Images courtesy of Emilia Cruz
In Illustration student Emilia Cruz’s oil painting Am I Too Dark?, a young girl sits on her bed. In one hand, she holds her long black hair, staring down at it. In the other hand, she grips a blonde white Barbie doll. The girl’s skin is painted brown with thick, layered strokes.
A first-generation Mexican American artist raised and based in Simi Valley—and who grew up visiting her relatives every weekend in Tijuana, Mexico—Cruz created the powerful painting in 2017 for an ArtCenter course taught by Associate Professor Kent Williams. The assignment, to paint a moment in her life, propelled her to dive deep into her childhood experiences with colorism. Her sister—12 years younger than her—posed for the painting.
For the longest time, I didn't want to share my story. This was the perfect opportunity to do it. It’s powerful when people see themselves in your work.Emilia CruzIllustration student
“For the longest time, I didn't want to share my story,” says Cruz via Zoom in her home studio at her parents’ house, surrounded by paintings, plants, jars of paintbrushes and inspiration such as a framed pink print that reads “Black & Brown Femmes to the Front.” “This was the perfect opportunity to finally do it,” Cruz says. “It was a milestone in my art.”
Cruz thought back to sitting on her bed watching television shows when she was 8 years old. “People who were dark skinned were cast as the villains,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m too dark,’ that my skin tone wasn’t ok. I felt very alone.” Cruz says she also felt frustrated by faculty members who didn’t encourage her to explore her own personal voice and experience in her work. Yet when Cruz posted Am I Too Dark? on Instagram, her vulnerability struck an enormous chord. Strangers flooded her with their own stories, and a collector later bought the piece. “It’s really powerful when people see themselves in your work,” Cruz says.
The attention also led to Cruz landing a commission from Netflix for its current series Gentefied after the show’s co-creator Linda Yvette Chávez saw Cruz’s work online. In the America Ferrera-produced comedy-drama, Cruz’s paintings stand in for art created by the character Ana Morales—played by actress Karrie Martin—an aspiring artist who works at her grandfather’s Mexican restaurant in the east Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights.
“It helped that the characters felt like friends or family,” says Cruz. In one of Cruz’s pieces, Ana and her activist girlfriend Yessika Castillo—played by actress Julissa Calderon—smile lovingly at each other beneath a swirling blue sky, as green leaves curl behind them.
“I think a lot about women of color reclaiming spaces,” Cruz says. “Nature is healing and nurturing. I want figures in my paintings to be in that safe environment, which can look dreamy and surreal.”
Always artistic, Cruz was just a baby when she picked up a pen and started drawing faces on her fingers, she says. While she found out about ArtCenter in high school, she didn’t apply to the College until after attending Moorpark College and working two jobs. She was accepted into the Illustration program, and began focusing on her art.
“I’ve built a work ethic and motivation at ArtCenter to follow this career path,” says Cruz, whose pieces have been shown in galleries like L.A.’s Self Help Graphics & Art and San Diego’s La Bodega Gallery. Before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s been teaching kids art.
“I love showing kids that they can look like me and create,” Cruz says.