Lake Chapala’s Modern Muralists III – Javier Zaragoza

by Judy King 24. May 2010 07:43

"I don't know how I did it. I think it was a miracle,” said Javier Zaragoza, talking about the six murals he painted in the Ixtlahuacan de los Membrillos Church in 1961 at age 16.

“I really didn't know anything about art then. I didn't know about the principles of painting, or the techniques or the technology. I had studied modern art in San Miguel for 18 months, but these paintings weren't modern, and doing a mural is so different from just making a painting."

Javier laughed and said, "I painted all six of those murals in a few months with no equipment, instead of scaffolding, I put a board between two ladders, and I had a box of acrylic wall paints. I mixed my colors on the lids of the cans." He shook his head. "I think it was a miracle."

editormural1 "I hope you are prepared," he said to me when I interviewed him a few years ago. “If I start talking about Neill James, I might cry. I feel about that woman like I do my own mother."

I knew Javier was in one of the first art classes sponsored by Neill James, the American woman whose education and art instruction influenced so many of Ajijic's children – and created today’s village of artists and galleries.

“I'm prepared for whatever it takes to hear this story. How did a travel writer help the little son of an Ajijic fisherman become a graphic artist for Warner Brothers in Los Angeles?"

"When I was about six, I heard there was a library in Ajijic. I didn't know what that meant, but I heard they had free pencils and brushes, paint and paper. I couldn't wait to find out if it was true…what a great place that was for us."

Soul3-mural"We were eight people in my family and we were poor, but we had plenty to eat because my father was a fisherman, and there were many fish in the lake in those days….Big fish." Javier's hands showed the size of a huge fish – perhaps four feet long.

  "You know, later when I was working in California and eating steak and chicken, I dreamed about the good food we had at home, the beans, tortillas and fish that were so fresh."

"In those days (the early 1950s) a construction worker made just $15 pesos per day, and life was hard, but this lady showed us how to earn and use money. Neill sold our pictures to her friends for Christmas cards. They would pay us one peso for each one. Some years I made $50 pesos, sometimes more. That was a lot of money for a boy of eight or ten years.

“When Neill James said that I had real talent, she enrolled me in the Art Institute in San Miguel Allende. I was 13, but had never been anywhere, and I sure didn't know what it would be like to live away from home. But she found a family for me to live with and when she told me she would pay and I could paint, I didn't have to think any more, and I couldn't wait to go."

Soul4-rain Soul5-michi

Above Left: In Javier’s Ajijic mural, Tlaloc, the God of Rain, with lightning shooting from the palms of his hands, creates a thunderstorm for Lake Chapala.   Right: Michi, the spirit of the Lake pours fish into the water.

After 18 months, Javier returned to Ajijic, to look work, but also to continue studying art in Guadalajara. Then at 18, Javier went to Los Angeles where he was sure he could pursue his dream of becoming a fine artist.

featurejavier1 For eight years, Javier painted in factories and sold paint in hardware stores; finally he was hired to paint billboards. It wasn’t the fine art career he had hoped for, but at least he was working in his field – until 1994 when computer art took over the billboard industry.

"The most negative times of my life have turned out to be my best opportunities. I went from being jobless in 1994 to a dream job with Warner Brothers -- until computers forced layoffs there in 1999.

“I had always planned to return to Ajijic when I was 62. I used to pray to God to let me live long enough to retire and get back to Ajijic…and then to let me have at least two more days, just so I could walk around and see my village.

"So, there I was, 55 years old, driving with my wife and all our belongings in a van, coming back to Ajijic. When we crossed the border, I was crying because I was finally free from commercial art, and free to live my dream of being a fine artist, and in the best of all, free to live in Ajijic.

Feature4-javierJavier Zaragosa has been back in his village of Ajijic now for 10 years more than the two days he prayed for. During those 10 years, he has painted nearly every day; as he told me, he waited 36 years for this and he’s not wasting a single minute. But, first, every morning he walks to the lake and launches his fishing boat. And just as did his father before him, he rows out into the still water and casts his net or sets his lines.

When he comes back in, he keeps some of the fish for his own table – the rest he gives to the other fishermen to sell. Then he goes for that walk around town, to see his village, enjoys breakfast with his wife and then…then he settles down to paint.

In the first years he produced lovely landscapes of Lake Chapala and portraits of the people he knows here. In the past few years, he’s taken on some enormous projects.

In addition to retouching and redefining the six murals in the Ixtlahuacan church, Javier has designed and painted massive public murals in Ajijic and Chapala. The Ajijic mural on the Delagado Office Building across the street from the plaza (see details above) depicts an ancient May celebration of the indigenous who lived in this area. He painted the faces of people around town into the scene – including some family members.

Then, when the new retaining wall across from the Coffee Tree in Chapala was built Javier stepped up to paint a series of panels portraying the history of Chapala – from Pre-Hispanic times to this new century. While this mural is wonderful viewed from a moving vehicle, be sure to stop, park and study each of the scenes. The detail is rich and enlightening.


"Everyone talks about how much talent there is in Ajijic, and there are lots of talented painters." Javier leaned forward. "But, do you want to know the real truth? I don't think Ajijic has more naturally talented people than Chapala, San Juan Cosalá or Jocotepec.

What Ajijic has is the continuing influence of Neill James. She encouraged us to start thinking about art and she helped some of us became artists. Now we are helping other kids to become artists, too. It is a way for us to repay her for the help she gave us."


Javier Zaragosa is thankful to have lived long enough to return to his town and his lake…but certainly no more thankful than the visitors and residents of Lake Chapala who will live with the richness of the gift of his talents for many years to come.

Judy King is publisher of Mexico Insights—Living at Lake Chapala, a monthly online magazine for people interested in Mexico's Lake Chapala region, in the state of Jalisco.

Judy, a 19-year resident of Ajijic on Lake Chapala's north shore, conducts weekly newcomer's seminars and shares her expertise about Mexico in her ezine at, and in the "Mexico Lindo" column of the Lake Chapala Review.

Judy also is a speaker for local organizations and visiting tour groups about the Lakeside area about Mexican customs and holidays.

Lake Chapala’s Modern Muralists II – The Lopez Vega Brothers

by Judy King 22. May 2010 18:37

DCP_2005"I am one of the very lucky people,”  Ajijic artist Jesús López Vega told me.

“I was one of the kids in the art classes sponsored by Neill James. I’ve grown up and now live being able to express some of my inner feelings and dreams and confusion through my art.

“Neill James recognized that we were capable of art. She knew that if the people of this area had been creative back to the time of the Aztec, then we had that creativity, too. We just needed someone to motivate us, to show us the way.”

Neill James was a travel writer and had traveled and lived in many far-flung areas of the world before she was injured climbing Popocatépetl (the volcano near Mexico City) and then, when she was nearly recovered, was injured again when she sped off to Michoacán in 1943 to see the eruption of Parícutin (the volcano the emerged from a cornfield  in full view of the startled farmer).

She later selected Ajijic as the perfect spot to completely recover her strength. She not only stay on (until her death in the 1990s) she hired a teacher, Angelita Aldana to tutor local children.

Jesús explained, “We got to go to class every day after school. First we had to study our school lessons for an hour, then our reward was the painting. Neill James had a mission for us, and we have to continue that mission for today’s children.

"That's why I return week after week to help the kids in the Saturday children's art program that is co-sponsored by the Lake Chapala Society and the Ajijic Society of the Arts -- to give the next generation the help I received.”

Then Jesús repeated, nearly word for word something he'd told me in an interview with Ajijic muralists back in 2002: "Art is a way of communication that comes through from our soul, from our spirit. It speaks the truth. That may not always be pretty, but it needs to be heard, and it needs to be shared."

Jesús López Vega is no stranger to designing and painting murals. By the time he was 15 years old, Jesús had completed his first mural entitled "Gladiators" at Giano Junior High School in La Puente, California. In the intervening years, he's painted four murals in Chapala area schools, and another in a Portland, Oregon gallery, the mural of Michicihualli (the spirit of the lake) on the side wall of his Ajijic studio, and his most recent major work, The Birth of Michicihualli – a giant stairway mural in Ajijic’s Casa de Cultura. Jesús began painting private murals in homes in the United States, and here in Mexico (like this lovely Virgin of Guadalajara) in the 1980s.

There are three Lopez Vega brothers – Jesús, Antonio and Margarito are all artists and all alumni of the Neill James classes for the children of Ajijic 50 years ago. (Some readers may also know sister Margarita – Rita who has helped visitors and local residents at the front desk of La Nueva Posada for many years.)

Neill James selected two of her most promising students to attend the art institute in San Miguel Allende. Brother Antonio not only succeeded in the classes there, he eventually was selected to be on the respected art school’s faculty. He remained in that position until he returned to Ajijic a couple of years ago.  You’ll read more about the other Neill James student who attended the Art Institute – Javier Zaragosa --  in our next post about Ajijic’s muralists.

While Antonio was working in San Miguel, Jesús has built a following of admirers here in Ajijic – and in the United States where he lived for several of his younger years. Meanwhile , more of the Neill James students, combined their efforts on a patriotic mural featuring Miguel Hidalgo in the entry of the school across the street from the Templo de San Andrés on Marcos Castellaños (pictured at left below).

murals4marcoscastellonas murals2jesuslopezvega

In the center shot taken about 7 years ago, Jesús was putting the  finishing touches on Education and Culture in the Saul Rodiles Piña school on Hidalgo in Ajijic. His other school murals include two in his high school, the old Prepatoria Chapala building on Pedro Moreno in Chapala, and in a California junior high school.

At right above, Jesús shows the design and plans for the huge recent mural he completed in Ajijic’s new Casa de Cultura. That painting entends up through two stories and onto the ceiling as the spirit of the lake emerges from the waters produced by her father, the rain god Tlaloc.

Visit the gallery of Jesús López Vega at the intersection of Ocampo and Rio Zula in western Ajijic, We know you’ll be as enchanted with his work as we are. From time to time he teaches print making, and often you can also meet his brother Antonio in the gallery or studio. 

Judy King is publisher of Mexico Insights—Living at Lake Chapala, a monthly online magazine for people interested in Mexico's Lake Chapala region, in the state of Jalisco.

Judy, a 19-year resident of Ajijic on Lake Chapala's north shore, conducts weekly newcomer's seminars and shares her expertise about Mexico in her ezine at, and in the "Mexico Lindo" column of the Lake Chapala Review.

Judy also is a speaker for local organizations and visiting tour groups about the Lakeside area about Mexican customs and holidays.

Lake Chapala’s Modern Muralists

by Judy King 20. May 2010 19:50

lighthouse-mural The towns of Lake Chapala are dotted with murals painted by local artists. Giant political, ecological, historical, and social works of art highlight area walls and keep area residents and visitors fascinated with the art and the Mexican masters whose names are synonymous with murals -- Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, and David Alfaros Siguieros.

When I interviewed some of Ajijic’s muralists a few years ago we talked about Mexico’s long  fascination with the giant paintings. Jesús Lopez Vega (he recently finished part two of a giant stairway mural featuring the spirit of the lake) said, "When I look at the murals here in Ajijic I think of how we have brought back the spirits of masters of the Mexican mural, each in our own way. We Ajijic artists express the same types of feelings and comments. Diego Rivera was the most historic muralist. Orozco was the most artistic; Siquieros was political and Rufino Tamayo, my mentor, was the cosmic one. His composition of color and figures transmits the pre-Columbian spirit."

Dionicio Morales was serious when he added, "We have a grave responsibility as mural artists." He paused, searching for the right words,and said, "It is not enough to be able to paint a whole crowd of pretty people. The artist must be willing to thoroughly investigate and research his topic. It is unthinkable to start painting without understanding the dress, the culture, the landscape, the religion, and even the foods of the subjects."

DSC01147 DSC01144

"That’s right," interrupted Isidro Xilonzóchitl who recently painted an early scene of San Juan Cosalá in the Viva Mexico! Tia Lupita Restaurant. "We have to be know the time and place we are painting. We can't portray a Northern Yaqui carving an Aztec calendar. Our paint strokes can accurately portray our world, ancient and modern, but if we are not vigilant, we could create a 'guacamole of cultures.'"

Jesús explained, "Mexico’s mural movement began right after the Mexican Revolution (about 1920), and there was a lot the great muralists needed to say. Murals are more than large paintings that make ecological, political and social statements. It is about our culture; it is about expressing our feelings -- most of the time what murals say goes against the system.

"Remember,” he said, “is a way of communication that comes through from your soul, from your spirit. It speaks the truth. That is not always pretty, but it needs to be heard."


Jose Francisco Rojas Miramontes won a local mural contest with this mural featuring his vision of the spirit of Lake Chapala rising from the depths, silvery fish dangling from his head like hair. The Spirit continues to reach out to the visitors of the Lake Chapala Society patio, precious drops of water dripping from fingers. The then very young artist felt directed to call attention to the plight of Lake Chapala which was in peril at the time of the mural painting by depicting the indigenous in their boats of the past and the modern factories, smokestacks and pollution of the future, and the dry lakeshore of 2002. 

Guadalupe-chapala  Efren Gonzalez is well known among local foreigners, and among the readers of Living at Lake Chapala. (See the recent article Harriet Hart wrote about his new studio and gallery and the classes he is teaching for area children in the Feature Article of the April 2010 issue of Living at Lake Chapala. 

Like most of Ajijic’s professional artists, Efren got his artistic start in the children’s after school classes sponsored by Sra. Neill James, the travel writer who settled in Ajijic in 1942.

As perhaps the youngest of Lake Chapala’s mural painters, he is one of the most prolific – along with the Lopez Vega brothers Jesus and Antonio (you’ll read more about them in tomorrow’s blog post.)

On the front of Ajijic’s Saul Rodiles Piña School on Hidalgo, Gonzalez painted a capsulated history of ancient Mexico as recorded in the Gary Jennings' novel, Azteca. At another school in upper Ajijic, Efren painted a mural reflecting later Mexican history. In addition to many smaller murals in or on private homes (as with the Virgin of Guadalupe – Chapala style – complete with corn, drying nets, fish, agave and turtles shown at left above) he painted another historical mural in the stairway in the office building of the municipal building in Chapala. When you are headed to the movie theater in Bugambilias Plaza, be sure to look up at the work he did in on that mall’s ceiling, and then take time to see the mural shown below which is painted on the  front of the Ajijic school which is on Calle Parroquia, just across the street from San Andrés Church. 

feature6-mural feature7-lake

Isidro Xilonzóchitl, a San Juan Cosalá native prefers to draw on political themes as did the mural masters.  Like Orozco and Siqueiros, Isidro prefers to paint tales of political and social problems. His first Ajijic mural, painted on a wall between the town plaza and the fountain, has disappeared in the course of a building project. It depicted an event in the early 1990s when Guadalajara’s Catholic Cardinal was shot in the Guadalajara airport parking lot.

His more recent work is a giant mural in the San Juan Cosalá restaurant, Viva Mexico! Tia Lupita. There he shows early village residents gathering at the church to celebrate a wedding, enjoying a fireworks display, listening and dancing to the music of the band, and carrying on the activities of daily life.

These are some of the murals of Ajijic, Chapala and San Juan Cosalá. Be sure to come back tomorrow to see more of Lake Chapala’s modern masters of mural painting!

Judy King is publisher of Mexico Insights—Living at Lake Chapala, a monthly online magazine for people interested in Mexico's Lake Chapala region, in the state of Jalisco.

Judy, a 19-year resident of Ajijic on Lake Chapala's north shore, conducts weekly newcomer's seminars and shares her expertise about Mexico in her ezine at, and in the "Mexico Lindo" column of the Lake Chapala Review.

Judy also is a speaker for local organizations and visiting tour groups about the Lakeside area about Mexican customs and holidays.

The History of San Juan Cosala

by Judy King 14. April 2010 10:32

mural In the Mexico Insights post yesterday I told you about the wonderful lunch Chef Lorraine and I had at Viva Mexico Tia Lupita Restaurant in San Juan Cosalá.  Our host at the restaurant, Agustín is an avid supporter of the village of San Juan, of the artists there and the town’s activities and residents.

You’ll know that, too, as soon as you walk into the restaurant and see the wonderful mural that fills one of the long walls of the dining room.

Created by painter, sculptor and muralist Isidro Xilonzóchitl, this scene features all of the traditional events of Mexican fiestas. From the little village church, through the bridal party and the castillo (fixed fireworks display) and the torito (firework-loaded papier mache bull worn on a man’s back as he runs through a crowd with colored displays of fireworks shooting off into the crowd) to the children playing at the water’s edge and the ladies (could they be Agustín’s Aunt Lupita and her sisters and relatives), this enormous work tells the story of a Mexican celebration.


Take time to study it. The more you look , the more you’ll see in this wonderful display of this country’s traditions and typical small town life.  

The History of San Juan Cosalá

You’ll learn more about this pleasant close-knit village as your read the short history in the pages of the menu at Restaurant Viva Mexico Tia Lupita. The restaurant’s owner and Lic. Professor Gabriel Chavez Rameno, the chronicler of San Juan Cosalá assembled this story of how the town has evolved from it’s beginnings in about 1200 A.D.

The history of the founding of San Juan Cosalá is not precise. From the type of ceramics found in the region, it is clear that the land was already inhabited during the pre-classic period.

San Juan Cosalá was an important town on the lake and was ruled by Tlatonani. When the population of San Juan Cosalá grew too large, he ordered many of the inhabitants to found new towns including Ajijic, Tomatlan, Jocotepec and Tzapotlan (today San Cristobal).

Before the Spanish conquest, Ixtlacateotl was the main god of this region, but each family also worshiped their own set of gods.

In 1524, Alonso de Avalos conquered the region. It was 1531 before Franciscan Fray Martin de Jesús, the first missionary arrived and declared Saint John the Baptist to be the patron saint. He converted Tlatonani and baptized him, giving him the name of Don Andrés Carlos (Andrés for Fray Martin’s favorite saint, and Carlos in honor of the King of Spain.)

Mural-steepleTo have a place to perform baptisms, Fray Martin ordered the construction of a small church made of branches, sticks and sacate. Later Fray Martin wanted to build a grander church and convent to facilitate the teaching of the gospel. Though Don Andrés Carlos agreed to the construction, it was decided that it not be built in San Juan Cosalá due to a lack of water. Instead it was located in Ajijic where there were many springs.

In 1531, Fray Martin de Jesús build the chapel of San Juan Cosalá and later next door he built the Hospital (Hospice) of the Conception. In 1940, the canon of Guadalajara, Luis Enrique Orozco visited the chapel and described it as “too much beauty for such a small place and at the same time, too rough in it’s construction. In front there is an atrium surrounded by short adobe fences which used to be the graveyard of the town.”

One of San Juan Cosalá’s principal ceremonial centers was Pipiltitlan (a place of children or the place of children’s tears). There the hot water flowed from the earth (today this spot is at Motel Balneario San Juan Cosalá) Nearby is another of the ceremonial centers – where there was a camichin tree which was known as the tree of Vieja Machi. There the people would gather to make offerings to the goddess Teo-Machis Xihualli (the fish woman or the spirit of the lake).

The Old Church

In addition to the hot mineral water which still steams from the earth in the Balneario areas of eastern San Juan, there are other markers from the ancient settlement and the town’s early days. Diagonally across the street from the Templo de San Juan (at the town’s plaza) you’ll spot the old steeple from one of the community’s very early churches. The building is long gone, but a cactus grows from the tip of the small tower.

Art with Your Meal

As you look around Viva Mexico Tia Lupita, you’ll see many other pieces of framed art, the work of local artists. Ask about the works you like – we hear that these days Augustín is selling almost as many paintings as chile rellanos.


A Special Gift!

I left the restaurant with a new framed piece of art – Augustín gave me the Virgin of Guadalupe right off his wall for my collection at home once he found that I don’t have one just like this. I hated to take it right off the wall, until he assured me that he has a larger version of this particular imaginative variation that he will hang on the wall above the flowers he picks up at his daughter’s flower shop just down the block.)

While you are in San Juan Cosalá, take a few minutes to head towards the lake from the plaza to see the new malecón being developed at the water’s edge.

Enjoy your visit to this very traditional Lake Chapala puebla, then come back tomorrow for more – this time we’ll be talking about the of this village.

Don’t forget to Visit Restaurante Viva Mexico!! Tia Lupita at Porfirio Díaz #92 – a block and 1/2 west of the San Juan Cosalá Plaza. They’re open Noon to 10 p.m. on weekdays (closed Thursday) and 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekends. Call for reservations: 044-33 3156-2245.

Judy King is publisher of Mexico Insights—Living at Lake Chapala, a monthly online magazine for people interested in Mexico's Lake Chapala region, in the state of Jalisco.

Judy, a 19-year resident of Ajijic on Lake Chapala's north shore, conducts weekly newcomer's seminars and shares her expertise about Mexico in her ezine at, and in the "Mexico Lindo" column of the Lake Chapala Review.

Judy also is a speaker for local organizations and visiting tour groups about the Lakeside area about Mexican customs and holidays.

About Judy King

Judy King

Hi There — Welcome to my little corner of the world. I'm Judy King and I live in the centuries-old village of Ajijic on the north shore of Lake Chapala, Mexico's largest natural lake.

I've lived here full time since 1990, and... [ more ]

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