Sarah DeVries
Rogelio Santos mural Community murals in San Quintín, Baja California, painted by professionals with the participation of residents. Rogelio Santos

Let’s hear it for Mexico’s renaissance in community muralism

How our surroundings look reminds us of our own potential

I met my new Aunt Georgeanne for the first time as a young teenager.

I think it was before she married my Uncle Jerry, but it’s hard to say now that so many years have passed. In addition to being a super cool and kind lady, I found out on the day that I met her that she was an artist like her new sister-in-law, my grandmother.

When I walked into her house for the first time, I saw the biggest canvases I had ever seen: they were as gigantic as the entire high-ceilinged walls and filled with complexity, dreamlike colorscapes with hints of recognizable scenes.

Before going into that house, it had never occurred to me that it was possible to paint things that were so … big.

Waco, Texas, in the 1980s and 1990s mostly had graffiti on walls, if anything at all, and murals were a thing I don’t remember discovering until I was an older teen living in Fort Worth. The place that really showed me what was possible when it came to “giant” art, of course, was Mexico.

In my hometown of Xalapa, there are several murals around the city, and I love them all … even the ones that seem to have been slapped up without much planning beforehand.

Art is art, and paint is an especially good way to really create a dramatic difference in pretty much any space. You don’t necessarily need to be talented to use it, and if you wind up creating something that you decide in the end looks stupid, you can always paint over it again. Is there any better metaphor for fresh starts?

So, no political or pandemic talk today. Today, I shall sing the praises of paint specifically, and good intentional design and planning in general.

Sifting for ideas through all the devastating news of the week in the paper, I was inspired by Leigh Thelmadatter’s articles (also here) on how murals are spreading throughout Mexico, as well as Robyn Huang’s piece on some of the giant murals popping up. Now that’s a contagion and cultural habit that I can get excited about!

From professionals to troops of amateurs, murals are blooming all over the place. I can’t think of a better way to spread around hope, community and beauty.

And when the people within communities participate in those projects themselves, the kind of ownership and sense of belonging that it gives them is not something you can put a price on. If we could expand this tendency to include municipal help with things like repairing streets, installing solar streetlights, etc … now that would really be something!

Because the way our communities look matters. It gives us pride and hope and inspires us to go above and beyond in the same types of ways; it reminds us of our own potential for transformation.

This is something that I know to be true on both the micro and macro levels.

I discovered it as a teenager upon seeing the difference that it made for my own family to have a clean, pleasant environment to live in (growing up, my house was usually close to hoarders-level messy, with predictable correlations especially to the adults’ sense of hopelessness).

As I got older, I came to understand my grandmother’s enthusiasm for keeping things clean on a level that had seemed obsessive to me, as well as her desire to create art. Like my own, her talent for creating things with paint wasn’t innate but, rather, born of a desire to make things beautiful for all who spent time in the space.

Order and art give me a sense of peace that I’ve struggled to find through other means, and it will always be my go-to technique to restore a sense of light and hope to even the most hopeless places.

I believe in this power so strongly, in fact, that I spend much of my time creating these spaces for myself and for others with my own fledgling business, using everything from safety evaluations to organization to (of course) mural painting. They say you should “niche down,” but I just can’t force myself to choose — I love it all!

Art and organization don’t heal everything, I know, but it makes such a bigger difference than we think it does. It inspires us, comforts us, makes us feel listened to and helps us express ourselves at a deeper, almost magical level.

And public art is something that belongs to everyone in a society in which the “finer things” are increasingly enjoyed in private, for a fee. What better way to bring people into the fold than giving them a piece of the beauty that’s for all of us?

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sdevrieswritingandtranslating.com and her Patreon page.

Reader forum

The forum is available to logged-in subscribers only.