"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."
"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."
"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."
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.
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.
Javier 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.