EL PASO, Texas — Seeing no future in art, legendary El Paso artist Gaspar Enriquez abandoned the idea of pursuing an artistic career during his high school years. Little did he know where the potential of his talent would take him.
“I liked art since I was a kid, but knew there was little or no pay in the field,” said Enriquez.
Having grown up in the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Segundo Barrio, Enriquez found himself growing up at a faster rate than most teenage kids. Moving to East Los Angeles right after graduating from Bowie High School, Enriquez began working as a dishwasher, then at a defense plant lab, and eventually as a machinist as he continued working his way up until he graduated in 1970 from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) with a degree in Art Education.
“I visited a lot of galleries and museums in California,” said Enriquez. “But it wasn’t until my late wife gave me a wooden box of oil paints that motivated me to pursue my career in art.”
After receiving his master’s from New Mexico State University (NMSU) in 1985, Enriquez returned to his roots and began teaching at Bowie High School, in the same neighborhood where he grew up. Little did he know the impact of the inspiration that his students would have on him.
“The students reminded me of myself when I was growing up, and I realized that they all faced the same problems of dealing with drugs, gangs, sex, and violence that I had to deal with,” said Enriquez. “They became the source of my inspiration.”
Enriquez began using them as metaphors and major components of his subject matter through his artwork. He has incorporated many reoccurring themes depicting broken families, contradictions of religion, and the way of life for the Chicano in El Paso.
“I was raised as the typical Mexican-American Catholic,” said Enriquez. “It wasn’t until I got older that I started to realize the hypocrisy and corruption within the religion, so I started expressing it through my artwork.”
One of Enriquez’s recent pieces called “La Rosa Dolorosa y Mi Vida Loca,” depicts a young teenage girl holding her boyfriend who has either been shot or stabbed while the Virgen de Guadalupe, who is a strong symbol of faith in the Mexican/Catholic culture, holds a rose with thorns as she weeps over the young man.
“As the legend of Juan Diego goes, when the Virgen de Guadalupe appeared to him, she was holding roses with no thorns, but this Virgen de Guadalupe has thorns because she represents the truths of pain that we as humans face.”
Although Enriquez’s piece represents the violent struggles that young Chicanos face here in El Paso, one could easily relate his piece to the violence that Ciudad Juárez has been facing since 2007. With over 10,000 deaths in Mexico since 2007, Enriquez believes that many artists within El Paso and Juárez area have been expressing the tragedy of the drug war through their artwork.
“The art scene changes with time because young artists are dealing with contemporary issues that are happening in Juárez,” said Enriquez.
Enriquez finds many similarities between the issues that citizens of Juarez and citizens of Segundo Barrio are facing today.
“You live an existence where you see no future and you’re government doesn’t help you, so you go into the cartel, or into a gang where these groups of people make you feel accepted into a family,” said Enriquez. “It’s an easy way to make a lot of money, regardless if your life won’t last long.”
Because most of the people involved in the drug cartel or in gangs are not well educated in the arts, Enriquez does not believe that expressing the drug war issues through art can truly make a difference. As long as it does not stop their business, drug lords will not pay attention to artistic demonstrations of the violence Juárez faces.
“Their main concern is making money,” said Enriquez. “They have no aesthetic values to arts, theatre, or music, so art won’t make a difference because they don’t understand.”
Regardless, Enriquez finds himself focusing on more optimistic projects such as creating the altar piece offering for the famous Jose Cisneros, who recorded much of the El Paso history of conquistadores and Indians through his artwork.
“He inspired me because he [Cisneros] began going blind during the last years of his life,” said Enriquez. “He truly was a genuine and humble man.”
Enriquez now lives in San Elizario, where his gallery is located inside his beautiful adobe style home that takes you back to the days of Mexican conquistadores. His front door wooden gates welcome guests into the life of Gaspar Enriquez, where he continues to work on many projects that portray the many aspects of Chicano life that make up what El Paso is today.