In Presidio, a New Public Art Project Crosses Borders
The new mural is a small binational gesture reminding those who reside in the margins that they are not forgotten.
On the northern outskirts of Presidio, a series of modest dirt hills offers a view of the small border town delineated by the meandering Rio Grande. Just beyond, the Mexican sister city of Ojinaga — many times bigger than the Texas town — sprawls along the foothills of the Sierrita de Santa Cruz.
On one side of these crumbling hills is a gridwork of housing for Border Patrol officers, surrounded by chain-link fencing and topped with barbed wire. On the other side of the hills is the city’s water tower, a lone white tank that juts above an otherwise unassuming and dusty landscape. It is the only apparent landmark in a town whose inhabitants have figured out ways to fit their lives discreetly into the rugged desert landscape.
A month ago, a face began to appear on the water tank. She emerged over the course of two weeks: a Latina woman, clutching the stem of a red rose in her thick hands. Her brow and cheeks are lined with age. Her gaze, deep but benevolent, looks out beyond the Rio Grande into Mexico.
The sudden appearance of this face felt out of sync with the pace of the town, where not much changes fast. The change was monumental enough to warrant a field trip by Presidio’s elementary school. Each day for a week, teachers paraded their students up the hill to see the face and asked them, “¿Qué piensa? What do you think?”
The mural is a gift from Mexico to the site of its smallest consulate. Amid the hyper-politicized rhetoric that surrounds the border, it was a small binational gesture reminding those who reside in the margins that they are not forgotten.
The Mexican government commissioned Los Angeles muralist Miles Mac, known as “El Mac,” whose work has appeared in the border cities of Juárez and El Paso, as well as myriad other places across the globe, from New York City to Agdz, Morocco.
El Mac had never worked on a federally sponsored project, and if he had concerns about it feeling propagandist, those fears were immediately assuaged. “It was the kind of project I would do for myself anyway,” said El Mac, who often paints with an implicit social message in mind. “No part of it ever felt uncomfortable to me and I think it was clear that everyone behind it had good intentions. This is a general gesture of goodwill.”
He added, “I think they were making a point that even the smallest and most remote town is still important and still considered, still relevant.”
El Mac’s large-scale murals — composed of circles and lines that register as realist portraits from a distance — often feature everyday people. In El Paso and Juárez, he painted the faces of those who had lost family members to violence. “I paint regular people, normal people, and that’s something that I’ve been doing for a long time,” El Mac said.“The work isn’t super explicit. I’m not painting works with the intention of hitting people over the head with some ideology.”
Some residents recognized the face on the water tower as that of Linda Lujan, a 62-year-old Presidio resident who owns and operates a small secondhand shop just a stone’s throw from the International Port of Entry. Originally from Mexico, she emigrated to the United States more than 30 years ago to work and put her children through college. In many ways, her face was meant to be more broadly representative of the average person who resides in this border region. “It’s definitely based on her,” El Mac said, “but it’s a composite.”
Others have come up with their own interpretations of the image. “I see my wife’s mother, I see one of my aunts, I see one of my old teachers,” said city administrator Joe Portillo. “More than anything, I see a mother. They are the glue and they are the love.”
“It’s a beauty kind of like the desert itself,” said the town’s mayor, John Ferguson. “This shows somebody who probably worked hard her whole life, had kids, raised a family.”
El Mac spent two weeks in Presidio, interviewing and photographing possible subjects. He might have chosen a more politicized subject, and for a moment he considered painting two female relatives of Esequiel Hernández Jr., the 18-year-old who was mistakenly gunned down in 1997 by Marines stationed near the border as part of a drug reconnaissance mission. Ultimately, he chose Lujan, whose warmth offered relief from the caustic desert. “She had these warm cheeks,” he said. “She looked like she’s used to smiling.”
El Mac would experience the kind of kindness Lujan seemed to represent throughout his stay in Presidio. On days he spent painting for 10 or 12 hours at a time, perched some 100 feet off the ground in a mechanical lift that quaked against the howling spring winds, staff from Don Jose Panaderia, the local bakery, delivered pumpkin empanadas in a basket rigged with a pulley system. “That mural was fueled by those pumpkin empanadas,” he said.
The face on the water tank is visible from both sides of the border, a reminder of what many in the town already know to be self-evident: that Presidio is inextricably tied to its Mexican neighbor, and that its well-being is rooted in their mutual goodwill.