Gaspar Enríquez is a soft-spoken man of few words and it is easy to miss that he is a nationally recognized artist who has an amazing story to tell.
The Chicano artist grew up poor in a tough neighborhood of El Paso’s Segundo Barrio amidst drugs, gangs and dysfunctional families.
Later, he would teach art at Bowie High School, and help his students rise above their circumstances as he did, painting more than a few of them along the way.
Today, many consider Enríquez one of El Paso’s most prolific and respected artists and his work is shown in exhibitions across the country.
Chicano comedian Cheech Marin, of Cheech and Chong fame, is one of many private collectors who own Enríquez’s work. Billionaire Alice Walton, an heiress to the Wal-Mart fortune and avid art collector, has reportedly purchased Enríquez’s art for her private collection.
Here at home, Enríquez was recently honored with a major exhibition at the El Paso Museum of Art, titled “Gaspar Enríquez: Metaphors of El Barrio.”
The exhibition, a retrospective of Enríquez’s work over the past 30 years, was presented by local non-profit Community en Acción. It featured some 50 paintings, prints and sculptures from local and nationwide collections.
Enríquez recently painted nine murals for El Paso’s new Downtown ballpark. He’s got one left to finish.
Enríquez, 71, and his two sisters were raised by their mother in El Segundo Barrio where the family lived in poverty. It was a tough place to grow up.
After graduating from high school, Enriquez left home for California where he worked as a machinist to help support his family and pay for classes at East Los Angeles College.
Later, he earned a bachelor’s degree in art from the University of Texas at El Paso and a master’s degree in metals from New Mexico State University.
Enríquez returned to Segundo Barrio where he taught art at Bowie High School for 33 years, retiring in 2003. One of his students, who has followed in his footsteps, now teaches art at Bowie.
As he brought life and color to the barrio, Enríquez has also brought life to San Elizario in the Mission Valley. He believes historic San Elizario has a lot of potential as a tourist attraction and arts center.
Enríquez lives in a more than 250-year-old adobe home he restored himself some years ago, surrounded by lush gardens. Inside, he paints beneath a single stained-glass window in a room with a vaulted ceiling and floor of Saltillo tile. It feels like a sanctuary.
In his peaceful studio, Enríquez sat down with El Paso Inc. to talk about living in the barrio, his students and his favorite painting.
Q: What was it like growing up in El Segundo Barrio?
We were very poor and used to live in old shacks with outhouses, and then my mother applied for housing in the projects. She got accepted so we went to live in the Tays community, and that’s where I mostly grew up. I had a choice of going to either Bowie High School or Jefferson High School.
Q: Why did you go to Jefferson instead of Bowie?
Where I lived there was a gang that didn’t get along with another gang in the Second Ward (where Bowie is located). I figured I was going to get beat up every day if I went to Bowie, so I went to Jefferson.
Q: Later you would teach at Bowie High School for 33 years.
I was teaching in the same neighborhood I grew up in. My students, when I talked to them, they faced the same problems I did growing up – poverty, drugs, gangs and dysfunctional families. There was a lot of that in my neighborhood.
Q: When did you discover you had a talent for painting?
I’ve been drawing since I was a little boy. Living in the projects, one of my neighbors was an art teacher at Jefferson, and he used to give me a ride to school. He would take me to his home and show me all his paintings and that motivated me to go more into art.
Q: Did you think it was possible to make a career out of painting
No. No. I kind of abandoned art after high school because of that – because I didn’t think there was a possibility of making a living out of being an artist.
But when I went to California, I started looking at museums and galleries, and that energized me to get back into art. In order to make a living out of it, I went into education.
Q: Your artwork was recently featured in a major exhibition at the El Paso Museum of Art. When people view your work, what do you hope they grasp or enjoy about your paintings?
I started doing my artwork for my own reasons…
Q: What do you mean?
I tried not to get on the bandwagon of what was popular at the time, and the reason I started painting my students was because they reminded me of me when I was growing up. So I wanted to record their experiences in relation to my experiences.
The people I grew up with, I want people to become curious as to who those other people are and ask questions. Who are these people? Why do they dress this way? Why do they look like that? And hopefully they can go research and find the answer without me having to explain it to them. It is an education process.
Q: The people you paint are not stereotyped or romanticized.
They are the actual person – the way they were at that particular time. Some of my individuals look very mean with tattoos and all that stuff.
Q: They have attitude.
They would make a person look twice about walking in the same direction as them, but a lot of my students, they developed that attitude for survival.
Q: Do you think Chicanos are often stereotyped in the media and popular culture?
Q: How does reality differ from the stereotype?
The reality is when you treat people like people they are nice people, but if you treat them like they’re criminals or they’re lowlifes, then that would be the stereotype.
Q: How do you avoid the stereotypes when you paint people?
The fact is my subjects were students of mine, and I got to know them very well. I dealt with them daily, so I got to know their character. I got to know their families.
Q: Do you see yourself in some of your paintings?
That is why my exhibition was called “Metaphors of El Barrio,” because they are metaphors of me.
Q: Have you ever considered doing a self-portrait?
You know, a lot of people have asked me that. I don’t know. I better do it before I die (laughs). I had never thought about it.
Q: Do you ever bristle at being called a ‘Chicano artist.’
No, because I am a Chicano artist. People ask me: What is the definition of Chicano artist? I still don’t know. There are some people who don’t want to be pigeonholed as a Chicano artist because that is not their priority.
Q: You often paint individuals in black and white on a bright background. Why do you do that?
Because, you know, the neighborhood is kind of black and white. I try to give the individuals I paint a task of finding color outside of the neighborhood – so that the outside world could become colorful for them.
You know, my students have a lot of obstacles they have to go through in the barrio, and when they get out they have other obstacles like bigotry and discrimination.
Q: I notice you said ‘when they get out,’ not if.
Some of them don’t.
Q: How did you get out of that life?
I was lucky. I had a strong mother.
Q: She must have been a remarkable person.
She was. She’s my hero.
When we lived in the projects she worked two jobs, saved a little bit of money and bought a house in Ysleta where gangs weren’t a problem. When I got out of high school she sent me to California with one of my aunts to get out of the neighborhoods and start a life over there.
Q: Do you keep up with your students?
A lot of them I do.
Q: How are they doing?
Some of them are very successful. Some of them are lawyers and doctors. Some of them are artists. One student became an artist and took my place teaching at Bowie High School.
Right now, they are doing a mural for my exhibition in June. There are five artists that were my students that are working on it. I don’t know what they are doing. It is a surprise for me.
Q: It must be gratifying to see your students go on and become successful and some even follow in your footsteps as artists.
It is. I knew not all of them would become artists, but I used to teach them so they would appreciate art and hopefully excel in whatever field they went into.
Q: Had you ever tried to exhibit your work at the El Paso Museum of Art before?
A long time ago, when there was another museum director, I asked them: ‘Would you have an exhibition of my work?’ They said, ‘Hell, no.’
Q: Did they say why?
Well, that was all the reason I needed.
Q: What kind of reaction have you gotten since the show? Has demand for your work increased?
Yes. I have sold more work and the prices of my work have gone up. It was good.
Q: You’ve received national honors, but what does it mean to you to be honored at home?
It’s always good because, you know, no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I would strongly suggest to young artists not to expect to become well known in their hometown.
Go outside of your hometown and exhibit, because it is a big world out there. You get more experience that way and get to meet a lot of people. Some places you’re appreciated and some places you’re not. But that’s OK.
Q: How were you able to make it as an artist?
That was one of the things that was raised in the recent interview with Cheech and me. I said as a starting artist you have to do a lot of studying, a lot of experimentation with different mediums and then you have to become an accountant, and then you have to take classes in public relations, and then you have to become a comedian so you can make enough money to buy some art.
Q: Become an accountant?
They didn’t have them when I went to school, but nowadays they have classes as an art major on communications, on marketing, on accounting and things like that. You do need it as an artist.
Q: Why not move to a bigger market like Los Angeles?
With the Internet you can be any place – you can be in the boonies – and get your work out there around the world. I like El Paso. I wouldn’t like to live anywhere else.
I lived in LA for a long time. I didn’t like it. It’s too superficial. I go to visit my friends there; one sells to celebrities. He says he’s sometimes asked to hang out with the celebrities and he says, ‘Hell, no.’ Hang out with celebrities and then you drink a lot and do a lot of coke and drugs and wind up being a bum. He’s right.
Q: All the things you escaped from in the barrio.
Yeah. They’re doing the same thing.
Q: Tell me more about your home. You restored it?
I restored it 30 some-odd years ago. It is about 300 years old, and it’s pretty much original. It is made out of adobe.
There was no foundation. When they built it, they did it right on the ground. This portion right here was sinking, so I had to jack this whole room up and then put a concrete foundation. This is the only part that has a foundation.
I am also restoring some old adobe buildings down in the historic plaza. One is finished. I restored it for galleries and/or art studios.
Q: When did you finish it?
I finished it about 2007 and started in 1997.
Q: Ten years?
Yeah, it took me that long. The other one I am restoring is taking me that long. I don’t know what might go in there; I am restoring it just because it has a lot of history. It’s where the first county judge used to live. Are you familiar with the Salt Wars?
In the late 1800s, there was this person named (Charles) Howard. He came over here and claimed ownership of the salt flats. Before that anybody could come and get the salt and take it to Mexico or wherever.
There was an uprising. The Texas Rangers came in and many were killed by the mob. Howard returned to San Elizario with a posse, and a mob descended upon them again.
Howard was executed right in front of the building I am restoring. If you go to the museum called Los Portales right in front of the church, all the history is there.
Q: Why revive these buildings?
They have a lot of history. The previous owners did not take care of them, and they collapsed because it’s adobe and they didn’t have any foundation either.
That’s why it took me so many years. And I tried to maintain the historical integrity of the architecture.
The history is lost; it will be gone, if you don’t revive it. There are a lot of places, even in Downtown El Paso, that they are not restoring – a lot of historic places and they are just taking them down.
When I visit other cities I like to go look at the architecture – the old structures or old towns. Have you been to Old Mesilla?
Q: I have. Some people say they would like for historic San Elizario to see the kind of success that Old Mesilla in southern New Mexico has achieved – or even historic Santa Fe. The pieces are here – the town square, old chapel and the jail that Billy the Kid broke into to free a friend.
The architecture, the history, started here. Then they (the Spaniards) went to Old Mesilla, then they went to Santa Fe and Taos.
This is actually the start. That’s why it has a lot of history. That’s why I want to preserve the history.
Q: Do you have a painting that is your favorite?
Yes. The one I am going to do next.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.