Local muralist Francisco Rodriguez remembers arriving in El Paso as a teenager with only a middle school education, no job skills, a pregnant wife and no money.
Desperate to provide for his family, he took a job in construction to help build the Spaghetti Bowl.
“They gave me a construction helmet and a shovel and they asked me ‘can you do this?’ and I thought to myself, ‘well, what else can I do’. I didn’t have an actual job,” recalls 61-year-old Rodriguez, who is now an artist in residence at Centro De Salud Familiar La Fe, a nonprofit community health service center in Segundo Barrio.
He had been working on the Spaghetti Bowl project for about one year when a visit to Ciudad Juarez where some family members lived changed his life.
Rodriguez, his wife and newborn son crossed the border to visit family and take a break from life in El Paso. They stayed with his family including his older brother, a well regarded artist in the border region. He found himself intrigued by his brother’s occupation.
“He was painting while listening to the The Doors and I remember thinking how relaxed and cool he looked compared to me who had been working in the hot sun all day,” said Rodriguez, who goes by the nickname Kiko.
His brother told Kiko about how he was able to earn a living through his art, that there was no shortage of work and that he was earning a good living.
“I asked him to teach me how to paint. Ever since that day I have never put the paintbrush down,” he said.
His journey as an artist began then and there. He started by painting and selling his work throughout Juarez.
Although he was earning enough for his family to survive, he wanted to create a better life for his wife and children.
“I decided to become a resident of the United States because I felt like it was necessary for my family. I wanted to bring them over (permanently). I never took a citizenship class because I thought since I already knew English I would pass the test,” he said.
Rodriguez took the test and failed twice.
Despite the setback he knew letting down his family was not an option.
One day, while he was painting a mural in Downtown El Paso, a fellow artist told him there were citizenship classes being offered at La Fe.
“Once I was done with the mural I headed here to La Fe. As I was walking in I ran across the General Director, Salvador Balcorta. He greeted me and recognized who I was by my work. He asked me if I was still painting. As the conversation continued he offered me a job. I really could not believe what I was hearing,” Rodriguez said.
With the help of other La Fe employees and mentors, Rodriguez was not only able to pass his citizenship test, but obtain a job where he now works.
Rodriguez now works at La Fe’s youth center and preparatory school painting murals that express Chicano and Mexican-American culture.
He has started teaching a summer art program for kids in Segundo Barrio, a downtown El Paso neighborhood near the U.S.-Mexico border considered by historians as one of the most historic and ethnic Mexican barrios, or neighborhoods, in the country dating back to the 1880s.
His paintings of famous Chicano leaders and personalities including Reies Tijerina, Cesar Chavez, Ruben Salazar and Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata line the walls of La Fe’s auditorium in the heart of Segundo Barrio.
Like the children that live there, Rodriguez also grew up in a border community.
“I was born and raised in Ciudad Juarez. I grew up in a barrio called La Chaveña,” he said.
He said his was a large family of eight siblings. His mother dedicated herself to staying at home to raise her children and make sure everyone’s needs were met. His father worked to support the family financially.
Rodriguez now wants to convey to children living along the border that they have opportunities beyond what they may think. One of the ways he hopes to inspire them is through his recent mural at the entrance hall of La Fe Preparatory School, a dual language charter school near La Fe.
“I want to teach the children not to limit themselves. That it doesn’t matter if you don’t have the best supplies. That just because you don’t own a good paint brush doesn’t mean you can’t do it. I want to open their minds,” Rodriguez said.
“I had the honor to paint around 60 children in a mural at the school,” Rodriguez said of the life size mural that portrays current students playing instruments, playing chess, dancing folklorico and marching in a parade.
Today Kiko, who wears a baseball cap over a long gray ponytail, is a well known and respected member of the Segundo Barrio community and plans to continue his work which includes inspiring area youth.
Regardless of his age and success, Rodriguez, who likes to wear a simple tee shirt and paint-splattered slacks, has managed to stay humble.
“Sometimes I think about what the future holds for me and I feel like I’m too old to accomplish anything else, but I believe that the heart never grows old. While I still have the ability to paint I have hope for the future. I don’t want to be famous for my paintings because I am not vain. As long as I can support my family I will be content,” he smiled.