As I snap the photograph, Carlos Cervantes says with a chuckle, "Listo para la revolución." It's his way of saying "Cheese!"—yet, there's only a hint of a smile underneath his trademark mustache, thick and curled up at the ends just so. It's facial hair, he says, that pays homage to figures like Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, heroes of the Mexican Revolution who fought for land reform. Cervantes is indeed ready with his pinstripe fedora, Che Guevara T-shirt, and Locs sunglasses.
Behind him, the murals he's dedicated his life to painting in Louis Montaño Park (on Alto Street just east of St. Francis Drive) unfold in terraces. Walls double as serpents, and figures from the Mexica calendar are painted in profile. Towards the top, the words "Analco, Nuestro Barrio Querido … Aztlan!" are emblazoned across one banco in red, green and white lettering. Those murals, which he began in 1994 when the park was only a glimmer of an idea and the area was a vacant lot, are now under restoration.
Cervantes says his family has been living in the stretch of land that runs parallel to the Santa Fe River—Barrio Analco—for hundreds of years. The house where he lives is more like a compound, with high walls, arches and unfinished cinder block construction. The rest, he says, is "puro adobe," knocking on the wall with the knuckle of his index finger to show me. That barrio, where his family home lies, extended all the way up to San Miguel Mission, a church initially built for the Tlaxcalan people, some of whom who migrated northward from Mexico City with the Spanish after the Conquest. They settled just south of the River, while the Spanish settled on the Northside, where the Palace of the Governors was built. Analco, fittingly, translates in the Mexica language of Nahuatl, to "the land across the river."
When he arrived in 1519, Cortez found himself in the Mexica state of Tenochtitlan, where he formed an alliance with the Tlaxcalan people against the Mexica (Aztec). The Tlaxcalans then equipped the Spanish with warriors who became essential to overthrowing the Mexica Empire. As reward, the Spanish gave the Tlaxcalans protection, and allowed them to keep aspects of their pre-Columbian traditions. Later, as the Spanish pushed the frontier further north, the Tlaxcalans, some in wagon trains and others as servants and free laborers, came too, making their home in Barrio Analco.
Cervantes kneels with me on the ground in front of the park, paints laid out for the Sunday gathering of folks to help in the restoration. There's a photo album laid out too, with pictures of Cervantes as a kid, awards he received for his art as early as 1965 and mementos from his life in prison at the State Penitentiary. He pulls down his sock to show me a few of the tattoos he etched into his own leg during those years. Cervantes was even present during the notorious riots of 1980, where he helped protect some of the guards. For that, former Governor Toney Anaya commuted his sentence.
In the past 10 years, Cervantes had a stroke, which he says put him down "for a while." But "I'm back," he tells me, though at times words come slowly to him. Still, he's there on the fifth Sunday in the course of a weekly effort toward restoring the murals—aided by Facebook invites—through the grassroots organization, Art for Change (run by Moira Garcia) and word of mouth. The danzantes of the group Danza Tonantzín de Analco (named after the mother earth goddess, Tonantzín), including Garcia and Rosario Roybal, have also been helping in the effort. The group dances at the park every Tuesday evening and they consider the murals and grounds their home.
As he walks around, cane in hand, various attendees ask what color a part of the mural should be, or whether they could make a slight alteration to the original. "Ponlo" is his answer, as he helps in applying the paint or gives advice on mixing color. "The mural is for the community, to say, 'Chicanos are still here.'" Cervantes—muralista, maestro, community activist and now art consultant—in sum el gran mero mero.
Louis Montaño City Park Mural Restoration
Noon-6 pm Sunday Sept. 30 and every Sunday through Oct. 28. Free.
Louis Montaño Park,
730 Alto St.
For info, visit facebook.com/artforchangenm; to donate money for supplies, visit communitylearningnetwork.org/mural-restoration.html.