Story and (color) photos by Eric Cocoletzi
I’m not sure why I didn’t write about Manuel Cortez almost a year ago when I interviewed him. Well, he was certainly talked about at our meetings whenever we discussed interesting people to write about and who are from Santa Ana. And his name came up time and time again when we discussed which writers were pulling their weight and which were just flat-out lagging. “Where’s your Manuel Cortez story, Eric?” Well, I think that after all the varied people, events, and connivers that we’ve written about, it felt right to write about a homegrown, humble man that was (from what I recall on that cool, wet morning in March) all about love and being centered for his own peace of mind and for the sake of being able to create his art. Art which is still something that is incomparable to anything I’ve seen a Santanero(a) make to this day.
That day in early March was introduced with rain fall as I brought myself out of bed with the intent of tracking down the guy that I’ve seen ride a skateboard using his arms for years and years. After a hearty breakfast of eggs and such, and answering texts full of directions, I headed to Manuel’s house. Once I arrived, I walked toward what looked to be the right address and then I saw Manuel walking toward me to greet me. I remember my first thought was “man, this guy is really, freakin’ thin!” That’s only because whenever I saw him on the street skating, he was typically shirtless and looked HUGE! Todo cuadrado y mamado and shit. So to me, the up-front and close version of Manuel Cortez was a huge contrast. But, anyway, as he walked me toward his garage, I was also surprised that he had a very soothing and calm voice. There was no aggression coming from his gullet. He gave me a sense that all of what he was saying was true and clothed with the most honest and sincere intent. That’s his vibe. There’s no ploy or pre-determined persona to uphold or some kind of front. Right off the bat: a really swell guy.
When we arrived at the threshold of his garage, I was able to make out the sound of classical music coming from a radio stashed out in one of the corners. There were a lot of wooden figures and unfinished projects hanging and sitting here and there. There were a few tables that had tools strewn all over them along with little figurines, ceramic pieces, and pictures of what I assumed were family and friends. It was a dimly lit workspace floating with a hint of incense. It was a space that reminded me of what it felt like to be completely immersed in something that I really love to do. To be surrounded by it. And after gazing around the entire spot, I came back to look at Manuel and could tell that was exactly where he was. He is dedicated to his art and believes in his art. He makes just about anything that he can from various types of materials. To this day some of his most impressive works are figurines that he made out of coconut shells, epoxy paste, and acrylic, amongst other things. And he calls them “monks.” According to Manuel, his inspiration for these pieces comes from video games, although he isn’t an avid gamer. One of his favorite games is this one called “Dead Space.”
Aside from making really cool animal shaped ceramic pipes and mugs, he also makes carrying cases and purses out of gourds and coconuts. Gourds are a type of fruit that kind of resemble pumpkins or squash. He makes jewelry boxes, and small animal habitats out of gourds as well. Manuel also once helped design a weapon for the film “The Man With No Eyes” (2001). It was a weapon that was able to slit the throat of three men at once. What Manuel can make with his hands is very impressive and he started at a very young age.
Manuel was born in Orange, California and began learning about art at the age of 5 from his grandfather. “I started to understand that, what you share with people, with children, and the way you share it with them, your approach, [that’s] what you’re going to get back,” said Cortez.
He started teaching art classes at a Boys and Girls Club as a volunteer in the mid-90’s. After the Boys and Girls Club terminated the art program, he began volunteering as an art teacher at different schools—K-12.
Again, Santanero originally wanted to speak to Manuel because of the unusual way he uses his skateboard. And like I mentioned, what’s so unique and unusual about his style is that he skates using his arms. This would obviously wear and tear on anyone’s hands, so Manuel wears protective gloves that he crafted himself after getting a piece of glass stuck deep inside one of his hands. The gloves are surprisingly light, but the cool thing about them is that they have flint strategically placed on them. He told me this becomes useful when he’s riding at night and drivers are being dicks; he can get them to back off by scraping his gloves against the ground and making sparks fly on the sidewalk.
His unique style of skating stems from a friendship he had with a guy named Mikey who (before tragically throwing himself in front of a train at the age of 21) was a skateboarder that Manuel really looked up to. “This guy was an amazing skateboarder,” remembered Manuel, “A skateboarder like I’ve never met. This guy was never afraid of anything. And that was his greatest weakness. He had no balance.”
In remembrance of his friend, Manuel says he’s grown his hair out for over 18 years.
Balance was a recurring theme throughout my conversation with Manuel. He practices and teaches Kundalini Yoga and Tai Chi from time to time. Manuel even incorporates yoga and martial arts in his skating, which explains how nimble and flexible he appears as he’s rolling down Bristol on his board. When he explains the reasons behind some of the things he does or says, he seemed to always be thinking of the repercussions it would have on the viewer of his actions, or a potential client for his art, or the person on the receiving end of his conversation. He’s consistently conscious of the impact he can potentially produce. That degree of self-discipline is probably the reason why he always seemed so calm or centered. Balanced…
When Manuel has the time, he’ll sometimes skate to Newport Beach on a planned out and routine path from Santa Ana, which takes about 2 ½ hours to complete. He explained his route to me, streets-and-all, and in total it’s about a 25-mile long trip.
“If I can go out there and skate up and down Bristol and make someone laugh on their way back from having a messed up day at work…that’s fantastic!”
Manuel has been a part of Santa Ana for 40 years now and he feels that the streets of Santa Ana have changed a lot. He remembers the time when the streets were riddled with gangs and even when the break-dancing scene broke out. “The streets have changed…more down on the larger streets, downtown, and [in] the art community,” Said Manuel. “I started seeing the change when I was about 17 years old. Here and there they would try to create a few art shows.”
I was very curious to know what keeps such a talented guy like himself in Santa Ana. He responded: “Because I know and respect the city that I live in. It’s a very exhilarating feeling when I go out there because it’s beyond emotion…it’s very powerful. It’s very spiritual. It amplifies me with happiness. It makes my eyes watery…it’s beyond being an adrenaline junkie. It’s because you know that what you’re doing is actually going to serve a purpose.”
If you’d like to see more current work from Manuel or learn more about him, visit his website ORGANIC TRANSFORMATIONS. You can usually find him selling his art and being the cool guy that he is during the Downtown Santa Ana Art Walk (every first Saturday of the month) in the Artists Village. Or you might see him whiz by your car as he makes his way down Bristol on one of his solo trips to the coast.