The New Year, 2020, could be a big one for artist Joe Bravo.

He’s approaching a milestone birthday. He believes the interest in his signature artwork — tortilla paintings — is undergoing a resurgence. He’s hoping to do a mural in Highland Park.

“I’ve been looking forward to 2020 because I’ll be 70 years old (in July), and I feel I have a whole new life ahead of me,” Bravo said. “I don’t feel old; I have a few sore joints in my body but I feel ready to take on the world with the second part of my life.”

Then again, every new year now is a big one for Bravo as a cancer survivor.

On Jan. 1, Bravo —  a former Sylmar resident who now lives in Highland Park —  will join other survivors appearing on the City of Hope Hospital’s float that will motor a couple of hours through the streets of Pasadena during the 131st Tournament of Roses Parade. Fittingly the theme of this years parade is "The Power of Hope."

The fact that all of them can take part in the parade, and do most of it standing on their feet, is further proof of their recovery from their various illnesses.

Bravo is excited to represent the independent research and treatment center, which was founded in 1913 and now has 30 locations. Bravo also has a personal reason for wanting to participate. 

“I’m doing it to honor not only the cancer patients who are on the float, but also my friend (and San Fernando resident) Jess Barajas” who died on Nov. 18, Bravo said.

“We were college students at CSUN; he was one of the actors in the  Teatro Aztlan and I would play background music on the guitar. I hadn’t seen him for a long time, and then saw him a week before he passed. He looked so much alive it’s hard to believe he didn’t have that much longer. I want to honor his battle against cancer.”

Joining Bravo on the float will be San Fernando Valley resident Cierra Danielle Jackson of North Hollywood, 31, a fledgling actress and former beauty queen who was born with sickle cell anemia.

The disease is a genetic disorder that afflicts some 100,000 Americans, 80% of whom are African American like her. But Jackson, through a bone marrow transplant in 2015, no longer suffers through the debilitating pain or potential organ failure caused by the chronic disease. 

She, too, is expecting great things this year. Jackson has a couple of commercials scheduled to start airing shortly after Christmas and a movie overseas is in the works. She's writing a book about her journey and wants to create a nonprofit to support and counsel others with the disease. 

“We talk in that old cliche of now ‘seeing things clearly in 2020,’ but I really believe that. I’m gearing up to have that clarity this decade,” Jackson said, talking with the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol by phone.

“Getting this disease taken away after having lived with it most of my life…the question I’m often asked is how does it feel to be cured. I always say that I feel like I’m four years old. I’m relearning how to live life. I had sickle cell for more years than I’ve been free of it so it’s about rewiring my brain, relearning to not be afraid that I was dying every time I felt an ache or a pain.”

Also appearing on the float is Kaysen Camat-Toki, 14, of Las Vegas; Jeff Carpenter, 59, of South Pasadena; Ivan Garcia-Burgos, 27, of Mesa, Arizona; Stacy Kimmel, 51, of Pasadena; Annie Tighe, 18, of Durham, NC; Donna McNutt, 58, of Laguna Beach; and Leif Voeltz, 68, of Mount Shasta.

All have stories. And all have benefited from City of Hope’s world-class care and innovative treatments. The City of Hope not only treats cancers but other life-threatening diseases like diabetes.

This is the 48th year City of Hope has participated in the Rose Parade.

Always In The Hospital

Sickle cell anemia can create defective, sickle-shaped red blood cells that can clog up arteries and keep vital organs from receiving oxygen. Eventually the organs fail. For a long time those afflicted with sickle cell rarely lived past the age of 30.

Jackson first remembers having a high level of pain at the age of 6. “By the time I reached ninth grade I was always in the hospital,” she said.

Before bone marrow transplants (also called stem cell transplants) revolutionized treatment of the disease, most people tried to control their condition through blood transfusions and medications, often opioid painkillers or the chemotherapy drug hydroxyurea (a newer drug, L-Glutamine, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2017).

A matching donor must be found for a transplant. In the best scenario, both donor and patient carry the same 12 blood proteins. In Jackson’s case, a donor with a 99.9% match was found, and the transplant was performed at City of Hope.

Jackson is now considered “cured.” And she wants other people with the disease to know of the possibility of living a regular, pain-free life. 

“The people I’ve talked to always tell me ‘I didn’t know there’s a cure for that,’” she said. “Most people don’t know about the new and innovative things that are being done with gene therapy, etc. We’ve come a long way.

“When I’m standing on that float, it will hit me again that I beat this thing. I’d lived my life so afraid that I was going to die from this disease…but you can be healed — that there is hope. And hope is something that people really need.”

Surviving Tongue and Throat Cancer

Bravo was diagnosed with stage four squamous cell carcinoma, a cancer of the tongue and throat, a medical journey that began on New Year’s Eve in 2016 when he discovered a bump on his neck. He would spend practically all of 2017 undergoing cancer and radiation treatments, and, finally, surgery.

He is now cancer free.

“I’m feeling better,” Bravo said. “I still have my ups-and-downs but on the overall scale I’m about a ‘7.’”

At the same time, “I feel extremely lucky that I’m still here. And I feel chosen as a messenger to inform others of what I went through, to share it with others — that it’s not as bad as you might think. We’re all chosen for certain callings, and I think I was chosen to share this with other people.”

His full recovery enables Bravo to continue his passion for art that began as a youth growing up in the border town of Calexico, CA, where he would create figures out of mud and make his own toys. His family eventually moved to Wilmington, and at Banning High School he won several art awards.

While a student at Cal State University Northridge, Bravo stumbled into what became his signature style.

“Back in college, around 1970-71, I had an art project due, and didn’t have the money to go buy a canvas,” Bravo said. “So I was having breakfast, I looked at my tortilla, and wondered if I could paint on it. I painted about five tortillas, which are really brittle, made a hanging mobile and turned it in as my art project.”

From that “project” came a career, especially after Bravo got a food company to create 25 inch-sized tortillas that gave him a “canvas” for a broader depth to his work.

“When I started painting on them, that’s when people began seeing it as serious art, not ‘kitsch,’” he said. “I wasn’t trying to be cute. I was trying to use my art to reflect my history and my culture. It’s why I use a lot of Latino themes. But I also started doing other things.”

Bravo has also been a muralist, a teacher and an art director. Now he proudly adds “cancer survivor.”

Like Jackson, Bravo is eager to stand on the City of Hope float.

“I think it’s an affirmation of everything I went through the last few years. You’re thinking, ‘Am I going to be able to see my grandkids grow up’ and a lot of other stuff, and try not to panic. But this feels like the crowning piece of all my care,” Bravo said.

Bravo also spreads the message to friends and others about visiting a doctor or clinic if they suspect something may not be right.

“I’d say a lot of older Latino men don’t get themselves checked out. Every few years I go for a colonoscopy — they found fibroids and cut them out — and that lump on the neck, I didn’t feel any pain; I was even playing with it, trying to move it around. The bottom line is get yourself checked out if you have even a little blemish on your skin, or you’re feeling something about your body. Just go get checked out. Your family will thank you even if, at the time, you don’t appreciate the [potential] seriousness of it.”

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