The area surrounding the city of Coachella is dominated by farms, ranches, orchards and the laborers who work on them.
As I drove to meet Armando Lerma at his Date Farmers art studio, I passed fields where migrant farmworkers were doing their jobs under the brutal summer sun. This is one of the places where Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union fought for the labor rights of these migrant farmers.
Today, Coachella is becoming known for more than agriculture; it’s also getting more and more attention for its rising arts scene—and much of that attention is directly due to Armando Lerma and the Date Farmers studio.
When I arrived at the studio, which Lerma started with Carlos Ramirez (who was not present; he apparently avoids interviews), Lerma greeted me. Lerma’s two large dogs jumped around in excitement as he opened the door to show me the garden area out back as he explained what made him and Ramirez start the Date Farmers.
“It’s complicated,” Lerma said. “We try to keep the tradition alive of Mexican art—the culture and the traditions from the ancients to modern Mexican/Chicano art. That’s always been the inspiration. It’s something that relates to our community.”
Lerma said that when he began making art two decades ago, there wasn’t much inspiration to be found in Coachella.
“It’s kind of hard for us, because we weren’t taught those traditions and were kind of out here by ourselves,” he said. “We had to teach ourselves. Back in the ’90s, when I was in high school, there was no real art or anything that really talked to us. The art I remember that people would be talking about would be on El Paseo in Palm Desert in those galleries. I’d be looking and trying to understand whatever it was. I wanted to understand it, but I couldn’t—and I didn’t feel anything there.
“I met and talked with people who pointed me in the right direction and started teaching myself about the traditions. I found my way and the direction I wanted to take.”
Lerma said his initial ignorance of traditional Mexican art has made him appreciate art even more.
“No one in my family understood art. My parents had no clue and didn’t teach me about art,” Lerma said. “We had encyclopedias, and I remember going into those for art. Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh—all that stuff was cool. When I got a little older and started learning about Mexican history and people like Diego Rivera and all the Mexican muralists, I went deeper and deeper.”
He said a pilgrimage to Mexico helped inspire him and his works.
“I saw all the Aztec murals, the Mayan ruins and all that stuff,” Lerma said. “It’s a tradition that I wasn’t taught. That’s where I come from, and I had to teach myself, because the generations before me didn’t have time for that. Through my parents’ hard work, they were able to give me a good education. … I felt fortunate I was able to meet so many people pointing me in the right direction.”
Lerma said the collective’s name comes from the heritage of both his family and his hometown.
“That’s what established this community—the agriculture and farming,” he said. “My parents were migrant farmworkers and worked here in the desert. We had a date farm; my grandfather was a farmer, and my uncles are farmers.”
The Coachella Valley consists of nine different incorporated cities and various unincorporated communities, ranging from some of the richest areas of the country to the poorest. As he was growing up, this disparity confused Lerma.
“I felt stupid! I felt really dumb. For so long, I was like, ‘Why are things the way they are? I’m living in Coachella. I guess this is kind of cool,’” he remembered. “Back then, things were sort of junk (in Coachella) and not looking so nice. I went to school in Bermuda Dunes, and when you are going through Palm Desert, you can see the transition—and you don’t understand it. My parents didn’t know how to explain it to me. No one talked about it.
“When I came into my own and started understanding these things, I felt like that tradition (of understanding my community) was taken away from me. I should have known that stuff; I should have been more aware, and I should have been more self-confident and proud, but I wasn’t. I thought we must have been doing something wrong, because I didn’t know why we were in that position when I was growing up.”
Some other members of the Coachella Valley arts community believe this perspective has led Lerma to, at times, be over-protective of his community and his art. I reached out to a variety of people to discuss the Date Farmers—and almost none of them were willing to discuss the Date Farmers on the record. Off the record, some noted that Lerma can be eccentric, is often unafraid to state his opinions, and is overly suspicious and untrusting of anybody he views as an outsider.
However, almost everybody I talked to praised Lerma for being an inspiration to his community—and mentioned that he’s becoming more and more of an influence in the California art scene.
One person who was willing to talk to me is Freddy Jimenez, an artist and the drummer for the band Tribesmen. He has been working with the Date Farmers for years and has played various shows at the Date Farmers studio. He said he understands where Lerma is coming from.
“He doesn’t want anybody to just come in here, because this part of the desert has been neglected, and a lot of people have talked bad about it, especially from the west side of the Coachella Valley in Palm Springs,” Jimenez said. “Now all of a sudden, Armando is doing murals in the city of Coachella, and we’re doing shows here, and a lot of people are starting to recognize it and wanting to do shit out here. People just want to suddenly jump on the bandwagon. … You just don’t want to let everybody in. I don’t want to work with just anybody when it comes to throwing shows or doing art. We’ve been building this local scene up.”
As a result of the Date Farmers’ increasing influence, their pieces have been seen everywhere from the Ace Gallery in Los Angeles to the most recent Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival—you know it simply as Coachella. Lerma said he’s happy to have his art in these places, in part because he feels people can learn from his art.
“With Mexican art in general, I think a lot of it has to do with teaching,” Lerma said. “If you take anyone’s art at the highest level, it’s teaching you something. That’s in Egyptian art, Chinese art—and you learn from it. It’s not just art for art’s sake.
“In Mexican culture, it’s also ceremonial to teach the young people to hold to the traditions. We’re kind of like orphans culturally. My generation, my parents’ generation, my grandparents’ generation—there was no art, and it kind of stopped. They had to work and do what they had to do to survive. But the spirit is strong, and it came back. That’s how I see art and where we’re coming from.”
The Date Farmers’ piece that was on display at Coachella, “Sneaking Into the Show,” was sitting in the gallery disassembled during my visit. Lerma mentioned during an April interview with LA Weekly that the work symbolizes the disparity between Coachella, the city—low-income, working-class—and Coachella, the music festival.
Lerma told me he is not a fan of Goldenvoice, the promoter that puts on Coachella and the other gigantic festivals that happen at Indio’s Empire Polo Club.
“It’s not something that’s talked about: Even the politicians here don’t step up and say, like, ‘Hey, we’re right here!’” Lerma said of the disparity between the festival and the nearby areas. “The things Goldenvoice does, like stopping people from selling T-shirts, is something I don’t understand. As an artist, I feel the most important aspect is to be honest, and I think we’re lucky, because we can talk shit. (The piece) was about bringing people from Coachella into the festival.
“I have this cousin who’s very inspirational to me as a kid. He was a gangster, and he had the cholo tattoos back in the ’80s when no one had tattoos. He looked like a pirate back then or something. I remember looking at him back then and saying, ‘You’re never going to get a job!’ He didn’t have to worry about it, because he ended up in prison. But he was a bad-ass artist, and that’s kind of the artwork he did, that reflected his experiences and his friends and family. It inspired me how he used art to tell his own story. He passed away recently, and the piece was a nod to him, because he sort of started me off.”
Lerma is also outspoken about the bad rap Coachella gets in the media. Earlier this year, The Desert Sun published a piece titled “The Warlords of Coachella,” about the city’s gang problems. Lerma said the piece was not a fair representation.
“That’s all bullshit!” Lerma said. “It makes us look so bad when it’s on the front page. … There are gangs here, but I don’t see them as much as I did when I was a kid. There used to be a lot. I probably wouldn’t have come to a party in Coachella during that time. It’s changed, and it’s not like that anymore.
“We were at a City Council meeting, and there were some kids from Coachella Valley High School, and they took it upon themselves to do this video, asking people at their school: ‘Do you feel safe?’ ‘How do you feel about the gangs?’ Everybody was saying there were some knuckleheads, but there were mostly good kids.
“This is my community. I live here every day, and I don’t see the gangs anymore.”
The city of Coachella and the East Valley in general have not been embraced as vibrant arts communities. However, the Date Farmers are helping to change that perception.
The Crisalida Community Arts Project was designed to also help change that perception. The two year project, an effort of the McCallum Theatre, fostered connections with local artists of all types in the East Valley, and culminated in a showcase this past spring at the McCallum.
Lerma—ever territorial and opinionated—said that he was not a fan of the project, in part because he was not included in it.
“That was a bummer for me. David Gonzalez, who is from New York, came to our community, and the project was funded by the James Irvine (Foundation) through the McCallum Theatre. I don’t know what started their interest in coming out here, because they never came out here before. I’m a big influence on these young people doing art out here, and for them to just not even contact me—it was bullshit.”
Lerma was also displeased that the Coachella Valley Art Scene’s Sofia Enriquez painted a mural in Coachella as part of the Crisalida project. He said it did not sit well with him, in part because the Date Farmers were already working on another mural nearby.
“It’d be one thing if there was no mural project, but there was already something going on that we were working on,” he said. “Right now, we have 10 murals up, and we’re going to get some more up, but I was really pissed off with the Crisalida Community Arts Project.”
David Gonzalez was in Europe and unavailable for comment.
Lerma explained that art is not as simple as some people make it out to be. He said that art needs to be taken seriously, and should not just be made in an effort to achieve fame and fortune.
“You have to be honest with yourself. I get turned off by people acting like they’re artists,” Lerma said. “… Honesty makes good art. It doesn’t come easy, and there aren’t too many art geniuses. (Date Farmers co-founder) Carlos (Ramirez) is an art genius. He’s been drawing since he was out of the womb, and he knows how to draw. It took me a long time to learn how to draw and how to paint. With social media, it’s just so fast now, and that dedication to the craft isn’t there.”
The Date Farmers’ interest in art goes beyond what one would find in a gallery. In an area that is currently going through a resurgence of the house-party-style concert, the arts collective has been also focusing on music. During New Year’s Eve in 2015, Brant Bjork performed at the studio, and local bands including Tribesmen have played there as well.
“We’ve had a lot of music shows. We had parties on Friday and Saturday during Coachella,” Lerma said. “We can have 300 people in here, and they’re all mostly locals, and it’s kind of the way to give back to the kids who can’t go to Coachella. We go all out and throw a good party, exposing them to good music and art.
“They’re all cool art-type kids. When I was a kid, you’d get beat up for being an art kid.”
Jimenez, of Tribesmen, said that the Date Farmers’ music space is a throwback to the backyard scene that is now making a comeback in the Coachella area.
“Armando has provided a safe haven for the local East Valley scene,” Jimenez said. “It’s the same kind of feel and the same kind of passion that the backyard-music shows had. No other venue in the desert has the same kind of love. That studio makes it feel like you’re at home and shit. It makes you feel like you’re playing to people who actually care about the music as opposed to playing in a bar and people who are just there to drink and party.”
The Date Farmers studio is currently dealing with a financial setback, due to the bankruptcy and questionable financial dealings of Ace Gallery founder Douglas Chrismas.
“I should really be jaded with everything I’ve gone through as an artist,” he said. “We just finished working with the Ace Gallery in Los Angeles. They showed Andy Warhol and all kinds of big names. The guy who owned it, Douglas Chrismas, is notorious for being crazy, and he rips you off. It was all part of the experience. The business of art is why you can’t take the business so seriously—but then you do (need to take it seriously), and it’s a weird balance. It’s not easy.”
Lerma explained that there’s no grant money supporting the Date Farmers.
“We make money through making and selling art,” he said. “Most people never get to live off their art and have to do something else. We’re so fortunate to be able to sell artwork. But it hasn’t been easy, and people aren’t just throwing money at us. I don’t know where the money is going to come from, but I know that I have to sell some art. We don’t have the Ace Gallery anymore, so we have to find a new gallery to sell art through.”
Lerma is clearly proud of his hometown. He said that after dealing with the hustle and bustle of the Los Angeles art world, he’s happy to be home.
“After coming back here, I just want to start a garden and slow things down—slow it down as much as I can,” he said.