Diego and Me: Art and Revolution

In the living room of my childhood home in south Texas, my mother kept a painted tile table from Mexico and an ornamental stick carved with pre-Columbian figures. I would run my hands across the table and stick and feel the power of the faces cut into the wood and the smooth surfaces of the tiles. My grandmother had brought them back from a mysterious place she called “Old Mexico.” She traveled there frequently  and it became a desirable place and all things Mexican became desirable objects.

It was this “desirability” that caused me to notice the pictures in the magazine. It was in the mid-1950’s and I was eight or nine years old, when I first became aware of the great Mexican artist,  Diego Rivera. There in the magazine were the bold scenes of Rivera’s paintings and murals. Their powerful images made my fingers tingle as I recalled the carved faces and the painted tiles in my living room. The pictures caused a shift inside me.

Several years later, my Spanish teacher showed our class pictures of her trip to Mexico City. There they were again, Diego’s murals. I recognized them immediately. Broad faces, massive hands, and arms, legs and feet painted on all those buildings. Beautiful women with children on their backs, labored, rising up from the earth to reach toward heaven.

Stunned by the strength and beauty of Diego’s vision, I vowed to go and study at the faraway university.  Under the artist’s images, I would pour my soul into the vision of a world where men and women lived in simple peace and harmony. Then my teacher told us the artist had died and I wondered  where I would learn more about justice and equality for all.  I got my answer when I was least expecting it.

Raul was a classmate of mine and the brother of a friend. I had not paid much attention to him before the day we all presened projects for our seventh grade history class in the small parochial school we attended.  Raul had made a scale model of the Battle of the Alamo.  The scene was filled with  tiny Mexican soldiers, many carrying hand sewn Mexican flags of red and white and green. Little Texans to the core, we settled down to hear the familiar and stirring story of Crockett, Travis, and Bowie. But that day we learned something more.

We heard about the personal courage of the Texans, but Raul asked us to look at the event, ever so briefly, from the Mexican point of view. In his boy’s voice, he suggested that perhaps Santa Anna was not Satan, that the Mexican soldiers were also brave and believed they were fighting for their homeland, just as strongly as the Texans did.

At the end of his talk, he placed  a Texas flag and the Stars and Stripes alongside the Mexican banner over the rampart of the old mission wall. “We should all be brothers,” Raul said,”and live in peace, without war.”  No one spoke or applauded when he was finished.  We filed out for recess.

When we returned, we were all called into the lunchroom. Raul was standing at the table, his dark head hanging. Our principal spoke as he pulled back the cloth. The model of the Alamo was crushed, all the tiny Mexican flags on toothpicks were snapped into pieces. “Whoever did this must confess,” he said. No one spoke.  As far as I know, no one ever confessed, but Raul and his sister, Anita, left immediately and enrolled in public school.

Two years later, when I was in ninth grade, I ran into Raul at a school dance. He was still a serious boy with a lock  of hair that kept falling into his eyes. He asked me to dance. I don’t remember the song. We only danced once. The rest of the night we sat in the corner and talked. He told me his family was returning to Mexico.  I asked him why and he said his father, who was an artist, was having a hard time with certain things. I asked if it was about the Alamo model.

“Yes,” he said, “that and other things.” He told me his father believed that a world without war, a world of peace was what he wanted to paint and he was going back to work with some people who felt the same way.  Then he told me about art and revolution and Diego Rivera, a man his father had studied under when he was young.

“I know him,” I said. “Someday, I am going to the University of Mexico to learn more about him and his ideas.”

“Would you like to come to my sister’s birthday party?” he asked.

We had cake and Raul’s father played the guitar in the backyard. The house was filled with his father”s art. . .pure. . .strong. . .sad. It was a farewell party. The next week they slipped across the border into that mysterious land called Mexico.

I have been there many times, but I have never found Raul or a world of peace without war.

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