EVERYONE WHO HAS WRITTEN ABOUT José Cisneros, the legendary historian and illustrator of the Spanish Southwest, has remarked on his excessive modesty and almost painful shyness. Indeed, at our first meeting in his tidy El Paso home, he admitted that he is a nervous wreck every time he appears in public. He recalled in particular the evening in 1985 when he received the Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame for his landmark collection of illustrated horsemen, Riders Across the Centuries (1984). “I was afraid they’d find out I’ve never been on a ranch or ridden a horse,” he said, in a bilingual deadpan. “But then, I illustrated a book on Ireland and I’ve never been there either.” Shy and modest he may be, but after nearly a century of making up life as he encounters it, José Cisneros has his act down pat.
Though almost blind and nearly deaf, the 96-year-old artist bounced with great enthusiasm from room to room, showing me hundreds of books and magazines containing his drawings, as well as scrapbooks of original sketches, so physically and mentally agile that I had to scramble to keep up with him. He moved like a good middleweight, dapper and confident in a pink dress shirt, gray flannel trousers, and white sneakers, his silver hair brushed back Cesar Romero-style. Skipping down the steep flight of stairs to his basement studio, he talked about his “gray period,” the last hurrah of a long career. He showed me an unfinished black and white drawing, tentatively titled “Lower Valley Pioneers,” and confessed he wasn’t happy with its progress.
Art historian Paul Rossi has called Cisneros the country’s leading authority on “the horsemen of Spanish American history,” and a visit to his tiny studio shows why. The room was jammed to the ceiling with books on heraldry; calligraphy; Mexican, South American, and Southwestern history; horses and horsemen; the gauchos of Argentina; a three-volume encyclopedia on bullfighting; and even a book titled Wine, Women, Toros. When he worked for El Paso City Lines, first cleaning and later painting buses and electric streetcars, Cisneros used his knowledge of heraldry to accurately paint the coats of arms of Mexican states on the sides of city vehicles. No historical detail escapes his attention, as John O. West explains in his biography José Cisneros— An Artist’s Journey. While working on Riders Across the Centuries, Cisneros figured out which parts of the horsemen’s costumes had prevailed over time. He noticed that it was fashionable for seventeenth-century French horsemen to wear ruffles at the bottom of their drawers, and the fad later spread to Latin American countries such as Argentina and Mexico, where some Indian tribes still wear lace drawers.
There wasn’t much furniture in the studio—just a small bed and a desk. Mounted on top of the desk was an enlargement machine that magnifies images one hundred times and projects them on a screen. It was a gift from Laura Bush and friends, their way of encouraging Cisneros to keep working even as his sight failed. There were Bush family photos and mementos all over the house. A photograph