Roski MFA student creates bilingual coronavirus community zine ‘Héroes De La Comunidad’

A worker drills a sign with a person wearing a face mask to a bus stop.
Learning from a zine is both possible and enjoyable as proven by Roski MFA student Jose Sanchez’s latest piece, ‘Héroes De La Comunidad.’ (Photo courtesy of Gina Clyne.)

When the world went virtual in 2020, Maria Galicia, education and programs coordinator for the USC Fisher Museum of Art, faced the challenge of immersing the community in artistic programs without visiting the museum in person. Turning to her community for inspiration, Galicia noticed that the majority of coronavirus resources were not effectively distributed or communicated to people of color, yet they were the most at-risk population to develop serious effects from the virus. Galicia saw an opportunity to bridge the gap between high-risk groups in Los Angeles and governmental health and safety communications.

“All of the information that I was seeing, [in] the media, Spanish outlets and everything, either [was] bad information, incorrect information or not enough information — or there [was] a lot of [scaring] people instead of really helping them,” Galicia said.

Galicia approached Jose Guadalupe Sanchez III, a graduate student studying fine arts with an emphasis in painting, with the idea to make coronavirus resources accessible to this community through an art project. A Latinx artist himself, Sanchez’s work centers around the question: “How as artists can we make work that, on the one hand, validates the neglected experiences of the people we care about (i.e., through direct positive representation and intervention) and, on the other, be a critical reflection on those structures that created the conditions of making a people socially, politically, economically invisible?” 

Sanchez has a history of working with Latinx community members to provide them with essential information through mediums such as paintings, videos and zines, among others. His recent work with a zine on homelessness in the Los Angeles community prompted him to suggest a zine for the art project, eliminating the complex jargon of most government-issued health pamphlets. 

Sanchez and Galicia wanted to create work that captured the reality of Latinx and Indigenous people during the pandemic while also resonating with the type of content they would enjoy reading. Galicia had the idea to partner with Art Division, a nonprofit organization in the Rampart District that aims to support young artists from the ages of 18 to 26. Sanchez and seven student artists from Art Division created loteria cards, colorful graphic cards and comic-like announcements, making for a uniquely fun coronavirus community zine, available in both English and Spanish.

“We wanted to create something colorful, something that resonated with families and people and put a face [to] the struggle of being a working class person,” Vanessa Melesio, one of the Art Division artists on the project, said. “And I think it did resonate with some people, like, they were happy to see brown people that look just like them.”

Melesio has been at Art Division for a year and three months, and was originally drawn to the project because of the sense of community she was craving during the pandemic and the indigenous artists involved in the project.

“We were [just] talking, as also Latinx people, about what the pandemic looks like for our families and the people in our community because a lot of us actually are essential workers,” Melesio said. “And so there [were] topics about like, who are the essential workers?”

Melesio said the group had candid conversations about their own family dynamics and the concept of masculinity, which is why they decided to make the protagonist a father. 

“He’s essentially a hero if he’s the one taking the initiative to [wear] his mask and be proactive about it, and he’s protecting himself, you know, and his family,” Melesio said.

The 32-page zine would come to feature essential facts about coronavirus symptoms, transmission, recovery and vaccination. It also illuminates best practices for personal protective equipment and engaging in public spaces. The zine presents these facts through the story of a Latino man and his heroic efforts to protect his family and community from the dangers of the illness.

For both Sanchez and Melesio, storyboarding was the best part of the zine-making process. While talks of the project started in May 2020, in June, Art Division hosted in-person, coronavirus-safe workshops for the team in which they determined what the storyline was, who the main characters were and what the illustrations were going to look like.

“As a group, we all kind of related to, ‘Like OK, so my tia [aunt], or my dad, or my mom, or my uncle or my brothers, they act and do [things] in relationship to COVID. So we tried to get an understanding of, ‘So how are people from this type of community base that we’re trying to speak to, how do they interact with some of the information that’s being given?’” Sanchez said.

About 1,000 copies of “COVID-19 Community Heroes” and “’Héroes de la Comunidad” were printed and distributed to nonprofit organizations around the MacArthur Park and Westlake areas. Art Division was also able to develop a partnership with Outfront Media to set up bus shelter posters on Wilshire Boulevard, South Park View Street and Colorado Street with illustrations from the zine.

“I think it was a really beautiful example of how people just like ourselves can participate in the world, [in] this particular way that doesn’t always need to happen through these kinds of highly regulated processes,” Sanchez said with regard to the Outfront partnership.

Since 2017, Sanchez has been working with experts in complex topics to simplify information for the communities that need it most and he does not see this project slowing down. He plans to continue his efforts in social engagement practices, with the ultimate goal of translating complex information into visual mediums to act as a resource for varying communities, beyond just information about the pandemic.