El Paso is known
as a vibrant city on the
It is also a city of murals.
El Paso is
known as a vibrant
city on the U.S.-
It is also a
city of murals.
Some of these larger-than-life
works of public art tell stories of
El Paso’s rich bicultural
community. Some demand social
justice and political action.
Some of these
of public art tell
stories of El Paso’s
justice and political
Art Without Borders
Ms. Spechler is a writer who has lived in Mexico and Texas.
EL PASO — Victor Casas sits on an overturned crate on his front porch, his long hair in a ponytail, his expression both probing and faraway, as if he’s simultaneously planted here on Earth and searching around among the stars. His little black puppy, Kujo, celebrates my visit by running wind sprints. I am here in this city on the Texas-Mexico border to learn more about its mural art scene.
Mr. Casas, a local mural artist, goes by the name Mask. “Everything is migration,” he tells me, a perspective shaped by his upbringing between the sister cities of El Paso and Juárez on the other side of the Rio Grande. His mother lives in El Paso. When he was alive, his father resided in Juárez, making a living renting out inner tubes so that migrants could clandestinely cross. “Even my mind migrates back and forth,” Mask says.
I see what he means about his migrating mind: Our conversation drifts from his paintings inspired by television static to all the drinking he did while in the U.S. Army in South Korea to how American Border Patrol agents back in the 1980s were actually friendly and even bought burritos from the Juarenses (people from Juárez). He tells me that he joined the Army after the Sept. 11 attacks, did four tours in eight years, including three in Iraq (“It’s just like Juárez,” he says), had a rough time readjusting to civilian life and eventually found solace in painting.
He has become one of the city’s boldest muralists, known for works like “Caution: Children Crossing” which depicts youngsters on the border playing “ICE agent,” and “Chinche al Agua” (“Water Bug”), named for a childhood game he remembers. In that mural, barrio kids pile on one another’s backs, playing by the border wall that went up in 2019.
“A wall won’t keep them from
having fun. A wall won’t stop migration.
A wall won’t stop growth.”
“A wall won’t keep
them from having fun.
A wall won’t stop
migration. A wall won’t
As a muralist, Mask is immersed in migration as a theme, but migration is not so much a political issue in El Paso as it is the very fabric of the city. That may sound unlikely to those who know El Paso only from the news media: In the immigration discussions most of us are used to, “the border” is a political symbol, a problem. But to many of the 680,000 El Pasoans living at this key entry point for Mexican and Central American migrants, the border is an unconvincing symbol of disunity.
It’s not that “fronterizos” won’t abide by the border; it’s just that they’re not fooled by it. How can they be when their everyday lives prove its meaninglessness? As another local muralist, Christian Cardenas of the husband-and-wife muralist team Lxs Dos, who grew up in Juárez, explains it to me: “Economically you can see the disparity, but the two cities merge seamlessly. You cross from Juárez and you still hear Spanish. You still eat gorditas and tortas. It’s not just people flowing over the border. It’s the whole culture.”
If El Paso were an art supply, it would definitely be paint — rolled onto a tenement wall in the barrio, extending not just over the border but back in time, 100 years, to the streets of Guadalajara and Mexico City. In 1920, after more than 30 years of dictatorship and a decade of civil war, the Mexican Revolution finally gave way to a stable presidency. Though popular, Álvaro Obregón faced a grim task: uniting a nation splintered by allegiances and ravaged by the Spanish flu. Obregón’s public education ministry chose murals to be a grand unifier, a way to explain the country’s history to its public, and to make art free and accessible, rather than hoarded by wealthy collectors.
The ensuing Mexican muralism movement gave us some of the most important art of the 20th century, most notably from “the Three Greats”: Diego Rivera (otherwise known as Frida Kahlo’s husband), José Clemente Orozco (a master painter despite losing a hand to gangrene) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (who once dismissed easel painting as “aristocratic,” mentored Jackson Pollock in New York City and is said to have tried to murder Trotsky, but that’s another story for another time).
Things didn’t go exactly as planned: Obregón cozied up to the United States and was replaced, re-elected and assassinated before he could return to office. The artists went rogue, breaking ties with the government and using their murals to depict both history and current events as they saw them. Siqueiros and Rivera became radicalized, Siqueiros as a Stalinist, Rivera as a Trotskyist.
The Three Greats are also responsible for bringing muralism over the border, though that process was hardly a conflict-free bridging of cultures: In 1932, Siqueiros was commissioned to paint a large-scale public mural, “América Tropical,” on the wall of a touristy street in downtown Los Angeles. He worked under the cover of night to complete it, and the neighborhood awoke one morning to an 80-foot-by-18-foot mural featuring an Indigenous man crucified beneath an American eagle — not exactly the folksy “Mexican” art the city had envisioned. It was whitewashed partially within a year and fully within a decade. Rivera’s 1932 commission by Nelson Rockefeller met a similar fate. Rockefeller, infuriated that Rivera had worked Lenin’s image in to the scene, had the mural destroyed.
The boldness of those Mexican muralists, and the magnificence of their work, laid the groundwork for the Chicano mural movement that began in the 1960s in the Southwestern United States, when Mexican-American artists took to their city walls to paint their own struggles against racism and oppression. That century-old Mexican tradition of telling stories on public walls, which arguably goes back much further, to Aztec cave paintings, continues to thrive in El Paso.
Though the city is quite safe (or overpoliced, depending on whom you ask) and undeniably beautiful, with its palm trees and mountains and rich bicultural history, El Paso lives with an aching heart: Inextricably linked to their neighbors in Juárez, El Pasoans feel the violence of border detention facilities, ICE raids, the femicides, the narco wars, the subsequent bad press. In 2019, 23 people died, most of them Mexican or Mexican-American, after a mass shooting in a Walmart here. Officials said it was carried out by a 21-year-old man who had posted an anti-immigrant manifesto online claiming that the attack was a response to “the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Last fall, El Pasoans were hit with a terrifying Covid-19 spike, business shutdowns and overflowing hospitals and morgues. And the muralists are the city’s documentarians. “A mural has to be didactic,” says Francisco Delgado, an El Paso artist. “It has to speak to the community. A mural without social background is just a painting.”
Walking around the city, checking out the walls, is a master class in life on the border.
Christin Apodaca, another local muralist, wears her thick dark hair piled high on her head, Ray-Ban sunglasses and a black-and-white floral bandanna as a face mask. “I’m not listening to what’s going on in the world,” she says. It’s not a breezy, privileged dismissal, but the hard boundary of a serious artist on the Texas-Mexico border, refusing to let the news cycle distract her from creating. “I like to separate art and politics,” she says.
We’re standing in front of “Contigo” (“With You”), Ms. Apodaca’s black-and-white mural on a brick-red wall — a woman’s face in profile surrounded by prickly cactuses.
“The art world is so male-driven.
So I like to paint women, to make them
large and the main focus.”
“The art world
is so male-driven.
So I like to paint
women, to make
them large and
the main focus.”
She relays a story from 2014, when, after studying art at the University of New Mexico, she moved back to El Paso and tried to connect with other artists. When she told a painter from a local collective, “I love to paint. If you’d ever like to paint together, let me know,” he responded, “Sure, you can hold our brushes for us.”
“I have to walk 10 more steps to get as much credit or notice as a male painter,” Ms. Apodaca says. “I have to work so much harder.”
To be a woman in El Paso is to be vigilant not just of everyday sexism, but also of the plight of women on the border and across the river — mothers whose babies are wrenched from their arms or whose bodies are found in mass graves. The woman on the wall is untouchable, amid the sharp spines that shield cactuses from hungry animals. Her expression reads, Just try me.
“I was listening to ‘The Great Women Artists’ podcast before I came to meet you,” Ms. Apodaca says. “And this woman said: ‘I don’t care what you say about your art. Art is always political.’”
The most striking murals around El Paso fall into two categories: One is the overtly political, including the iconic “Sister Cities/Ciudades Hermanas” by Lxs Dos. The mural, reminiscent of Frida Kahlo’s “The Two Fridas,” features identical women, fused like conjoined twins, representing the sister cities and the plight of fronterizas, women on the border. “They are not smiling,” Ms. Cardenas says. “They are not pleasing anyone.” She recounts a day in Juárez when she was almost abducted on the street. She recounts a night there when she had to venture out to buy yeast (she paid her rent selling pizzas), so she tucked a knife up her sleeve for safety. “In Juárez, we know women are expendable,” she says. “Their bodies get tossed in the desert.”
“Ánimo Sin Fronteras” (“Courage Without Borders”) by Miles McGregor, better known as El Mac, is a portrait of a Mexican man named Melchor Flores, flexing his biceps to show his strength even though his son, El Mac says, was “disappeared” by the police. In “Para Nosotros” (“For Us”), created by Martin Zubia, who goes by the name Blaster, we see the founder of the settlements of El Paso and Juárez, dressed like a graffiti artist, standing beneath a whirring Border Patrol helicopter.
“When our history isn’t taught in
the education system, it’s up to the artists
to portray it to the public.”
“When our history
isn’t taught in the
it’s up to the
artists to portray it
to the public.”
The murals in the other category celebrate identity and community, and are thereby political, too: Perhaps the city’s most Instagrammable attraction, “I [heart] EP” is a tribute by Tino Ortega, owner of the Lincoln Gallery, to the Walmart shooting victims. Murals by Jesus Alvarado, known as Cimi, illustrate barrio life and include Catholic iconography and Aztec symbols. Cimi, one of the kings of El Paso muralism, gathers locals before painting on their walls, conducting focus groups to learn how to best represent the community. Sometimes he invites neighborhood kids to paint with him. Once he collaborated with an app developer to make his mural portraying El Paso’s musical history interactive.
About the conditions that preceded the Mexican muralism movement 100 years ago — a deadly pandemic, a divided country — it’s tempting to call on the cliché “history repeats itself” to employ the reflexive voice instead of the active, as if time is somehow the culprit. But what if we collectively accepted responsibility for the shadow side of humanity? And what if we repeated not just our messes, but also our most spectacular cleanups?
Part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to save America from the Great Depression, the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, allotted roughly $27 million to artists to make work, including approximately 2,500 murals, in the United States. Not only did the money stimulate the economy and feed the country’s starving artists; it also reminded a nation in the depths of despair that art is not a luxury — it’s lifeblood.
In the midst of a pandemic that has depleted America’s artists and art institutions, in the wake of a president whose art collection centered on imagery of his own face, in a nation that has been lied to and that is plagued by racist, xenophobic conspiracy theories — those least imaginative of fictions — we need a mode of connection beyond “reaching across the aisle.” We need art that shakes us and we need lots of it — not just in major cities, but also in rural America, in suburbs, on the brick walls of police precinct houses. We need art as commentary — not the safe, sterile kind — art to counteract deception, art that reminds us that even when things seem beyond fixing, they are not beyond describing. And we need diverse artists to execute it and a government that generously supports it. President Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which includes $470 million in arts funding, offers a glimpse of hope.
In “Siqueiros: Walls of Passion,” a PBS documentary about Siqueiros’s life, the filmmaker Jesús Treviño explains that time and weather slowly eroded the whitewash over “América Tropical,” Siqueiros’s mural in Los Angeles, his indictment of imperialism. By the 1960s, the image of the crucified Indigenous man began to emerge. It has since been fully restored. “This giant aparición [apparition] became a calling,” Judy Baca, a Chicana muralist, says in the documentary. “It began to say to us, ‘Paint the streets.’ This is the way we can tell our story.”
Photographs by Eli Durst and Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The New York Times.
Diana Spechler (@DianaSpechler) is a novelist and essayist living in Texas.