RE-CREATING A MASTERPIECE
$70K restoration of iconic East End mural brings faded artist/activist back to fore
DENVER — Leo Tanguma is in no hurry to return to the city that holds his ultimate achievement.
He has had plenty of time to rethink all that happened decades ago, when he painted “The Rebirth of Our Nationality” on the facade of a factory along a desolate, industrial stretch of Canal Street in Houston’s East End.
One of the largest works of America’s Chicano mural movement, the piece had become so faded in 30 years that it was barely visible when Harris County bought the property in 2013.
County officials committed $70,000 to re-creating the mural as part of an $8 million renovation. Tanguma, though, declined to repaint it himself. At 75, he no longer can climb scaffolding.
Instead, he is directing the project from a basement studio at his home in the leafy Denver suburb of Arvada, with the aerosol artist Gonzo247 serving as his “hands” on the job.
They are an unlikely father-son pair — the almost forgotten, rabble-rousing radical who sees painting as a political protest, and the popular former tagger whose own recent images shower urban buildings with happiness and sunshine.
Tanguma chose Gonzo, whose real name is Mario Figueroa Jr., from a list of candidates to re-create the mural be-
cause he thought they had a lot in common. Figueroa felt a sense of awe as a small child each time he saw the painting from the back seat of his parents’ car on Sunday outings.
He began the re-creation by whitewashing Tanguma’s unsalvageable original over the summer. Then he took a carefully scaled sketch drawn by Tanguma — an exact duplication — and transferred it onto the building’s facade in September. He has spent recent weeks blocking in large chunks of color, a foundation for finer details that likely won’t be completed until sometime next year.
“I hope people get the idea of what it meant,” Tanguma said. “It carries a meaningful message.” A signature work
Houston was a dramatically different city in the early 1970s, when Tanguma, his friend Remigio “Sparks” Garcia and a group of students from Texas Southern University tackled the 240-by-18-foot facade of what was then the Continental Can Company at 5900 Canal Street, a little less than 3 miles from downtown.
While some in the city’s Mexican-American community sensed they were finally achieving equality with Anglos, others felt the festering anxiety of racism — tension that ultimately led to riots in 1977, after Houston police killed Vietnam veteran Jose Torres Campos and dumped his body into Buffalo Bayou.
Tanguma — a son of Texas-born farm workers with Mexican ancestors — stood firmly in the social protest camp.
He was motivated by his own experience and the work of the Mexican muralists who championed workers in the early and mid-20th century. All of the supplies for the mural were donated by people in the community.
Tanguma had befriended the legendary muralist and Texas Southern University professor John Biggers, who encouraged him to paint human experience. He also traveled to Mexico, with Garcia and others, to meet his idol, the legendary muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros.
At the time, Chicano artists across the U.S. were depicting Mexican history in their work, creating images of Aztec culture and revolutionary heroes such as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa.
Siqueiros told Tanguma that was pointless, because Mexican artists had already painted those stories, eloquently. He encouraged Tanguma to convey a more unique narrative depicting Chicanos — American citizens with Mexican ancestry, like himself.
Inspired partly by Siqueiro’s famous “March of Humanity,” Tanguma’s mural contains 70 characters who move from both ends of the huge piece toward a central couple who reach out to them from the center of a rose blossom on a ground of skulls. The parading figures illustrate the struggles of Mexican-Americans to overcome adversity and racism — farm laborers, soldiers, factory workers and political activists, male and female, young and old.
Ignoring the pleas of passersby who thought he should tone down his inflamatory images, Tanguma knew he was doing the right thing when an elderly woman watching him paint “Rebirth” asked, “Is this for the poor people?” It was. As he still does with all of his public works, Tanguma incorporated the faces of passersby or participants who shared their stories during the mural’s creation. Jesse Sifuentes, a Galveston native who worked on the mural during his freshman year at TSU, appears as a soldier in a photograph held by a woman.
Sifuentes, now a wellknown local artist and teacher, believes “Rebirth” set a precedent for all of the public art in Houston that would follow.
But Tanguma himself was almost forgotten, for reasons that hardly seem fathomable in one of the most diverse cities of the 21st century. His ideas for projects grew ever more controversial because he wanted to use his art as a voice against police brutality, environmental pollution and the Americanization of Chicanos. Invariably, his ambitious projects were de-funded or — worse — destroyed while they were in progress.
Sifuentes remembers Tanguma as “very radical.” Others recall him as quiet but intense, a man who never smiled and didn’t play by the art world’s unwritten rules.
Jim Harithas, who came to Houston in the 1970s to direct the Contemporary Arts Museum, invited Tanguma in 1973 to display a maquette of “We The People,” a proposed project the artist wanted to create with a crew of exconvicts. Tanguma hoped a patron might see the model for a free-standing, sculptural mural at the museum and pay for its creation.
The maquette depicted an America built by nonimmigrant equals — white, black, brown and native people.
“People said it was what we needed: a signature work for the city,” Tanguma said. “I was just a community artist from the barrio, but in some ways that made me the ideal muralist. I’d learned on my own, by reading and meeting the masters.”
Harithas said he extended the display an extra two months after Tanguma refused to remove it — an unheard-of demand. Still, it couldn’t be on display forever. Tanguma still thinks Harithas was caving to pressure from museum benefactors who didn’t like the politics of the piece. Either way, it ended with a brawl after Tanguma punched Harithas in the face.
“He was tough and wiry, and 15 or 18 years younger than me,” Harithas said. “But when I finally got him down I thought, ‘If I hit him, it will destroy my Chicano program.’ ”
Tanguma became such a polarizing figure that no one complained when he disappeared. Aside from “Rebirth,” almost nothing of his time here has survived.
Tanguma concedes that maybe he was too “preachy.” He’s not angry any more, he said, “but I needed friends in those days, and people in Houston had no interest in confronting the system.”
After his first wife died of cervical cancer in 1983, the artist packed up his family and moved to Denver, convinced that Houston would never be hospitable. If he was going to earn a living as a social protest artist, he would have to do it somewhere else. Starting strong
In mid-September, Tanguma sat at the dining table of the comfortably cluttered home he shares with his second wife, Jeanne. A cancer survivor, he appeared meek and quiet. Jeanne knows his stories as well as he does, and sometimes prompts his thoughts.
“I want to tell you just positive things, but there are so many awful things,” Tanguma said.
His first mural, hastily drawn in chalk in the early 1950s, survived only a few minutes and earned him a whipping.
The classroom in the South Texas community of Beeville was in chaos that morning, without a teacher. Tanguma wasn’t the first to head to the blackboard, but he could draw better than any of his classmates.
Many of the children feared and detested Sheriff Vail Ennis, a hard-line lawman who had killed members of their families but was never convicted of murder.
“Draw me killing the sheriff!” the other students goaded. So young Leo sketched a mob hanging Ennis and attacking him with machine guns and machetes.
Then a big, Anglo teacher arrived with a wooden ruler. She whacked Leo as she forced him to erase his offensive drawing.
Tanguma found his inner revolutionary that day, understanding early that his art could be a potent tool for protest and a voice for the oppressed.
Tanguma’s parents dreamed of owning a small “ranchito” but picked cotton and mowed lawns to keep their family of five afloat. In their two-room house, with only a makeshift shower his father built, everyone slept on the floor. They were devout Baptists in a community that was largely Catholic — so Tanguma was an outsider of sorts even then.
Tanguma loved his parents. They were good people, he said. But like his siblings, he was pulled from school in the sixth grade to help in the fields. He left home at 14 with his older sister Dina to find better work in Pasadena.
At 15, he lied about his age to join the Marine Corps. A wise sergeant sent him home from training camp, but Tanguma made it into the Army at 17, in 1958. He got an ideal assignment in Germany, painting murals of American scenes at a new recreation hall. He spent his free time in the library, listening to music and earning his GED.
Tanguma returned home in 1962, married and had three kids, always struggling to make ends meet. He drove a bookmobile for a while, worked at a chemical plant, tried a move to New Orleans but came back, settling his family in the Baytown home of his mother-in-law.
He sold a few small paintings and wanted to go to college but had no money for it. A financial aid officer at the University of Houston sent him to TSU, where he captured Biggers’ attention.
“Dr. Biggers gave me a lot of courage,” Tanguma said. “But he didn’t confront the system the way I did.” ‘Propose a solution’
By the time he left for Colorado, Tanguma was determined to be smarter about earning commissions.
“I didn’t want to wait 10 years to do the murals I wanted to do,” he said.
He met Jeanne soon after he arrived, at a war protest meeting. She had to chase him but knew they were soulmates. She loves his compassion. He calls her his rock.
In Colorado, his path finally looked brighter.
The Denver Art Museum hired him to create the 64-foot-wide, eyepopping “The Torch of Quetzalcoatl” during four months in 1984, as visitors watched.
Two permanent murals, “In Peace and Harmony with Nature” and “Children of the World Dream of Peace,” have been fixtures at Denver International Airport since 1994.
Yet controversy still found Tanguma: For a few years, conspiracy theorists insisted his airport murals were Satanic. Others have called his work visual sermons. He remains an enigma.
Even the art in his home reflects this.
Aglow from the sunlight of a bay window, the paintings on the Tangumas’ living and dining room walls possess a child’s sense of wonder, nostalgia and sweetness.
The artist thinks of his grandfather when he looks at his canvas of an elderly farmer giving his lady a bouquet of sunflowers. The self-portrait by the front door depicts an elderly man and his young grandaughter, reaching toward a starry sky as they run through a flock of butterflies.
In the low-walled studio of the dim, L-shaped basement, more provocative, socially-conscious works fill every nook, cranny and wall, alongside new paintings with fiercely colorful depictions of Aztec heroes. Long tables crowd the biggest space, holding sketches for the Houston mural.
Out in the pristine garage, a central fragment of “The Torch of Quetzalcoatl” — the big piece created at the Denver Museum of Art — rests against a wall alongside newer paintings that have not been shown publicly.
Like most of Tanguma’s murals, “The Torch” was designed to be portable, painted on wood he saws into swoopy sections, then layers. He mixes sand into his acrylic paints to evoke the texture of walls — a trick he learned from Siqueiros.
Many of Tanguma’s canvases have a central focal point, with subjects converging from opposite sides, like the figures of “Rebirth.”
“You can’t just say something all negative and leave it there,” he explained. “You need to propose a solution.”
Tanguma is pleased to see his Houston masterwork re-created.
He’s put his resentment far enough behind to think about the future: He has recently sketched a 21st century version of “Rebirth” that he’d like to see created as a companion piece to the original.
“I still see so much need for the kids in the streets,” he said.
For that proposal, he has drawn the punkish pachuco — a figure that represents him as a young man — holding a diploma.
Above: Houston aerosol artist Gonzo247 works on re-creating Leo Tanguma’s historic “The Rebirth of Our Nationality” mural on Canal Street. Below: “The Rebirth of Our Nationality” was painted by Tanguma and collaborators at the site in 1973.
Artist Leo Tanguma and his team had almost completed work on his mural, “The Rebirth of Our Nationality,” on March 6, 1973. His team included four colleagues and several assistants for the project on Canal Street.
Now 75, Tanguma shows off the center section of his 64-foot mural “The Torch of Quetzalcoatl,” which he keeps in his garage in Arvada, Colo.
Tanguma’s wife Jeanne, who was an ardent activist in her youth, appears in a section of a mural that has been saved in the artist’s Arvada, Colo., studio.
Gonzo247 has been hard at work at re-creating Tanguma’s mural, starting with whitewashing the original over the summer.