Artist encourages others to learn English, while painting murals
By SUE MERRELL, The Grand Rapids Press
GRAND RAPIDS, May 29, 2010 (AP): English was a required subject when Rolando Mancera was growing up in México.
``I used to skip class,'' Mancera, 27, said over a glass of pink lemonade at Little México Café in downtown Grand Rapids. ``I didn't think I would ever need English. I only remembered two or three phrases. I should have paid more attention.''
Twelve years after moving to Michigan, Mancera is a strong advocate of learning the local language.
``To really move ahead, you must speak the language and must relate with the culture,'' he says in English with only a little accent. ``I work with Anglos, I learn their music cultures. I wouldn't be able to speak English as well if I didn't speak it every day. You have to take in what's around you to move forward.''
Around Mancera, on the walls of the restaurant, are beautiful murals he designed and painted. Art is another language Mancera uses to express his pride in his homeland and his faith in God.
The murals at Little México depict the pre-Columbian period. On one wall, workers are harvesting corn. On another, Aztec leaders are lined up in all their finery to make an offering of grain to the Sun God. A sunburst sends rays of yellow and orange around the room, piercing the olive-drab background. In one corner is a painting of an Aztec pyramid or temple.
``I'm fascinated by the culture and history of Mexico, and I want to share that with the Anglo community,'' Mancera says. ``You can't be a person without a past. It helps you go into the future.''
Over the past year, Mancera has painted similar murals at two Cinco de Mayo restaurants. The one in Rockford depicts Cinco de Mayo, a holiday commemorating Mexico's victory over French troops at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. The mural at the Cinco de Mayo restaurant on Monroe Mall in Grand Rapids depicts Mexican Independence Day, Sept. 16, 1810, when a priest in the small town of Dolores called for the people to revolt against Spain.
Hands are a recurrent theme in the murals.
``Hands are our biggest resource,'' Mancera says. ``It makes it possible to do what we do.''
But the artist goes beyond focusing on the hands of the workers and the hands of the worshipers.
The ears of corn are held to the stalk in green hands and enormous earth-colored arms encircle the base of the corn harvest scene symbolizing God's hand in providing food.
The rays of the sun in the lobby of Little Mexico end with hands, and an eagle lands on a cactus with hand-like fingers. Hands from heaven hold the church bell in the Independence Day mural at the Grand Rapids Cinco de Mayo restaurant.
In the two-bedroom apartment in Comstock Park, where Mancera lives with his wife, Erika, sheet-metal hand sculptures hang from the ceiling, holding a lightbulb or a Coke can. During last year's Tulipanes Latino Art and Film Festival in Holland, Mancera led a workshop for children ages 6-12. He gave each one a large, hand-shaped wood cutout.
``I told them their hands are the key to reaching their dreams; all they have to do is work for it.''
He suggested the children paint the hand with symbols of their dream—musical notes if they want to play a symphony or logos of their favorite team if they want to play sports.
``I wanted to give them something to hang up in their room to remind them of where they are headed. The key is to keep the goal in mind.''
Mancera, who has been called Roli since childhood, enjoyed drawing, as most children do, but never imagined it could become a career. He lived in Presa Blanca, a small village two hours northwest of México City.
``It's about like Bailey. You're in and you're out,'' he says.
His father was a farm worker who cut alfalfa in the fields, processed it and resold it. His mother raised eight children, five girls and three boys. His parents owned a small grocery store where Mancera worked as a boy of 10 or 12. Eventually, the grocery store became a shoe shop, Mancera recalls.
At age 15, he decided to leave school and head to the United States with a cousin. They stayed in Houston for about eight months and then moved to Grand Rapids, where they had heard jobs were plentiful.
Mancera got a job in a friend's tool-and-die business, where he gained experience. He moved six years ago to Michigan Pattern Works, where he operates a computer and numerically controlled (CNC) machine.
``Why I stayed (in Grand Rapids) is a good question,'' Mancera says with a laugh. ``In Mexico, it is warm all year round. In the beginning, it was hard to be part of winter, but I learned to be part of each season.''
At first, he knew no English, but an Anglo friend and co-worker, Boyd Culver, got him interested in American music. Mancera would buy CDs and listen to them.
``My brother teased me because I would be listening to songs I didn't understand,' Mancera said, ``but through music, I learned the English I speak now.''
He met his wife, Erika, also a Mexican immigrant, eight years ago at a dance. She was sitting with her aunt and cousin. When he asked her to dance, she refused.
``I didn't pay any attention to him,'' Erika says now.
His friends wanted to leave, but Mancera was patient. He waited about a half-hour and asked Erika to dance again. This time, she said yes, and they danced the rest of the evening.
``At first, the attraction was physical,'' Mancera says. ``Then I realized, I really like this girl.''
Mancera ticks off a long list of traits he admires about his wife of seven years _ she's a strong woman, a hard worker, smart and a tremendous talent in the kitchen.
``She not only cooks, she loves to cook. She does it because she loves it.''
Erika works for a toiletries manufacturer in Standale and is taking classes at Grand Rapids Community College to earn her general equivalency diploma. Her list of favorite traits about her husband is equally long.
``I like him because he's handsome, he likes to dance, doesn't give up easily and fights for what he believes in. He does what he does because he believes in it.''
The couple are active at the Cathedral of St. Andrew, where they sing in the choir. Mancera also has been involved in several dramatic productions, creating the scenery as well as acting in leading roles such as ``The Prodigal Son.''
Although he never had any formal art training, Mancera set up an art studio in his apartment and expanded his childhood sketches to acrylics and oils. He also began experimenting with metal sculpture, using scraps left over at his job.
In 2006, he presented his first solo exhibit at his church. After several other exhibits at area galleries, he joined other Latino artists at St. Andrews in 2007 to form Artists Unidos.
``He's very industrious and hard-working,'' said the Rev. Joachim Lally, who's in charge of Hispanic ministries at St. Andrews and is a member of Artists Unidos. ``(Mancera) can pull something out of nothing. He's always looking for opportunities. He's a proactive kind of guy.''
While wine tasting at Fenn Valley Winery in Fennville, Mancera noticed a blank wall he thought could use a little sprucing up, so he sold the owner on his first public commission, an 8-by-10-foot metal wall sculpture of a giant bunch of grapes.
In 2009, Mancera was commissioned to create a Crucifix that hangs in the sacristy at St. Andrews. He took a wooden cross that had been hanging in the church, mounted it on shiny metal and added a body of Christ he carved out of metal. An X of nails behind the cross symbolizes St. Andrew, Lally said.
The walls of Mancera's apartment are filled with his art, ranging from a pair of black-and-white oils of Mexican architecture over the couch to a flaming orange fall landscape across the room and an elaborate metal collage framing his wife's portrait. The display includes works of artists he admires, such as two Paul Collins prints in the dining area along with other area artists, and an African mask and skinny wooden sculpture in the living room beside a lily etched in glass by Carmelo López, an Artists Unidos friend from St. Andrews.
Mancera began studying the mural work of Diego Rivera about a year ago. He read books about Rivera's methods. He and Lopez visited the Detroit Institute of Arts to study Rivera's frescos.
``I was amazed,'' said López, who has done some small oil paintings but never imagined painting on walls. ``I figured, if he can do it, why can't we do it, too?''
Mancera received his first mural commission in September 2009 from Mariano Coronado at the Rockford Cinco de Mayo restaurant.
``He trusted me. How can I explain how thankful I am?'' Mancera said.
The first project included painting on a two-story, 20-by-20-foot wall, during which Mancera and Lopez used a scissor lift to reach the high expanse. Mancera said he creates a rough sketch of the design on a graph of the area to be painted, but the details of the mural are painted on the wall. Borrowing from Diego Rivera, Mancera uses photographs of people in the community as models for the people in his mural.
``The models represent different countires: México, Guatemala, Cuba, El Salvador,'' Mancera said. ``The faces are something from the community that becomes part of the mural. They give life to the mural.''
It's also fun for viewers who recognize the manager of the restaurant among the faces on the wall. López, who is from Guatemala, posed for one of the Indians at Little Mexico, and said he overheard one of the patrons commenting about the similarity between his face and the one in the picture.
Creating murals for restaurants is high-pressure work, Mancera said, because the restaurant is often in a hurry to open.
``Sometimes, we worked 17 hours straight on a weekend,'' Mancera said, adding López never complained about the late-night hours, even though he had to get up early for his day job at Echo Etching.
Although López, 55, has been a professional artist longer, Mancera was in charge of the murals, and López followed his lead.
``Artists can get jealous of each other, but he was always a gentleman with me,'' López said. Many artists have ideas but never act on them, he said, but Mancera has made his dreams into reality.
``He thinks and then he does,'' López said.
Mancera said he sought advice from Lopez and other, more experienced artists. He asked Grand Valley State University professor and muralist Ed Wong-Ligda about the best type of paints to use (regular acrylic wall paint). And he discussed his unfulfilled desire to create large public works with the late José Norezo, a well-known artist in the community who died in 2008.
``He told me if you want to do public art, you must be very careful to put the time and effort into it so it will be the best quality,'' Mancera said of Wong-Ligda. ``Hundreds of people will see it and judge you by it.''
In the past year, Mancera has put all his spare time into his art, including a model of an Aztec pyramid for ArtPrize. But Mancera has decided not to take part in the international art competition this year.
He and his wife are expecting their first baby in August, and that is his top priority. They've already agreed the boy will be named Diego.
``Right now, the goal is to focus on family and Diegito (little Diego),'' Mancera said. ``We want him to be bilingual. We want to get him into both cultures, get him involved in art—visual, music, dance—something productive.''
Mancera said too many children of immigrants learn to speak English in school but lose the ability to speak Spanish. He and Erika want to be sure their son doesn't lose his heritage.
The couple is hoping their parents in Mexico can visit West Michigan sometime over the next year to see the baby. They have family members in the area for support, and have a second family of support among the church members.
Their friends come from all over the community, including people from Austria, Spain and China, as well as assorted Anglos.
``The key is that you need to be an English speaker, then you can be involved with any group,'' Mancera said. ``When you can speak the language, you can fit into any conversation.''
Information from: The Grand Rapids Press, http://www.mlive.com/grand-rapids