Rigoberto Gonzalez Alonso in Harlingen and Houston: Corridos Baroccos, Part II

Continued from Part I…

V. Reynosa, Narcolandia and sad, sad data

It’s important to point out that Rigoberto Gonzalez is not a Chicano artist, though he shares a lot of the same concerns, and is deeply interested in Chicano art and culture. But he’s a Mexican artist living (legally, understand) in the United States. He was born and raised in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, right across the border from McAllen.

“I’ve met artists from [Mexico City] and when I tell them I’m from Reynosa, they say ‘c’mon, that’s not Mexico — you’re from Texas.’ But when I was in New York and told people I went to school in the [Rio Grande] Valley, they said, ‘that’s not even America anymore, that’s Mexico.’”

The point, he says, is that the border is an entity unto itself, with both nations disavowing it.

His father is U.S.-born, and his parents now live in McAllen. Gonzalez grew up not only in Reynosa, but in San Juan on the U.S. side, and in the Midwest where his parents worked in seasonal agriculture. “They never pronounced my name right in school up there,” he remembers. But he considers Reynosa his true hometown.

“My extended family farmed and ranched in that area. When I was a kid, it seemed like a sleepy little town, the pace is just much slower than in the United States. Extended family, lots of family gatherings. I was restless and bored, I wanted to see the rest of the world, where I thought things were happening.”

But in the relatively short timespan between Gonzalez’s Reynosa childhood, and his return to his hometown after earning a BFA at UT Pan-American, and then an MFA from the New York Academy of Art, all hell had broken loose.

Los Angeles Times photographer Bryan Chan has said of the city, “Of all the drug cartel infested cities in Mexico that I’ve photographed for The Times

This is one of Chan’s photographs that accompanies the blog post:

Original caption: “Young men sit near the grave stone of a 22-year-old slain in drug-related violence”

 

It’s one of the hardest-hit Mexican cities, and that’s saying a lot. If you Google “Reynosa, Mexico,” five of the top ten hits have to do with its civic collapse under the boot heels of the cartels. It’s bad news, and maps.

Gonzalez says, “It was like trying to move back to Baghdad or some place.”

Norteamericanos have heard about the brutality of the cartels. We’ve read reports of cops and mayors of cities murdered, we’ve witnessed the occasional perp walk of a narco middleman. Mexico is at its most violent since the Revolution, roughly 100 years ago. Most Norteamericanos know woefully little about the Revolutionary period, the ascent of PRI, its descent, and the rise of violent crime post-NAFTA, and despite the Calderón administration’s declaration of war on the cartels.

“The same people are getting drawn into the cartel violence [as were] fighting in the Revolution, but now they’re disenfranchised, politically. And they’re losing their farms, and these young guys make terrible decisions”— here he shakes his head, wryly adding, “and I teach high school, so I know what I’m talking about.”

A news photograph tacked to Gonzalez’s studio wall.

America has yet to form any meaningful consensus.

Right-wing voices in politics and the media portray the war in Mexico as a particular threat to the U.S. via immigration, as the undocumented are vilified as the front line of guerrilla warfare. Arizona governor Jan Brewer made this infamous statement on CNN two years ago: “Well, we all know that the majority of the people that are coming to Arizona and trespassing are now becoming drug mules…They’re coming across our borders in huge numbers. The drug cartels have taken control of the immigration.”

Nevermind that a labor union representing nearly 20,000 border patrol agents has openly disputed this quasi-analysis. Nevermind that in the wake of nearly 50,000 people dead, the cartels aren’t controlling “the immigration,” but necessitating people to flee for their lives. Forget that the violent crime rates in American border cities — El Paso, McAllen and Nogales, Arizona — are actually less than the national average.

In February of this year, Manny Fernandez of The New York Times profiled a website called  ProtectYourTexasBorder.com, “a product of Texas state government, created and operated by the Department of Agriculture, as a way to publicize the assertions by farmers and others that violence from Mexico’s drug war has spilled over the border.”

Wait – the Department of Agriculture?

ProtectYourTexasBorder.com, it turns out, was run by Todd Staples, a South Texas farmer, the Texas Agriculture Commissioner, and come 2014, a contender for the Republican nomination for Lieutenant Governor. Fernandez reports that   “[ProtectYourTexasBorder] has a more political mission…to publicly challenge the Obama administration, which has called the belief that the border is overrun by violence from Mexican drug cartels ‘a widespread misperception.’”

Among the ProtectYourTexasBorder.com user comments Fernandez documents: “Killem all!!!! They are destroying or great country.”

I wish it were less clear who he or she means to kill all of.

Since The New York Times reported on the site, it  has been taken down.

Rick Perry, in November of last year, asserted thusly: “For the president of the United States to go to El Paso, Texas, and say that the border is safer than it’s ever been, either he has some of the poorest intel of a president in the history of this country or he was an abject liar to the American people … It is not safe on that border.”

And it’s not safe… not on the Mexican side.

In the same month that Perry railed against the border city, an independent research resource and public policy publisher,  CQ Press, named El Paso the number one safest city in the United States among cities with a population more than 500,000. These rankings are based on the FBI’s crime statistics, and the list is released annually. El Paso, population of 625,000, had just five homicides in 2010. That’s one murder per 125,00o people. Austin, with a population of about 300,000 more, had 38 homicides in 2010. That’s still not too bad, I guess, only one murder in every 21,000 people, only about 5.9 times El Paso’s average.

For perspective, Michigan State released a report in 2010 stating that Flint, Michigan had 44.8 homicides per 100,000 residents — “nearly four times the 2009 national average.” The population of Flint in 2010 was 102,434.  I’m totally rounding way up on this math word problem but stick with me, here. This means that among the roughly 100,000 people in Flint, approximately 45 have been killed. One out of every 2,000 people, which is horrible.

But Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican city across the border from El Paso, suffered 3,000+ homicides in the same year. Juarez’s estimated population is roughly 1.3 million people. One of every 433 residents in Juarez is murdered. Juarez’s murder rate is roughly five times the murder rate in one of America’s most violent cities, ever.

A disquieting factoid: one in 400 Americans dies of heart disease each year.

Still more disquieting: Thus, your chance of being murdered while living in Ciudad Juarez is only slightly higher than your risk of incurring fatal heart disease in the U.S., which is the leading cause of death here.

According to the Harvard Political Review, General Barry McCaffrey, The Toronto Star and other sources, Juarez is more dangerous than Baghdad. And according to Jesús Cantú, a political scientist at the Technological Institute of Monterrey, Reynosa’s now worse than Juarez.

I know this is a lot of scattered data, but I’m just trying to make sense of the scale of violence. I’m processing it for myself, aloud.

It is monstrous.

For excellent reportage of the war, I highly recommend The Washington Post‘s year-long journalistic series, Mexico At War.

For a dense and fascinating examination of the war’s slippery inner workings, read “A narco’s case against the US,”  South Texas-born journalist Michelle García’s account of the bizarre Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla legal case, and the disastrous fallout from Operation Fast and Furious. The upshot: the majority of the guns used to murder over 40,000 Mexican citizens came from the U.S., sometimes even courtesy of the U.S. government. This isn’t my opinion. This isn’t painter Rigoberto Gonzalez Alonso’s opinion or Michelle García’s opinion. These findings come from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

For a dense and fascinating artistic examination of a country in crisis, keep an eye on Rigoberto Gonzalez.

As to his own losses from the war, he tells me about a cousin whose husband was killed in the fighting. The family couldn’t have an open casket at the Rosary. His cousin’s husband had been decapitated.

With that in mind, here’s a quintet of “still lifes.”

"Para Que Aprendan A Respetar 4 (So That They Learn to be Respectful)" Oil on linen, 20" x 20"

 

“Para Que Aprendan A Respetar 3 (So That They Learn to be Respectful)” Oil on linen, 20″ x 18″

 

“Para Que Aprendan A Respetar 4 (So That They Learn to be Respectful)” Oil on linen, 20″ x 18″

 

“Concha (Mexican pastry)” Oil, 14″ x 12″

 

“Cabrito Degollado (Goat Head)” Oil on linen, 16″ x 12″

 

Alright, so maybe Gonzalez didn’t intend “Concha” and “Cabrito” to be  companion pieces to the “Para Que Aprendan A Respetar” series, but it’s the same scale, more or less. There’s objectification going on, too, objects that are served up to assuage some demand – for revenge, dessert, carnivorous desire. And though I’ve seen and eaten many a concha in my life, this is the first time I was reminded of a disembodied brain. As for the cabrito, it may reflect an observation Gonzalez made about Mexican culture.

“My students, when they find out I’m from Mexico, have asked me if I’ve ever slaughtered a pig. That’s what they think goes on over there. And it does. I’ve never held the knife, but I remember seeing my father, my father’s brothers, kill and butcher a pig, a few times. For big celebrations. And, you know, over here [in the U.S.], the meat is packaged, you don’t see the process. All of that stuff is kept hidden. But it’s brutal, and it’s killing, and it’s commonplace. In my work, I address violence. Thinking of the pigs, and other animals I’ve seen killed for food, I’ve wondered if that makes people less sensitive to violence in Mexico. I don’t know, but I do wonder about it.”

The beheadings of the cartel wars have become the global emblem of Mexican lawlessness. The cartels have a mania for decapitation; it’s a surefire route to terrorizing an entire population. It’s also not an infrequent subject of the Baroque period.

“But I think what so many Americans have no understanding of, especially outside the Southwest, is that the social forces that caused the Revolution are still in effect. PRI managed to capitalize on the Revolution, but now, just like then with Villa and Zapata, [a root cause of the unrest] is the unfair distribution of wealth, the social systems and classes that are in place.”

He adds, “that social system, I’ve seen it in the U.S., too.” He recounts a story of an upper-middle class head of a local arts institution reprimanding the working-class and far more indio workers to get out of sight when visitors came. The administrator “didn’t want people to see them. This is a nice person. This was completely unconscious, and [this person] is very well-meaning. But this system is so entrenched.”

Ever mindful of gender dynamics, I ask him about the effect of machismo on his work.

“I’m a guy,” he chuckles. “And probably there’s more machismo in my work than I think.”

He mentions having visited a shooting range with Adina and some friends back in New Mexico, where the couple lived for two years as part of the Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program. He got to shoot a number of firearms, including an AR-15 assault rifle.

“I admit it, it was fun. To hold that gun in your hands…the kickback impacting your body, the noise is amazingly loud…”

He mimes holding the rifle. “That’s power.”

He laughs.

“That’s some machismo in effect. I enjoy painting guns,” he decides.

Then I ask him, are the paintings gratuitous? Is there something titillating there, in the graphic violence?

“I try to make these images attractive. They’re violent scenes, but I put a lot of planning into harmonious composition and color. I’m not Jackson Pollock, just flinging paint… I’m not an action painter. I build a painting over time to have aesthetic value, I stage these tableaux almost like theater. I don’t think I’m being exploitative.”

He pauses.

“Maybe I am being gratuitous. Maybe that’s in there. Maybe there’s some bit of pleasure in the work that I shouldn’t be having.”

VI. La familia Gonzalez
We’d been talking for three hours and a little more. Gonzalez called his wife, Adina Zamora Gonzalez, and suggested we head over to his house and regroup, and eat. I follow him to a comfortable, solid brick home built by and added to by Adina’s dad. It’s the house she grew up in.

Where Rigoberto is soft-spoken and reserved, Adina is gregarious, convivial and doesn’t stand on ceremony. She’s made homemade chili con carne from a recipe on the Pioneer Woman blog. She laughs about her “mom look” — yoga pants, no makeup, hair in a ponytail. She’s lovely.

Here she is in one of Gonzalez’s paintings.

“La Llorona,” Oil on linen, 6′ x 5′. The models are Alina Gonzalez, and the Gonzalez’s two nieces

 

Like Rigoberto, she teaches high school art — they are, in fact, the high school art department, a source of endless fascination for their students. Adina regales me with stories. How the boys instruct her husband to hold her hand, so that men will know she’s taken. How the girls in her class were stunned when she showed up one day coiffed and wearing makeup, and now beg to do her hair.

“I think they feel sorry for me!” she says.

She’s concerned about the education these kids are getting, about their future options, the myriad ways they self-sabotage or fall victim to bad relationships, drugs, or teenage pregnancy. She tells me about one student, a sweet girl whose sister had also been one of Adina’s students, who told Adina on her first day of school, “Miss, I’m not very smart but I’ll do my best.”

“Don’t say that about yourself!” Adina told her. “Can you imagine what’s been said to this girl all her life, that she would say this?”

She sighs, and tells me that this kid now has two babies of her own, and that a family member had remarked, “at least they’re both from the same dad.”

Adina Zamora Gonzalez describes her upbringing as “very sheltered.” Her dad was strict and traditional, and she wasn’t a kid who acted out or partied. She went to college in San Antonio for a few semesters, at the University of the Incarnate Word, and nannied for the obnoxious children of an Alamo Heights family, who splashed her with bathwater and once locked her out of the house. She loved San Antonio, though, the big city feeling, the nightlife, the social scene. We chat about museums, neighborhoods, gossip about San Antonio and  her college girlfriends and what they’re up to now.

She went from San Antonio to San Francisco, where she studied at the Fashion Institute. She laughs that she can hardly believe being that fashion-conscious and design-obsessed, as she chases 18-month-old Emiliano around, trying to coax the wily child to eat.

Emiliano Gonzalez is an adorable, highly active, very curious and disarmingly smiley toddler. And like all toddlers, he can’t be left alone for a moment. There are more toys than works of art in their big, open living room.

Emiliano Gonzalez territory

 

I have a brother and a sister with small children, and I come from a big extended family. I’m comfortable with toddler ruckus. I trade stories with her of pregnancy dramas ( in my case, my sister’s, sister-in law’s, and mom’s) and kid antics, as Emiliano gallops around the room, playing with one thing then another. When the adults sit to eat chili (which is excellent), Adina dashes from the table to make the baby some little concha-shaped pasta. Then she dashes away in the other direction to prevent Emiliano, who is laughing, from escaping the house altogether, ordering Rigoberto to find the pasta.

He has no idea where it is.

Both of them, at different moments, grin at me.

“He never knows where anything is in the kitchen!”

He shrugs. “I don’t. I have no idea.”

She remembers that the pasta is in her purse.

A little later, as we’re relaxing in the living room with PBS Kids on the TV and Emiliano beginning to wind down, Adina tells me that by eating whole foods and becoming more conscientious in her diet and intake of vitamin supplements, she managed to cure herself of a thyroid tumor. She catches Rigoberto sighing.

She scoffs at him, and tells me that her husband thinks that all her careful shopping, juicing and homeopathy are just a trend.

Getting up from the sofa to go into the kitchen, he insists, “It’s a fad.”

She calls to him, “well, why did my tumor disappear, then?”

We hear him say, unseen and offstage, in a voice that suggests this is an ongoing back-and-forth, “I don’t know.”

Adina turns to me, chuckling. “See? He never has an answer for that.”

VII. Harlingen, Texas, Saturday Night

Where the hell is everybody?

Adina snuggles with Emiliano, gives him a  bottle of chamomile tea, and settles in to watch a movie. Her husband and I drive into downtown Harlingen and park the car. We wander around. Downtown Harlingen on a Saturday night is so quiet, it’s like a film set of an attractive little town. I keep half-expecting a period musical number to bust out, a marching band to turn the corner, or somebody to pop out of one of the lovely Victorian storefronts. I mentally prepare an attack by the undead (damn you, World War Z audiobook!). I also keep asking Gonzalez where everybody is.

He doesn’t know. He actually hasn’t been in Harlingen long; he moved back after Emiliano was born, Adina returned sooner and stayed with her parents in the interim. He didn’t grow up in this town, there’s not a gang of artists he hangs out with, he doesn’t frequent bars. He knows that a guy from San Antonio has bought up a ton of property, solid limestone and brick vintage buildings, uniformly topped with rows of little lights. It’s pretty.

The contrast with McAllen, where I’ve already spent some time, is shocking. McAllen is rowdy, rambunctious and noisy. There’s traffic, the restaurants and bars are bustling, there are young people cruising along Tenth Avenue. On the whole stretch of downtown Harlingen’s main streets, there are no people, but there are rows of parked trucks — large, very expensive pickups. There’s a quinceañera going on in an old restored theater; people are wandering in in evening wear, and I spot the quinceañera girl in her formal, waiting for the party to start. She appears to have chosen a purple color theme.

Here’s a storefront oddity, a display of model trains. There’s apparently an enthusiast’s club that meets in here.

 Is this weird, or is it me?

Gonzalez mentions that Harlingen, in some ways, feels like a deeply southern town. That there are restaurants that display the Confederate flag, where he half-expects to hear “we don’t serve your kind.”

I was standing in the middle of the street. I did have to eventually make way for one lone truck.

 

We stop in at a bar and restaurant called La Calesa, which is very nice. Well-dressed people, mostly but not all Anglo, are mid-fine dining. We sit at the bar and have a beer. It’s about 8 p.m. We talk about social life. Gonzalez isn’t part of any particular artist’s community, and frankly doesn’t feel the need for one. There’s a collective of artists in McAllen, but he doesn’t hang out with them much. They’re cool people, he adds, all very nice. But he’s got close friends, a complicated interior life fueled by extensive reading and the emotional center of being a husband and father. He juggles all this with a tough teaching job and a strenuous studio practice. He’s 38. He’s keenly interested in showing more widely, generating and participating in discussion. We talk about how self-promotion is irritating, but that if you feel you’re promoting la causa, you can push beyond yourself to communicate it to the world. I felt it when I raised money for the Chupacabrona Tour — I still feel it — and “Baroque on the Border,” the title for his collected works, has to find an audience. He’s got a message, not just an ego. Me too, I guess, or at least some motivation arising from the delicate space where ego and conscience meet.

A corner

A portrait of the artist in an Edward Hopper manqué

After we head back to the house, I tell Gonzalez that Jennie Ash and I had discussed making a short video in Spanish, as she wants the panel to be bilingual. (This film went by the wayside, actually, but I’m jumping ahead.) Gonzalez is not thrilled about being filmed. We decide I’ll audio-record the interview with him in Spanish, and have it as audio background to some of his work. So we sit down at the kitchen table to record a couple minutes of audio, and wind up talking for another hour and a half.

We discuss the role of the natural world in his paintings, the topic of narcocorridos commissioned by various cartels and the parallels with American gangster rap; and the history of the corrido always having been stories of violence. He talks about his paintings as corridos. We discuss in particular his painting of two musicians:

“Conjunto del Bravo” Oil on linen, 8′ x 7′

 

He explains the role of birds, which make appearances in several of his paintings. The garza (heron) in “La Llorona” provides something delicate and elegant amidst the sadness and turmoil of that story. Of the two musicians, who are actual people, one is called “The Mockingbird,” because he’s an accurate mimic. The two men work with their hands during the week, doing tough mechanical work, and relish the time they spend using their hands for something more delicate, making music. They turn into performers. It’s a transformation of grace and joy in a hard country, in a hard life.

Suddenly I’m exhausted. I can’t remember the Spanish for “mockingbird.” I go to sleep in a comfy guest room, and sleep an hour and a half past my 9 a.m. alarm. When I wake up, I have a cup of coffee with the Gonzalez family, tickle Emiliano, say goodbye and drive away completely bewildered and enchanted, and sad.

I think, “How am I going to write about this?”

VIII. Baroque on the Border in Houston: Empanelled

This is an installation view of “Baroque on the Border” in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The layout at the Art League of Houston is slightly different, but it gives you an idea.

"Baroque on the Border" installation view in Las Cruces, NM

I had meant to get to Houston several days before I did. The “Baroque on the Border” exhibition opening was on March 9, with an artist’s talk and a reception. I’d talked and e-mailed with the redoubtable Jennie Ash about making the scene, which might be tricky because that Saturday was meant to be Luminaria, San Antonio’s annual one-night arts festival. But it was cancelled due to bad weather, as it turned out.

And even if it hadn’t been cancelled, I’d come down with some mystery ailment. By Thursday the 8th, I spent the night in the emergency room with a high fever, chills, nausea and shocking pain, from my spine to the tips of my fingers. I’ve got a blood clotting disorder, so things like this a. happen and b. necessitate me to head for the ER, in case I turn into the Elephant Man, or something like that. Once there, they gave me morphine, ran a battery of tests and found an elevated white count, but no bacteria. It was, best as anybody could tell, a viral infection. I was sent home with painkillers, and spent the next three days in a state of irritable semi-consciousness. I didn’t put the film together.

But! I then made it to the Art League of Houston, in its new building on Montrose, on the afternoon of the panel discussion I was to moderate — a couple of hours early, even. One of the panelists had suffered a loss in her family, so the panel was to consist of Delilah Montoya, a photographer, installation artist, poet and professor at The University of Houston, Rigoberto Gonzalez, and me.

This was an exhibition with a whole lot of moving parts, and Jennie Ash is a force to be reckoned with. She’d managed to raise funds to ship Gonzalez’s work from Las Cruces, New Mexico where it’s being stored, to Houston. She oversaw installation of the show, and installation of the artist in a unit of her apartment complex. She orchestrated not one, but two panel discussions as well as an artist talk, reception and a painting demonstration by Rigoberto Gonzalez. She got him on-air at the local NPR affiliate, somehow found an honorarium for me and promoted the show’s events, of which the Monday panel was to be the last. She’s British, 28, a Londoner who accepted a job in Texas after studying at City and Guilds of London Art School. She’s married a Texan, who is also a fireman. Ash is her married name. This is more hilarious to me than it should be. I tried to keep out of her way as she finalized about 300 details, then set off to collect Rigoberto from her apartment complex.

Left alone, I examined the works minutely. There was nothing I hadn’t seen in digital form, but I had only viewed “Se Los Cargo a la Chingada” in person, almost a year ago. The varnishes, brushwork, handling of light and wealth of detail is serious, absorbing business. The vigorous physicality, the unflinching gaze. There’s always at least one character (in the group compositions) who is looking right at you. In person, it’s chilling.

If you are anywhere near Houston, or could be anywhere near Houston between now and April 27, please go see “Baroque on the Border”. Large, densely worked, elegantly finessed Baroque-scale paintings just don’t reproduce well. The depth of color, the chiaroscuro and the commanding scale are for the eye, not the camera. I’ve done about everything I can to describe and contextualize and question this work in this feature, but you have to see it for yourself. It’s not art talking about art; it’s art talking to you, and it’s immediate and beautiful and terrifying.

The panel. Delilah, me and Rigoberto. This was just so much damn fun.

I am not good at estimating crowds. There were …20? 40? guests. More importantly, the audience was wide awake, alert and aggressive, just how I like ‘em. Delilah started off the show with an art historical slide presentation profiling several prominent Chicano artists, from the venerable Luis Jimenez

"Mustang," a 32-foot tall, 9,000-lb. cast fiberglass sculpture at Denver International Airport

…to the thirty-something San Antonian, Vincent Valdez.

Vincent Valdez stands in front of his piece "Death of the Prizefighter" outside of the Family Dollar store next to the Guadalupe Gallery. ANDREW BUCKLEY / EXPRESS-NEWS

We were seated in front of this enormous, tri-paneled mural on canvas…

"El Día 17 de Febrero del 2009 en Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico (On the 17th of February of 2009 in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico) (2010)" Oil on linen, 9' 8" x 20'

…about which the audience had a lot of interesting questions. After Delilah Montoya’s presentation, the panel discussion became a generally relaxed and open conversation, and the audience was very smart, sophisticated,  inquisitive and not shy. I’m continually reminded of how much I dig Houstonians. They’re big-city, but laid back. Diverse, involved and friendly. Except when y’all are driving, at which time you turn into wild-eyed hell beasts. Slow your roll, Houston. Slow your roll.

A woman who recently arrived in Houston was confounded by the musicians at the right of the frame. Why would musicians be present at a crime scene? How did they relate to the kneeling woman in blue towards the middle of the composition, in such acute sorrow over a dead loved one, and to the cops?

Gonzalez explained that “EL Día 17″ is a theatrical amalgamation, a staged tableau representing as many elements of contemporary border Mexican culture as he could combine (and contrast). This encompasses the narcoviolence and murders, as represented by the corpse and mourners. He emphasized that music plays an important role, not just in Mexican culture, but in particular within the current crisis. Corridos, he said, are a Mexican traditional song form and venue of storytelling, widely popularized during the Revolution. Nowadays, there are a growing cache of narcocorridos, which recount the battles, assassinations and losses of the cartel wars. These have been banned by some Mexican media outlets, but are followed closely by cartel leaders and gunmen, who commission songs from bands about their exploits. Pancho Villa, he noted, did much the same thing.

Another audience member asked about the outfits the cops are wearing. She asked, “are they police, or are they soldiers? Why do they have their faces covered?”

Gonzalez mentioned that in contemporary Mexico, it is often difficult to know the difference. There are uniformed private armies who work for the cartels; he encountered one in Tamaulipas a while back, driving around with a friend. They had logos on their trucks and everything. He tried not to make eye contact. As for the balaclavas, some people may work both sides, as a police officer and in supporting the cartels, and in so doing, or even in being an identifiable cop, risk would prompt him to mask his identity.

Delilah Montoya told of her Chicana identity; her family is from New Mexico, which, to a greater degree than in Texas, sees itself as specifically Spanish and not Mexican. Though, she observes, they came down the Chihuahua Trail. Still and all, her mother instructed her to say that she was Spanish, not Mexican. As a young girl, somebody asked her if she wanted a burrito, and the puzzled Delilah Montoya puzzled over why anybody would want a small donkey. Her Mexican American heritage was and is something of a reconquista for her, a reflection, again, of how entrenched and irrational the European-supremacist color-consciousness is.

A man asked if Rigoberto Gonzalez was fearful of the cartels, and what he thought they would make of these paintings. I’d wondered and had asked him the same thing. His answer was the same in both cases:

“They’re not looking at art.”

The audience laughed. Nervously.

Besides, he added, he’s not a journalist. He’s not identifying anybody. What he aims to do is to humanize this conflict. He pointed out a model he’s used in several paintings, a good-looking guy a little past middle age, who’d served jail time for his own violent role in the war. He’d been surprisingly candid with Gonzalez about what he’d done, the damage he did that had damaged him also. He was willing to participate, for reasons of his own. Expiation, maybe? Therapy?

Another of his models had helped her father, a coyote, when she was a child.

A woman about the age of my mother (mid-60s?) who identified herself as religious, and was clearly moved by the work, asked how it was possible to portray all sides of this war, and not seem to judge. She wanted to know if it was due to his faith.

Gonzalez answered that in Baroque art, light is contrasted with darkness, but that the light shining on any subject, whether they were doing evil or doing good, symbolized the gaze of the divine, for him as for the Baroque masters. He noted that it is “stage lighting,” that in a Baroque painting, there are usually multiple light sources, as in theatrical productions.

Then he added, “in this conflict, I see all these people as victims.”

The bystanders, the narcos, the corpses, the cops. They are victims, he said, of economic forces beyond their control. Market forces, corporate decisions, income inequality.

An architect asked with whom the fault lies; is it corporate budgets? Bottom lines in U.S. companies? The general forces of market capitalism?

Gonzalez nodded, listening.

“Is it the profit motive?” the architect offered. He wanted specifics.

By this time, we’d been talking for two and a half hours, and Jennie was beginning to point to her watch.

Gonzalez addressed the man’s multi-part question, saying that yes, he felt that the heedless quest for profit on the part of corporations, governments and individuals plays a significant role in the ongoing dilemma.

As the crowd began to break up, the woman who’d asked about the musicians mused aloud that profit and markets are “just the way things are.”

Gonzalez looked at her. She seemed a little surprised.

“But it doesn’t have to be that way,” he said. “If we just say there’s nothing we can do, nothing will change. I believe change is possible.”

IX. EPILOGUE

This is the final paragraph of Rigoberto Gonzalez Alonso’s artist statement.

In my paintings I appropriate and connect the depiction of violence by Caravaggist, Neapolitan painters with the portrayal of violence in corridos. A corrido is a Mexican folk ballad in the past singers would document events in their communities or the lives of heroes from the Mexican revolution but recently they have focused on the lives of drug smugglers. Essentially a corrido tells a story, it is a narrative. There is usually a violent theme to a corrido; However, I am not interested in a journalistic version of violence. Corridos like Caravaggist paintings are not prose but verse.

 

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For eight years in New York City, Sarah Fisch defended Texas as the home of muchos smartypantses, artists, thinkers and other people who aren’t, for example, Tom deLay. New Yorkers remained skeptical. After she graduated from The New School, Fisch migrated back to San Antonio in ’08. She has worked as the arts editor at San Antonio’s altweekly The San Antonio Current and the arts and culture staff writer at Plaza de Armas. Furthermore, Sarah Fisch (whose last name is pronounced “fish”) is the 2010 San Antonio Artist Foundation Grant winner for Literary Arts for a forthcoming book of SATX-based short fiction, and was a national Endowment for the Arts / USC Annenberg / Getty Arts Journalism Program Fellow. She’s a children’s book writer, a stand-up comic and also a sound artist, which are conveniently broad categories.

also by Sarah Fisch

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6 responses to “Rigoberto Gonzalez Alonso in Harlingen and Houston: Corridos Baroccos, Part II”

  1. Great finale Sarah! Only you forgot to mention that eleven of his paintings may be seen at TBH Center in Houston as a satellite exhibit of the the Art League Houston exhibition of Large-scale artworks.

    Gallery hours are 10pm-8pm M-F. Free.
    Address 333 S. Jensen Drive 77003
    http://www.tbhcenter.org/

    Thanks!

  2. Thanks, Angel!

  3. To quote Jesus de la Rosa about the story Sarah “Se saco la daga!!”

  4. Fascinating and inspiring.

  5. Jajajaja—thanks Rigo!

  6. Terrific article. As I missed the talk with the artist, I wanted to know more about him and what drew him to this work.
    Thanks.

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