer and Mickey Mouse apparently were held in the same reverence as these narco heroes.

The Book of LifeEXPAND
The Book of Life
20th Century Fox

Gutierrez also witnessed nervous drivers being pulled over, the dogs brought in and the perps led away in handcuffs. Even as a child, Gutierrez was questioned daily by U.S. Border Patrol officers, who would poke his stomach and ask if he had swallowed any drugs or condoms that day.

In his mid-teens, Gutierrez discovered Tijuana’s vibrant and explosive punk scene. Concerts were not legal in the early 1990s because the government was concerned they would incite insurrections. The government eased up on that law over the years, and bands started forming, drawing not only on British and American punk but on indigenous music and folklore. “It became about us, not about some dream of America," Gutierrez says. "And I wanted to show that with my writing and my art.”

While attending a punk show in Tijuana, Gutierrez met Sandra Equihua. Madly in love, Gutierrez made his pitch.

“I told her, we can become the Frida Kalho and Diego Rivera of animation, and I can get super fat and you can get run over by a car. She wasn’t into that idea at all,” he says, but his charm overcame her resistance and they became a couple.

Graduating and then attending CalArts could mean losing his new love, which he refused to do, so every weekend he once again crossed the border back to Tijuana, flashing his student visa at the border. Then, with his bachelor's degree finally in hand, Gutierrez had a year to find employment in the United States. He came in under the wire, landing a gig at Sony and then at Nickelodeon, which produced El Tigre. Gutierrez drew the male figures and Equihua, now his wife, drew the female.

Though DreamWorks Animation picked up what would become The Book of Life, after a year the studio wanted it to be changed into a completely different movie, a “hip-hop Rigatoni set in New York,” laments Gutierrez. “So I quit.”

Another studio, Reel Effects, was interested. But it had never made a film, and its budget was less than a third of DreamWorks’, with only half the funding in place. Gutierrez had to help raise the additional funds and move to Texas. With their 2½-year-old son, the couple took a gamble and relocated to Dallas for the project. Gutierrez then pitched Guillermo del Toro, who loved it and offered to produce his version of Book of Life, facilitating additional funding and a deal with 20th Century Fox, who co-financed and distributed the animated feature. Though it was rough living in Dallas, the family stayed for five years while the film was completed. It did well and, with Fox’s acquisition by Disney, one of the animator’s dreams came true, too: “I made a Disney movie, but in reverse.”

Returning to Los Angeles, Gutierrez began work for Warner Bros. on a Lego movie, and then Netflix came calling for a “super top secret” project Gutierrez says is the greatest thing ever (he's currently working out of the Netflix building in Hollywood, but the project won’t see the light of day until 2021, he says). Much good has come the Gutierrez family's way since they returned to the Los Angeles area, but it was prompted by something bad — discriminatory mindsets fired up by the 2016 elections. “We started feeling certain things over there that were too much for us to take, little incidents started adding up," Gutierrez says. "Moments where our neighbors would say things to us like, ‘Oh you don’t have to worry, you’re some of the good ones.’ Like when you start hearing that from people you’re close with, it starts affecting you.”

While small Mexican entrepreneurs once filtered U.S. iconography through their own concepts of American media and what would turn a buck at the border, now Mexican culture has become mass-manufactured and embraced globally. There are Thai and Japanese cholo car clubs. In Dublin, burrito stands abound and an annual Dia de los Muertos festival has been running there for six years (although this year it takes place in late November, rather than earlier in the month). Plastic mesh tote bags featuring Frida Kahlo made in China are sold in Amsterdam, along with rolling papers printed with sugar skulls. And in Los Angeles, Tijuana, and even at Mexico City’s Mercado de Sonora, the famous witchcraft market, statues of Santa Muerte and other religious figures also are made in China. Coincidentally (or not), Gutierrez has shown his work at galleries in L.A.'s Chinatown.

The artist and now author reflects how the cultural blend has evolved in Mexico and around the world. His school days, spent in line at the border, were the basis for the ecstatic, witty, playful, goofy and poignant work showcased in his new book, which bangs the border back as good as it banged him.

“I find it incredibly ironic that our culture gets to travel where we don’t," Gutierrez says. "It doesn’t need a visa, it doesn’t need a permit, it gets to go all over the world. Mexican culture has withstood on its own merits, and the U.S. and Mexican cultures have blended. It’s its own thing.”

With Hispanic Heritage Month concluding on Monday, Oct. 15, L.A. Weekly encourages readers to explore the exciting and expressive work of Latino artists. Check out the art of Jorge R. Gutierrez here.  He'll be signing his book Border Bang on Sunday, Oct. 21, 2-5 p.m., at Coagula Curatorial, 974 Chung King Road, Chinatown.

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