My Experience at Worldcon 76 As Part of the Mexicanx Initiative

by Dianita Cerón

Mexicanx Initiative participants gathering backstage before the Worldcon 76 opening ceremonies (Photo by Dianita Cerón)

Hi, I’m Diana Vargas Sampieri. My friends call me Dianita. I’m a fantasy artist from the city of Veracruz, Mexico, currently living in Texas.

Usually these words don’t make a difference when I say them out loud, but this time they did.

If in the middle of May 2018 you would’ve told me that I was going to apply for The Mexicanx Initiative created by two time Hugo Award winning illustrator, Mr. John Picacio, I would’ve laughed in your face. John Picacio is one of those names you only hear or read from other artists you follow because … well … he has this huge career you can only dream about, right? I’d been following John for a year or more on Twitter and I'd never actually made the connection that he was a Mexican-American artist before. 2018 was the first year in the history of Worldcons that an Artist Guest of Honor was Mexican-American or had Mexican heritage. John realized that the Sci-Fi and Fantasy community might not be aware that there are many Mexicanx artists and authors who work in this field, so he decided to create a group of Mexicanx and bring them to Worldcon 76 with the help of wonderful sponsors.

It wasn’t until Sara Felix posted about it a couple days before the deadline, when John specifically asked Mexicanas to apply, that I decided to give it a go.

I’m Mexican - My brain jumped right away to make this statement. I’m an Artist - Yes I am! I’m a Woman - Damn right!

Still, I was afraid to submit my application while my portfolio was going through some remodeling. I’d decided earlier in the year that my focus was going to be fantastical, uplifting art with lots of kitties, dragons, and women of all ages; women who are strong, kind, and respectful to their world. My portfolio was still a work in progress as I worked to create art that reflects these ideas.

At the time I emailed John I was also going through some health hiccups. I didn’t expect to speak to him on the phone the next day! I remember nervously walking around the house as I listened to him talking about his hopes for this Initiative and his excitement about the people who were already part of the roster. He checked my website and we talked about my art, the fact I didn’t go to art school, and that I wanted to create art about what I love, and what inspires me the most.

When he asked me where I saw myself in five to ten years, I told him I’m a big fan of Julie Bell; I wanted to be closer to a point where my art evoked the intensity and the avalanche of feelings I perceived in Julie Bell’s art. Yes, I’ve cried looking at her paintings and I’ll never be ashamed about it! The call was wonderful and he was very kind and gave me some advice, like not to be afraid to pursue personal projects, like his Loteria series. I could spend days listening to him talking about his Loteria pieces. When the call was coming to an end he told me he’d made the decision and wanted me to be part of the Mexicanx Initiative!

After the call ended I found myself crying and shaking. I immediately sent my husband a message to tell him the wonderful news. We didn’t know much about Worldcon, and Victor (my husband) helped me with everything regarding the trip - it would be the first time I traveled alone in the United States for something related to my work!

My art for Worldcon 76’s Art Show

Creating art for Worldcon 76 was my only focus for a month. As you may remember, I was in the middle of a shift in focus for my art and I felt the urgency to create something new for this show.

My wish is for my art to give a sense of hope that there’s still kindness in this world. I find my inspiration in the people close to me, especially my friends and a few family members. The plan for Worldcon 76 was to create portraits inspired by my closest friends, showing how they would fit into the world I’m creating, where there are humans and creatures of all kinds interacting and protecting each other.

My friends Araceli and Mildred kindly agreed to let me use a couple photographs I had of them as references and I started to work.

Artwork by Dianita for the Worldcon 76 Art Show

Day 1 at Worldcon 76

At WorldCon76, the first thing I noticed was that there were people of all ages. This was so wonderful because Sci-Fi and Fantasy is not meant to be just for little children or curious teenagers; finding other adults who were really engaged and passionate about this field made my heart race with excitement.

The staff at the entrance and badge pick-up area were incredibly kind. It was a fast process and I was able to go to deliver my art to the Art Show after maybe fifteen minutes from arriving (just imagine the lines I’ve experienced at other events!). After setting up my pieces in the Art Show, I went to find John Picacio to finally meet him in person. I found him at his booth already signing lots of prints and talking with fans of his work. I waited patiently because I don’t like to skip lines. He came out and gave me a hug. It was wonderful to meet him, and I was lucky because he was really busy the whole time.

Then I went to meet artists from the Initiative who were sharing a booth in the exhibitors hall. It was delightful to find that we all had different ideas, styles, and messages we wanted to give with our work.

I met Lauren Raye Snow with her empowering portraits of mysterious women and her beautiful Se Fuerte (Be strong) piece that she sells in order to contribute to organizations supporting immigrants at the borders. She was my Art Show buddy as we were in the same section.

Vania Soto with her artwork (Photo by Dianita Cerón)

I met Vania Soto, a beautiful, kind person and one of the most passionate artists I’ve ever met. Her works are inspired by Frida Kahlo, Mexican culture, First Nations, and beautiful bright colors.

There was also Emmanuel Valtierra, who I had met during Texas Latino Comic Con in July but until now we hadn’t had the chance to talk much. He was presenting his Codex Valtierra.

Author and Artist Mariana Palova created gorgeous surreal art but, this time, she was focused on promoting the English version of her book Nation of the Beasts.

Orlando Arocena, “Mexifunk”, creates spectacular vector art that has been used as posters for many studios and companies. He’s one of the most experienced people I’ve ever met and he has the funniest personality.

I got to meet Francis Vallejo and see him sketching in person, though I missed his workshop. He creates incredible art, full of life. I already knew about him thanks to Mia Araujo and her Artists of Color interviews.

Cody Jimenez sketching at the Mexicanx Initiative art booth during Worldcon 76 (Photo by Dianita Cerón)

Not part of the booth crew was Cody Jimenez, an incredible artist who I happened to catch sketching live, and he was awesome!

My dear friend Gonzalo Alvarez (Gonzzink) brought The Legend of Polloman to the people of Worldcon 76. His characters and his story mixing elements of Mexican pre-Columbian cultures with a twist makes it a delightful and educational read for people curious to learn more about our culture and who want to have a fun story to share with their children. With him was the sweet Grace Chadwick co-creator of Polloman and incredible surrealist artist, and although she was not part of the Mexicanx Initiative, she was part of our family for sure!

Last but not least, Tehani Farr, one of the strongest voices of Sci-Fi and Fantasy art in Mexico. I’d followed her work on Facebook for years. It took me a bit of time to say hi to her because I was actually starstruck!

The day went fast, we were able to get a glimpse of some of the Mexicanx Initiative authors while we were waiting backstage. They were extremely busy between attending and participating in panels the whole convention and we didn’t get to talk much. At some point you would’ve believed they were ghosts as they were there and then they weren’t. You blinked and you missed them!

Mexicanx Initiative Participants standing in solidarity as John Picacio reads Lauren Snow's manifesto at Worldcon 76's opening ceremonies (Copyright 2018 Richard Canfield)

The opening ceremonies were surreal. We walked on stage with John and stood there linking our arms and forming an X as John read Lauren Raye Snow’s powerful statement condemning the inhumane treatment and separation of immigrant families at the border. Before going on stage many of us were complete strangers, but as we stepped down we understood we were now a family given the task of representing our people, our values, our passion to the community attending an inclusive Worldcon 76 that was excited to have us and share their stories with us, and especially wanting to know us and our stories.

It was also at the opening ceremony that I met the amazing poet and artist Smok, and I think we didn’t stop talking until the day I left!

The evening was a rush, immediately after the opening ceremonies we walked together to the Fairmont Hotel a couple of blocks away. Please don’t laugh at me, but I was overwhelmed to be walking to a suite in a nice hotel to attend a small party thrown for a group I was part of. There we were received by very kind people that made us feel welcome. There were some announcements, including that we were invited to the famous Losers Party given by Mr. George R. R. Martin himself after the Hugo Ceremony. This came as a shock, because I was leaving on Sunday afternoon and wouldn’t be able to go!

Next, we got to meet fellow Mexicanx Initiative culinary artist Héctor González Hernández, who made a delicious feast based on Carnitas Michoacán style, with a terrific vegan option made with mushrooms, a wonderful arrangement of salsas for every taste, and the essential pot of black beans. I was one of the proud challengers that beat the Dracarys and the Tears in the Rain salsas! At some point I thought to mix them on my tacos because, why not? My other favorite was his Obi Wan Chipotle salsa, but he also created a blue salsa that it turned purple if you mixed it with lime juice!

A spoonful of blue melange salsa (the spice must flow) made by Héctor González (Photo by Héctor González)

In that small suite there was a big family that wasn’t focusing on anything but being together and meeting each other. I got to talk with some of our sponsors there and it was wonderful to listen to one wonderful guy saying that being in that room reminded him to where he grew up, that it was exactly as he remembered the Mexican community around him. I felt so proud!

That was an evening full of surprises. At some point I was talking to my husband on the phone in a quiet corner of the suite when I heard John asking us to pay attention. I approached the group and I saw a familiar bearded face, glasses, and a very specific outfit and hat that I recognized from somewhere…

“Amor, Mr. George R. R. Martin is about three meters from where I’m standing,” I managed to tell Victor on the phone. His response, of course, was to freak out.

“Please, think of him as a member of our family, because he is,” John said.

Surprises, I tell you, one after another!

Mexicanx Initiative participants and George R. R. Martin listen to John Picacio speaking at the Mexicanx Initiative Reception (Photo by Alberto Chimal)

I was hesitant to get close to him because I didn’t want to be disrespectful, but I was about to miss the big events on Sunday, so I felt this was my only chance to meet him. After asking around if it was ok to come close, I went and said hi. He was really sweet and had a soothing voice. I wanted to tell him how much I admired him for writing women who are strong and relatable because these examples gave me more faith that my own characters could someday inspire other women. Also that I felt so inspired by him and his sponsorship of a wolf sanctuary. Both subjects are close to my heart and my work is starting to reflect that. Of course, what I actually said was a less structured dialogue that I’m sure he has heard a million times and, as he was calling someone from his team, I thanked him for his time and ran away to hide my face somewhere else!

That evening was incredible in many ways. I got to hear other women from the Initiative share their concerns about the lack of support for Mexican creators in our country and made the commitment to support each other as women and creators. I also talked with a man who told me about the beautiful knitted clothes his wonderful and very artistic wife made for their children. This was amazing because I was going to wear a blouse my grandma Angela made for me for the Art Show reception next day. She used a crochet technique that is really difficult for her as she has arthritis but she loves to make clothes fur us and I feel so proud to wear them.

At some point the room emptied, so we assumed the day was over and it was time to leave. Apparently I missed the fact that there were parties all around and somehow I missed a reunion with the other artists and important people in the industry and I still don’t know how! Two days later I realized I also missed a party because I didn’t understand the business card I received, which actually showed the hotel room where the party was being held.

I tell you, I’m not one of those people who gets invited to this kinds of events! I had no idea what I was doing! 

That Night at My Hotel

I arrived at my hotel and got ready for bed. I sent a message to my husband (who was already asleep) and messaged one of my friends, Mario, who was one of the first people who supported my art by allowing me to show and sell my work at the convention he and our friend Juan created.

That was the moment when it hit me, the overwhelming realization that I was there and that this place and the experience were bigger than I had thought.

I started crying with a tremendous amount of mixed feelings. I was chosen to be part of this groundbreaking experience after more than fourteen years of trying. Even though my friends had supported me in every way they could, it had been a lonely trip, filled with confusion about what I should create, and trying to erase the limits created by my lack of knowledge of art fundamentals because I didn’t go to Art School (I’m actually an Engineer). I was called something that translates to “WIGM” (While I get Married) a few times because I gave art a try. A couple years after deciding to make art my full time job, undiagnosed thyroid issues slowed me down in every aspect of my life for almost seven years until I finally got diagnosed in 2015.

It hit me that I wasn’t able to share this news with my dear friend Lupita, who was called to Heaven in April. She was my rock, she knew me to perfection and never left me alone at any point even if we were far away. When I applied to Worldcon I was battling the heartbreak of having to wake up everyday to a world where we weren’t sharing our triumphs with each other. Now I was there having one of the most impressive experiences of my life and I wasn’t able to share it with her.

It hit me that this was the year when Papi (my dad) who was my #1 fan had forgotten who I was as he battled an unfair and cruel illness we can’t do anything about. My daddy, who once told me “Keep creating what you love, your audience will find it eventually,” and that he admired me and that I was an inspiration to him because I was working on something I love. Papi would never be able to know that I finally was in a place where I felt fully validated in my efforts and that I received wonderful words of support to keep working in this field.

It all hit me then.

That night I also wrote to my mom, who still lives in Mexico, and shared my excitement with her. She had a few terrible years and she was so happy to finally see me find these opportunities and have these doors open instead of being cornered and forced to start again. She had asked me to print a copy of the Mexicanx Initiative announcement for her to have at her office. She also made sure that I had Mexican embroidered blouses to wear at Worldcon that she had sent me as a birthday gift.

I was overwhelmed. But that night I also felt my heart released from this prison of a million doubts as I felt seen and validated as an artist starting in this field, that my effort, and the love I had for everything that inspired me, had a place in this world. 

Wait, But That Was Only Your First Day! What Happened Next?

John Picacio's Loteria game at Worldcon 76 (Photo by Smok)

John Picacio's Loteria game at Worldcon 76 (Photo by Smok)

Yes indeed! The next day the art show reception happened. At that point I wasn’t feeling I was doing Worldcon right and after receiving great ideas (thank you, Alberto Peña!) I made the decision to fully turn my attention to learn and to be helpful to others. I got to listen artist Lee Moyer and Mexicanx Initiative artist Tehani Farr and it was amazing, and then Mr. Moyer gave me some very much needed advice for my own art. Friday was a fun day. I even won a Loteria game! Well, two, but one was just a line and the other one consisted of completing a full Loteria board. It was a long day that ended up quite late after spending time with other members of the Initiative talking about our experiences and just having fun together.

Dianita Cerón and Greg Manchess (Sent by Dianita Cerón; photo by Anonymous with Dianita's camera)

Saturday was wonderful! Got to spend some more time talking with Orlando Arocena and he shared lots of amazing advice with me, which I hope to apply soon! I got to attend the panel The Artist/Author: A New Wave of Storytellers with John Picacio, Grace P. Fong, Greg Manchess, Robbie Trevino and Mariana Palova. It was wonderful listening to them talking about their experiences trying to create work independently. I particularly related to Mariana Palova’s experience as a creator in our country. The highlight of this day was meeting Artist Greg Manchess. He was incredibly nice! (and I have a picture with him!) After this panel we went to Art and Soul: The Worlds of John Picacio, where we heard more about his road to becoming the artist he is today and got a glimpse of his creative process. It was amazing.

That day I went to say hi to Naomi Van Doren to her booth, I knew her from an online community and her vlogs had helped me with my selling experiences at other conventions. There I also met Christine Rhee. Both wonderful women with art that makes your soul sing. That day I also talked to Joseph Kaukola, a fun, passionate author, about his books The Sword and Threshold. He was one of the most wonderful people I met at the convention. That night lots of artists and authors from the Initiative got together and I finally talked to a few of them, especially with Julia Rios and Gerardo Horacio Porcayo who also happens to love Boris Vallejo’s works! The night went on with lots of laughs, singing and walking around with our beautiful group. Of course our author friends disappeared again!

Mexicanx Initiative artists and authors chatting at The Continental in San Jose (Photo by Julia Rios)

Sunday was bittersweet because I was leaving that evening! I spent most of the day with my friends at the booth and when the time came to leave, it took me around an hour to hug everyone! I cried as I do when I have to say farewell to my family back at home. That day I was able to say hi and talk for a few minutes with John Picacio and his cousin Adria, and as I was leaving the convention center with Raquel Castro, Alberto Chimal, José Luis Zárate, Mr. Porcayo, Julia Rios, and Rick Canfield, I met Adrian Molina and blamed him for making me cry rivers with Coco! I missed the chance to say hi to Ana Ramirez! I’m sure I missed a lot of people from the Initiative but I’m really happy I got to talk a bit with Aaron Durán, Manuel González, Gabriela Damián, Andrea Chapela, Felecia Caton Garcia, Patty Garcia, Gary Villareal, Anna Meriano, and Sara Félix, I’m so glad I got to meet them, I can’t wait for the next time that we’re together! I’m also happy I got to meet many, many people who worked hard to make Worldcon 76 a safe and successful event.

Dianita Cerón, Adrian Molina, Rick Canfield, and Gonzalo Alvarez (Photo by Julia Rios)

Worldcon 76 is over, But The Dream Lives On

As I said farewell to everyone I met at Worldcon 76 I knew that even if this experience was coming to an end there was a new chapter in my life starting right there. I gave my last hug of the trip to my talented friend Smok, trying to hold back tears again because I needed to magically arrive to the airport after spending a lot of time hugging people. I realized this is not the end of an experience, it’s the start of something magical for me and my art!

Worldcon 76 was everything I expected it to be and much more. I missed almost every panel I was going to attend but, in exchange, I had a wonderful time with my dear new friends! I witnessed their excitement when people came close to them to ask about their projects, and congratulate them when they received incredible news.

My dad used to teach me: when you feel you aren’t doing anything go and help someone. My mom and friends have taught me that we should give our support and encouragement to everyone around us. This didn’t bring me a huge amount of work, possible sales, or anything business-wise, but Worldcon 76 and being part of the Mexicanx Initiative gave me something much more valuable than that; it was an experience where I found myself seen and validated by people in this industry, people who inspire me everyday to be myself and create my own work. After many years of trying and failing, the year I decided to focus on what I care about was the year when I received the opportunity of a lifetime. All the people I met left a big impression on my heart and they now inspire me to be a better person and artist every day.

Worldcon magic (as they call it) works in mysterious ways. I arrived in San Jose not knowing if I would ever earn a place in this field and I left on Sunday realizing I’ve already been part of it all my life! I’m now part of this incredible family of artists and authors who are passionate creators of works that deserve a place in events worldwide. I believe we all hope to inspire other Mexicanx creators all over the world to stay passionate about their projects no matter how hard it is to make people pay attention. Stay strong, be kind, keep learning, and never ever stop showing your work!

Smok, Dianita Cerón, Vania Soto, and Mariana Palova (Photo by Dianita Cerón)

A big big thank you to John Picacio who might never know how much he changed my life by having faith in me, to our sponsors who helped us attend Worldcon 76, and to my Mexicanx Initiative family for the inspiration and motivation to keep creating! To my husband who never lost faith in me and my family and friends in Mexico, the US, and the rest of the world for helping me be the person I am today and not allowing me to quit. Worldcon 76 was an unforgettable birthday celebration. Although my birthday was on August 14th and I spent it painting non-stop, it was followed by five days of wonderful and unforgettable experiences!

Now I’m Ready to Say It Again:

Hi, I’m Diana Vargas Sampieri. My friends call me Dianita. I’m a Fantasy artist from the city of Veracruz, Mexico, currently living in Texas.

I love to create artwork that inspires people to be strong, kind, and respectful to our world and the creatures that live in it. I used to believe my ideas and my art didn’t matter. Today I firmly believe what I love to create has a place in this world and I wish to bring beauty and hope to other people’s lives!

Pablo Defendini