Friday, December 16, 2011
Ode To The Caveman: My Friend, Jesus Cuevas
I called him "The Caveman", his surname "Cuevas", meaning "cave" in English. But more than that he did tend to be loud, brash and a shade crude on occasions, a Chicano caveman, a Chicano Aborigine if you will.
We vaguely knew one another as kids, since my dad, then estranged from my mom, and his family lived at "La Sesion", as it was called in our Barrio, Spanglish for "section" as in "section house", since it belonged to the Southern Pacific Railroad, providing housing for its workers.
It was one large rectangular yellow, wooden building with a series of small, two-room apartments. My dad and his dad, both worked on the railroad. When I visited my dad, I would see Jesse and we would talk. After my dad died, I lost all touch with Jess but would see him around from time to time. It would not be until years later, after I married that I would meet him again, this time to become close friends.
Living in Modesto with my new Mexican wife, we made it a point to shop for groceries as frugally as possible, and since I was only making a minimum wage as a florist at the time, that drove us to South Modesto, and Crows Landing Road, leading straight into the heart of "Oakie Town", as we called back then. We could get eggs, meats and vegetables much more cheaply than we could in downtown Modesto, especially at one Supermarket just past Hatch Road.
And it was precisely there one day that I again met up with The Caveman, who was working in the vegetable department. We shook hands and I introduced him to my new wife. He too was married at the time, and had two young children, a boy and a girl and as we left, we promised we would call him and invite him and his family over for dinner sometime. The year was approximately 1967.
And we did.
This began a renewed friendship that would flourish until 2002 when he died. We discovered so much in common between us. I was doing art work, drawing, painting, and found object sculptures and he was vastly impressed by my work, and the fact that though I was a meager florist at this time, I held a Master's Degree in Art. We also discovered that we liked to eat, drink beer and wine, and smoke a little "yerba" too!
We would listen to music, get a little high, and philosophize (bullshit) on life and art. We also shared our "Mexican-ess" and the ideology of the rising Chicano Movement, of Chicano Art with one another, and though his wife was White, she "understood" Mexicans.
In time, I began to challenge Jesse about developing his obvious interest in art. "Go to college. Take some art classes and get a degree", I urged him. The Caveman was about 30 at the time. "It's never too late, dude", I repeated. Apparently, it worked and in just a few years, Jesse had graduated from college with a Bachelor's Degree, and soon after, earned a Master's Degree in Art!
He went on to be hired at Stanislaus State University in Turlock, CA. as a recruitment officer and continued working as an artist, mostly painting.
Oddly, there was one painting which he worked on for years and never really finished, one inspired by an actual photograph of the famous revolutionary leader from the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), Emiliano Zapata, holding a rifle.
I am not sure why he never finished this painting. While it was part of his Master's project, he continued to repaint it, over and over, and each time he showed it to me, it displayed new strokes, new colors. We never really talked of why he could never just let it be, though that bothered, even upset me.
We also never talked of what that image of Zapata symbolized to The Caveman. Did he see himself and his own restless, revolutionary spirit in Zapata? Did it remind of his past, his buried cultural roots?
On his death bed in the hospital, I last saw him, a disheveled replica of the loud and boisterous Caveman he once was. He lay motionless, mumbling incoherently one moment, as if in restful sleep, a faint smile on his face, then he would erupt in a thunderous laugh and totally coherent dialogue.
He died a young man, leaving his painting of Zapata unfinished. But though The Caveman might have lived to 90, I suspect he would have repainted his canvas again and again. But then, is anything ever really finished?