Pasó por Aquí

José Cisneros has been drawing the history of the Southwest for 84 years. And he’s not done yet.

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 of George H. W. Bush was signed “To my esteemed friend José Cisneros whose art has brightened our life.” In a ceremony at the White House in 2002, George W. Bush awarded Cisneros a National Humanities Medal, the nearest thing to knighthood we have in this country (Cisneros was knighted for real in 1991 by Juan Carlos I, king of Spain). He told me that Laura held his hand during the entire ceremony. “At least according to the Washington Post,” he added with a smile.

After the tour of his studio, I saw Cisneros again that evening at an exhibition of some of his early drawings hosted by the Adair Margo Gallery. Dressed in a spiffy white sports coat, he drifted easily and with great presence among the elite of El Paso’s not-insignificant arts scene. The exhibition included more than sixty previously unknown illustrations that Cisneros’s daughter Irene discovered in June in his studio. At first the artist protested that these pieces were rejects and shouldn’t be shown in public, but on the night of the exhibition he seemed to have his timidity in check.

A few of the early pictures were reproduced in John West’s biography,” said Adair Margo, one of Cisneros’s greatest patrons and admirers. “But we didn’t have a clue that others had survived. We never dreamed we’d have an opportunity to show drawings Cisneros did when he lived in Mexico.”

Cisneros was born in 1910 in Ocampo, a small village in the Mexican state of Durango. The earliest of the drawings in Margo’s exhibition was made when he was twelve. It is titled Dorado and depicts a storybook version of the house and fenced compound where the family lived after fleeing their native village during the Mexican Revolution. “It was a hard trip,” Cisneros recalled, “because there was a snowstorm and we were still barefooted.” Cisneros taught himself to read, memorizing the sounds of letters and their combinations from a phonetic primer. He had already begun doing crude drawings, which his family dismissed as doodles. In 1925 the family moved north to Juárez. Cisneros got a student passport to attend the Lydia Patterson Institute, in El Paso, where he learned English and pursued his lifelong obsession with Mexican and Southwestern history. Drawing came naturally to Cisneros, but drawing materials were precious. He drew on scraps of paper, modeling his work on pictures he found in movie magazines and newspapers. Two of his early works are highly stylized portraits of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. But there are also profiles of Mexican peasants and lovers and soldiers, of street scenes in Juárez that poke fun at naive tourists who seem to see bullfighters and banditos on every corner. Humor is one of Cisneros’s more endearing trademarks: In many of his drawings a scrawny dog trots alongside a richly costumed horseman mounted on a sleek, fat steed.

In 1930 Cisneros

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