El Paso, Texas: The City of Murals
by Jessica Powers with photos by Jessica Powers and Cynthia Weber Farah
Every city has murals of some sort. But El Paso has so many murals painted by mostly Hispanic artists—over a hundred documented—that it could market itself as the “City of Mexican-American Murals.”
It’s unlikely to do this in the near future, however, because murals are controversial. First, this has to do with their fundamental nature—murals are outdoors. They are public art. Everybody can appreciate them and, likewise, nobody can ignore them the way they could if murals were confined indoors in a museum or art gallery.
“I have run into people who say murals are another form of graffiti,” says Cynthia Farah, a photographer who collaborated with Miguel Juárez on the bilingual book, Colors on Desert Walls: The Murals of El Paso. “It’s just like the person who sees Picasso and says, ‘Well, my kid can do that!’ It’s a reflection of a lack of knowledge and appreciation of any art form. It’s the same with hip-hop music. We don’t all appreciate the same kind of music, art, movies—you can’t expect everybody to appreciate them for what they are.”
“Outdoor, public art has a tendency to change the environment in a way that’s not natural,” says Luis Villegas, a muralist in his own right but also an outspoken critic of the art form. “Graffiti started as a protest—it’s a bad habit, protesting in that form. I would say that about most murals but there are some worthy murals. If it’s creative art, it belongs inside. If you want to do political art, be a politician.”
Bringing up the second reason Mexican-American murals tend to be controversial—their political nature—Villegas adds, “I’m not in favor of murals unless it’s indoors—because to me, it’s just another billboard. Murals are pushy, political. I’d rather see a fallen down adobe wall than a painting on it.”
Muralist Mago Orona Gándara believes that Hispanic murals are often a source of controversy, but she emphasizes that this is not always because their subject matter is political. One of her own murals, called Time and Sand and completed for El Paso Community College, was controversial because of its abstract nature, its lack of the human figure. Even though she had been paid to create it, she had to fight to have it mounted at the college. In an interview she gave for the book Colors on Desert Walls, she said, “Murals are always involved in political turmoil and in revolution and change, even the innocent ones. Muralism always becomes a contest between good and evil. I don’t know why. In my case, it’s very true. We’re like a spiritual force, out in the open; we scare people.”
The history of Mexican-American murals is steeped in politics and revolution and change, dating back to the Mexican Revolution when muralists under the direction of José Vasconcelos painted the “true” history of Mexico on the walls of the National Palace and other public buildings. This was a form of rebellion against the oppressive Porfirio Diaz dictatorship.
In El Paso, both business and the government sponsored the painting of murals in the 1930s as part of the WPA programs. These early community-based murals frequently featured historical themes. An excellent example of this is Tom Lea’s mural, Pass of the North, painted in 1937-1938 in the United States Courthouse. It features larger-than-life figures of groups of people who lived here in the past, such as conquistadors and priests. The inscription over the painting reads, “O Pass of the North—Now the old giants are gone—We little men live where heroes once walked the inviolate earth.”
Following the political murals of the Mexican Revolution, murals among Mexican-Americans became a popular art form in the 1970s during the Chicano Movement. Among other things, they were a public form of protest against Vietnam and a method of educating people outside the community about the culture and history of Mexican-Americans. In El Paso, the muralists “seized the spirit of the ‘Movimiento,’” writes Miguel Juarez, author of Colors on Desert Walls. Thus, the early 1970s saw an explosion of mural making across the city, which slowed down until the Junior League of El Paso decided to support muralists in a project called “Los Murales.” They found funding to restore murals that were being destroyed by the sun and rain and encouraged the city to commission new murals. Their efforts in the late 1980s and early 1990s helped murals become accepted as a legitimate art form in El Paso.
“When Los Murales was here, there was a driving force supporting murals,” says Farah. “Without that administrative support, it’s every muralist for themselves—which is the way it always was, but when Los Murales existed, we saw a real renaissance. Just because you can’t put a frame around it and sell it, doesn’t mean they don’t have value. Most people think, ‘Oh, well, he’ll do it for free,’ or it’s an anti-graffiti thing, and that’s wrong. Muralists need to be paid for what they do.”
Juárez agrees. “Murals are still being painted in El Paso but at a slower rate than when the El Paso Junior League’s Los Murales was in existence. The Junior League made it possible for artists to be paid for the creation of their works.”
Though mural themes do not have to be political or historical, Mexican-American murals frequently reflect those sensibilities. “Murals incorporate images of people who’ve had impact on the community,” says Farah. “Murals in El Paso frequently show the historical figures of El Paso. They’re honoring founding fathers, people who have contributed to the city.” So, for example, El Paso’s murals often depict such famous figures as Pancho Villa, a revolutionary who had a profound impact on the shaping of El Paso’s sister city, Juárez, Mexico. A mural on the Border Highway is a tribute to El Paso artist and muralist Manuel G. Acosta, who was tragically killed in 1989. (One of his own murals, “We the People,” graces a wall at La Fe Clinic in Segundo Barrio.) Another mural that presents local themes is located at the David Carrasco Job Corps Center. It features David Carrasco, who founded the Job Corps center and profoundly influenced many young people in El Paso.
Carlos Callejo, one of El Paso’s most prolific muralists, painted Our History on the third floor of the El Paso County Courthouse. Impossible to photograph, the mural spans four walls, beginning on one end with El Paso’s earliest history when Native Americans roamed the land here thousands of years ago. It depicts the conquistadors, the missions where priests grew grapes and apricots for wine, the Salt War, the coming of the railroad, World War I and World War II. The first picture shows a young Native American painting a pictograph at Hueco Tanks, and the last picture shows a young girl viewing the pictograph in modern times. It is well worth a visit.
The history of mural-making in El Paso has another twist—El Paso’s muralists have often been involved in a form of “social work” with at-risk youth and teen gang members. During the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, the Chicano Pride, Thunderbird, Varrio India Viejo (VIV), Lopez Maravilla and other gangs not only approached artists to request murals, but they also participated in the creation of various murals. In 1982, for example, the Chicano Pride gang helped paint a mural depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe and another mural depicting the Aztec gods Iztaccihuatl and Popocateptl.
The Lopez Maravilla gang created a mural in 1982-83 of the Virgin of Guadalupe towering over a red brick wall. In the mural, scenes of gang life, the city, and three Chicanos hover just below the Virgin of Guadalupe. By 1988, the mural needed restoring, so members of the gang contacted the El Paso Gang Intervention office to obtain permission to restore it. The fact that gang members would contact the El Paso Gang Intervention office demonstrates that getting at-risk youth involved in mural making serves a dual purpose. Not only does it keep them busy, but, by getting teens actively involved in a community effort such as mural painting, they begin to see the community—and community property such as parks or recreation centers—as belonging to them. This may turn them away from violence and destructive behavior.
Above all else, murals are community property, no matter who owns the building where they were painted and no matter who participated in the painting. Defacing it or replacing it can cause a lot of anger. A few years ago, El Paso storeowner Greg Acuña decided to replace a 5-year old mural on his wall as part of a plan to create a cultural center devoted to indigenous cultures. His action created an uproar in the neighborhood. Though the mural he replaced was only five years old, residents had already adopted it and considered it to be their own. Miguel Juárez was troubled by the incident, and warned that Acuña would have to be careful when replacing the mural so as not to make the residents angry. “It comes down to the issue of respect,” he stated in an El Paso Times article dated June 5, 1996. “If he is not careful…it’s going to get covered with graffiti.”
El Paso’s most recent large-scale mural effort lies under the Spaghetti Bowl, the Interstate 10 and Interstate 54 interchange. A small park rests underneath the criss-cross of highways, and in the last few years, Carlos Callejos and other muralists have directed the painting of numerous murals on the concrete beams that support the freeway. There are so many beams to paint, the project can continue for years, as long as there is money to support it. Currently, there are over two dozen murals.
Says Cynthia Farah, “Murals are the ultimate in terms of public art.” Though El Paso does not currently exploit its murals for tourism, it is still possible for visitors to easily locate them because there are so many all across the city. El Paso’s murals can give tourists a sense of its history, culture and the politics that shaped it.
Important Resources on the Murals of El Paso
Colors on Desert Walls: The Murals of El Paso by Miguel Juárez and photographs by Cynthia Weber Farah. Texas Western Press, University of Texas at El Paso, 1997.
Jessica Powers, a writer and historian, works as an editor for Cinco Puntos Press and lives in El Paso, Texas.
First published in Tradicion Revista, Volume 8, No. 1, Spring 2003.
Copyright 2003. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission.