Wednesday, November 30, 2005

José Hernández Delgadillo: Mexico’s Artist Agitator

(Click on the images for enlargement.)

He is safely dead. He will no longer be a thorn in the side of Mexico’s oligarchs—its presidents and politicos, its labor bosses and business tycoons. He also did not hesitate to criticize publicly those artists who failed to take them on.

Mexico’s greatest political artist of the last third of the 20th century died December 26, 2000. The name of José Hernández Delgadillo was sufficiently recognizable in Mexico for him to be nominated for president on the Socialist ticket in that country’s first primary election in 1987. No other Mexican artist, not even Rivera, Orozco or Siqueiros, los Tres Grandes, could claim as much. As matters turned out, the left opposition to PRI (the Partido Revolutionario Institutional) that had ruled Mexico since 1929, finally chose Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, who had defected from PRI. He was not a socialist at all but a “progressive democrat,” as Delgadillo described him, but that was enough for the painter, and he devoted his skills as a muralist to the Cárdenas candidacy. On election night the computers counting the votes “were allowed” to break down. After eight days the PRI candidate, Carlos Salinas, was declared the winner with 50.7% of the votes. Like millions who protested in the streets, Delgadillo believed that Cárdenas actually had won. Because PRI held all positions of state power, Cárdenas conceded in the interest of preserving peace. Delgadillo believed that decision was a major mistake.

Delgadillo was selected as a presidential candidate because he had worked with the disenfranchised all over Mexico—trade unions and campesino associations independent of PRI control, as well as university, polytechnic and secondary students, who traditionally had been a source of democratic socialist activism. He sought to give them a voice, not only by participating in their planning but also engaging them in painting big brazen billboard–like graphics inside and outside their meeting halls and classrooms, along major thoroughfares, even on a barn. Since 1969 he had absorbed himself with creating these works of political art—murals and monumental sculpture—and could count over 200 of them before his death. What is compelling about them is that they are not just propaganda, which they are in the best sense; they are powerful art, drawing not only on the tradition of Social Realism but also on Aztec and Mayan design and his own passionate heart, his gran corazón.
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Delgadillo’s life is like that of a hero of a picaresque novel, a Don Quixote, not of self–delusion, but a creator of new realities, an itinerant battler against oppression, driven by an unquenchable thirst for social justice and armed with the talent and ingenuity to succeed. It is well to recall that Che Guevara thought of his compañeros and himself fighting against all odds in the Sierra Maestra as Don Quixotes.)

Delgadillo was born in 1928 in Tepeapulco in the state of Hidalgo in the heart of Mexico. [This information about his early life is derived mainly from his Autobiographical Notes, transcribed by his friend Benito Balam in 1981 and translated by Catalina Sherwell Hand in 2003] His father, Francisco Hernández Islas, an apprentice saddle–maker at 13, was kidnapped during the Mexican Revolution of 1910 by an army allied to the Zapatistas and in two years rose to the rank of captain. He was released to take care of his family when his father, searching for him, was mistakenly killed by his son’s troops. Francisco married María de la Paz Delgadillo, whose parents were landowners in the state of Tlaxcala near Puebla. Although they lost ownership of their hacienda during the Revolution, Delgadillo remembers in his Autobiographical Notes its distemper murals depicting local daily life with the peons painted smaller than their master. The large house where he lived until he was seven also was decorated with murals that he describes as “very beautiful.” The art he grew up surrounded by clearly made an impact on him. From his father he gained a strong sense of justice, he says, and from his mother, who occasionally painted, a love for art and literature. As a boy Delgadillo would accompany his father to work in the fields and hunt in the mountains, mixing with the workers and their children who brought maguey to the fermenter that his father owned to be prepared for pulque. They became the subjects of his early drawings. The fledgling artist also was interested in politics by one of his teachers in elementary school. The boy read the newspaper daily, absorbed by the coming of World War II and developing early a hostility to imperialism and the United States.

A teacher encouraged him to go to a rural normal school to become a teacher himself. There he studied with the sons of campesinos, who greatly influenced him as a result of their doing farm labor together. Another teacher introduced him to the Mexican Communist Party that he joined. But he says he did not understand at the time the hammers, sickles and red banners in the murals that had been done in an auditorium converted from the chapel of a nearby hacienda.. His talent was discovered by a biology teacher when he was not paying attention and had to disclose the drawing he was doing of him. As a result he was appointed the illustrator of the school newspaper. He describes how on travelling to Puebla for paints he barely escaped with his life when he came under machine-gun fire as governing party thugs attacked the office of a rival candidate. That was in 1940 and his first encounter with political violence.

It was his copying of bullfight posters (he had done some bullfighting himself) that attracted the attention of a well–known matador in 1945 who offered to take him to Mexico City where he was introduced to the prominent painter Carlos Ruano Llopis. He referred the young man to a disciple, Antonio Navarrete Trejo, whose apprentice he became, developing his drawing and oil technique. Meanwhile he supported himself by clerking in a wholesale grocery and making furniture and pottery. Visiting museums and exhibits, he discovered los Tres Grandes, preferring Orozco to Rivera and Siqueiros. He painted working people and landscapes, as well as portraits, selling them to tradesmen and friends, soon making it possible for him to live off his painting. He had his first one-man exhibit in 1954. The following year he enrolled in La Esmeralda (The National School of Painting, Sculpture and Engraving), studying with Pablo O’Higgins and Ignacio Aguirre, whom he regarded outstanding teachers. O’Higgins had come from the US in the 1920s to do murals with Rivera and became one of the major figures of the second generation of the Mexican muralists and graphic artists of the Taller de Gráfica Popular. It was O’Higgins that Delgadillo credits with teaching him al fresco technique, that is, painting on wet plaster so that the pigment becomes part of the wall.

Delgadillo did his first mural in 1957 as part of his training. It was across the street from La Esmeralda in the Escuela Niños Héroes, an elementary school. In those days every public building had to have a mural, and doing one was frequently part of an art student’s training. Delgadillo’s was a traditional fresco facing an open-air patio. In the monumental manner of Orozco’s murals in the patio of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria it displays a march of indigenous people in their native garb through their village with a banner calling for justice and schools. Delgadillo says that it represents a boy whose father was killed violently in the fields, parting from his mother to go off to school. The mural was damaged by the earthquake of 1985, and the cracks were filled with plaster and left unpainted. Orozco was to remain a strong influence on Delgadillo’s work after 1968, but it was the older artist’s expressionistic Man of Fire theme and style that was to inspire him rather than his earlier solid forms that his young admirer took as a model here.

Between 1956 and ’61 Delgadillo worked in an office doing architectural drafting and engineering for the government of the Federal District, participating in the design of the central Merced and Jamaica markets of the capital. This experience as a draftsman together with his early determination to master the academic drawing of the human figure were important skills he could utilize later. While at the Esmeralda he began to paint more freely, admiring the work not only of Orozco, but also Siqueiros and Picasso. In 1959 and ’60 he received public commissions for high relief sculpture in concrete for the arena in the Magdalena Mixuca Sports City, and he designed a 25–meter high symbol of the book fair there and murals in pavilions. By now he had decided to take as his surname, his mother’s maiden name rather than his father’s because, he said, “Delgadillo” was less common than “Hernández.”

During most of the 1960s he confined himself to easel painting, some very sizable. Most of it was of rough-hewn and shadowy hulking figures even having difficulty to breathe in a murky ambience of oppression and war. Hombres, a work of 1961, shows two haunted figures, one robust, yet shielding his body with his arms, the other behind, skeletal, suggesting a photo negative, as if exposed to atomic radiation. It won him a scholarship to Paris for six months, but he remained there two years partly through commissions by the Mexican government. During his stay he learned French, the only foreign language that he could speak. His work brought him considerable recognition although his principal motif during the decade was the human figure at a time when it was out of fashion in the international art circles dominated by abstraction, both gestural and hard edged. He was one of a group of artists who were utilizing the human form to express the plight of mankind in the face of violence, especially the Cold War that was not cold at all in Latin America and Vietnam while threatening to engulf everyone in thermonuclear apocalypse. These artists did not share a common analysis, ideology or politics. Indeed, most were non-political. Nor did they join together in any lasting association. It was precisely their separateness and alienation that characterized them. It was only this shared sense of helplessness conveyed by the use of the vulnerable human body that united them in the minds of a number of art critics who described them as the “New Humanism,” “Interiorists” or even more vaguely in the self-characterization of some of the Mexican artists who exhibited together, “The New Presence” (La Nueva Presencia).

Individualism prevailed, and the Mexican Mural Movement that had flourished during the post-Revolutionary era was now in eclipse. But the veterans of this socially concerned art, who were organized in the Salón de la Plástica Méxicana, invited Delgadillo to become a member in 1961 and he exhibited in their annual shows. The Salón, although funded by the government, was governed by the artists themselves, and Delgadillo was to serve on its board of directors. Artists still received a few state commissions to do public art but simply repeated the old themes, which had lost their political and artistic credibility. Delgadillo himself complained of this although he designed a mural in 1963 for a building of PRI and received second prize for his efforts. For most young ambitious Mexican artists it was the abstract styles that had emerged in the United States during the 1940s and ’50s that they belatedly embraced in the hope that they would gain distinction and clients.

Having exhibited widely during the ’60s, particularly in Europe but also gaining a one–man show in Beverly Hills in 1967, Delgadillo began undertaking new projects in Mexico City that year. On the basis of his growing reputation and connections, he received a government commission to design murals for the newly completed Metro in the capital. Based on his knowledge of the Paris Metro together with his architectural and engineering experience gleaned a decade earlier, he rejected the temptation to repeat the worn out themes of the Mexican Revolution and instead submitted a complex proposal using new materials and technologies for public art. The government wanted him to do the murals by himself or with assistants, but, while he believed that he possessed the skills to carry out the project on his own, he felt it would be wrong not to share the design and execution of the project with other artists. This led to his abandoning it altogether.
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All of this was to change utterly. Delgadillo was caught up in the popular demonstrations led by students in 1968 that galvanized the widespread grievances that had been accumulating since the end of the Revolution in 1920. Most of the government leaders for a quarter of a century after the Revolution had been generals and officers in its armies who had seized power but had co-opted its causes of free elections, the distribution of land to those who tilled it, collective bargaining by trade unions, public education and social welfare. They made only token concessions to consolidate their power. Among these were the encouraging of murals on revolutionary and nationalist themes. Muralists had been from the end of the Revolution among its chief advocates but also the most outspoken critics of officials and bosses who had assumed its mantel. Because the government sought to trumpet its revolutionary achievements, it found it difficult to gag its artist critics, particularly when they won international fame. The former generals, now politicians, allied themselves with the bosses of labor unions and campesino associations, forming in 1929 the predecessor of what was to become the Partido Revolucionario Institutional, which constituted a nationwide political machine that managed to remain in power for 70 years, the longest regime of any nation in the world during the 20th century with the exception of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, which ruled only four years longer. The 19th century oligarchy of regional magnates, caudillos, who had presided over enormous estates and populations, now was replaced by a new oligarchy appropriate to an industrial, urbanizing society but one in which agriculture continued to play a major role. Party bigwigs initially rebuffed corporate business, especially foreign and particularly US investors, nationalizing the nation’s rich oil resources in 1938 and grabbing for themselves government contracts in all types of production. Mexico developed economically as a semi–modern nation run by a network of bureaucracies with everyone dependent on favors and connections under the domination of party magnates.

During World War II private fortunes had been made in industry and agriculture supplying the US with consumers goods and food while its domestic production had been channeled to armaments. By the 1950s the PRI oligarchs were collaborating with investors and industrialists outside their circle and from the US. The government had never met its full legal obligations to create new community-owned countryside, the ejidos, by redistributing the land of the pre–revolutionary haciendas. The state insured the votes of campesinos by controlling the distribution of seed and deciding who should receive roads and irrigation. The disparities between rich and poor increased with campesinos being driven from the land by US agribusiness investors to shan-tytowns (colonias proletarias, ciudades olvidades) on the margins of the cities. The wages of industrial workers lagged for years, and strikes had been severely repressed. Workers and civil servants’ demands for unions independent of PRI control were denied, often violently. PRI had never allowed itself to be defeated in presidential or gubernatorial elections In the mid–60s the government also clamped down on efforts to open the nominating process for public office and annulled mayoral elections that the party had lost. In 1968 civil servants con-trasted the low level of their pay with the cost the state was spending on preparations for the impending Olympic Games. The international competitions were intended to show the world the results of three decades of rapid develop-ment, Mexico’s economic “miracle” that had in fact imiserated much of its population.

These contradictions were brought to a head during the summer of ’68 as the result of a tiff between two secondary schools which escalated because of police over-reaction. Street demonstrations followed, and the brutality of the authorities drew in the students of University and Polytechnic students, then the middle sectors of the population with their varied grievances against the government. As elsewhere around the world that year, students became the advocates of truly representative government. Because these moderate demands were denied, people in all sectors—workers, campesinos, professional people whose advancement was stymied, and especially students, increasingly took matters into their own hands to dismantle the political machine. They called for participatory democracy, auto–gestión (workers’ self–management) and authentic community control in the urban barrios and the ejidos. They were demanding direct citizen involvement in public decision–making at the workplace as well as constituencies, direct democracy. The students formed a Consejo Nacional de Huelga (National Strike Council).

On October 2, ten days before the beginning of the Olympic Games, some 5,000 protestors marched to Tlatelolco near Mexico City’s Centro for a rally. It had in the 1960s become a show-place re-development project. The Foreign Ministry and affordable residential high-rises were built around the Plaza de las Tres Culturas with its Aztec remains and a colonial church. As the crowd was about to break up, tanks and troops suddenly appeared and shots rang out. It became a killing-ground. Afterwards the government charged that students had begun the fray by firing on the soldiers.

It was only in the last few years that the truth of Tlatelolco has begun to be exposed. President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, fearing that the demonstrations would embarrass his government if they continued to the Olympic Games, ordered that snipers place themselves in the apartment buildings that flanked the plaza and fire on the soldiers below so as to provoke their shooting into the crowd. Luis Echeverria, head of the Interior Ministry and later to become president, directed the attack. One of the first to be hit was a general in command of a paratroop battalion. [Sam Dillon, “Anniversary of ’68 Massacre Brings Facts to Light,” NY Times, Sept. 14, 1998] Between 200 and 1,500 were killed. Some 2,000 demonstrators were beaten and jailed. The number of dead could not be verified because the army quickly carried off the bodies.

Delgadillo, whose mother and sister had an apartment at Tlatelolco, was not present at the shooting, he said, because he was repairing a crack that had developed in an elaborate mobile sculpture he was working on in the basement of the Palacio de Bellas Artes a mile away. While down there, he heard the shooting. The massacre changed his life and art. As he wrote, “From 1968,the year of the brutal repression of the Mexican people, I decided to take their side in order to struggle against this unjust system directed by the upper bourgeoisie and imperialism.” [Statement in Presencia del Salón de la Plástica Méxicana, INBA, 1977]

At that time Delgadillo was teaching at the Esmeralda, and his prestige was such that in 1969 he had been made director of art for the Centro Residencial Morelos, another new affordable housing project in the capital. The project was financed and under the direction of the National Bank of Mexico. Delgadillo and 24 of his students did 40 murals between the rows of windows at ground level. The students were given freedom in the design of their works. Delgadillo contributed at least three and likely more of these. His pieces depict robust women and men seated on the ground in conversation or watching the residents pass. The figures are monumental like sculpture, garbed in flecked apparel with even legs x–rayed to take advantage of the pattern of bones. These are impersonal decorative works that bear a resemblance to his more haunted, atmospheric easel work of the 1960s. A particularly beautiful even more abstract composition using these forms is a bas relief mural he created using polyester. But one of the panels shows a blindfold bandaged bound figure, seemingly beaten into submission while another is prone on the ground. “69” is stamped on the first, its numerals awry, while the date is partially shone again, as if to drive home the aftermath of the tragedy. This was his first mural explicitly about the political oppression of the time, although his earlier painting of the 1960s alluded to the general ambience of foreboding.

Meanwhile, Delgadillo along with two other well–established artists, Benito Messaguer and José Capdevila, designed three murals composed of fully abstract forms about 20 feet wide and rise from the ground the full 15–story height of the towers, perhaps 150 feet. Similar works were being done about the same time in New York City where they were called “supergraphics.” They were to become ubiquitous around Mexico City and the world over the next decade, employed to decorate bare walls of high rises. Delgadillo and his compañeros, following the traditional method of fresco muralists, picked out their designs on full–scale paper so that craftsmen could mount the sheets on the wall, charcoal through the holes, strip off the paper and recreate the design. Workmen who were used to the height then airbrushed the final murals. The results were impersonal, without meaning, simply rather elegant shapes floating along the flanks of the towers that broke up the rigid rows of windows and brick corners.

But the final work of the project marked a turning–point for Delgadillo. Without advising the bank, he decided to com-memorate the victims of Tla-telolco. In the center of a little plaza among the apart-ment towers, he created a three–story high free–stand-ing monument in crusted concrete (cemento de arena) around a steel armature. There are three separate pieces. In the grass lies a twice–life–size severed head painted bone–white and screaming at the sky. The remaining pieces are unpainted raw gray concrete. Resting on a simulated tombstone, a massive casket on its side exposes the corpse inside, its body wrapped in bandage-like straps. Behind it a big arm rises in a pledge, its muscles and tendons echoing the casket straps. Stark abstract pattern is adapted to the human forms with a view to expressing a deeply felt message, a mix Delgadillo used in some of the murals here at the Residencia and was to pursue elsewhere. A journalist described the work as La Noche de la Tinta Negra, (The Night As Black As Ink), and the name has stuck. Tlatelolco changed Delgadillo’s art and life, and this work signifies that transformation. His previous painting depicted passive victims. It had been characterized by introverted pathos. This monument and his following work was also about victims, but they now resist. The transformation is from plight to fight. His adoption of new stylistic means embodied this. From the murky stippled images of suffering there suddenly appear hard–edge figures of resistance. With this work he put at risk a promising career within the art establishment to commit himself to an art of popular protest and proletarian revolution.

In his autobiography Delgadillo says that after Tlatelolco, he decided never to work for the government or its private affiliates again. He refused to cooperate with a regime that abused its people, and he insisted on artists’ freedom of expression. In 1975 the government offered to send him and his works on an international tour, but he refused. Such an exhibit of protest art, he said, would lend credence to the authorities’ claim that free speech and democracy existed in Mexico. He would do as few things for the private sector as possible, only for a minimal livelihood, and these usually were political in theme. Some of these works were on exhibit and available to purchase at the Salón de la Plastica Méxicana and a private gallery, Mer Kup, that handled his pieces for many years. He now sought to devote himself mainly to serve what he saw as the “ongoing revolution.” He joined together with other artists, singers and actors of the Arte Colectivo en Acción. He did illustrations for magazines, newspapers and other publications, like small books of poetry, as well as covers for phonograph records and tape recordings devoted to revolution and distributed to students, workers and the popular sector. This was one of the tasks to engage him for the rest of his life. Delgadillo says that the “massive mobilizations of the people of 1968 and the fascist tendencies of the Mexican government that turned Mexico City in just a matter of days into a terrorized city” that culminated in the massacre of Tlatelolco moved him to study Marxism to understand what was happening. Although he had joined the Mexican Communist Party while a student in normal school, by the time of Tlatelolco he appears to have left it, realizing that many of its members were opportunistic, willing to sacrifice their politics to their careers or, on the other hand, become ciphers of Stalinism.

Tlatelolco was followed by a reign of terror with paramilitary death squads, Los Halcones (Falcons), attacking suspected opponents of PRI. In 1971 during a march of students and workers through the center of Mexico City calling for educational reforms, political rights and the freeing of political prisoners, 40 students were killed in front of the press. Much of the opposition went underground and some re-emerged as urban and rural guerrillas. During the student strike of 1968, the government, fearful that the democratic contagion would spread to restless labor unions, made a deal with them for better wages. When hard times came again in 1973, workers renewed their demands to make unions independent of government leadership. That year also campesinos who were being marginalized by agribusiness stepped up land seizures that peaked in 1976 with the result that Echeverria, who was president, was compelled to support some at the end of his term, only to have these resettlement efforts overturned by his successor, López Portillo. In the state of Guerrero former school teachers Genero Vásquez Rojas and Lucio Cabañas, led insur-gencies until they were killed. Members of the families of business execu-tives and officials were kid-napped, and US subsidi-aries were bombed in 1974.

These events moved Delgadillo to create in 1973 the first of his militant murals. His main support came from student organizations, which invited him to paint at univer-sities, technical schools and teachers’ colleges throughout the country. The murals appear on these institutions’ facades, in their patios and lecture halls. Delgadillo said it was better not to seek permission. Since the universities are formally “autono-mous,” that is, run by the students, faculty and alumnae, the students were often conceded the walls. If the authorities interfered, that itself could become a chance to raise underlying issues. Delgadillo did the designs, and often he invited the students to help with the painting, filling in the flat monochromatic color in the forms he already delineated. He had found a vehicle to engage untrained artists in powerful public statements that all could immediately grasp. A work was often completed in the course of a day, during which students performed music, attracting viewers and discus-sion.

These works are vehemently agitational. The earlier ones from 1973 to ’76 look like billboards or enormously enlarged posters with their strong, flat color and stark, silhouetted figures. Typical of these is a work he painted in 1973 on two adjoining walls of a broad passageway through the Esquela de Diseño y Artesenias (School of Design and Crafts), situated in Mexico City’s Ciudadela (Citadel), built in 1807. Here everything is rendered in black, red, yellow and white. At the left, automatic weapons are pointed from the helmeted heads and hunched shoulders of the military. (In other versions it is only impersonal aimed gun barrels, projecting from the edge, reminiscent of Goya’s Desastres de la Guerra.). In the center, the decapitated heads of civilians lie on the ground, their screams or final breaths rising from gaping mouths like the speech volutes of Aztec painting. At the right, survivors defend themselves with flailing fists and a tool quickly snatched up. (In other works they have found rifles that they point back at their assailants.) Big wedges of color like search-lights cut across the figures and pull the mural together. Mostly the figures are only heads, fists, arms, sometimes chests. The rest is coils, indicat-ing their outward and inward turmoil. Great beaks of flame burst from their midst and like projections of their vehemence strike back at their attackers.

The same year Delgadillo condensed this imagery at the Colegio de Ciencias y Humanidades Azcapotzalco in the capital. Here the defenders have found their own weapons but along with them point a sickle and a book, knowledge also being power. Represented in sharp black silhouette against the white wall, they reach out in both directions from red and yellow concentric crescents, again coils of passion. Black speech volutes and flames project from the knot. Lying on the ground at the side are two severed heads of their comrades. The simplicity of the design and the explosive feelings it displays are compelling. Delgadillo was doing a class here with students who proudly displayed their full–scale mural designs on paper.

Also in 1973 he elaborated this vocabulary of forms into more complex murals where enriched pattern combines decorative appeal with emotive power. At the entrance of the lecture hall of the Law School at the University of Zacatecus, Delgadillo spread his familiar imagery across a long wall, the figures swallowing up the doorway. Against the military who are firing above bodies that breathe their last volutes, the survivors resist with only their shouts and fists, their passion expressed by red and yellow coils, wedges and licking flames. The composition is a big dynamic splaying out of swirling geometric forms. In a secondary school also in Zacatecus that year he painted as vigorous a work on the second level of the central patio open to the sky. Here the fury of the victims of impersonal muzzles pointed from the left strikes back with a single rifle and fists, rendered with even more intense gestures, now in orange, vermilion and black against the cream stucco. Big beaks and talons of color project from the knot of defenders, as one of their number falls backward, but one of his arms is repeated as in a time-exposure but also suggesting other persons who will join the struggle. The variety of these two works done nearby in close succession indicates the inventiveness of the artist as he expanded the possibilities of his forms.

The bold hard–edge patterns of these murals remind you of a vastly magnified woodcut or silkscreen, a pre–Co-lumbian codex and Mayan low-relief sculpture. Their forms have been appropriated from indigenous art: profiles with bridgeless noses and open mouths that indicate speech or shouts; the squarish builds of the figures; the broad, ritualized gestures; the stylized repetitions like the row of heads that suggest ancient rather than modern murder. Arms and faces are cross–hatched, seemingly bandaged and outlined with straining blood vessels, bone and muscle. The markings sometimes resemble war paint or masks. Like earlier Mexican muralists, Delgadillo utilized the forms of Indian culture to emphasize the rich heritage of his people, their capabilities and resistance to exploitation. His figures often seem primordial. It is as if they have sprung from the earth and huddle close together for protection against their assailants as they fight back. Sometimes he represents them with the harrowing faces of his victims in his easel work of the 1960s, their eyes reduced to empty sockets, their mouths gaping. But fight back they do. These big graphics bring to their outrage and calls to action a breadth of reference, a semi-abstract form and monumentality that link them to the fine arts. These murals connect popular and high culture in a new way.

This was the design of Delgadillo’s early murals at schools and universities elsewhere in Mexico City, Cuernevaca, Toluca, Veracruz, Jalapa, Pachuca, Fresnillo, Zapatepec, Durango and Tepic. At the same time as Delgadillo used students as assistants, he encouraged them to do murals of their own with the result that where he has painted, there was usually an outburst of student work, as at the normal schools at Tuxtla Gutiérrez. This was guerrilla art, indicting the attacks on civilians and encouraging their protests. That most remained on walls for years indicates the power of the student movement and the support of some professors.

The most important influence on Delgadillo was José Clemente Orozco. His Promoteo in the refectory of Pamona College in Clairmont, California (1930) and Man of Fire (El Hombre en Llamas) in the cupola of the Chapel of the Hospicio Cabañas in Guadalahara (1939) appear to have provided continuing inspiration to Delgadillo’s spiraling figures wrapped in flames, the fire inflicted on them by their oppressors and the fire of their own outrage and capability springing back in response. They are not merely in flames but more importantly, enflamed. The connection is more overt in Orozco’s burning soaring figure surrounded by a ring of gesturing followers at Guadalahara. But it is also evident in the flame–illuminated muscles of the naked Prometheus who is wresting fire from Zeus. Although influenced by Orozco’s vortices, Delgadillo selected and concentrated them so that his composition stands as original on its own and projects its own power. In fact, the younger muralist’s spirals are usually only part of his full composition with the rest posing a counter force, as in the case of soldiers who attack the coils of workers. Delgadillo transforms Orozco’s fully rounded figures into flat, graphic designs that possess a different kind of boldness. The full expression of his borrowing as well as his independence was to come at the height of Delgadillo’s career in his Hombre Nuevo Hacia el Futuro in Cuernavaca in 1989.

But there is an important difference in the way that Delgadillo and Orozco visualize the struggle for liberation, and it is based on a key difference in their politics. Orozco presents a single leader who is creative and incorruptible surrounded by the frightened quailing masses. Delgadillo shows no leaders. It is the people themselves who together take the initiative to resist. It is not the “man on fire” but the “people on fire” that he depicts. Part of Orozco’s strength is that although he takes the side of the people, he berates their divisiveness, their gullibility before demagogues, their frequent drunkenness and their proneness to brutality. From his point of view, it is only the unique leader who can save them—Quetzalcóatl (in his murals at Dartmouth College), Zapata (his easel painting), Prometheus and the “Man on Fire.” Delgadillo shows the people sometimes frightened and cowering, sometimes in retreat, sometimes even brutal in their outrage (the University of Toluca murals), but it is the people alone, without leaders, who he shows pulling themselves together to strike back.

In his easel work of the 1960s Delgadillo depicted people crushed, intimidated and passive. It was Tlatelolco, then afterwards government and paramilitary attacks that roused in him the determination to challenge the forces of repression and to do so by grassroots organizing. It was the mass organization of the students and their supporters before Tlatelolco and the continuing resistance after it led by teachers like Genero Vásquez Rojas (and more distantly the example of Che Guevara, who also appears in one of his murals), leaders who were close to those whom they led, involving them in the leadership, that Delgadillo regarded as the agents of liberation, the self–liberation of the people. What Delgadillo counted on was not the unique leader but the solidarity of the people. He sought to provide that kind of leadership himself to the groups of students, trade unionists and campesino associations that he worked with, not only doing murals with them but also planning political strategy. Although his friends called him el director de la orqesta, he continually sought the opinions of those whom he worked with. He often took the initiative and offered his talents but sought the participation of everyone else to the limit of their abilities.

Even art critics sympathetic to the Mexican mural tradition like Raquel Tibol complained that Delgadillo repeated himself with this imagery, that he was not showing growth, which was so cultivated by modern artists. His response was that he did frequently draw on the same repertory of forms, but he tried to adjust them to the issues of the groups who sought him out. He was inventive developing considerable variety within his idiom. His imagery is so rich in allusion and bold in design that it is compelling. In any case, Delgadillo said that his viewers in Tuxtla Gutiérrez were not aware of his images in Durango or Monterrey. His principal public were not the cosmopolitan bourgeoisie and art professionals but students and working people, especially those in the localities where he painted who needed expression and validation of their resistance. Moreover, Mexican working people and students were steeped in their native traditions at least as much of the better-educated. Delgadillo’s aim was not so much formal innovation as meeting the needs of those whom he painted for. He was moved by the desire to create social activist art. This was against the grain of much sophisticated Modern Art that was pre–occupied with personal expression and innovation to only stimulate the mind. There was however an alternative Modern Art—-that driven by social justice and political mission, which the Mexican muralists and graphic artists had created. At its best it expressed intense feelings, those of social passion—empathy for the abused, outrage against the abusers. But that tradition had fallen into decay. In his easel work of the ’60s Delgadillo had experienced and expressed personal despair but this was not so much for himself alone but for humanity. His feelings were especially desperate because he was isolated, unassociated with any viable political resistance movement.. But now that despair had been transformed into political passion because he was participating in the mobilizing of the oppressed.

It was not only the imagery of Delgadillo’s murals that was new. It was also his manner of working. He wanted to paint in public and engage viewers by allowing them to witness the evolution of the process. He always cooperated with the local students, workers, campesinos or popular groups. He wanted to understand their issues so that he could adopt his thinking and imagery to their needs. Often he joined them in strategizing for their projects, bringing to them his increasing experience about how to do activism and function as part of a larger social movement. At first he designed his murals in advance, but as he became practiced, he was able to size up the wall on the spot, determine how it would be seen and improvise a design while working, as he describes in his autobiography. He also wanted to paint in simultaneous collaboration with other “cultural workers”—-poets and musicians”-who performed while he painted before the crowd that gathered. Los Mascarónes, a political theater group, might put on a skit. Doing a mural became a multi-cultural “happening,” a total experience of expression around a common theme, which he believed would be that much more effective in drawing out people and arousing them to political action. The first time Delgadillo engaged students in assisting him in painting a mural was at the Azcapotzalco Colegio in 1973. Making art with others became a participatory experience with a view to motivating people to act together to take charge of their lives. Few of these activist murals bears a title, a further break with convention. They spoke for themselves. They were calls to action. They were not part of an artist’s oeuvre, his collected works. Delgadillo says that the murals were part of the struggle that he and the community shared.

As to his materials, he tried to get the best paints that he could given his means and those of the groups with which he was working. What was key, he says, was the condition of the wall. If the surface was sound, even the cheapest paints would last for years although there would be fading due to the sun, weather and pollution. But there was not much time to prepare a surface. For exteriors he mainly used vinyl industrial and house paints. He and his crew had to work from ladders, scaffolding being too expensive, and this became precarious with murals that could be three stories high, as at the University of Toluca. While the students protected the walls they had worked on, still the authorities or hostile groups sought to remove them. By 1981 alone, some 30 of the 150 murals he had painted were destroyed. Law suits that he filed against the perpetrators were not successful.

In 1975 Delgadillo described himself as one of the few “artists of struggle” in Mexico at that time. “It is very risky to do political art now,” he said. “You endanger your liveli-hood and freedom.” Wasn’t his celebration of civilians resist-ing with rifles romantic, and wouldn’t it mislead people about the govern–ment's vulnerability? “No,” he replied, “the guer-rillas are contributing to the liberation of Mexico. They cannot do it alone, but they are a necessary part of the rebuild-ing of society.” He took the position that, while popular organizing was necessary in the barrios, unions and schools to bring non-violent pressure on the regime, that alone was insufficient given the shootings of civilians by the government and its paramilitary allies.

In 1982 at an exhibition of his art at the Salón Plástica Méxicana, he put up a statement that contended that violence was a major part of Mexican art of the previous 70 years because the Mexican people had had continually to struggle against oppression, beginning with the forces of Zapata and Villa to secure the aims of the Revolution of 1910—pan, tierra y libertad. The government’s embrace of dependent capitalist development had resulted in 60% of the population being undernourished, 40% still illiterate and a foreign debt that ate up 73% of government revenues. Efforts by the people to make good the Constitution’s promise of land to the tillers and trade unions controlled by their workers had been violently put down. Most recently, the repression that had continued since 1968 and ’71 had compelled the people to defend themselves. As he said in his autobiography “I believe that in order to be effective in revolutionary art, one has to understand that the aim of every revolution is to seize power.”

Earning a livelihood in this manner was precarious. Besides doing smaller pieces for sale, Delgadillo found a patron, a pioneer Mexican plastic surgeon, Dr. Mario González Ulloa. In 1975 the doctor commissioned him to do a mural for a medical conference hall at the former Hacienda Cortès in Cuernavaca, which he had recently purchased, restored and turned into a luxurious resort. (The contradiction of militant anti–establishment art in such a locale is possible only in Mexico where well–to–do professionals support progressive political art and there is a tradition of radical painting, originally supported by the state.) Delgadillo had illustrated a book of the physician as early as 1963 and another in 1972.

Delgadillo was able to work on the conference hall mural by himself without the pressures of time and the interference of hostile groups. This permitted him to utilize the tonal and atmospheric effects of his earlier easel pieces, combining this with his flat graphic designs. The mural, intended to be portable, was composed of five panels joined side by side, and then by five more that were originally hidden behind the first and only later exhibited adjoining the others.. In the work a crouching group of armed civilians leave behind their massacred compañeros as they press apprehensively forward. Black diagonals suggest charred timbers collapsed from a ceiling. The figures overlap each other to form a wedge and exhibit a solidity and weight not found in the artist’s earlier work. . It is as if these are indigenous people who live close to the earth and wrested rifles from their enemies to defend themselves. A row of severed heads gape from the ground while others have been tumbled in a pit. The entire scene appears caught in the reflected crimson and magenta light of a nighttime conflagra-tion. The overall but nuanced reds and ashen grays are a change from the flat tones and sharp contrasts of his previous murals. Still strong graphic elements remain with the rhythmical-ly repeated, overlapping figures, their war paint and searchlights that splay across them. In the second sequence of five panels panic grips a crowd of gaping heads whose arms with their hands hacked off reach forward while behind them hulking figures rise from their knees. As robust as they are, their skeletons show as in an x–ray. They all flee from a terror which at the far left edge is incarnated by a serpent that rears up on its coils and bares its fangs over naked corpses. The paint application in this second set of panels is rougher and crusted, applied by a palette knife. The ensemble was titled Represión-Revolución.

From here on Delgadillo was to work in two styles—this more studied type that he could pursue working alone, and the flat graphic style that he utilized with untrained assistants on campuses. At first glance the ex–Hacienda Cortéz mural was a curious, even contradictory undertaking in what was serving as a medical conference hall in a resort for the well–to–do. Even though it became part of a museum devoted to the art of Delgadillo, it still would be seen by a very small number of people. To be sure, the doctors who attended could be sometimes responsive to the message of the mural and were persons of influence; still the work belonged in a museum or in a school where there was a wide circulation of the public. The siting of the mural here had to have been an expedient simply because walls in museums and government institutions except schools were not available to the artist. When 14 years later in 1989 Delgadillo’s masterpiece was completed on the semi-circular end wall of the barrel–vaulted auditorium and easel pieces were displayed in an adjoining chamber, the ex-Hacienda Cortéz would become the best place to see a collection of his art in Mexico, but still it was barely known and visited. Still it was a fortunate repository until the time when his work would be more widely recognized by the establishment that could provide for its public viewing. However, the 1975 mural panels were mobile and could be carried to other venues when the occasion arose. This mural in particular points to the mixed audience that Delgadillo’s work was to enjoy: radicalized students, workers and campesinos on the one hand and an educated progressive sector of the middle and professional classes. Because there was a small body of politically and institutionally well–connected professional people in Mexico, some of these artists themselves, like members of the Salón Plástica Méxicana and professors in the art academies and other disciplines, the so–called intelectuales, there was the possibility of occasional exhibits for political dissidents in the big institutions like the Palacio de Bellas Artes. But Delgadillo’s real audience was in the streets and universities. Only if the activism there were successful would venues in the prestigious institutions become available. That would be one of the results of a successful revolution.
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This mixed audience had been created by the Mexican Revolution and was widespread since the government’s first mural commissions of the 1920s. The Revolution’s first minister of public education, José Vasconcelos, who was responsible for many of these commissions, was sincere about a popular cultural transformation of the country by providing murals in all public institutions, especially schools. After his tenure the government continued to fund the murals of Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros and their associates even when the artists were critical of it because the ruling oligarchy of the Revolution’s generals wanted to preserve the pretense that it was fulfilling the social–democratic promises of the Constitution of 1917 (at the time the most progressive document of its kind in the world). The government also tolerated its critics among the painters because of the international acclaim Mexican murals had won. It sought with considerable success to control all sectors of Mexican society, coalescing in 1929 as the fore-runner of the Partido Revolucionario Institutional, which continued to rule Mexico for the rest of the century. The political establishment supported the muralists commissions as long as they did not become too critical. But there was an increasing tension between artists to conform and to speak out as the government sought to suppress independent action of any kind. While the authorities could eliminate political opposition by intimidation and murder, as Delgadillo learned while a student in normal school, they could just as easily cut off funding for its critics in the visual arts.

Government pressure drove many artists whose attachment to democratic socialism was mixed to do hackneyed work celebrating a Revolution whose inheritors were increasingly betraying it. Los Tres Grandes and their colleagues had been so successful that the managements of all large buildings, public and private, wanted a mural for theirs. Under the auspices of PRI, government offices, schools, airports, market halls and of course museums were provided funds for murals in their reception areas and patios. Murals became jingoist decoration. In addition, private buildings where the public was invited like theaters and department stores, country clubs and factories spent their own money on murals, most of them routinely patriotic. Commenting about 1977 on the recent murals of another painter in a public building, Delgadillo said that any art which does not openly challenge the regime gives it prestige. However, he and his colleagues, Messaguer and Capdevila, had done some of the first super–graphics to be displayed on Mexico City’s high rises. But that was in 1969 just after Tlatelolco when he was first thinking about politicizing his art. Delgadillo could at least claim that he balanced this commission with his Night Black As Ink sculpture and the smaller–scale murals in the same complex. He was critical in his 1981 autobiography of the second generation of Mexican muralists, including José Chávez Morado and Juan O’Gorman, for not addressing the current betrayal of the Mexican Revolution by PRI. In private both men were critical, and O’Gorman did easel–sized pieces against current US Cold War imperialism in the 1980s, but their public works did not meet Delgadillo’s requirements.

The reaction to the outpouring of decorative “revolutionary” murals came in part from artists and art students who recognized the hypocrisy of the mural culture, which proclaimed freedom while the government that paid for this art suppressed liberty in the daily life of Mexicans. Some of these like Delgadillo wanted to return to protest murals, while most preferred to do art of personal expression, which had become the fashionable current of Modernism in the aftermath of World War II. During the 1920s the PRI regarded private corporations as rivals to its power and nationalized the oil industry. By the 1950s the PRI oligarchy, by now thoroughly entrenched, decided it would be personally profitable to the ruling oligarchy to reach an accommodation with private industry, finance and commerce. PRI concluded that the mural tradition stood in the way of capitalist and state-capitalist development and that it would parcel out much less funding to muralists and not tolerate their socialist critiques. The hostility of PRI to art of serious social criticism was reinforced by its anti-communism that arose in Mexico independently of the US Cold War but at the same time and for partly the same reasons. By mid-century the Communist Party of Mexico was outlawed because labor bosses sought to eliminate the rivalry of Leftists in the trade unions. It made no difference that some Leftists, those pressing for union democracy, were not necessarily Communists. All Leftists were opportunistically linked by the Right. At the same time the increasing investment in Mexican industry and agriculture by US business during World War II and after made for increasing penetration of Yankee anti-communist Cold War ideology and culture. US investors no more than Mexican wanted to have to deal with Leftist unions. In the arts that meant abandoning political expression altogether and turning to the private world of feelings and innovation for its own and the market’s sake. PRI could conveniently present critics of its regime as Moscow-controlled, whether these were dispossessed farmers, independent labor unions, students protesting education cuts or artists criticizing state repression..

Democratic socialism in its varied Mexican forms and parties still had a widespread appeal to working people and professionals who sought to participate in the control of their labor and government, which was denied them by the PRI oligarchy. By the 1970s Delgadillo was becoming one of the Left’s most articulate spokesmen. At the same time Mexican intellectuals, the university educated who were interested in ideas and believed that politics should be governed by the principles of the 18th century Enlightenment, its notions of reason, human rights and representative government as against superstition and authoritarianism, tended to identify with the democratic Left. The ideas of liberalism, socialism and anarchism (that is, collective self-management and direct democracy) that had informed the Revolution still had strong adherents among not only intellectuals but also the working class and the campesinos who supported ejido cooperatives.. The Revolution had displaced once and for all religious control of the schools and produced a new breed of secular teachers and professors in public education who identified with the 1917 Constitution, the ideas of which they in turn disseminated to the students of all classes, helping turn the youth against the bossism of PRI. While most workers and campesinos had to submit to the PRI in order to earn a living, or take the risk of insurgency, the university educated professionals who resented the oligarchy that hobbled their vocational as well as political lives had more freedom to circumvent it, to discuss ideas and support artists and writers who opposed the government.

After having exhibited extensively both in Mexico and abroad during the ’60s, Delgadillo in the following decades increasingly refused to participate in official shows and international competi-tions, anxious not to compromise his politics. He did most of his work for the students and urban and rural laboring classes, but he earned the respect of a few of the socially enlightened professionals. He served on the representative council of the Salón de la Plástica Méxicana, the autonomous organization of socially-conscious artists, some of whom who had been among the first generation of muralists and graphic artists of the 1920s. Siqueiros (who died only in 1974), Leopoldo Méndez (d. 1969) and Pablo O’Higgins (d. 1983) had been founders, and members included veterans José Chávez Morado, Raúl Anguiano, Juan O’Gorman, Fanny Rabel and Elizabeth Catlett Mora. It maintained a gallery in the Zona Rosa of the capital where tourists circulated and could take home works of the Mexican social artists. Delgadillo participated in its annual exhibitions, some at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, and had shows at the Mer–Kup gallery in the fashionable Palanco district of the capital. Delgadillo observes in his Autobiographical Notes that Echeverría while president from 1970–’76 had revived commissioning murals from artists once associated with the Left, providing them with prestigious sites and good materials. It was an effort to win back support of Left intellectuals after he ordered the attack on the students in 1968 at Tlatelolco. Delgadillo was bitter that many of the muralists he had once respected and were his friends had succumbed to these commissions. He describes them as “traitors to the proletariat, who little by little began to be assimilated by the system and who have enjoyed great privileges in the terrain of public art in Mexico.” In 1975 after a big one–man exhibit, the Echeverría government offered to send his work on interna-tional tour, but he declined because he believed that exhibit-ing his protest art overseas would lend credence to the authorities’ claim that free speech and demo-cracy existed in Mexico. He was also offered to decorate the Palacio Nacional but declined.. Delgadillo responded publicly “that I would never work for the Mexican government as long as it continued to repress workers, peasants and the people in general.”

Between 1920 and 1950 artists of the Left prevailed in Mexico, doing both public art, easel painting, sculpture and graphics, art that was to have a major influence around the world but especially in the Americas. While the ubiquitous murals were viewed daily by millions of people in schools and other public buildings, graphics, especially lithographs, were distributed as a way of reaching the masses because of their affordability. Commercial galleries also handled the work of these artists as they became popular among the middle classes and tourists. But by the 1970s when Delgadillo chose to become an artist of the renewed Mexican Revolution, he was almost alone. Given the oppression of the Mexican government, the only possible patron of art that took the side of the workers and peasants would be a revolutionary party, Delgadillo said. But no such party could survive, which impeded the development of collective art. Nevertheless, there had been continually resurgent small urban and rural political organizing and even insurgencies since the 1950s, the student movement of ’68 and a new wave of grupos, both political and cultural, that became active in the 1970s. They formed storefront community centers that frequently did murals in their neighborhoods. In Mexico City there were a number of them in the old working-class enclave of Tepito and others across the county, one cited by Delgadillo that included young muralists in Michoacán. For himself, he was determined to go on, depending on commissions for public bas-relief murals, the purchasers of his small canvases and works on paper as well as the support of friends and his chief patron, Dr. González Ulloa. Most of these smaller pieces were connected to popular struggles.
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As early as 1972 figures similar to those in Delgadillo’s murals appeared in his acrylic canvases that were sometimes try–outs for the larger pieces. In a watercolor of 1972 a bone–white bare-headed worker with a bridgeless nose shouts back and raises an x-rayed arm as he fends off unseen assailants. Flames peal from him, suggesting not only what has been inflicted on him but also his own fiery defiance. An acrylic of 1974 shows two stocky campesinos in undershirts, one with a machete being confronted by bayonets and a rifle barrel that cross their bodies. Black and gray wedges cut across acid yellow and green. The figures in both pieces are unsentimentalized robust workers, which was almost always the case in the work of Delgadillo at this time. Their rage and resistance brutalizes their faces. Even among these works on paper there is refined pen–and–ink drawing of scratchy lines and hatching. The drawing can become even delicate. A watercolor of 1973 shows three upright arms with hands open and blood trailing from bullet holes. A piece done with pen-and-ink and watercolor of five years later presents the profile heads of two laborers, one lifting a hewn stone into place, the other shouting amidst coils that suggest speech volutes and struggle. The latter bears the smooth features of a young man, an appealing face that recalls Mayan reliefs which was to recur frequently in the artist’s work. The brownish watercolor is a kind of workers’ heraldry that proclaims the demand of working people to control their own labor and their willingness to fight for that. Like most of Delgadillo’s figures, they are mestizo, which was appropriate for urban workers.


On the other hand, a large watercolor of 1978 offers a huddled up mother, seemingly indigenous, floating in space embracing her fetuses who in turn float inside her, one of them with its arms about her head, an image of elemental gestation, the origin of life in the cosmos. She looks warily behind her and seems possibly embraced by a shadowy serpent–headed male. She is rendered in pen and ink crosshatching while the whole scene is bathed in washes of tarnished yellow and browns. Delgadillo had also used this imagery in an easel painting. A yet more elaborate decorative version of the theme occurs in a polyester bas relief mural he did in the basement garage of the Dalinde Hospital where his patron, Dr. González Ulloa was in residence. All of these are emblematic icons, condensing their meaning in potent images that sometimes are small but always are monumental. While most of Delgadillo’s work was activist and his images of women those of the working class and campesinas, his interest in lithe, decorative female figures, also appeared in his watercolors of the 1970s and seemed intended for the commercial clientele.


Delgadillo was always on the look out for new ways of arousing people to activism. An innovative medium that he used was to paint and frame the metal plates from which some of his graphics were produced. This gave the works a sculptural solidity like bas reliefs.. He also turned to a skilled weaver to render one of his characteristic compositions into a coarse thickly woven tapestry. Here the attackers are represented only by the muzzles of their weapons at the upper left while the rest of the scene is of tumbled bodies of the living and dying. Rendered in black, gray, blue and white wool, everything is reduced to minimal detail and all of that boldly patterned. The coarse weaving suggests the serapes of the people whom the artist depicted.

In his murals as well as his drawings and watercolors Delgadillo became a master of evoking terror. His early easel pieces of the 1960s had depicted haunted skeletal victims and figures falling beneath a violent onslaught. But there was no sign of the perpetrators, little indication of the source of suffering. The threat was all–consuming and ubiquitous but was all the more terrible because unidentified.. Titles like Hiroshima gave some specificity. It was as if the end of the world loomed. After Tlatelolco there was no doubt about the perpetrators. The artist dwelt as much on those who inflicted terror, presenting them in absorbing detail, as he did on resistance to it. For the artist to make them so vivid was to fight back, to subject them to his indignation. He presented the military and behind them the money-hungry as predatory monsters, finding warrant in the work of Orozco, Siqueiros and Goya, who in turn drew their inspiration from popular culture where anonymous artists created visual grotesques to represent human beastliness He gave vent to his outrage obviously hoping to move viewers to share it in his representing corruption and brutality as gross brutes, swollen by their gluttony, fanged, and over-laden with weaponry to attack the defenseless. Already in 1973 at the University of Toluca he painted animal–headed military rearing from a block along with claws, rifles and skeletal bones confronting across three stories of windows the faces of workers, campesinos and students with only one gun and the flames of their outrage to protect them.


In a pen–and–ink drawing with watercolor of 1978, bloated helmeted half–human monsters with automatic rifles, their shark–tooth maws open to tear at human flesh, their bodies mottled by disease and bones revealed in x–ray, crouch on the corpses of their victims. In another of the same year, a huge knotted serpent again with shark teeth is pointing multiple guns as it hovers over a terrorized crowd not knowing in what direction to flee. Yet another piece reveals a barred cell where two automatic rifles are pointed by unseen assailants at a prisoner reduced to an almost fleshless skeleton except for a screaming mouth and closed eye. These nightmarish images have a credibility that is compelling. The inventory of horror is familiar enough: monsters, guns, prison, vulnerable flesh: but it is the harrowing vividness with which Delgadillo presents them that is altogether convincing. He could count on ordinary people resonating to these works because of their familiar traditions of Judas figures and boogey men that terrified and entertained. But what is remarkable is how powerful these images can be to otherwise skeptical cosmopolitan viewers. The Mexican readers of daily newspapers and especially those who had directly or indirectly known the violence of the government and its para–military thugs could find in these images visible equivalents of state terror. Delgadillo had to have felt the horror himself so deeply that he was driven to find the means to embody it. As late as 1993 he was still devoting his ingenuity to depict government brutality, as in his mural–sized canvas, Conspiracy and Struggle (Conciliabulo y Lucha).

During the ’80s Delgadillo was also doing other pen and ink drawings as well as logos for the newspapers of trade unions and activist organizations with which he was associated. Here, too, he combined Social Realism and Pre–Colum-bian design. He il-lustrated pamphlets and books of poetry, especially of his friend Benito Balam, which were distributed not only at bookstores and readings but also at factory gates. These drawings brought together a refinement of draftsmanship and humanism with often brutal subjects. There is one beautifully drawn indigenous humanoid mask within masks of the skull (calavera) of a serpent that he did for Balam’s La Colera del Agua. The plunging figure that he did for another pamphlet of poetry, Desde Los Siglos del Maíz Rebelde, in 1987 was to reappear in his big mural El Hombre Nuevo two years later.
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I became acquainted with Delgadillo in 1975 when I was on sabbatical from teaching at San José State University. Around the corner from the little hotel where my wife Ruth and I were staying was theater of CLETA (Free Center of Theatrical and Artistic Experimentation) of UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autonomia de México). On the facade above its marquee was one of his defiant murals, actually occupying three different surfaces at right angles to each other. I inquired about its author and called him up. We met, and I showed him the collection of slides of North American community murals that I had documented and brought along, hoping for a chance to project them for Mexican viewers. These were recent works that were being done in the Black ghettoes and Latino barrios across the country by artists and local residents to defend their communities against racism and gentrification. Delgadillo recognized the similarity of what socially engaged artists in the US and Mexico were doing and set up a slide showing in the theater. He gave us in return the first “Delgadillo” we were to own: a large watercolor in reddish tints and pen–and–ink line drawing of one of his primordial figures in profile— bridgeless nose, mouth agape and his insides in coiling turmoil but with a supple arm raised over his head as he presses forward amidst striped streaming bands of indigenous design. It is titled La Lucha (The Struggle). When we left the capital, he gave us a list of his mural sites around the country, and since we had driven down to Mexico in a battered Rambler station wagon, we were able to include many of his murals in our itinerary.

We returned to Mexico every two or three years, partly to keep up with Delgadillo’s work and our friendship. I would bring along a new set of slides of community murals in the US and Europe, and Delgadillo would set up showings. On one occasion in January, 1978, he asked if I would show the slides I brought to friends of his. I should know it would be a “little dangerous” but not much. With Ruth we took a colectivo from San Angel and then started up by foot into the hills through the woods and then a string of minimal cottages. It was dusk. He directed us to keep out of view as much as possible, and we stopped from time to time in the shadows to see if the way was clear. Our destination was a new encampment of paracaidistas (squatters who appeared as if from nowhere) on a government–controlled but otherwise deserted ejido. These were not displaced campesinos but families of urban workers who could no longer afford the cost of housing in town. Here in the mountains above Mexico City at 9,000 feet they were building huts from waxed milk cartons, corrugated tin and other discarded materials. They had set up a communal kitchen under a tarpaulin among the black pedregal lava. The banner over it read: “The community kitchen is the product of the work of the unity of the masses and their struggle.” An outdoors meeting was underway. When it was finished, the men and boys departed, and a table was brought out, and Delgadillo provided the slide projector.

It was now night and we set up under the stars. When I asked why the audience were only women and children who huddled in their serapes against the cold, it was explained that the slide-showing was to serve as a decoy to distract the authorities while Delgadillo and the men drove out the local charro, figuratively a cowboy, in fact a government agent, who was giving them a hard time. At first the electric line that they had tapped into was hardly strong enough to flip the slides. The viewers understood clearly the connection between the struggles of the deprived in the US with their own. When the men returned after their successful mission, we all partied inside a warm, well-illuminated shed—alcohol prohibited. The reason the slide showing was outdoors was to distract officials from the serious business of the night. Afterwards when we were climbing down from the mountain, we came on a clearing from which you could see the lights of Mexico City. But you could not tell where they gave way to the stars. It was as if heaven and earth merged. I felt an elation that perhaps Delgadillo sometimes did when he had done something that was useful to people who shared none of his privileges.

In 1983 Delgadillo was building with his own hands a brick studio and living quarters, a sort of turret, in another colonia popular, this one longer settled with houses constructed of cinder blocks. While he was building his turret, a neighboring family kept many of his drawings and watercolors, and when we visited, he displayed them in their yard while clothes were being washed in a tub nearby, chickens and goats picked among the lava and other neighbors were butchering meat in their garden.

Also during that visit he had me show slides to the bus drivers of SUTAUR, the union that operated Route 100 along the Paseo de la Reforma. He served on its board of directors. Its 18,000 members had won indepen-dence from PRI bosses after a strike during the winter of 198l–82 that involved pitched battles with the police in front of the National Palace. As a result the bus drivers became a part of the 2% of Mexican unionists who elected their own officers and deliberated policy. By happy chance I had along slides of a bus drivers’ mural in London. In the discussion that followed the viewers expressed surprise that workers elsewhere could gain access to public walls.

In 1984 we visited him in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of Chiapas where he had been painting with students at two teachers’ colleges since 1977. The walls of the buildings at both were covered with their work that reflected the struggles in which teachers had joined with campesinos who were organizing throughout the state. These were mainly Mayans of the eastern coffee–growing area of Chiapas, who had participated in the National Indigenous Congress in Patzcuaro, Michoacán, in 1975 that was sponsored by the government. It sought to control the national organization that the native people had formed, as it did other peasant associations and trade unions. PRI was intent on co–opting the agitation of the campesinos because although the percentage of the rural population had declined from 65% in 1940 to 35%, their actual numbers had in fact more than doubled from 13 to 27 million. Never since the Conquest in the 16th century had there been more Mexican peasants without land. Not only were they exploited as tenants and wage–labor, millions were being driven by agribusiness into urban shanty towns or across the border to the US. By 1979 independent–thinking participants in the Congress split off and formed the Plan de Ayala National Organizing Committee (CNPA) , named for the program of Zapata of 1911 that called for the seizure of land taken from its tillers by landlords and politicians.[George Collier, Basta! Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas, Oakland, CA: Food First, 1994, p. 70ff. Also, “Aun Tiembla—It Still Trembles,” NACLA Report on the Americas, Sep-Dec. 1897, p. 31ff] The expropriation of land was a process that had begun with the Conquest in the 16th century and accelerated when in 1857 the Liberal Party had come to power and seized and privatized not only Church lands but also the traditional native communal ejidos, benefiting speculators, ranchers and merchants. In spite of the promise of the Constitution of 1917, only a portion of the ejidos had been returned, and with the advent of agribusiness that process was entirely reversed.

Under the banner of Zapata the CNPA forged a union with the CNTE, a national association of 150,000 teachers who also in 1979 declared their independence from the government run national teachers’ union. The struggle with the government had been aggravated by President López Portillo declaring the end of land redistribution. The two independent organizations led a nationwide mass march on Mexico City in 1981 to demand the resolution of land claims and the release of political prisoners. The following year CNPA held a national congress at Venustiano Carranza in eastern Chiapas, which became a continuing center of the alliance with the independent teachers’ union. Delgadillo denounced in an editorial he wrote for Excelsior the low wages and high rents imposed by big landowners as well as their killing of 16 Indians when they sought to take back their land in Chiapas. The organizing of the campesinos from their center in Venustiano Carranza was to mark the beginning of a movement that eventuated in the attack by Zapatistas, under the command of Subcomandante Marcos on San Cristóbal in 1994 and continued the struggle into the new millennium. Delgadillo, whose father had been one of the original Zapatistas during the Revolution, was to support their namesakes in the 1990s.
The murder of impoverished campesinos in Chiapas had already begun in 1980. In protest the following year Delgadillo and students painted a mural of their corpses on an outside wall at the Escuela Normal Matzumatza in Tuxtla Gutiérez. It is captioned: “Homage to the campesinos fallen in the struggle at Golonchán.” There in a village near Comitán, which has since disappeared from maps, the military had massacred some 50 Tojolabal Mayans, who had occupied an abandoned finca, one of the plantations of the ladinos (well–to–do mestizos). [John Ross, Rebellion From the Roots, Monroe, MA: Common Courage, 1995, p. 70f, 157] The Indians who had gathered to receive a visit from the governor were shot point blank by the troops of General Absalón Castellanos Dominguez, who was a disciple of General Barragán who ordered the massacre at Tlatelolco. Castellanos Dominguez was selected by PRI as its candidate for governor of Chiapas two years later and masterminded a reign of terror on behalf of the big landowners against the Indians.
Meanwhile Delgadillo guided the untrained students in doing murals that protested these and earlier attacks. Some images dated 1977 presented bold images that leapt from the outside and inner walls of campus buildings. Among them was a long work in the cafeteria, showing campesinos, workers, and students confronting the heavily armed military coiled up like a serpent. Delgadillo designed the thick woodcut–like lines which the students filled in with a heavy–handed style declaring their defiance. Across the 50–foot cornice of one classroom building the message was carefully printed: “Future teacher, your salary will depend on the working class—let us prepare to overcome its ignorance and struggle for its liberation.” When my wife and I first appeared on the campus in 1984 looking for Delgadillo and I was taking pictures of the murals, we were confronted by a large body of students who wanted to run us off, accusing us of being CIA. We explained that we were friends of the artist, and then they wanted to pose in front of the murals with their fists upraised.

At another teachers’ college on the other side of Tuxtla, La Escuela Normal Estado del Icach, I watched Delgadillo and students redoing an earlier mural that presented a young man and woman holding up a book from the flames whipping about them. The caption read: “Compañeros: Your goal should not be a degree without consciousness but to participate in the revolutionary transformation of society.” A dozen students watched as others joined Delgadillo on the ladders. A student turned up with a guitar and serenaded the painters. The caption on a nearby mural with faces of a worker, campesino and student called on onlookers to join a frente with them. In another the beguiling all-nude figure of a woman recalling Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People affirmed that “A Popular Democratic and Anti-Imperialist Revolution is the Task of all Exploited People.” The dates of 1977, 81 and 84 on the captions indicated that Delgadillo had returned to these campuses to restore and paint new murals He explained that he had also helped the students plan their political strategy and asked me to show slides of murals in the US and elsewhere in Latin America to them. The next day Delgadillo was heading to the neighborhood of San Cristóbal to do more murals with campesinos. The murals at these two teachers’ colleges in Tuxtla established a precedent for the many done by other hands that were to appear a decade later in the Chiapas in support of the new Zapatistas.
***
Between 1980 and ’83 Delgadillo wrote a weekly column for Excelsior (then the New York Times of Mexico), which in an effort to appear even–handed, tolerated his radicalism. Usually these features were on politics, but when he could combine this with art, he did. His articles reflected the crisis that hit in 1982 when the government found itself bankrupt and unable to repay its heavy foreign debt because of the fall in the price of oil. Foreign governments and the International Monetary Fund rushed to the rescue, but their loans were conditioned on Mexico devaluating its currency, selling off its nationalized industries and cutting social programs and subsidies that supported low prices for basic foods. In succeeding years as a result of this neo–liberal structural adjustment the real income of working people was cut in half.

Delgadillo took advantage of two Excelsior articles n 1983 to describe the first congress of the Movimiento Revoluci-onario del Pueblo, which was seeking government recognition as a national party. He was its cultural secretary. Its program called for a coming together of “Marxists, Chris-tians, national-ists and all those willing to struggle for a socialist and democratic society.” Setting as its goal the state expropriation of large landhold-ings, monopolies and multinationals, it envisioned a society of publicly-owned industries and cooperative agricul-ture that respected small urban and rural enterprises. It called for a new constitu-tion with a popular assembly and tribunals based on mass organizations of workers and cam-pesinos. The people in arms would replace the repressive military. Techno-logy and science would be oriented towards affordable housing, free health care and educa-tion. Communications media and the arts would be accessible to all. They proposed “to change completely the conditions of life...and to create a new people and new men, a new culture and new spiritual values.” Finally Excelsior concluded that it had done enough for opposi-tion comment and cancelled Delga-dillo's column.

Writing for the catalog of an alternative commemora-tion of the Orozco centennial in 1983, Delgadillo reflected on how the work of the master could be carried on in the current era of social crisis and conformist culture. He spoke out for
an art that is class–-conscious, humane and revolution-ary.... For a resurgence of muralism in our country, students and artists will have to depend on worker, campesino, student, popular and revolu-tion-ary organiza-tions, the only ones able to impel in a programmatic way a social and critical art. This is necessary for muralism to shake itself free from its snobbish and reaction-ary public and reach popular sectors.
Delgadillo called for a muralism stripped down for political struggle:
To succeed this resurgence requires sacrifices. It will have to utilize economical materials, take less time for comple-tion, and the economic expectations of its prac-titioners will have to change.
Still he was confident that “the vigor of these works will make a valuable aesthetic, human and revolu-tionary contribution to contemporary art.”
To protest the severe austerity program that the administration of President Miguel de la Madrid had imposed, 162 unions mounted a national work stoppage in l983. As their contribu-tion, Delgadillo and his compadres painted a 100-foot long unauthorized mural condemning the layoff of a million workers in the previous 10 months. It faced the major intersection on the Paseo de la Reforma and lasted one day.

When he agreed to be a “pre-candidate” of the Mexican Socialist Party for the nation’s presidency in 1987, Delgadillo pressed not only for a truly representative Congress but also a participatory democracy “exercised in assemblies in the neighborhoods, trade unions and workplaces.” People would undertake collective tasks and begin to construct people’s power (poder popular), that is, collective self-management. He also urged the restoration of the environment and protection of the nation’s rich natural resources for the people as a whole rather than private profit. To prevent further exploitation of working people, the foreign debt would have to be cancelled.
***
Delgadillo was a member of a group of about 30 intellectuals, most of them younger, some artists, but also poets like Benito Balam and the political songster, José de la Molina. He called them affectionately los muchachos, while they called him “Pepe.” He enjoyed being the veteran and center of his circle. He was soft spoken, courteous, enjoyed camaraderie, laughed readily. He always asked about your family. If he believed a store clerk or waitress had treated him well, he would quickly do a little portrait of them while they were making change and present it to them. He addressed taxi drivers as maistro. Approaching a stranger on the street to make an inquiry, he would preface his request with “Buenos dias, señor.” He was intense but gentle, forever planning and hustling, seeking new commissions, trying to connect people whom he believed should know one another. He was always absorbed, thinking through ideas, analyzing the political situation, pursuing every lead to organize allies or to seek out opportunities to paint. He was an incredibly energetic agitator in spite of his advancing years and gradual loss of hearing. He was determined about how things should be done. In the street he rushed ahead with short steps and sometimes comic briskness, whistling to others to keep up or simply to himself during brief gaps in conversa-tion. At table he doodled on napkins or scraps of paper. Among friends he would suddenly turn serious and call on them to give their impressions on a particular issue and end up lecturing them. He would remonstrate with museum guards and officials about the neglectful way an important work was displayed.

During his campaign for the presidential nomination on the Socialist ticket in 1987, my wife and I caught up with him in an office in Mexico City where he was asleep on the floor rapped in a blanket. When he realized our presence, he leapt to his feet, embraced us and led us around the city to introduce us to his political allies—activists and union leaders—both to expose us to the excitement and to show his friends that he had support from across the border. I realized over the years that the emphasis he gave in his images to arms reaching out, seeking, challenging, arms often too long for the bodies they were attached to, flailing arms conveyed by repeated lines, described what he was so much about.

He was a mestizo of middle height. Photos of him in the ‘60s show him meditative and conventionally groomed, his hair trimmed. By the ’70s he let his straight hair grow over his ears and neck; by the ’90s there was less of it. He had been married to the artist, Beatriz Zamorra, and they had three children together. They divorced, and she made a career for herself in New York doing abstract works of black on black. When we were first getting to know Delgadillo in 1975 and he was taking us to his mural sites on campuses, he had in tow his eleven–year old daughter, Miriam. Without warning she picked up a clod of dirt and tossed it at one of his murals. Delgadillo kept his cool, but I had to feel for him and for her also, for she had to put up with all the attention her father was getting. The fact that Delgadillo and her mother were divorced may have had something to do with her feeling of neglect, but it was clear that she had something of her father’s brazenness. Maybe he admired her pluck: it was an act that showed she was of the same mettle as he. As absorbed as he was with art and politics, he was a man whom women wanted to take in and care for.
***

Significant new stylistic developments emerged in Delgadillo’s art in 1978 at the Escuela Superior de Economia of the Instituto Politecnico Nacional. Here he utilizes three interior sides of an entrance area open to the sky to depict current oppression and the revolution it for which it cries out. The rap–around scenes are rendered in blue–grays, vermilion and orange except for the oppressed who are reduced to a shadowy brown, a new palette for the painter. He utilized this newly enriched color for figures that were now fully rounded and tonally modeled while still preserving something of his flat graphic style. At the left a huge serpent unfolds on the second floor level. A pair of brutal human heads attached to its body snarl as guns and missiles project from its coils aiming at people huddled together as if in a factory or prison on the ground level while corpses are piled up alongside them. On a wall to the right Delgadillo continued the scene of enslavement with a heavily armored conquistador running Indians through with his sword before the ruins of their structures. Meanwhile facing all this from the other side, a two–story–high modern worker wields a long industrial tool while his compañeros are firing rifles in the opposite direction. Below them there is a march of smaller workers with guns, campesinos with machetes and others raising their fists as red flags are borne in the background against an orange sky on fire at dawn, a procession suggesting not only the future revolution but also the procession of struggles out of the past. Delgadillo titled the ensemble Armamentismo y Opresión (Armament and Oppression). The three–sided composition was a call to action not without grandeur.

The three murals formed an enclosed space, a virtual world transformed, awaiting students as they came to class. This kind of painted environment Los Tres Grandes had pioneered. It is inherent to the very concept of muralism, which aims not to decorate an already existing space but to create a new space for viewers. Delgadillo wanted them to imagine a world not only visually but socially and ethically changed. By their scale murals are a social art to be seen by many people simultaneously in what is usually a public space. These painted walls that gather people before them address them as members of society. By enveloping them, which occurs even on a single big surface but is enhanced when the work embraces a number of sides and sometimes the ceiling, murals make it possible to reshape not only the viewers’ space but even their social consciousness. This makes murals a unique instrument of artists like Delgadillo committed to social change and the empowerment of the people.. Armamentismo y Opresión was one of the most ambitious works of Delgadillo. Therefore there was special reason to condemn its wanton destruction in 2002 by the school’s administration.

Delgadillo did his first mural in the US in 198l in San Fernando City, California. Sponsored by a local Chicano associa-tion, its 10 by 40 feet filled a wall in a public park. It carried forward his effort to translate political passion into motion: now zigzagging lightning bolts of color and vibrating forms charge the entire surface. Having used a single set of concentric spirals in the composition of his first activist murals in the early 1970s, Delgadillo here chose to utilize three such vortices, one next to the other, prompted by the sheer length of the wall. At the left the US bald eagle attacks the brown eagle of Mexico. In the center a giant tiger striped in the colors of the US flag pounces on a little band carrying placards proclaiming the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, by which the US seized half of Mexico in 1848. On the right, four young men, repre-senting Mexico’s different races and guided by a bare breasted Liberty aloft, stand astride the dead tiger triumphing over it with their outstretched arms. Delgadillo continued to expand his palette with the richly contrasting orange and blue tonalities, and again mixed graphic flat surfaces and striping with painterly modulations. While the mural was short-lived, lasting only a few years, it carried forward the emergence of a new style that was to become his characteristic manner for the rest of his career.

Two years later in 1983 Delgadillo utilized his new palette on the outside wall of the Colegio de Ciencias y Humanidades Plantel Oriente in Mexico City. Here three bare chested brown skinned young men thrust their fists and a rifle forward over a beleaguered compañero. Their motion is conveyed by the vibrating profile of the leading figure. The inscription reads: Por la Revolución Democratica Popular. About the same time he did a five-story high mural on the outside of the Sindicado de las Electricistas, inside of which Siqueiros had done his famous three–wall and ceilinged staircase mural, Death to the Bourgeoisie in 1939. Delgadillo had a much simpler task, that of a grand gesture of a worker raising his gloved hand gripping a pliers. The big caption reads, En Defensa de Contractos Colectivos y Sindicatos. Beneath the mural on the wall surrounding the union’s parking lot a collective of trained but less experienced comrades of Delgadillo painted big panels celebrating the electrical workers. This was one form of collaboration between him and non-professionals, which had occurred also with some of his students at the Polytechnic Institute.

In 1987 Delgadillo completed a 200–meter long mural in Pachuca in his native state with the title, La Lucha y Contradiccónes en el Estado del Hidalgo. It stretches along a stuccoed wall opposite the Jardín del Arte. There are a sequence of scenes depicting troops guarding workers shot and jailed while others toil in the mines, their women ground down in poverty, then the populace rising in revolutionary struggle with a nude Liberty urging them on from above. It is a highly stylized driving design, rich in oranges, browns with black details against a deep blue sky, its composition reverting to the flat graphic planes of his earlier painting.

Delgadillo returned to the US in 1989 and with his irrepressible energy lined up a number of mural commissions in the San Francisco Area. With him were his longtime friends, the poet, Benito Balam and artist José Tlatelpas. They were joined by a Mexican dancer, Pedro Romero, and together did presentations at cultural centers and peñas, as well as the dedications of the murals Delgadillo painted. I was recruited to project slides of Delgadillo’s earlier works. The group called themselves Maíz Rebelde (The Rebel Corn). One friend, José Meza Velásquez from Tepíc in Nayarit where they had done murals together, was now living in Oakland and provided him a space to work and organized a workshop of artists who came up from Mexico. Meza mounted an exhibit of a mural that Delgadillo did on the spot and the paintings of the other Mexican artists as well as a mural of his own.

In the workshop Delgadillo painted a portable mural on canvas, La Lucha Campesina, which addressed the struggles of farm workers in California and Mexico. They continued to be exploited on both sides of the border with Mexican campesinos being driven off the land by agribusiness and the import under NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) of cheap North American corn that undercut the cost of native maíz. Campesinos were thrown out of work and forced to seek odd jobs in the city or immigrate without documents to the US. In California they had become the principal source of low–wage urban labor as well as the majority of agricultural workers, which meant that they could be exploited because of their lack of papers. California produced at least a quarter of all fruits and vegetables consumed in the US, and therefore the plight of the undocumented was taken advantage of by growers and distributors of food on a massive scale. In Delgadillo’s mural farm workers with machetes confront a serpent–like coil of patrones and police, all rendered in rich orange and black, like the last moments of a desert sunset. Flames leap from the chests of the campesinos who stand firm before their assailants—fanged, taloned monsters with steel helmets, automatic rifles and a vicious dog. In front of them handbills with the workers’ inscriptions float down, while their wives with their infants cower behind them. It is vintage Delgadillo, classic in its simple composition and vehemence, beautifully painted in the burning twilight. After being widely exhibited in the Bay Area, it was taken to Tepíc by Meza to be installed there permanently in a museum.

Again during his US journey Delgadillo took on the struggle of farm workers against the capitalist system in a mural in the office of the California Institute of Rural Studies in Davis, the site of the University of California’s principle school of agriculture where research is done in agribusiness and the genetic modification of crops.. In the mural farm workers raise their fists and pitch forks as what seem the spirits of cultivation fly down to attack the web of a system that traps farm workers and their families. In the center a monster spider spins its net of exploitation. A blazing yellow sun illuminates the scene. Delgadillo titled the work, Elements of Nature, Production and Struggle in the Countryside. The composition with its plunging spirits and centripetal design seems to have been borrowed from the even more ambitious mural, El Hombre Nuevo that he had left unfinished in Cuernavaca. to come to California.

Shortly afterward Delgadillo worked on another complex project in an office of Raza Si, (Instituto de Orientación Popular), an immigrant services organization in San José. There he returned to his confrontation of the people and the grotesque monsters of the establishment, again a fanged serpent with its jaws unhinged and wide, followed by hulking humanoids, also saber–toothed and taloned with their victims underfoot. The coil of people fend off their assailants with their gestures and a scroll of poetry of Benito Balam proclaiming popular solidarity. The scene is illuminated by wedges of bright yellow light that project like bayonets from the fury of the masses. Once more Delgadillo borrowed the centripetal design of his Cuernavaca mural with a plunging young woman offering a dove to a man.

Staying at our home in Mill Valley during much of his California visit, Delgadillo and I watched on TV the demonstrations of the pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. We were transfixed by the man in shirtsleeves with a briefcase confronting the line of tanks and then the carnage that they left behind. This made a tremendous impression on Delgadillo: he was re-living Tlatelolco 21 years earlier. The memory of the massacre remained sharp: in 1984 he had joined with compañeros in a commemorative painting of it covering 1600 square meters of the pavement of Tlateloco. Now he turned our dining-room table into a drawing board, jacking up two table legs with stacks of National Geographics. On it he did a dozen 30 x 16 inch pen and watercolor pieces depicting the tragedy in Beijing. One showed protesters crushed under the jointed metal plates of a tank’s caterpillar tracks. Another was of a young man, his mouth agape, his eyes and nostrils wide, brandishing his arms in multiple lines amidst the flames, searchlight beams and tracer bullets. We took the drawing to a printer who turned it into a poster with the words, “Solidarity with the People of China,” and Delgadillo signed copies of it at a memorial service for the victims at San Francisco’s Symphony Hall.


Shortly after finishing these pieces, Delgadillo was asked for a banner to be used at a rally against a new Migra (the Immigration and Naturalization Service) detention center in Oakland. He went to work with a 9–foot long piece of canvas on our deck showing a woman stretching out her arm to protest the internment of the undocumented. Within hours of the request he was at the site, mounting the work on the center’s cyclone fence.

Delgadillo returned to Mexico to complete what was to be the high point of his achievement: El Hombre Nuevo Hacia el Futuro (The New Man Toward the Future). He had taken as his title and theme Che Guevara’s concept of a society in which people gain control of their work and lives and thereby produce creatively for one another. “Liberated labor” in Che’s words would replace what Marx described as “alienated labor.” [“Notes on Man and Socialism in Cuba,” 1965 ] Delgadillo shows four diving nude “spirits” with a trowel, compass and star chart, a brush and cluster of speech volutes, delivering their gifts to a man and woman who swim through space to receive them. For Delgadillo these figures were simply symbolic of the gifts of culture, which he regarded as the creation of society. The bestowers and recipients gyrate in concentric curves like the coils of figures in struggle in Delgadillo’s earliest murals, but now their meaning is the granting or in fact, engaging, of the gifts of nature and nurture, which is to say, liberation. The severe flat color and hard–edge forms of the past have given way to modulated golds, scarlets and blues. Tongues of flame emanate from the three–dimensional flesh and hair suggesting inner fire. Arms with clenched fists still indicate the need for struggle, but they are at the side, as if much has been won, permitting the symbols of creativity to dominate. The theme is no longer defiance of oppression but of soaring human capability.

Here more than ever before Delgadillo seems to have been inspired by Orozco’s Prometheus in the refectory at Pamona College and Man of Fire (Hombre en Llamas) in the dome of the Guadalajara church of the Hospicio Cabañas and now in addition Man the Creator (El Hombre Creador) in a cupola at the University of Guadalajara, completed in 1939. Both in subject and composition there are striking connections, although Orozco has fire and creativity being stolen from the gods. It is the central burning figures and the concentric form that link the works. Particularly in the last of Orozco’s three murals there are a number of details that must have been suggestive to Delgadillo, such as the dashed in geometrical projections that likely inspired his curvilinear star or planetary chart and Orozco’s triangular ruler that becomes a compass in Delgadillo. But Delgadillo’s central figure, the hombre nuevo, does not signify the unique, creative leader, which Orozco’s protagonists do. Delgadillo’s is symbolic of humankind, all human beings receiving the gifts of culture and society that cultivate their own abilities. It is not only this swimming male figure but also the diving young woman who are the beneficiaries of liberation and recipients of the gifts of the spirits, one of whom reaches out to her in a cluster of speech volutes. This is a culmination of Delgadillo’s principal motif of “the people in flame” and reaches beyond them by depicting the fruition of their efforts. Delgadillo, who wrote admiringly of Orozco and used these spiraling forms in so many of his earlier murals, executed a work here that stands independently on its own meaning, beauty and power. It crowns his achievement as an artist of struggle who here envisions the future of human struggle, which in fact would be a new beginning.

Delgadillo said that this was one of the few murals for which he was paid handsomely, which enabled him for the first time to use scaffolding rather than ladders. It was the climax of his career, although he was to continue to do a few more large impressive works during the next decade. The work was executed on the semi–circular end wall at the rear of the stage of the large barrel–vaulted auditorium of the ex–Hacienda Cortés, where the 1975 five–panel mural of refugees still was mounted but now for the first time with its five additional panels on view. The remaining walls of the chamber are filled with the artist’s easel pieces of varied date. With the completion of El Hombre Nuevo, the auditorium together with a chamber in the hotel section of the ex–Hacienda where the artist’s easel pieces of the 1960s are exhibited were inaugurated as the Delgadillo Museum.

Delgadillo returned to the San Francisco Bay Area in the fall of 1989 to do a mural for the cannery workers of Watsonville who had been on strike for 18 months. It was to be painted in the office of an old friend, Oscar Rios, an official of the Agricultural Workers and Packers, who was then running for city council, but an earthquake damaged the wall just before Delgadillo was to begin painting. Instead he bought an 18–foot long piece of canvas that he hung up in the living room of a friend. He had done a mural for the devastating trembler that shook Mexico City in 1985 and borrowed from its design. From a large globe-like container of charred human bodies still burning a woman springs forth, an Aztec goddess saving her son, a symbol of the human instinct to protect one another, the artist explained. “It’s about saving lives. People don’t think about themselves or anything else—they think about saving lives. The spirit of helping others is the most crucial element that comes out of an earthquake.” [Quoted by Jill Maxwell, “Mural depicts workers’ struggles, quake victims,” Front Row supplement to the Morgan Hill Times, Nov. 9–16, 1989] That same spirit of solidarity Delgadillo saw also in the striking women cannery workers. He titled the work A Pesar de Las Desgracias, El Futuro es Nuestro (In Spite of Misfortune, the Future is Ours). Rios was elected and in time became mayor of Watsonville in whose office the mural finally found a home.

Delgadillo was once more in the Bay Area in 1993 and did another mural, now for Local 28 of the Hotel, Restaurant Employees and Bartenders’ Union in Oakland. It is a big panel over the outside entrance of their offices and returns to the flat graphic style of two decades earlier, which still was effective. In it five workers of different racial backgrounds lunge forward, only the top half of their bodies seen and their arms reaching out toward the future. They are rendered in yellow with black shadows and detail. Beneath them a wedge of much smaller blue marchers also presses forward, brandishing fists, placards and banners. In the background rise the brown skyscrapers where they work. Stylistically it is similar to the first mural that I saw of his painted in 1973 at CLEATA, the UNAM theater in Mexico City. The earlier work had drawn me to seek him out, and this work of 20 years later indicates how sound and sustainable his imagination had been.

Back in Mexico Delgadillo utilized this flat graphic style for a pair of three–story tall panels at the Conjunto Habitacional EDO in Iztapalapa in 1993. With assistants he depicted women with their men and infants raising their fists and marching together. He titled it La Muher en la Lucha por la Vivienda (Women in Struggle for Housing). Rendered in earthen tones, it represented a different palette but no less vehemence of expression.

Conciliabulo y Lucha (Conspiracy and Struggle) of 1993 offered a new variation on a familiar theme of the artist. It is a large mural–scale canvas rendered tonally with figures in the round. It shows pouring over a big table a group of brutish figures, goat– and serpent–faced and skull–headed, plotting and dividing previous loot while their troops point their muzzles towards the people’s vanguard at the right. A line of workers fend off their assailants by reaching out defiantly, wrapped in golden flame that curls from their hands and illuminates the whole scene while more flame flares up from inside them. Behind, doves flutter among their women and children.


In 1996 Delgadillo was in Vancouver, British Columbia, participating in a mural workshop with Richard Tetrault and exhibiting his own work at the La Corte Gallery there. Working with him were his old friend José Tlatelpas, Tetrault, Claudine Pommier and Jeanie Kamins. The mural done on canvas presents a youthful Indian face, a familiar Delgadillo icon, shouting speech volutes calling for the defense of areas frequented by local native peoples (called first nations in Canada), the Clayoquot Sound and Stoltmann Wilderness. These Canadian artists including Alberto Ceritos had with the assistance of Delgadillo been doing exchanges with Mexican public artists since early in the decade. They were commissioned by the state of Morelos and the Consejo Mundial de Artistas Plásticos de México to do a mural in the Library of the University of Cuernavaca in 1991 with local artists. In exchange the Canadians invited the Mexicans to work with them in Vancouver that year, and the next the Canadians exhibited at the Salón de la Plástica Méxicana. This was typical of the exchanges that Delgadillo fostered among socially progressive artists both at home and abroad. As we have seen, he had in the mid–1960s painted for two years in Paris even before turning to political painting, and in 1974 he participated in a New Figuration exhibition in Tokyo. In his last years he was invited again to go to Japan to exhibit his work but was too ill.

Since his becoming engaged in community–based political murals in the 1970s, he sought to connect with like–minded artists and supporters of socially–concerned public art abroad. That was a continuing component of our friendship. He tried to bring together from around the world people who were doing murals and public sculpture as well as historians and supporters of social art. As a leader of the Society of Visual Arts of Mexico he participated in hosting the First International Conference of Visual Artists in Oaxtepec in the state of Morelos in 1989. There COMAP ( Consejo Mundial de Artistas Plasticos, the World Council of Visual Artists) was born. It called for artists’ participation in the establishing of national arts’ policy and legal protections for artists as well as strengthening exchanges among artists across borders. Delgadillo was elected as one of Mexico’s four members of the directorate of the organization. The second meeting of the group occurred in San Francisco in 1992. Here the main topics of the workshops were public art (where Delgadillo made a presentation) , art, technology and ecology, the legal rights of artists and art markets.

In an unyielding effort that extended over years, Delgadillo secured government and private funding, assembled a staff and finally succeeded in 1997 in mounting the Primera Jornada Mundial del Arte Publico y Muralismo. (Jornada in this context means conference.) Artists, curators and writers on art came from all over the Americas as well as a few from Italy—some 70 of them. A dozen or more arrived two weeks before the conference to paint murals that were then exhibited at a cultural center during the main sessions. All participants assembled first at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, that grand turn-of-the century pile of collonades and domes, where the murals of los Tres Grandes are exhibited, then traveled by busses to a 19th century textile mill that had been converted into a conference center near Tlaxcala in the Valley of Puebla with Popocatépatl smoking in the distance. It was a gathering of veterans and younger artists who wanted to show slides of their work and discuss their projects as well as the issues they shared. Although social art had flourished from the 1920s to the ’40s and had been neglected and even suppressed during the ’50s and early ‘60s, those who gathered were responsible for its renaissance thereafter which had made it more participatory and democratic than ever before. These included Bolivia’s chief political muralist, Walter Salón Romero, and Argentina’s Italo Grassi. The conference published a Declaración de Tlaxcala, that affirmed that public art has historically been necessary for a people’s identity, and that this was put at risk by the globalization of the market and the concentration of capital, which threatened to break the link between art and the aspirations of society. The declaration also insisted on respect for the liberty of expression in the creation of public art, an issue of great importance because governments had almost always sought to force such art to conform to their agenda. Delgadillo more than anyone else was the driving force of this convocation, which was repeated the following year in Buenos Aires without his presence.

Delgadillo fell seriously ill in January, 2000, with multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease He received good hospital care because the son of the Dr. González Ulloa who had been his chief patron, took on the obligation after his father died. When he was released, his daughter, Beatríz, a psychologist, brought him to her home in Coyoacán where she and her brother, Francisco devoted themselves to his care. Francisco, who like his sister had reverted to the Hernández surname, was an artist in his own right, doing ecological murals with communities. During the spring and summer his father worked on a suite of prints. When it was clear that he was failing, his children prepared a homenaje, a public homage, for him, and the socialist mayor of Mexico city provided a chamber in the Old City Hall on the Zocolo, the great plaza also faced by the National Palace. His children feared that he might not survive for the event, but he did and was brought to it in an ambulance. Some of his portable murals were exhibited along with smaller works and photos. About 200 people attended, and he was fully alert during the eulogies, which were well covered with full-page stories in the press.

A month later he still hung on, and this is when I last saw him. He was huddled under the covers, a maroon scarf about his head. He seemed to be pressing the last remnant of his incredible vigor to him. His eyes were parted slightly but unseeing. There was no way to stir him. You could only say good bye and let him go. He died a week later.

The problem was now how to keep alive what he had accomplished. This was especially difficult because many of his murals due to their political outspokenness had been destroyed. Moreover, his protests of the institutions did not make it likely that they would do much to preserve his memory or work.. But his native state of Hidalgo committed to a permanent exhibition space in its capital, Pachuca. Beatriz and Francisco were hoping that the City of Mexico, with its leftwing government would mount two of their father’s murals in Metro stations. They were also seeking a grant for a research fellowship from UNAM for a scholar who would assemble photos of their father’s work, his papers, including an autobiography, writings about him and do an extensive study of his life. This study is part of that project.
***
José Hernández Delgadillo was an artist–activist who carried on the mission of Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros to the end of the 20th century. He followed their example of not only being a spokesman of the dispossessed but also helping them speak for themselves and discover their own abilities to act on behalf of one another. To re–engage art in the social struggles of our time he utilized two different ways of working, one that invited the untrained to collaborate with him, the other to work on his own to employ more specialized refinements. He made important contributions in both. He did not have access to the material resources of the state that los Tres Grandes did nor major political figures to intervene for him. The government was far from generous in granting him its walls, and when it did, he refused because he believed that this would lend legitimacy to those who were exploiting the Mexican people. But he did have the friendship and support of other artists and the workers, campesinos and students whom he championed. And he had his own gifts and great heart. That was enough to make him Mexico’s most important artist of the last third of the 20th century to contribute to the resumption of the real Mexican Revolution that had been aborted by the politicians and abandoned by most painters.

Now five years after death of Delgadillo, we can see that he was in the forefront of the tide of participatory democracy that is finally spreading across Latin America. After the efforts in that direction initiated by the Mexican Revolution at the beginning of the last century, the aborting of those efforts by the demagogic party machine that ruled during the rest of the century, the repeated risings against it that occurred during its second half to which Delgadillo contributed, a new day is finally dawning. Now the leadership has been taken by other popular movements in Latin America, which began in the middle of the last century with Don Pedro Albizu Campos and the Puerto Rican Independistas, the government of Jacabo Arbenz in Guatemala, the Cuban Revolution, Salvador Allende in Chile, the Tupamaros in Uruguay, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in El Salvador, Maurice Bishop in Grenada, Michael Manley in Jamaica, Bertrand Aristide in Haiti, the Christian Base Communities of Liberation Theology throughout the Hemisphere—all of them suppressed, the tide has again turned as a result of popular resistance and creativity. This tide has been carried forward in the new century by the people of Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay, most recently in Bolivia. Workers, campesinos and most strikingly indigenous peoples are leading the struggle for their emancipation. In Mexico this movement has been given life by the new Zapatistas, whom Delgadillo supported. This hemisphere–wide movement for direct democratic participation and autonomy against US corporate globalization and political hegemony cannot but effect the national election of 2006 in Mexico. It is sad that Delgadillo has not lived to see the fruition of his efforts. It is the loss of Mexico and all of us who look forward to the next stage of the struggle to which he gave so much.


Photo Credits: Almost all photos of the work of Delgadillo were taken by Alan Barnett except for the photo near the end of him working on the mural in Vancouver along with the color portrait,which were taken by the local muralist who worked with him, Richard Tetrault. The photos of Hombre Nuevo and Conciliabulo y Lucha were also done by others. The final black and white photo of him with the self portrait was taken by Miguel Angel Gamboa.

3 Comments:

Blogger Two Totos said...

We have a Delgadillo oil painting and would like to find out more about it. How can I contact the museum.
Thanks,
Toto

6:57 PM  
Blogger radiobelly said...

great post.

4:11 PM  
Blogger paco said...

Hey This article is about my grandpa! How did you know him? I live in vancouver, I left mexico city in 98, a few years before he died. I was 13 when we left and I never got to see him again. I did not really know him all that well, as my mom and I were always traveling, I only got to be around my grandpa a few years and at that point he was a bit older and really grumpy with me, so I never got to know him as the man that did all that amazing work. I do remember when I was little he took me on his shoulders to massive protests in mexico city, but the memories and few and distant. Anyways, it sounds like you knew him rather well, I was really happy to read about him on your blog!

8:20 PM  

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