A new mural in Española
Our town needs to experience the process through which a community can create something real and alive over an extended period of time. This way, people can share in something positive, open-ended and exciting taking place in our midst. Best of all, it’s taking place through the simple agents of paint, drawing and patience.
– Alexandra Jackson Rakovsky
Nestled between two mountain ranges at the confluence of three rivers and the intersection of five highways, the Española Valley, ancestral homeland of the Tewa Indian people, the first Mexican-Spanish capital of New Mexico, and the bastion of contemporary Chicano culture, is undoubtedly the heart of northern New Mexico. And yet, the heart of northern New Mexico is without a heart. That is because Española, the American-style city that grew up in the strategic center of the valley, developed according to established linear patterns of a railroad town and commercial hot-spot in the late 1800s.
Because of its mercantile rather than social, cultural or spiritual focus, it did not build a plaza where people could gather and express their collective dreams and aspirations beyond the merely commercial. Concurrently, the formerly powerful and sometimes still vital plazas of Santa Cruz de la Cañada and the pueblos of Ohkay Owingeh and Santa Clara “receded into the past,” a common occurrence among minority communities in northern New Mexico, as observed by cultural anthropologist, Dr. Thomas Guthrie, author of Recognizing Heritage.
Throughout the 20th century, Española grew into a rather featureless place with innumerable parking lots and storefronts, like every other strip city across the country. There have been attempts at carrying out “heart transplants” by raising a few important-looking civic buildings. However, for the most part, the populace has barely taken notice or a liking to them. The most highly attended civic function in the valley seems to be parades of various sorts. This is significant because Española, almost more than other places in the state, has been shaped by the automobile culture. One need only note the popularity of the cruise, the lowrider and the number of drive-ups in this town of 30,000.
Having been born and raised in Santa Cruz on the eastern flanks of Española, I have always been interested in the city’s fate as the result of the momentous changes it has experienced in a relatively short period of time. Since participating in an art movement founded by socially conscious artist, Lily Yeh, who works to restore the wholeness of distressed or broken communities through large-scale community art projects, I have taken an even greater interest. The fact that Española has borne the brunt of a collision between its age-old agrarian societies and a range of modern forces that include a troubling epidemic of substance abuse and pervasive urban deterioration (not far from a line of spanking new national chain stores), makes it all the more worthy of study and concern.
Almost by happenstance, Yeh, a native of Taiwan, found herself applying her artistic abilities and sensibilities to the wounds at the heart of a blighted, economically depressed inner-city neighborhood in North Philadelphia that has much in common with Española. Over many years of working with the city’s poorest residents, she made some important discoveries. Among them was that many hands working together toward building a new reality, along with a generous application of brilliant pigment and nurturing images onto bleak urban surfaces, can transform a community’s brokenness into a world of kaleidoscopic beauty, energy, strength and hope.
In 1986, as an art and education student, I participated alongside Yeh in harnessing the latent energy of abandoned buildings, broken brick, and aimless, forgotten individuals. Together we built safe and attractive parks, playgrounds, gardens and other community-enhancing projects. Since then Yeh’s work has extended, not just to other East Coast cities, but also to war-torn places like Palestine and Rwanda. Her influence reached Española in 2015 when, with the support of the New Mexico Community Foundation and the Northern Río Grande National Heritage Area, three large murals were painted on the former Hunter Ford building.
One day in February 2016, I awakened with the desire to continue Yeh’s inspiring work in northern New Mexico. For some time I had been studying a long, highly visible privately owned building along Riverside Drive, one of the state’s busiest streets. I imagined it harboring an immense mural. Significantly, the street on which the building is located leads to an enclave of old homesteads which, not long ago, were agricultural. An acequia runs just a few feet away from the building. In 1992, when I served as coordinator of Siete del Norte’s Learn While Serve AmeriCorps program, the program adopted the same stretch of riverside for ecological and urban enhancement. Buildings were repainted, there was an attempt to establish pristine public spaces, and people from the community were engaged in dialogue.
Fortunately, the building’s owner consented to the mural idea I proposed—a representation of the traditional agrarian life that many people living in the area remember well. The paradigm of growing one’s own food, although perhaps a romantic and heartwarming vision from the recent past, may actually also serve as an apt projection for a viable future.
As the world’s population edges up to the nine billion mark by 2050, there will be many more mouths to feed. In light of this, I think that it would be foolish to squander the arable lands, acequia water systems, heirloom seeds and undying will of the gente to plant, that at one time made this valley a legendary breadbasket. It seems to me that it would be wise to avail ourselves of these invaluable resources now, before our regional food needs become critical and the last generation of traditional farmers is gone.
I quickly began working on a design that would be of compelling interest to the community—the huerta/milpa, or garden/cornfield. I drew images from my own cultivated fields that communicate the soundness, beauty and biological richness of farming life. There are multicultural New Mexican folk of all ages—cultivating, harvesting and shelling corn. The natural environment is represented by soils, land formations, rivers, trees, birds, a sunrise and sunset, celestial bodies, and especially, chlorophyll.
The protagonists of the mural’s narrative of self-sufficiency and sustainability use only traditional methods of hand-work and simple tools. Each is framed against lush, towering corn plants and distant azure mountains suffused in iridescent New Mexican light. They bear expressive looks and signs of robust health, such as we commonly used to enjoy while living the life of agriculturalists.
In early April I went to the site and sketched large figures together with hints of foliage along the more than 50 feet of wall, which I naively thought I would paint myself in my “spare time.” Luckily, when I began painting, fellow artist, Brayan Moreno joined me. We approached the task with great zeal but were soon overcome with fatigue as a result of the enormous exertion required, together with the merciless mid-summer sun. We met each day around 4 p.m. and worked until well past sundown. One particular evening we worked through drizzle until 9 p.m., when it was pitch dark, except under our traffic light.
After each workday, we stood shoulder-to-shoulder looking at the gradually unfolding mural, discussing the day’s achievements and the next day’s challenges. Together we became fearless warriors, fighting against the dragons of apathy and mediocrity.
After a month we succeeded in projecting a sense of the mural’s composition. Next to the racetrack that is Riverside Drive, there suddenly appeared a 15-foot high crimson red chile ristra. It effectively startles those who pass by. Perhaps like nothing else can, the ristra informs travelers that they have arrived at the heart of the historic Española Valley.
An enormous figure of an Indo-Hispano grandmother shelling blue corn was another of the first images to take form. She is crowned by a full moon, against which migrating cranes are silhouetted. Once manifested by the sure, steady hand of Moreno, the energy of nuestra Madre Tierra began to inform the rest of the composition.
To her left, clear-eyed grandchildren emerge from fields with arms full of green corn. Toward the east end, a large, multicultural family harvests in unison. Oversized, brilliantly colored cobs drop from the sky in two locations. Nearby the waters of the Río Grande cut through the landscape, delivering its precious liquid right up to the viewer’s feet. A large Pueblo pot and blue heron can be seen near a towering figure wielding a hoe. Their presence remind us that this land upon which we so brashly walk bears the deep imprint and soul of Pueblo peoples as well as of every species that dwells within its embrace. Beneath the snow-clad Truchas Peaks is a colossal figure of a young man who, in marked contrast to all the other figures, is painting the very mural in which the harvesting scene is unfolding. He is none other than Brayan Moreno, who, for two-and-half months, showed-up every day after school to paint with Arlene Jackson, Juan Lira and me.
The scene suggests that it is possible for humans to give form to their dreams and visions and become architects (or painters) of their own destinies. It is also a vision of our intimate ties to nature, regional productivity and harmony with one another.
Special thanks to Lore of the Land, which partially funded the project, as well as to the family of Tomás Vigil, which gifted us with a rainbow of acrylic paints. Thank you to the many people who stopped by, painted for a while or waved and honked as they sped by. And muchas gracias to the kind owners of the building for allowing us to work on its paredes, as well as to the many kind neighbors who accepted our working presence.
Alejandro López received his BFA degree at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. and a Masters in Art Education from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pa.