Editor’s note: In this occasional feature, El Paso Inc. catches up with people who have made a mark in business, nonprofits, government, the arts or sports in the borderland and answers the question: Where are they now?
Within the lore of the Mexican American is the term “Chicano.”
Its origin is elusive – residing somewhere in history as an indigenous derivative of the word “Mexicano” – but its place in the identity of the borderland people has endured as an expression of defiance, cultural pride and political affirmation.
In recent years a phrase has surfaced that captures the essence of this ideology: “One is born a Mexican American, but one chooses to be a Chicano.” If these are the words that serve as Chicano’s banner statement, then the holder of that banner is the artist who gifted those words to the movement: Gaspar Enriquez.
Born in Segundo Barrio in 1942, raised in El Centro de El Paso, and living between the Chicano meccas of Los Angeles and El Paso, Enriquez has defined the artistic era of “Pachuquismo,” that fusion of cholo, pachuco and “tirilones” – the holy trifecta of Latino old school.
“Each generation borrowed a little bit from the previous generation,” said Enriquez, recounting the evolution of his art, which is known internationally for its portrayal of borderland swagger in acrylic, airbrushed portraits of steely-eyed Chicano youths and images of the cultural pageantry of the border.
In 1968 he started teaching art at Bowie High School and spent 34 years showing many disadvantaged youths an appreciation for fine arts, often using his students as the subjects of his art pieces.
“The circumstances came up that I went to Bowie. I wanted to help students succeed in whatever they wanted to do, and at the same time I was doing my artwork and sending my work out throughout the country for exhibitions and competitions,” he said. “That’s how my name got out there because I would send my work out to different places in the country.”
With a degree in art education from the University of Texas at El Paso and master’s in metals from New Mexico State University, Enriquez is a 2015 member of the Distinguished Alumni of UTEP, the 2016 Segundo Barrio Person of the Year, and recipient of the 2003 McDonald’s Hispanos Triunfadores award in arts and entertainment.
Enriquez’ work is displayed in some of the country’s most prestigious art venues, including the collections at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Tucson Museum of Art.
Enriquez retired in 2002, after the death of his wife, Anne Garcia-Enriquez, who died from cancer that year.
Since then, he has been focused on painting “and producing art.”
He has opened a gallery in San Elizario, which is open Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and his work is also shown on his website at GasparEnriquez.com.
El Paso Inc. spoke with Enriquez recently, here are excerpts of that conversation.
Q: What’s one of your earliest art memories?
It was a school competition, a Christmas decoration competition. I think it was fifth grade, my teacher knew I could draw well, so she asked me to do some window decorations for the auditorium for a competition. We won that competition. That’s when I became a professional – she gave me a dollar for doing that, a dollar and a Hershey bar. My class also got Hershey bars, so boy they were happy.
Q: Do you remember what you drew?
I drew angels floating around doing different things. It was a big window, and it was in sections and in each little section of the window there was a different angel. It was with color pencils.
Q: What about high school?
I had a choice of going to Bowie or Jefferson. Bowie was closer, however the gangs in my neighborhood were enemies of the gangs in Segundo Barrio. I thought I would be beat up every day I went out there, so I went to Jefferson.
I was taking a lot of art classes in high school. But at the time, I got discouraged with art. The instructors were really not interested in teaching. They were interested in something else – a paycheck, something like that. I got discouraged, and I started taking classes in mechanical drawing. This really helped me a lot.
After that I wanted to become an architect, but that didn’t happen. What happened is that during my senior year, I went to Ysleta High School, and I wound up graduating from Ysleta. That is where I met my late wife. I graduated in ’61 or ’60.
Q: After you graduated, what happened?
I moved to California after graduation. I was 18. My aunt took me out there to find work because there were better-paying jobs over there. I stayed there for about five years.
Q: What type of work did you do?
I worked at a hardware store. I worked at a restaurant washing dishes, and then I got a job at a defense plant as a laborer.
Then from there, I worked myself up to machinist and was making pretty good money. But then I saw that some people who were working there, they had 20 years and were getting ready to retire. But they got laid off or fired so they wouldn’t have to pay them their pension. I saw that and thought that I had better go to school, so I started at East LA Junior College.
Q: How was that?
It was just the basics. I took a lot of math classes because of my job being a machinist, you need a lot of math.
Math in high school was not exactly my favorite class, but when I went to East LA Junior College, it became my favorite class because I had a terrific instructor.
Q: How is the El Paso art scene different today from when you retired in 2002? Has it matured? Shifted?
It hasn’t changed much. There’s still not enough support by the community. I only know of the Carol J. Macguire Foundation and the city MCAD arts funding projects. We do have a few venues that pop up, but those don’t last long due to a lack of support from the community.
Of course, this also has to do with the pandemic. And, we do have more young artists being more active and coming up with new projects.
Q: What potential do you see in San Elizario as an arts and cultural center?
We are trying very hard to get people to become more acquainted with San Elizario as a historic community and also as an arts community. We just need more help from the city, county, community and the media.
Q: What is the perception of arts in El Paso now? Are Latino and El Paso artists more respected or are they too often overlooked?
We do have more Latino artists because of our demographic. But it’s not that they are overlooked because they are Latino, it’s just the arts are generally overlooked.
Q: How much do you paint these days? What do you paint?
I don’t paint every day, but when I paint, I paint almost all day and sometimes into the night, especially when I have a commission. I have to finish before the deadline. I have lots of painting I want to do, and they are paintings I want to paint unless I have a commission.
Q: What fills your days?
I have more than enough art projects to do. I have an art center to take care of and old historic buildings I have restored. These need a lot of maintenance. And there’s always the unexpected to take care of.
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Q: Have you always known you wanted to be an artist?
I’ve been drawing since I was a kid. I really started getting interested when I lived in the projects (in Segundo Barrio). I used to go to the library on Walnut and Magoffin and look up the art books. I was in the third or fourth grade. Most of my drawings when I was at that age, I did them in Juárez. My grandparents lived in Juárez, and we used to go there almost every weekend.
I didn’t have anything else to do while visiting my grandparents, so I would get some scratch pieces of paper and a pencil and would draw whatever was around, from magazines or whatever. My grandmother used to have a garden in the back, so I would draw all kinds of stuff.
Q: You were born in Segundo Barrio. Where exactly?
I was born at the Newark (clinic). We lived on Park, and we moved all over around that area. We lived on Conception, and from Conception we came to the projects there on Olive Street. I went to elementary school at Beall Elementary School.
Q: You lived when the Chicano movement was very strong. How did that affect your art?
I remember the Watts Riots and all that stuff. It had quite an impact because it was a lot of social unrest. You would see all the riots, the killings and the mistreatment by policeman on us. All that was going on, so it had a big impact.
The art resistance and affirmation put together in the Wight Gallery at UCLA, some of my pieces were in that exhibition. And it had to do with the Chicano movement.
Q: Was that the first time that pieces of yours that dealt with the Chicano movement were part of a public display?
Yes. This was in the ’80s.
Q: How did you end up at Bowie High School?
I guess that was destiny. When I finished school, I could not find a job teaching anywhere here so I started teaching at Project Bravo. My student teacher recommended that I teach at Bowie. So I went there to teach – the same area to teach that I grew up in.
The thing about that is that I could relate to my students because I grew up with the same challenges that they had while they were growing up, which was drugs, gangs and dysfunctional families. That’s when I started recording my students through paintings. I started that in the late ’70s all the way into the ’90s.
Q: What do you hope your former students learned from you?
An appreciation for music, because I used to play the latest music – rock ’n’ roll and Mexican music – while they were working. But no, just kidding. What I hope they took from my teaching is to appreciate art, but also to be successful in whatever field they decided to follow.
I’ve had a lot of students who have contacted me, and I am surprised by what accomplishments they have done – not necessarily in the arts but in whatever fields they are in. One became a pharmacist, one became an engineer, you name it, different fields.
The legacy that I left for my students I would want to be the dedication in them for their success in whatever field they encounter.
Q: The El Paso artist Cimi is popular and enjoying some success. He was one of your students. What do you recall about him?
The thing about it, with some of my students, I never knew whether they were paying attention or not. He was one individual that I had no idea was paying attention.
I met him later at the university, and he was pursuing a degree in teaching. I said to him, “I thought you didn’t pay any attention to what I was saying.” And he quotes me, word by word, the things I used to tell him. That was pretty amazing.
It’s amazing who you touch with your presence. That’s one of the rewards that teachers have.
Q: Cholos and cholas are not something that mainstream America has really understood. What do you hope that people see in the paintings of your students?
That is correct. When I did those, my intentions were that I wanted people to look into their eyes and wonder who these people are, where they come from and what are their experiences. I did it for that particular reason – to have other people who didn’t have that experience of these individuals, for them to become inquisitive and want to find out who these people were, and where were they coming from, and what their challenges were.
Q: What are some of your best memories with your students?
I did a piece called the Generation of Attitudes (that featured students as subjects of the paintings). It is at the El Paso Museum of Art. They had it on display, and I used to take some of my students to go to the museum, and when they saw those pieces and the expressions in their eyes, it was mind-blowing.
Their self-esteem really was rejuvenated because their self-esteem was not that great. But when they saw themselves in a museum, it was amazing.
Q: Tell me more about what motivated you to paint them.
I wanted to capture their attitude – the attitude that they present in their faces. This attitude could be confrontational, but it could also be survival, and it could also be deadly because it’s confrontation against somebody else, and they perceive it as a challenge. That is within the cultural environment of gangs and territory.
We have to live in that neighborhood, live in that environment and we have to survive in that environment.