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Opinion | The Larger Than Life Art Murals of El Paso

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.

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