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The Michelangelo of New Mexico

Stephanie Elizondo Griest
18 Snaps

Frederico Vigil is afraid of heights.

“When I first went up here to paint the ceiling, I would clench the bottom with my toes como chango, like a monkey. I clenched so tight, my two big toenails popped off.”

A scissor-lift ascended through the middle of the watchtower. The enormity of Vigil’s latest work—a four-thousand-square-foot fresco depicting three thousand years of Latino history—became even more apparent from an elevation. There was Benito Juárez. A steam train blazing out of California. Oxen pulling carts along the Camino Real. A smirking Cervantes. Each image gleamed as if painted a moment ago, in bold, gestural brushstrokes.

Fresco detail, “Angel of the Wind.” Photograph by Susanne Tripodi.

At thirty-seven feet, the lift began to sway.

Vigil was fifty-five when he started this project. Good timing, he said: he might not have the stamina to do it today. It’s been a rough decade. He divorced for the second time. His baby brother died, and Vigil, while grieving, developed Bell’s palsy. Although the fresco has been deemed a “million-dollar project,” with most funding provided by the state of New Mexico, only a fraction found its way into Vigil’s pocket. He received about four hundred thousand dollars over nine years, and a fair portion was funneled into supplies, materials, and honoraria for his ­assistants. (And in March 2011, the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs would demand back nearly the same amount from the foundation that funded the fresco, claiming it had been spent on “impermissible” expenditures, such as administrative fees. Vigil’s share, ­however, would remain uncontested.)

In the past decade, Vigil has been levied by the IRS. He has hired lawyers. He has fired lawyers. Twice, he grabbed his brushes and threatened to quit.

Yet the wall kept luring him back.

Despite these trials, Vigil remains handsome and gallant, with slick brown hair, a Don Quixote goatee, a paint-splattered smock over jeans, and Fluchos sandals over socks. His hands resemble a carpenter’s, callused and capable. Friends call him Miguel Angel, the Michelangelo of New Mexico, and this is his Sistine Chapel: the interior of the forty-five-foot-high watchtower, or ­torreón, guarding the front gate of the National Hispanic Cultural Center (NHCC) in Albuquerque.

In May 2010, five months remained before his fresco’s grand opening, and entire stretches of wall bore either charcoal outlines or nothing at all. The notion of meeting his deadline seemed quixotic, at best. But the same could be said of the entire enterprise.

*

Like many nuevomexicanos—that is, New Mexicans of Mexican descent—Vigil can trace his roots in the state back twelve generations. His family never crossed the border: it crossed them. His grandfather was a coal miner who died of black lung disease; his father started out as a sheepherder and later opened a barbershop. Vigil grew up on Santa Fe’s Canyon Road. Today, it is a renowned arts district lined with galleries and cafés, but then it was a dirt road running along a ditch full of fish. Vigil and his seven siblings learned English at school and masonry and carpentry at home.

At age five, Vigil began drawing. Dragons, mostly. After high school, he enrolled in the seminary in San Antonio, Texas, seduced by Catholicism’s pageantry and ritual, but found it wrought with ­racism. “One of the seminarians told me, ‘All you Mexicans want to do is have babies,’” he said. Vigil departed soon after to study biology at the College of Santa Fe on a basketball scholarship, then spent the next decade in the sciences, working first for the county’s water ­services and then for the Food and Drug Administration. He married in 1970 and fathered two children. ­Although he always kept a sketchbook inside his satchel, the year he turned thirty he decided that “to be a painter, you have to paint full-time. So that’s what I had to do, not weekend painting or evening ­painting but full-time painting.”

But while Santa Fe boasted a world-famous arts scene, nuevomexicano artists had few venues for showing their work besides the annual Traditional Spanish Market, where only handicrafts such as santos (­religious figures), textiles, tinwork, baskets, and pottery were allowed.

“There is kind of a die-hard idea here in New Mexico that Hispanos can’t make real art,” ­Enrique Lamadrid, former director of Chicano Hispano Mexicano studies at the University of New Mexico, told me. “If any of us show any talent, they lead us to do artesanias. People kept encouraging ­Frederico to paint little goodies so tourists would have something to buy when they visited Santa Fe, and that is what he rebelled against. He was one of the first talents to say, ‘We’re artists, why are these people telling us what to paint?’”

After rallying a few friends, Vigil cofounded La Cofradia, a multigenerational group of nuevomexicano artists who created modern art, including painting, ­photography, and mixed media. They held shows in churches, gyms, and schools across the state throughout the late ’70s. Though it has since disbanded, the group seeded Santa Fe’s Contemporary Hispanic Market, which ­today draws tens of thousands of visitors each summer and ­winter. La Cofradia also gave its members the opportunity to learn from one another and experiment with ­different media. This is how Vigil came to study murals.

“After the Chicano mural movement, we had all these wonderful murals all over town, but after a few years, the paint started flaking off. Frederico realized that something more permanent was in order. Something like fresco. When you paint fresco, you are creating geology. You are creating stone,” said Lamadrid.

Fresco is an ancient art, dating back to Crete in the second millennium BCE. Etruscans painted ­frescoes on their tombs, as did Egyptians on their pyramids, Mayans and Aztecs on their temples, Anasazi on their kivas. Michelangelo perfected the art with the Sistine ­Chapel in the sixteenth century; Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José ­Orozco, and David Siqueiros resurrected it in the twentieth century. But while deeply revered, fresco is rarely practiced, as so few painters have the patience or resources.

In 1984, the Santa Fe Council for the Arts invited Vigil to ­attend a fresco workshop in California with masters Lucienne Bloch and ­Stephen Pope Dimitroff, who apprenticed with Rivera in the 1930s. For three weeks, Vigil slept in a chicken coop on an isolated farm overlooking the Pacific and listened to ­stories about Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Tina Modotti. Fresco, he discovered, melded all of his previous life experiences: the plastering he learned from his father, the sketches he drew in school, the chemistry he studied in college, the murals he painted in Santa Fe. “Any other medium is too leisurely for me,” he said. “Hours of painting fresco become a craving, like a runner’s high. The endorphins come out.”

He left California with a new obsession: blank walls. “I would do walls for free. I would do walls for food,” he said. He started with churches: the Capilla de San Pedro in Española, Our Lady of Sorrows in La Joya, the Rosario Chapel in Santa Fe. He painted frescoes in elementary schools, in high schools, in universities; he painted frescoes in museums. He studied frescoes in Italy. He painted frescoes in Spain. He learned something from every project, but after a decade slipped by, he longed for a storyboard, a legacy work—something everyone could see.

An hour south, in Albuquerque, another man sought the same thing.

*

Visual artists weren’t the only nuevomexicanos struggling to find venues for their work in the late 1970s. So were nuevomexicano writers, actors, dancers, and performers. After years of petitioning for a public space, they caught the attention of some Albuquerque businessmen who shared their desire to promote their cultural identity.

“Back when I went to school, the teacher would hit you over the knuckle if she heard you speaking Spanish in the classroom or on the playground,” Edward Lujan, a local civic leader, told me. “When our children started growing up, we said no way, they are not going through that. So now, my kids might understand Spanish but they are ashamed to speak it, and my grandchildren can neither understand nor speak it. [My generation] made a mistake, and we decided to do something about it.”

This idea seemed to be floating around the collective Latino consciousness. Across the nation, ­activists were plotting museums to spotlight their heritage, including in New York (El Museo del Barrio, founded in 1969), Chicago (the National Museum of Mexican Art, founded in 1982), Austin (the Mexic-Arte, founded in 1984), Omaha (El Museo Latino, opened in 1993), Long Beach, California (the Museum of Latin American Art, founded in 1996), and San Antonio (the Museo Alameda, opened in 2007). In the mid-’90s, a task force appointed by the Smithsonian determined that even the national institute had all but ignored Latinos in its exhibits. Its solution: build a Latino museum on the National Mall in Washington (an idea currently being debated in Congress).

Frederico Vigil at work inside the torreón. Photograph by Kim Jew. Image courtesy of the NHCC.

Back in Albuquerque, Lujan and his colleagues initially aspired to build a local community center, but after a decade of raising state and eventually federal funds, they decided to go national. By the late ’90s, they were ready to build. Although Albuquerque has a vibrant university and downtown area, they opted instead for Barelas, a ­working-class neighborhood along an old colonial trade route on the banks of the Rio Grande. Architects ­refurbished a Pueblo-revival elementary school for the site and added a string of adobe buildings. When an elderly woman refused to vacate her home, they built around it, incorporating two houses into the “campus.” Officially opened in October 2000, the ­National Hispanic Cultural Center today ­consists of three theaters, an art museum, a genealogy ­research center, a library, a restaurant, a gift shop, and dozens of classrooms sprawled across fifty-one acres.

The only thing missing on inaugural day, in Lujan’s mind, was a fresco. “The NHCC is there to teach and to preserve and to share our culture, so what I wanted was the Hispanic history of, basically, the world.”

Given his muralist training, Vigil was the obvious artist for the project, but where to install the work? Lujan scoured the campus for walls, but every building was heavily windowed. “Then I started thinking about the torreón,” Lujan said. “We built it as an information center, but the acoustics were so bad it didn’t make sense. One day I said to Fred, ‘Meet me at the center, I want to show you something.’ I took him inside and said, ‘There is your wall.’”

*

Vigil signed the first of several contracts on March 19, 2001. A few months later, he assembled seven scholars around a table to discuss the subjects for his fresco. Essentially, it had to show the origins of two major world cultures: Hispanidad (a fusion of ancient Celts, Iberians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Moors, Jews, Goths, and Visigoths) and Indigenismo (a blend of the Olmecs, Aztecs, Mixtecs, Mayans, and Incas, plus the native tribes of New Mexico); how those cultures collided in 1492; and what has happened in the five hundred years since.

“We’d basically sit around telling stories that happened thousands of years ago, and then we’d see what themes we could extract that would show the strength and persistence of our culture,” said Lamadrid.

After two years of meetings and wall preparations, Vigil unveiled a preliminary sketch to the public. Controversy promptly erupted. One complaint concerned the location of the fresco. Back when New Mexico was Nueva España, settlers built torreónes at the entrances of their villages to thwart attacks from Indians. Nuevomexicanos with indigenous sympathies protested the use of such a loaded colonial symbol.

People who took pride in their Spanish heritage, meanwhile, deemed the design “too Indian.” A group called the New Mexican Hispanic Culture Preservation League (NMHCPL)—best known for throwing lavish banquets at which attendees wear plumed hats and other Spanish regalia—launched a letter-writing campaign in protest. One letter, addressed to the NHCC’s then executive director Tom Chávez, stated: “the overall impression [of the proposed fresco] is one of a travel advertisement for places like the Yucatán and Central America.”

“Hispanics in New Mexico have always seen themselves differently because of their Spanish roots; there have always been people who will tell you they came from a royal family in Spain,” Carlos Vásquez, director of history and literary arts at the NHCC, told me. “This was a survival strategy against racism that really gelled in 1910, when Mexico was a Bolshevik devil on our border. That unleashed a million immigrants as well as an anti-­Mexican sentiment that is very similar to what we have now, only it was raw because there was no concept of political correctness.”

He paused before adding: “It would almost be comical, if it wasn’t so sad.”

Vigil readjusted his sketches to include more Spanish influences, but the ire did not subside. “There were shouting matches,” Chávez recalled. “One time, Frederico thought someone was actually going to hit him. Finally, I told him not to go to any of the public meetings anymore. I said, ‘You’re the artist; I’ll deal with the politics.’”

Days before the NHCC’s board voted on Vigil’s sketches, the NMHCPL sent press releases to all its members. It also filed a letter with the state attorney ­general, decrying the boardroom’s limited seating capacity. Regardless, the design passed by a vote of eight to two. The minutes from that meeting state that the fresco would be completed in two years’ time. That was in September 2003.

*

Vigil’s “office” was located against the wall farthest from the door. Hundreds of art and history books were piled on a worktable, including ­Michelangelo by Frederick Hartt, The ­Incas and Their Ancestors by ­Michael Moseley, and stacks of ­National Geographics. Another table was strewn with colored pencils, scissors, plastic skeletons, and a bulb of garlic. Jugs of distilled water, mixing baths, sifting screens, sandbags, lamps, and tripods lined the gritty floor, along with a basketball. Filthy lab coats hung on a hook, and brushes of every conceivable size, shape, and purpose—from swirling a sky to curling an eyelash—were crammed inside a crate.

Vigil held no ceremony on his first day of work. “In hindsight, I would have had champagne and tequila,” he quipped.

Of foremost concern was the sturdiness of the torreón, particularly its ceiling. Eventually, it would be coated with five layers of plaster. Would it collapse under the weight? Engineers assured him it wouldn’t, but he screwed in three-inch metal reinforcements, just in case. More worry ensued when he converted his original three-by-fourteen-foot design to the torreón’s sprawling scale and discovered he was off by nearly fifty square feet, due to the building’s cylindrical curve. Not only that, but miniature figures that looked perfectly proportionate on a flat surface turned freakish when blown up and laid out on a curve. He had to remap the entire fresco.

Kneeling among a fleet of five-gallon buckets, Vigil removed a lid. Inside was a lumpy, milky mixture that smelled acidic. This is the foundation of buon fresco: a plaster of slaked lime and silica sand. “Slake is like agave for tequila,” he said. “You have to cure it before you use it. The older, the better.”

During the two and a half years of deliberations on the fresco’s design, Vigil prepared the wall by ­plastering it three times. “Every step of fresco is as important as the other. If you try to rush it, you are not working as a unit with the wall, and you have to work together with the wall because she also has a decision,” he said.

When I remarked on his choice of pronoun, he smiled. “I refer to the wall as feminine because she is, and I treat her as such. Gently, with respect, appreciative of what she allows me to paint on her.”

From a massive tube labeled phoenicians, esperanza, he unfurled a six-foot scroll of ­tracing ­paper featuring three bearded Phoenicians paddling a canoe. Gripping a small steel tool called a perforating wheel, he traced along the ­artwork, leaving a trail of pinholes ­behind. After taping the scroll on a wall, he took a pair of nylons, filled it with finely powdered charcoal, and demonstrated how to “pounce” the nylons against the artwork, so that charcoal would seep through the pinholes and make an imprint of the Phoenicians. Such ingenuity comes at a hazardous cost. A few years ago, he developed smoker’s cough. A pulmonary exam revealed traces of the same disease that killed his coal-miner grandfather, a result of inhaling so much charcoal.

One of his patrons bought him twin air filters, but between the caustic lime and the deadly charcoal, the torreón remained a toxic vessel.

Vigil kept what appeared to be a miniature apothecary lined with rows and rows of jars with ­wondrous names. Cadmium red. Viridian green. Cobalt violet. Mars orange. Yellow ochre. Burnt sienna. Mars black. Opening a jar of Venetian red, he let me peek inside. It looked like a fistful of rubies had been pulverized into powder, the color so saturated it glowed.

He bought the bulk of these pigments during his travels to Spain, Italy, and Mexico for anywhere from $3 to $115 a jar. The high-end colors were various shades of blue: azul claro, ­cobalt blue, cerulean blue, and especially ultramarine. Back in Michelangelo’s day, ultramarine was made of crushed lapis lazuli mined in northeastern Afghanistan, and was nearly as coveted as gold. Vigil sprinkled some Venetian red into a mortar and started grinding with a pestle. To turn pigment into paint, he explained, you must grind it for fifteen to twenty minutes, adding distilled water a trickle at a time, then let it rest before using. As soon as the pigment meets the slaked lime of the plaster, a chemical reaction occurs. The pigment crystallizes, then slowly turns into limestone. This is why frescoes never fade or flake: they literally become the wall. It’s also why mistakes are so costly: you must shatter the plaster and start all over again.

Vigil aimed to paint every Thursday, arriving before dawn with an assistant or two, applying some thirty square feet of fresh plaster, and pouncing a new drawing. He generally started by 11 a.m. and finished around 9 p.m. “In the beginning, it is just stroke after stroke, laying it out, painting and painting, but then, all of a sudden, the wall becomes alive. You start to see the beauty and the depth and the power and the luminosity and the intensity of the color. That is the golden time; that is what you crave. But you have to have a lot of patience to get there.”

Vigil strode over to the scissor-lift and invited me to climb aboard. Slowly, we ascended into our ancestral DNA—from the Aztecs to the Visigoths and a hundred points in between. There were Pueblo warriors. Spanish explorers. Matachines dancers. Arab traders. African slaves. Monks and soldiers. Angels and activists. Musicians and politicians. Even four thousand square feet had its limitations: to represent the maximum number of world cultures, Vigil mixed a few gene pools. Every gradation of human pigmentation shimmered somewhere on the wall. Centuries of conquest, rape, and bloodshed were symbolized by a human skull threaded with a banner listing the bleakest dates of war: 1599, 1680, and 1692. “You see enough violence on TV. I didn’t want to put any on the wall,” he said.­

Along the ridge of the ceiling, Vigil strung a list of vocations for Latinos to strive for: Educación, Justicia, Fe, Arquitectura, Militar, Paz, ­Ciencia, Música, Esperanza, Medicina, ­Sagrada Tierra, Amor. Four nudes—two men and two women—held ­babies high into the sky-lit future, where earth, wind, and fire swirled amid hands and moons and oceans of blue. 

The art of fresco painting has changed little throughout the ages, though the invention of scissor-lifts has been a plus: during the Italian Renaissance, masters had to build their own scaffolding, which proved precarious. At least two famed frescoists fell to their deaths: Barna da Siena in the fourteenth century and Belisario Corenzio in the seventeenth (though the former may have been mere legend).

“We may have more efficient tools and brushes,” Vigil said, “but the approach to the painting and plastering remains the same. The time involved to paint a section is the same. What the artist experiences physically and emotionally has not changed. That excitement is forever.”

*

Stress mounted as Vigil’s deadline grew near. The NHCC would celebrate its tenth anniversary on 10-10-10, and his boss planned to mark the occasion with a ribbon-cutting. He worried not only about completing the wall, but about leaving her behind when he was through.

Two days prior to the grand opening of the torreón, one hundred of Vigil’s sponsors, friends, and ­family—including his ninety-plus-year-old parents—gathered inside one of the NHCC’s theaters to watch a documentary about the fresco, introduced by the artist himself.

“What you will see tonight is about half of our genetic makeup,” Vigil said from the podium, tugging at his tie. “Hopefully, another artist will come around someday and paint the next four thousand square feet.”

The guests trotted en masse to the torreón. The progress Vigil had made in just five months was astonishing, the entire wall complete except for a forty-five-square-foot stretch (though Vigil would continue “tweaking” the fresco through February). Jaguars prowled through sections that had previously lain dormant. A giant cornstalk bore kernels colored red, yellow, and blue. Montezuma extended handfuls of gold. Above the doorway stood La Malinche, the translator/­mistress/slave of famed conquistador Hernán Cortés. Widely ­considered the mother of the mestizo world, she gazed upon her ­modern-day descendents milling below. For a moment, the torreón resembled a family reunion, everyone craning their necks as they searched the wall for a familiar face, and calling out when they found one.

Suddenly, a man yelled: “¡Viva Frederico!”

“¡VIVA!” the crowd cried in unison.

Forty-eight hours of festivities followed. Los Hermanos Penitentes, an ascetic Catholic fraternity, filed inside the torreón to give the blessing. Together, they sang a cappella prayers of worship that echoed off the wall. Hours later, a red carpet was unfurled for a hundred-dollar-per-plate gala, where one of Vigil’s sketches fetched thirty-six hundred dollars at an auction. The following afternoon, a parade marched from downtown Albuquerque to the gates of the NHCC, led by a flatbed truck featuring a papier-­mâché torreón. Fresco-themed T-shirts, ­coffee mugs, key chains, mouse pads, lens cloths, and Christmas ornaments were sold. More souvenirs for ­tourists—only now the trinkets mimicked Vigil’s work rather than the other way around.

Outside the torreón, crowds of nuevomexicanos assembled. Everyone wanted to see the wall that—unlike the one stretching along the southern border of the state—united rather than divided them. At one point, Vigil walked by and the crowd burst into applause. “What’s next, maestro?” a father of three called out.

Vigil paused a moment. “A wall,” he said. “I need a new wall.” 

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