A dark-skinned gardener stood with his back to the street, hoisting his bent arms overhead to trim a tall, verdant hedge that shielded a Beverly Hills home from the outside world. He and his mustached companion, who stood nearby clutching a shovel, donned pale, gray clothes and wore indistinct facial expressions. Normally, passersby would not have noticed such men because of who they were: Hispanic service workers often regarded as a compulsory but undesirable component of this affluent landscape. They would have blended in if it weren’t for one thing: on this occasion, they weren’t real. The gardeners were cardboard cutouts painted and fastened to the shrub by local artist Ramiro Gomez.
Realizing this was a jarring moment for motorists and joggers on Doheny Drive. From the elderly woman in a white Mercedes Benz to the Latino man driving a beat-up truck carrying gardening tools of its own, people turned their heads. They did double takes. You could almost see the questions formulating rapidly in their minds. Why were these cutouts there? Who put them there? What did it mean? Was it a political or social statement? Was it pro or anti-immigration? Was it a cry for Latino rights, or a mockery of their presence here?
If they had known the 26-year-old man several yards away was the artist, they could’ve asked him. Indeed, there sat Gomez himself on the curb, observing people’s responses while feeling vulnerablities of his own. Although the creator, he’s not immune to feelings of nervousness and even fright when he puts up a display. After all, it’s intimidating to attach provocative art to the homes of the rich and famous. But it’s worth it, he says, because his work allows him to send a message and then watch how it’s received.
For Gomez, the objective is to start a conversation, to bring the taboo into the light. Without nannies, gardeners, valets, cooks and housekeepers, the lives of the luxurious would lose their luxury. Even so, low-income Latinos in the service industry, whether undocumented or legal, are often under-appreciated and even ignored, despite doing the work that makes places like Beverly Hills function, Gomez says.
The artist first had the idea to make a statement about the city’s working-class Latinos when he started working a nanny for the children of wealthy families in the Hollywood area. He befriended other nannies who would hang out at a local park, and realized how difficult it was for them to live here with little money, no car, spotty English and not much recognition. He was able to relate those experiences to the journey of his parents, who immigrated from Mexico to San Bernardino to become a janitor and truck driver.
Gomez knows his art won’t have a direct impact on immigration law, and he doesn’t think it will inspire people to go home and pay their nannies more. He isn’t trying to rally poor Hispanics to go out and protest either—many of them just want to stay under the radar so they can make enough money to survive, he recognizes. But he does say his work is activism; a “subtle protest,” he calls it. “My goal is to make people think for a moment,” Gomez says, standing on the corner of Doheny and Elevado Avenue with black paint on his hands. “I want people to see these people less as disposable cardboard and more as real people.”
Gomez collects used cardboard television boxes from dumpsters outside stores like Best Buy, cutting out life-size figures, and then painting people on them with acrylic. Once they’re finished, he gives them names, and drives the streets of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills looking for spots with high visibility. He then installs them with wire and pliers. Another body of work consists of Hispanic laborers painted on the pages of décor magazines.
On the Friday morning in July when Gomez situated the two gardeners in Beverly Hills, he had already put up more than 30 cutouts over the past year at numerous storefronts and private homes—even at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He was starting to get a rush of media coverage by reporters intrigued with his work. A UC Santa Barbara professor began talking about Gomez in his lectures, an Ohio State professor wanted to include him in a lesson plan, and UCLA was already archiving his work. That didn’t mean, though, that everyone had come to understand his message. As even Gomez found out that morning, it was still very much open to interpretation.
Shortly after Gomez erected the cutouts, two real gardeners appeared across the street, blowing leaves on the sidewalk outside a house. They thought the cutouts were mocking them. The Salvadorians said they were sensitive to discrimination because of the countless times they had heard the well-to-do make disparaging comments about their profession. Now, they looked across the street and saw fake, life-size versions of themselves and thought it was more of the same. Hearing the news, Gomez was dismayed, and rushed across the street to assure gardeners of his intent.
As for residents, some loved it, and stopped to take pictures with their phones. Others found it offensive. “I think we have enough racial stereotypes,” said a film producer on a morning walk. “In Beverly Hills, it’s incredibly insensitive where a lot of rich, white people have illegals working for them.” Meanwhile, a local designer chuckled in amazement, and voiced an interpretation close to the artist’s. “There’s a potential commentary on the breakdown of labor in this country in reference to class,” he said. “You drive around and see the Lexuses and the Infinitis and then you see the beater trucks. There’s the whole subculture that goes ignored.”
The mixed reactions come with the territory of provocative art, especially work that so blatantly exposes an issue that’s rarely spoken but on so many people’s minds. And for Gomez, that seems to be the point. “Do I take it down because it offended somebody or do I leave it up because it might change someone’s mindset?” he asks. “That’s the power of art.”
This article was originally published in 2012 by Poder Magazine.
JENS ERIK GOULD
Jens Erik Gould is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News.