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Photo Essay

Richard Baron's El Paso
by Published on

Luis Villegas spent 20 years as a Navy musician. Primarily stationed in Washington, D.C., he twice traveled the world on aircraft carriers and whenever he was in port would visit museums and galleries. Returning to El Paso in 1978, he realized that there might not be sufficient demand for a trombonist, and began working at the Fort Bliss Replica Museum while enrolled at UTEP’s Art Department. He soon achieved notoriety for casting bronze molds of the torsos of members of El Paso’s arts community–particularly the shapely, good-looking ones. After the breakup of his marriage, Villegas stored some of his work with a friend who later died. Then thieves looted the desert retreat where most of Villegas’ belongings, including documentation of all his artwork, was stored. After that he decided to become a “fine arts handyman” and live wherever his work would take him. Today the mural in the Fine Arts Center at UTEP is his largest known existing work. Recently, he received a commission to paint murals on the walls of several downtown offices. And there are homes around town with Luis Villegas paintings on their porch or bathroom ceilings. “What bothers me isn’t the stuff I don’t know what happened to,” he says about his missing artwork. “What bothers me is the stuff that went through my head that I never made.”

Maggie Herrera has a tattoo turtle on her back, a devil on her thigh, baby-blue stars with yellow rays, and a Virgo symbol on her leg. On her birthday she was planning to get a tattoo of her name inside a sacred heart. “I’ll be 23,” she said. “I’m getting pretty old.” When she was 14 and “a punk-rock girl,” she started hosting punk rock shows in a garage. “We rented it for something stupid like a 100 dollars, and called it The Rug Burn. After we lost that place, we opened another place called The Dumpster Dive. We got listed in an underground book called Book Your Own Life. A lot of bands come through El Paso because it’s the perfect spot to stop between Austin and Phoenix, or L.A. or Denver. I was living with my parents and they would let these punk-rockers stay at the house, and my mom would make them pancakes in the morning, these really stinky Mohawk guys. I was born in Germany when my Dad was stationed there in the Army. My mom wasn’t into the military lifestyle so we always lived off base. I love El Paso because the border thing is different. Just having Juarez here is really cool.”

Molly Shapiro witnessed poverty and deprivation as a child. “It tore a hole in my heart, which made me become the leftist I became,” she says, recalling her early years in Brooklyn. “I got my first job at age 13 and when I was 16 there was a strike at Klein’s Department Store and I marched on my first picket line.” She moved to El Paso with her husband when their son Larry was diagnosed with asthma. They opened a book and record shop. Classical music was her specialty; politics was her passion. “When AS&R refused to recognize the Smelter Workers Union after the war the workers went on strike, the Times and the Post gave it the silent treatment, so we bought ads in the papers. All liberal organizations were being attacked during the McCarthy hearings, and there was an article in the El Paso Times that referred to me as an officer in an alleged communist organization. It was no more communist than this wall, but that’s how it was then. The rabbi suggested that I fight the Times, but I said, ‘Naw, fuck ‘em.'” Eventually Shapiro and her husband drifted apart: “We lived separate lives in separate worlds. He was liberal, I was radical. He was agnostic, I was atheist.”

Ed Patrykus “I had a sister who was living in El Paso and I stayed with her the last half of the winter. I went back to Wisconsin, but when the Canadian winds started blowing, I returned. It’s where I’ve been since 1965. El Paso was my salvation. The open spaces and isolation, the loneliness and rawness of nature, the wind and dust, the empty railroad tracks, the cemetery, the down-at-the-heels cantinas, even the poverty was liberating. The sad and tragic side of life in Mexico, the intensity and impermanence reduced life to its foundations. Despite El Paso’s defects, its isolation and provincialness, when I step across the Rio Grande into that earthy life in Mexico, I’m free of myself. My writing was motivated by rage, and it was taxing because I don’t have a natural talent, but I did have a need to express myself and take a crack at telling the truth. I don’t have the passion to write any more. I didn’t expect to live so long that my writing would empty itself. I still get an occasional idea, but I don’t have the drive, the spark, that burn, burn, burn. But I’m not sad that I had it and I’m not sorry that it’s gone.”

Marilyn Martin “It’s strange to be told you’re going to die. I prepared myself and waited, but then I didn’t die. I had gotten rid of all my stuff because I didn’t want people to go through it when I was dead. And then I thought, ‘Hey, I want my stuff back.'” A native of Delaware, Marilyn Martin moved to New York after college. After five years she wanted out: “The whole gallery system, the museums and collectors–it’s a system of unregulated currency exchange.” She married an El Paso native and moved here in 1982: “Looking out over the lights of the city, I thought it was gorgeous and huge. It was like LA.” She had a show in Juarez, but felt isolated with her work. The El Paso art community was “provincial”; the marriage ended. Eventually she found happiness with a new job, a new husband, and a daughter, Charlotte, born in 1993. Then Martin was diagnosed with leukemia. It’s been five years since she was last told to wrap up her affairs. She’s writing and doing water color abstractions. They “aren’t really ambitious or Art News, but they satisfy my desire to paint. Charlotte’s declared that she’s an artist and I dream of taking her on a trip to Europe, just the two of us traveling around on a train, going to the great museums and churches, looking at all the art together. But she wants to go to Disneyland.”

Art Lewis “All music has the same notes,” says Art Lewis. “Symphony has the same notes, rap has the same notes, blues has the same notes, religious has the same notes. C is C. It’s all either four beats or three beats or two beats. If you could tap the moon, you’d find that it’s the same note that you can tap on Earth.” Lewis was born in Houston in 1936 and remembers first listening to music in church: “It had so much power behind it, you couldn’t sit down.” He studied at Texas Southern, but credits his real education to the hours he passed on his porch with his grandfather: “He was a storyteller and everyone went to sit on his front porch to be entertained. He could tell a lie into the truth, and most of my knowledge of life came from him. He taught me to let your mind be the strongest thing about you.” Lewis started playing in clubs as a teenager in Houston, where he met Muddy Waters and played with Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker. He was on his way to Mexico when he stopped at a gas station in El Paso. “A guy stepped up to the car and said, ‘Can I help you, Sir?’ he recalls. “These were small words, but they were powerful words and I had never heard anything like that before. Those words, ‘Can I help you, Sir?’ were part of my decision to stay here.”

Mario Colin If you’ve seen the Virgin of Guadalupe in El Paso lately, it probably wasn’t a miracle; it was probably a Mario Colin. Since the late 1980s, Colin has painted at least 25 murals of the Virgin. “My first exposure to art was when we went to church,” he says. “I liked the imagery and the drama.” Born in Juarez in 1959, Colin grew up in El Paso. He dropped out of high school to do construction, working as a carpenter and on grain elevators throughout the Midwest for 10 years. He came back to El Paso in 1985 and decided to be an artist. “I wanted to express myself and do something that I liked, and I thought I could paint pictures for a living. Is that crazy, in El Paso? When Esparza’s Grocery hired me in 1989 I was intimidated, so I went to my friend Chuck because he knew how to do it. We put some paint on the wall, and the image just came right up. The more we painted, the more it looked like the Virgin, and people started blessing themselves in front of it. When Chuck died, they put a grotto over it, and it’s become a shrine. That was my first Virgin and I’ve gotten a lot of other paintings through that.”

Donna Snyder On a gusty spring afternoon in 2000, Dona Snyder happened upon Mario Colin. “He was walking to the bus, and I was struggling with dry cleaning and a briefcase, and he stopped to help me. A year later we were married. I had always refused to get married, but a couple of things happened to make me rethink my attitude. My old compañero died a few months before and that loss–boom, he’s gone–followed by September 11, taught me that life is not something promised us.” A poet and lawyer, Snyder grew up in Twitty, Texas, just west of the Oklahoma border. After law school at UT, she worked on a Navaho reservation and on several legal projects in New Mexico. She now works for the El Paso County attorney, advocating for people with mental illness. The day after Mario proposed, he called her at work and walked her to City Hall to get a marriage license: “We were both silent for 10 minutes,” she says, “and then we got a shot of tequila. I knew if we didn’t get married soon, I would have backed out. The meaning of life is to do right and have fun. We should enjoy life as much as we can because it’s all too brief and we don’t know when it’s going to end.”