Lakeside’s Master of Murals—Javier Zaragoza
By Rob Mohr
In 1994, Javier Zaragoza and thousands of other artists lost their jobs when studios producing hand-painted billboards to entice buyers cruising the highways of the United States, closed because of the advent of computer-generated graphics. Removed from his lucrative career, after a brief stint painting the sides of long-haul-semi-trailers, Javier was forced to return to his home in Ajijic, Mexico, unsure of how his artistic talent might sustain his family. Javier’s return proved a providential gift to Mexico of a master muralist.
Javier reflected on how the son of a fisherman at the bottom of the economic ladder had became a productive artist, how he had studied with Neill James from the ages of seven to fourteen, and how she changed his life.
“We had nothing. Neill worked hard to sell our paintings, and the small income from my art made me feel that my life had value - that I had value. She changed Ajijic. The art and cultural education she provided the children, her library, and her teaching changed our awareness. We learned to think for ourselves while being awakened to a broader world. Neill James had a heart for helping. Everyone she touched was changed by her actions. The community of fine artists who today live and work at Lakeside are a tribute to Neill’s wise intervention.”
When Javier was fourteen Neill, James obtained a scholarship for him in the Art Academy in San Miguel de Allende, drove him there, and stayed with him until she was sure that he was in a safe, caring home. He studied at the academy for the next two years before he returned to Ajijic, where he did his first major mural for the church in Ixtlahuacan. At sixteen he had arrived as an artist and mural painter. Soon after, he journeyed to the US where he became a respected billboard artist in a major California studio, work he continued for eighteen years.
“During the time I was in the US, I had a secret dream of coming home to Ajijic. Suddenly, when I was fired, my dream of coming home became reality. The universe, when you least expect it, kicks you in the backside and pushes you into a new place. It kicks you back so that you can go ahead. I could only hope that somehow I would find a way to support my family in Ajijic.”
Javier and his family returned home with little money and a bag full of hope. For the first few months he set up his easel in front of the village scenes he wanted to paint and tried to sell his paintings to those who came to watch. The first month he sold one painting for 2,000 pesos. This was sufficient to sustain his family. As he became known, he sold one or two paintings each month. After eight months, confident in his ability to support his family working as an artist, he opened an art gallery. Soon foreign residents and local people began asking him to teach them how to paint, so the gallery became an art school as well as an exhibition space. Javier continues to teach in his gallery located on Constitution #50, Ajijic.
Looking back, he smiled as he shared, “My family is first and foremost in my life. My wife has always worked with me and helped me with my art work.”
Their home is warm and welcoming and filled with paintings by both Javier and his wife. His wife’s two sons live with them. Both were exceptional young men in their exercise of social graces. Javier’s other four children live in California. One is principal of a school, two are teachers and the fourth is a coach. His family’s harmony is evident.
After eight years of working as a studio artist and teacher, Javier felt challenged to try something new. Remembering his past as a billboard painter and his early success with the painting he did for the church in Ixtlahuacan, he felt drawn to paint murals of his people’s history. In 2008, providence again intervened when he was asked to paint the arcade facade of the city building in Ixtlahuacan.
“For a mural painter an instinct for proper scale and the use of evocative colors and realistic human forms to enable the story, are essential. My murals, with their roots in the land and people of Mexico and Jalisco, tell their story and their history.”
In his paintings and murals Javier uses local people as models. The faces are those that reach forward out of the rich history of Jalisco and Mexico, and give his murals a sense of place throughout time. He prefers older faces lined with years that express the joys and hardships of life. Javier added, “Murals are the people’s art, they are both my subject and audience. They pose for me when needed and allow me to use their likeness as I work. Seeing people they know in my murals means a lot to the families here. My models are people I encounter in the village who are now among my best friends, the people I love. They include, “Don Tono,” Antonio Barrera, a seventy-five year old fisherman. Life on the lake is etched into his face. (cover photo). Don Toño fishes the lake every day, knows each class of fish and all the tricks needed to catch them.
In Ixtlahuacan, Javier’s murals of the history of the Mexican people cover the entire arcade facade of the city building. Portraits of important leaders are each twenty feet high and can be seen from any vantage point in the central plaza of the town. Above in a center panel two indigenous groups are in conversation with each other, perhaps recounting the story of the arrival of the Spaniards. Adjacent, a third group of men and women participate in a ceremonial dance around a blazing fire, seeking intervention by the gods for an abundant harvest. An enormous tree in the background is a reminder of the full growth forest that once covered this land.
A large center panel contains portraits of Jose Maria Morelos (1765-1815), and Porfirio Diaz-(1877-1910). Jose Morelos was a priest who planned the second stage of the War of Independence. He also organized the Congress of Anahuac, the first true legislative body in Mexico. Porfirio Diaz served as ‘elected’ president of Mexico off and on from 1877 through 1910. Above and between the two men, a battle in the fight for independence is portrayed.
Recently members of the Catholic Church in Ixtlahuacan have invited Javier to finish the work he began at 16 by adding additional murals. Javier shared, “It will be an honor to continue this work.” He also plans to restore his evocative mural of indigenous life on the side of the town office just off the central plaza, in Ajijic.
In his significant mural at the entry into Chapala from Ajijic, the history of Lakeside is rendered in a series of panels each showing a different stage in Jalisco history. Mildred Boyd called the mural, “An artistic miracle.” Without question the Chapala Mural is the largest and most effective historic mural painted in Mexico during the first half of the 21st century. (cover photo)
“My love for my village and my people is great. I want their history to be a vital part of life for communities around Lake Chapala. I have been invited to do murals in major cities in Mexico, but my life and my work are here.”
This writer feels honored to share Javier Zaragoza’s story.