An Interview with Raul Gonzalez

by Ximena Izquierdo Ugaz

It’s the day before Christmas Eve and I’m in my little brother’s room in Florida. Raul Gonzalez calls on Skype, we talk about the holidays, and I show him some of my brother’s drawings. In my sophomore year at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Raul would come to the library to get books before his class on Tuesday mornings (when I had my shift). Raul Gonzalez is an award winning artist from El Paso, Texas/Juarez, Mexico, living in Medford, Massachusetts. He is a Brother Thomas and Mass Cultural Council fellow and a recipient of the Artadia Award. His work is in many public and private collections. He is the illustrator and co-creator of the critically acclaimed and award winning books “Lowriders in Space” and “Lowriders to the Center of the Earth” with Cathy Camper. He makes his home with his two loves, Elaine Bay and Raul El Gonzalez IV.


-Ximena Izquierdo Ugaz

Ximena Izquierdo Ugaz: Can you tell me a bit about what was it like growing up between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez? Do you feel that these memories come into your work in some way?


Raul Gonzalez: Yeah, I grew up in the El Paso side. You know memory is strange. I’m a storyteller and I create pictures and narratives. That’s what I do. And I go out and give a lot of talks all over the place and in a sense, too, I am a performer — in that I have to go up on stage and talk about myself and my work and what’s inspired it and when you do that, you kind of begin to embellish the narrative, you know? Or you begin to see what about the narrative works, what makes people laugh, what makes people cry. And so now I’m beginning to question my memories. But, I would say, what has definitely been an influence is the heat, growing up in a Spanish-speaking community, seeing the differences between my family’s life in Juarez and my family’s life in El Paso. The business, you know, el negocio del Mercado Cuauhtémoc, my abuelita, my tios, tias they all sold mercancía at the mercado, I think that has definitely been a big influence on me because I’ve always enjoyed selling, and negocio, I can’t help it.

And then also being an American, on the flip side, and wondering what my place was here in the United States, knowing that there were differences in terms of...because I wanted to be an artist and there wasn’t any artists in my family, plus you don’t really see yourself represented in the United States in positive ways, at least not so much so in the 1990s, a little more maybe today but even today it hasn’t changed nearly as much. So all those things influenced me. Even, I remember as a kid on the American side, being ashamed of my heritage and not wanting to be a part of it and then suddenly embracing it.

Photo by Elaine Bay

Photo by Elaine Bay

Every Step You Take Is Forever, 2012

XIU: Do you remember some of the games you played as a kid?


RG: I grew up in an apartment complex and we spent our time running around basically playing tag, touring the irrigation ditches — there was a lot of ditches in El Paso — to capture the runoff of the water from the mountain. We would tour the tunnels and we would make up games like that there was this evil bum named Yellowbeard chasing us. I took my son through them a couple of years ago and I was talking to him about Yellowbeard. It definitely made it more exciting because he was afraid that Yellowbeard was gonna pop out of one of the tunnels. I was a very active boy, I was really fast. That was my skill, I was fast.

XIU: I’d love to hear more about The Miracle 5, a collective you were a part of in the early 2000s, how did it begin?  

Every Step You Take Is Forever, 2012

RG: I’ve been really lucky. I’ve had a lot of wonderful support over the years. I guess the biggest one has been Elaine, who is my wife. She has definitely been one of the most influential people in my life, you know, since I was a kid. We met when I was about 16 years old and, I kid you not, my work changed dramatically from before Elaine to after Elaine. And so, the collective, The Miracle 5, came about in 2002 or 2003. For me, when we started it, it was simply because we were asked to exhibit work in coffee shops and it was just nice to have a group of people to do it with. So myself, Elaine, Dave Ortega, Rhonda Ratray, and Ken Boutet; we were in our early 20’s and we were just filling up coffee shops with our fictional alter egos. We all had avatars; Elaine was Princess Die, I was Cerebot, this, like, crazy looking stereotype Mexican Robot who was just really good at cleaning things. Dave was a robot, Ken was a chef so he was Boutet Lobsterclaw, and we were just using our collected talents to produce pretty interesting exhibitions. Elaine is a performance artist, so she would bring a performative aspect, I draw pretty badass pictures and that’s what I would bring to the table, and Dave was really interested in animation at the time so he would animate sequences of our characters. We just kind of really did use the idea of a superhero team to create this artist collective where we used our different powers to create interesting shows.

Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, Chronicle Books, 2016

Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, Chronicle Books, 2016

We involved the community a lot in it as well, so we would organize music shows in lofts in Chinatown and just create fun times. It’s always cool to collaborate with people. That’s one of the things that I feel is important to kind of give back is collaboration, and to show how artists aren’t just like hermits living in a cave producing masterpieces. Everything is collaborative, at least it has been for me in most of the projects that I’ve been involved in over the years.

XIU: What are some of the collaborative projects you are involved in right now?


RG: I just finished a show at Carroll and Sons, and in some respect you collaborate with your gallerist right? And I’m about to start another one with David Bowles — he's a Chicano from Texas. We are developing a project called Clockwork Curandera, which takes place in Texas and Mexico; it’s going to be a graphic novel about a curandera, filled with brujas, published by Lee & Low Books which is an amazing award-winning publisher. They’ve been around for 25 years and their mission is to create diversity in the book marketplace, and they’re doing an outstanding job and I’m just really happy that they are supporting me and David and this amazing project. I’ve been designing the witches all week long. I want it to look like as if Jose Guadalupe Posada was drawing a graphic novel. At the same time, I am starting the third Lowriders book this week. It’s gonna be a stressful year, but hopefully the end result will be amazing.

The Miracle Five, Posters, circa 2004
The Miracle Five, Posters, circa 2004

The Miracle Five, Posters, circa 2004

XIU: That’s so exciting! I’ve heard you talk before about  your decision to only use black, blue and red ballpoint pens to illustrate ‘Lowriders.’ Is there a story behind this choice?

RG: My dad, one summer, he was a little upset with me because I was just spending my time twiddling my thumbs. I was pretty good at it. I was taking it very seriously because I found out I could go in reverse and forwards. And so my father was like, “”Mijo haz algo! Haz algo, do something! Ve a comprarme el periódico.” And so I went to buy him the newspaper and I had been to this place many times before, but that day was completely different because I discovered the thing that ended up changing my life forever. I wandered into this place and the man behind the counter was like “Entra…” and so, I went in and I went to the back and I grabbed my favorite drink which was in a gigantic vaso, it was a little bit of Wink, a little splash of Fanta, a little splash of Crush. I mixed it up with my popote. I slurped it down, it was disgusting. I remember I turned around and there was this gigantic tower in the corner. And what was wonderful about this tower was you could spin it around and if you spun it too fast things would fly off of it, but what made this tower special was simply the fact that from the top all the way to the bottom the entire thing was covered with comic books. And so, I started going back to this place, which to me was (and continues to be) the most influential art museum I’d ever entered, it was the the 7-Eleven.

Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, Chronicle Books, 2016

Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, Chronicle Books, 2016

I would go into this place every week to learn about artwork, and I would pick up a book and I would flip through it and I learned about all kinds of different drawing styles. And so I started to bring these books home with me. My parents, they didn’t know much about art. They were busy working. We are at a disadvantage when we try to make up what we are trying to do. But I wanted to figure out how the artists that I was being inspired by were making their books, so I started to copy my favorite drawings from these books, using the only materials I had at the time which were, you know, these ballpoint pens. I would find them with interesting business names on them, you know, like Lupita’s Tamales or Junke Man or Group Insurance Services of Texas. And so, day by day, year by year, I would just create copies of all of my favorite drawings, so that by the time I was in highschool, my nickname was “Raul the Human Copy Machine.” So then when Lowriders in Space came around and Cathy Camper was telling me her idea of three friends who create a lowrider using only the materials they have at hand, it made me think back to when I was a young boy, trying to figure out how to become an artist. How I had to use the materials that I had around me to help figure this out, and so I decided that I would use just the black, red and blue ballpoint pens to make this happen and I found that it’s a wonderful thing because often we can be intimidated by things that we don’t have. “How can I possibly go about doing this if I don’t have the money?” or “How can I possibly create a work of art if when I walk into a museum and all I’m seeing are oil portraits of rich white folks?” And so, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to create a project that illustrates how you can begin realizing your dreams with just the things you have around you. So that’s why I did it.  It hurts my hand now. I’m like, “Ah, why didn’t I think this through?!” When I was a kid it didn’t hurt my hand, but I’m 40 now. I really need to rub my hands after I’m done drawing a page, which could take upwards of 8 hours.

 Raul as a teenager with one of his drawings, Photo by Raul Gonzalez II

 Raul as a teenager with one of his drawings, Photo by Raul Gonzalez II

XIU:  That’s such a wonderful story, thank you for sharing! And I think you’re right, copying our favorite artworks or cartoons is a real accessible way to fathom becoming an artist, especially as young children of color who don’t see themselves represented in art. At least, it was for me as well.

RG: It’s a great way to learn how to do things. I always tell the kids I speak to that I knew that I was going to succeed as an artist because, as a young man, I chose my heroes early you know? I remember I would read about specific people and how they laid out their plans, or what they had done to get to the point that they were at, and then I would just try to follow exactly what they had done. Jack Kirby worked on eight pages a day, Osamu Tezuka illustrated something like 150,000 pages of comic book art. I would read facts like these and be like, damn, I better get to work.  It really made things a lot easier for me as I made my way through the world, knowing, “oh, I have to draw 8 hours a day...okay, if I do that, then I’m going to get better.” Plus, I was a big fan of boxing because I would watch it with my dad and also those were the only latinos on TV. And so, when I would listen to their stories like, “Oh, I had to train, like, so many hours a day to become the champion,” I thought to myself, “oh, okay — I have to train.” I wasn’t gonna be a boxer because I’m a wimp and I don’t like getting punched in the face, but I thought I could train myself with drawing. That was my only hope of escaping or becoming something.

XIU: I’m thinking about a series that you did called “Pelt,” which I looked up and has two meanings. One is, of course, the skin of an animal with the fur still on it, but it is also a verb, meaning to attack someone by repeatedly throwing things at them. Can you talk a bit about this series and what made you begin this work?

RG: Pelt was a long time ago now, maybe 10 years. That’s an interesting series because for me, it changed my life in many respects. Up until that point, I had really only been a comic book artist. I had been trying to produce comic books and I was working a lot with my friends in The Miracle 5. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but I started working on this series of drawings (and there’s a lot of reasons why I started to work on them). This was during the Bush years, and I had been reading a lot of very depressing articles about how people were being treated in Guantanamo and how dehumanized they were; being thrown into cages, in solitary confinement, tortured, and leading up to that, how we had just been dehumanizing them for so many years through the media. I started thinking about how, in American History, whenever we’ve wanted to set out to destroy somebody we simply dehumanize them.

I started to study how minority groups had been dehumanized by American cartoonists. Throughout the years, people of color have always existed in American cartooning on the periphery, on the sidelines. But then when you see us, we don’t look human in any way whatsoever; drawn with exaggerated features, buck teeth. And so, I started the Pelt series with that in mind. And I drew it because I wanted to show how when you dehumanize someone to that respect, so much so, it makes it a lot easier for somebody to come in and completely wipe them off the face of the planet without any feelings of guilt or remorse because these people are merely cartoon characters, they’re not real, their feelings aren’t human. And so, the Pelt series was pretty much really sad looking cartoon characters that were dealing with a lot of brutality and prejudice. They were being obliterated. It’s a pretty sad series. It’s interesting, though, because they’re also very much cartoon characters, you know? And with a cartoon character, you know that they can take all of this punishment and abuse and then somehow, someway come back from it. If only that was true of real people. But it isn’t and that’s really the tragedy there.

XIU: In a lot of your artwork, many of the characters have nicknames often attributed to certain characteristics or weaknesses they possess, physical or emotional. How do nicknames play a role in your work?

RG: Yeah, it’s a great way to encapsulate maybe who that person is and it can also, of course, be very derogatory. I think I do it because I’m so accustomed to so many people that I grew up knowing having nicknames, or having names shortened or changed just a little bit. Nicknames that, in some way capture certain features. Like, my cousin looks like she’s Chinese, so her name is “La China,” my aunt who is dark skinned is “La Negra,” my uncle with a flat nose is “El Chato” you know? My brother had golden hair, he was “El Golden Boy,” so, I was jealous of that. Why can’t I have golden hair? Why does my hair look like pubic hair? We’re laughing now, but puberty had its sweet revenge on my brother. Haha! I’m just joking.

In Juarez and El Paso, nicknames were a big part of growing up and the culture. And so, I use it a lot in my work because it’s just very fitting for some of the people that I am illustrating. For instance, I just finished a work and it’s this luchador and he’s hiding behind a bunch of cactuses, and he’s also a cactus, and the title for that work is El Nopal Bien Escondido, and to me it just works you know? It describes who he is. He is a person who is surviving in a very harsh environment and he is also someone who possibly has to be hiding, but hiding in plain sight amongst other people that are like him but are also different than him because of their status. So, the nicknames help me describe that person in a way that goes much deeper and further than their regular names would.

Scalps, from the series Pelt, 2008

Scalps, from the series Pelt, 2008

Bay a Migra as Heroic Virtue overcoming Discord, mixed media, 2014

In Juarez and El Paso, nicknames were a big part of growing up and the culture. And so, I use it a lot in my work because it’s just very fitting for some of the people that I am illustrating. For instance, I just finished a work and it’s this luchador and he’s hiding behind a bunch of cactuses, and he’s also a cactus, and the title for that work is El Nopal Bien Escondido, and to me it just works you know? It describes who he is. He is a person who is surviving in a very harsh environment and he is also someone who possibly has to be hiding, but hiding in plain sight amongst other people that are like him but are also different than him because of their status. So, the nicknames help me describe that person in a way that goes much deeper and further than their regular names would.

XIU: Images and words are very powerful in creating certain narratives about people, and we’ve seen and experienced the violent results. How do you feel about making work in this cyclical era of Trump?


RG: Yeah, you know, my show just came down last week. I was making the work about six months ago and I titled the work, “Forbidden Frontera.” I was like okay, this work will come down in late December and it’ll be going up a little before the election. I was convinced that we weren’t going to have this situation that we are going to be having for the next four years. And then suddenly Trump was elected president and the work felt so much more needed.

La Migra as Heroic Virtue overcoming Discord, Raul Gonzalez & Elaine Bay, 2014

Yet, this stuff has been happening forever. So, this is why it’s so important to make work that makes people aware of things that have been happening since the beginning of time. We need to continue to make work that shines a light on things that have, for too long, been brushed under the rug. And I’m only making this work because I’m deeply connected to it because of who I am and where I’m from. Whenever I see these kinds of injustices happening, of course I’m thinking about (and maybe selfishly so) my mom and my aunts and my uncles and everybody in my circle who has worked so hard trying to simply live. And so, when I came up to the Boston Area I was just so taken aback by how much was missing in terms of the stories that were being told in museums and in the American wings. And I kind of wanted to write in missing chapters with my pictures. And that’s kind of what I set about doing in my own small way here in Boston. Hahaha, that sounded kind of pissed off.


XIU: It’s okay to be pissed off. I think we need to be angry, actually. There’s a lot that can come from anger.


RG: I think it’s very important to be angry. I think it’s important to lash out and to be a voice and, honestly, we’re in very privileged positions. I find that it’s very important for me to do this kind of work that I’m doing. That’s why the books that I create have an all Latino cast in them. Those are the types of books that I want to help make because I don’t want to be, I’m tired of being the only Mexican at some of these conferences you know? Being asked the same questions about diversity. That gets old. It would be so much better if I was hanging out at a wonderfully diverse conference — these questions wouldn’t have to be asked anymore right?

XIU: Yeah, well you wouldn’t have to be the one to represent everybody. It’s so strange.


RG: Exactly! I always get asked to come and speak on why it’s important to have diverse books in a panel, and I’m like again? But, I think now that we are in these positions, and of course, I’m including you in this, it’s important to continue to try to make changes for all of the little people that are gonna be coming up pretty soon. For your hermano making those awesome drawings.

El Guantes (sus manos son corazones), 2011

El Guantes (sus manos son corazones), 2011

And that’s another thing that we need to do as artists of color, something that I don’t feel has been done enough. If it had been I feel like we would see the results of it in art schools. Because art schools, for the most part, are predominantly white. Everything from the faculty to the student body, administration, counselors, right? I can’t wait for those old white professors to retire. I honestly feel like they’ve just been sitting back doing nothing, really. I hope white professors take the initiative to hire a more diverse faculty before they ride off into the sunset. They need to do something to make their schools more diverse from the bottom on up.

Club Narco, 2011, Acrylic on paper

I think that it’s important for artists of color like you and me to be doing a lot more ambassador-style work, to be doing more outreach. Which is why I try to visit as many schools as I possibly can in districts where most of the student body is living in poverty; because I know that when they see me, and I’m some brown dude with messy hair, like holy shit! If this dusty dude can make a living drawing comic books then maybe I can as well. I just visited close to 30 schools in El Paso in 5 days. I would speak at a school for 45 minutes and then I would drive for 15 minutes to the next school. Just simply our faces, you know. Of course we’ve had to work incredibly hard to get to where we are but we can’t just sit back and say ah, I made it! Thank the lord! We have to go out and visit schools and say Hey, listen, there are these places that are called art schools that you need to become a part of to change them from the ground up, because they definitely need to be rattled and changed. Otherwise, they’re worthless. Because the stories and artwork that come from them will just be more of the same bullshit. And I didn’t even go to art school! So maybe I don’t even know what I am talking about.

Alarums!!, from the series Pelt, 2009

XIU: No, but you’re right. You also teach, so you’ve seen it. When I was at SMFA there was a handful of teachers of color that we could reach out to, you being one of them. It always felt like my white peers and teachers could only speak formally about our work and so many violent comments went unaddressed by staff. I feel, though, that often the work of changing these places falls on students of color who are also often struggling with poverty, juggling jobs, trying to feed themselves, staying emotionally stable and making art. I wish there was more support.

RG: Yes, you shouldn’t have to worry about eating. And that’s another thing that really upsets me, how much more work you have to do because your parents didn’t have the money, or maybe don’t support you. You should feel like, you’re here, you made it, let’s try to make you the best artist you can possibly be. And then, afterwards, you might be on your own but at least you’ll have had a very great time exploring your ideas and trying to make them a reality, because it does take a lot of support to get projects off the ground.


Alarums!!, from the series Pelt, 2009

XIU: How has your experience being a father had an impact on your work and vice versa?


RG: Being a father has had an incredible impact on my work. It’s interesting having this little person who looks up to you and that you know you are completely responsible for. And it definitely makes me think more about, not just my son, but the people he interacts with. You are also responsible for them. And then, I feel a responsibility in terms of the kind of work I want to create and the kind of impact I want to have nationally. I mean, we can only do what we can do. That’s something I have to wrap my mind around sometimes. And the thing that I do best is create artwork, and so, I want to create works of art that make it a little easier for artists like my son (I’m calling him an artist even though he hasn’t defined himself as an artist, haha!), for people who are like my son, for people who were like me growing up — to make it easier for them to break in. Or to feel comfortable, to feel like they’re part of the larger narrative. I want to work with more people whose missions are very similar to mine as well. People like Taylor Norman and Ginee Seo at Chronicle Books, who want to make books for all walks of American life. She was Korean American and never saw books about Korean Americans when she was a kid, and wanted to see them. I want to work with people like Lee & Low Publishing. Now, having a son, I just want to help create a positive world, because it’s gonna be very difficult these next four years for a lot of us. Because we have a president who is so demeaning to so many of our most vulnerable, from his despicable and disgusting treatment of women, to his insults to, well you know the story. He’s just a disgusting monster of a man. And so, in my small way, I kind of want to help balance it in the other direction by being a positive force through my art. Which is why I’m really focusing a lot on creating works for kids.

XIU: Right, you’re in many worlds. You’re in this world of children’s literature, and this art world as well. How is it balancing and moving through these contexts?


RG: Well you know, here’s the thing, when I was just focusing on the gallery stuff, I felt a little bit more like a fish out of water. But then I had success in the children’s book world and it was there that I felt everybody was so much more open to who I was and inviting me to all kinds of places — to give talks, to schools, libraries, and galas. That never happened in the fine art world, you know? And so once that happened, while I still have success in the fine art stuff, I just got two fellowships this year. I also just don’t care as much about it, to be honest with you. I’m not really interested in it, in pleasing anyone in that world. I don’t really care if I’m in the good graces of a curator or an institution or a collector. While I’m happy if they do purchase a work of mine, I’m not gonna go out of my way to try to become friends with them. But, on the other hand, with the work that I’m doing in children’s books, I feel a much deeper level of commitment and responsibility. Because I’m much more interested in being a comforting face to students whose parents might only speak Spanish, or who are looking for a role model, or someone who can inspire them to become a comic book artist or an artist. Those are the people that I’m much more interested in meeting and speaking with or to. So, I prefer it, to be quite honest with you. I love librarians, booksellers, teachers, and I realize it’s because they’re very much more like me and regular people who are just trying their best to guide and to take these young kids and help them find their way in the world.


XIU: And lastly, what are you looking forward to the most next year in this moment of many transitions?


RG: I have no idea. I don’t really think too far in advance. I focus on my day to day. Whenever I do think too far in advance I end up becoming a little unhinged and I stress out, because I have so many commitments that if I think six months in advance I’m like “Oh great, in six months I have to have 100 pages done.” And if I think about it, I’m just going to be like how am I ever going to do that? So I just try to focus on one day at a time. That way I actually finish it. And that way I’m ready to do what I have to do next, whatever it is that I have to do next. But I’m sure it’s going to be a good time. I’m going to be speaking at a Bilingual Language Summit in Chicago in March and I’m gonna be a keynote speaker at another thing in Florida in June. It’ll be my first time visiting Florida. I’m bringing my family with me, so it’ll be beachtime and I’ll give a talk. And I’ve just been invited to be a keynote speaker at a Teen Literature Conference in Colorado. I’m excited about all of these things. Plus, I’ll have three books coming out in the next three years, so that’s kind of cool.

need title

Watchalo, Papa, watchalo

Watchalo, Papa, watchalo

Raul Gonzalez is an award winning artist from El Paso/Juarez living in Medford MA. He is the illustrator and co-creator of the critically acclaimed and award winning books Lowriders in Space and Lowriders to the Center of the Earth with Cathy Camper. He makes his home with his two loves Elaine Bay and Raul El Gonzalez IV.



Ximena Izquierdo Ugaz is a multimedia artist, curator and educator based in Brooklyn and originally from Perú. She is the co-curator of Visual Art at Nat. Brut as well as Teen Programs Coordinator at the Brooklyn Museum and co-curator of Sweety’s, a gallery and platform dedicated to supporting and exhibiting artists of color.



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Nat. Brut is a proud winner of a 2020 Whiting Literary Magazine Prize