On a warm and breezy Saturday this spring—May 6, 2023, to be exact—Israel Enriquez and a friend stopped by the Allen Premium Outlets mall for a bite to eat. Moments later, a man with an AR-15-style rifle opened fire in the parking lot outside, killing eight people, including children. Enriquez and his friend were trapped at the mall for five excruciating hours, first in a gruesome, chaotic active shooter situation, then in a long lockdown after the gunman was killed by a police officer. “We thought it was our last moment,” Enriquez says.

When Enriquez returned to the mall to pick up his car the next day, he noticed a man in a black cowboy hat building an impromptu memorial to honor the victims. He approached the man and asked if he could help. Soon they were working together, crafting crosses with boards and screws and digging holes to plant them in.

Those crosses were what drew Cheryl Jackson in. The day after the shooting, she was on her way to a nearby cemetery to visit her mother’s grave when she decided to stop by the site of the massacre. Although she wasn’t intimately connected to any of the victims, Jackson is deeply devoted to her hometown. At the mall entrance, she noticed the black-hatted stranger painting crosses. She too approached, asking if there was anything she could do. 

In short order, Jackson became the de facto manager of about fifteen volunteers, offering a shoulder to cry on, keeping protective watch over the offerings to the dead, and, four days after the mysterious artist began work on the site, organizing a candlelight vigil for which the 24-foot-long, 7.5-foot-tall public mural he’d worked on was the centerpiece. “Every day was a day of pain and love,” Jackson says. 

Who was that black-hatted man, anyway? His name is Roberto Marquez, and he’s a self-taught immigrant artist who lives in South Dallas. Over the past few years, countless people who have visited ad hoc memorial sites in the raw, brutal days after major tragedies in Texas have likely met him. He was there after a gunman killed nineteen children and two adults in Uvalde in May 2022, after 53 migrants baked to death in the back of a container truck in San Antonio in June 2022, and after two planes collided at an air show in Dallas last November. He also has ventured outside the state’s borders, traveling to Ciudad Juárez this March after a fire at a migrant center left forty dead and dozens injured; to Surfside, Florida, after the 2021 condo collapse; to Turkey, in the aftermath of the recent earthquake; and to Ukraine, in the early days of the war. 

Because his artworks are so photogenic, Marquez has appeared in numerous articles and TV broadcasts in recent years, despite being almost completely unknown in the art world. His trademark, besides the ever-present black hat, is a long row of freestanding plywood panels covered in stretched canvas, on which he paints narrative murals stylistically informed by Cubism, street art, and the Mexican muralist tradition. His works typically respond to the events at hand, honoring victims and decrying injustice. As a rule, he abandons the pieces at the site of the memorial, simply packing up and moving on to the next event. And sadly, there’s always a next event.

Marquez, who is 61, grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, and first crossed the border at age 15 to work in the fields in California. He was deported after four months, but he returned and eventually found stable employment working construction in the Washington, D.C., area. In 1995 he moved with his family to Dallas, obtained citizenship, and established a real estate business, buying houses and fixing them up. Five years ago, he decided that his finances were secure enough that he could retire early and give his artistic side a chance to flourish. He had been “playing” with painting, he says, for about a decade by then, without much time to hone his craft. He read books on Picasso and practiced for his new vocation by obsessively reproducing GuernicaPicasso’s famous canvas depicting a Fascist bombardment during the Spanish Civil War. “By now, I can almost blindfold myself and paint the Guernica,” Marquez says.

As he sought advice on how to become a professional artist, Marquez was told that he would need to have a story. Because he’s extremely private about his personal life, he looked outward, seeking big stories to respond to in the real world. “I didn’t want to paint anything related to my life or anything around my family,” he says, in fluent but choppy English. “So I figured if I go somewhere, maybe I can find inspiration. And I found it. But before I knew it, that activity connected me to the next one and then the one after that—it was like a chain of events, and it was nonstop. So now I have a lot of stories to tell.”

Marquez mural mine collapse
Marquez holding his canvas dedicated to the families of the ten coal miners who were trapped after a collapse, in the community of Agujita, Mexico, on August 10, 2022.Pedro Pardo/Getty

Marquez often aims to address injustice in his art, and, especially at first, he focused on the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. He has taken several trips to the region, including in late 2018 when he traveled with a caravan of Central Americans as they passed through southern Mexico, overrunning Mexican National Guard checkpoints and facing unpredictable reprisals, including the sudden disappearance and eventual deportation of a caravan leader. Spending time with migrants at shelters where they slept and waited for opportunities to continue on their journey, Marquez heard stories of hope—and of horror, including ones about deadly consequences for nonpayment of smuggling debts owed to human traffickers in Panama’s Darién Gap region. Marquez hopes his art will help audiences on both sides of the border take the migrants’ plight seriously. “It was a story that I related to because it reminded me of my years as an illegal migrant,” he says.

His art has provoked strong, sometimes violent reactions. In 2019 Marquez installed a textile piece on the southern face of the border wall in Tijuana, Mexico, an American flag woven out of bedding left behind by migrant caravanners at church-run shelters. This piece was set on fire a few days after it went up. The arsonist’s identity isn’t known, but conversations with Mexican locals offered Marquez some clues. Many of them resented the migrants gathering in their country and saw the flag as a public eyesore. 

Similarly, in 2022 a local woman in San Antonio set fire to parts of Marquez’s memorial for the 53 migrants who died in the unventilated box truck. (After arresting the arsonist, authorities said she told police she was “compelled by the Holy Spirit” to destroy the crosses Marquez had built.) 

Later that year, on a trip to Ciudad Juárez to witness a protest by migrants, Marquez organized a performance art piece in which he and some volunteers crossed and recrossed a quiet section of the Rio Grande as they held a giant homemade U.S. flag emblazoned with the slogan “We The Migrants Built America.” He was arrested on the U.S. side for illegal entry, convicted despite his U.S. citizenship, and spent five days in jail. 

Soon after, in El Paso, his mural Plight of the Migrant was removed from outside a church and part of it was destroyed by El Paso city workers. The church consented to hosting his mural, which included painted figures in poses of suffering and pasted-on photographs of well-known Latin American leaders, including Che Guevara and Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro, as well as photos of angry monkeys. Marquez says his work was intended in part to criticize authoritarian leftist leaders in the region.

Sandragrace Martinez, a friend of Marquez’s who witnessed the mural being fed into a garbage truck, describes it as a masterpiece and says, “For it to be that easily destroyed, and then no one held accountable for that, is to this day baffling.” The El Paso Police Department’s public information office did not respond to requests for comment. A representative for Sacred Heart, which has been called the Ellis Island of the Southwest for its reputation for assisting indigent migrants, said the church was not aware of the incident and that “Whatever the police officers do, we don’t have a role.”

Marquez, for his part, says it’s up to the community to decide what happens to his artworks after he leaves the scene. “Sometimes they end up in the trash,” he says. “Sometimes it just disappears, I don’t know. Others have gone to museums. I tell them, you know, whatever decisions you guys make, it’s okay with me, because by now it’s not my piece. It belongs to the place.”

Marquez’s murals commemorating horrific events can be hard-hitting. His Uvalde mural depicts, in Guernica style, the interior of a classroom during the shooting. In his San Antonio mural, an angel is waiting by the rear door of the box truck to collect the souls of the 53 migrants. Asked if he worries about challenging mourners and survivors to relive their trauma by depicting such scenarios in the days after a tragedy, Marquez points out that his style is never gruesome or detailed but instead emphasizes the broad strokes of a scene.

“If my style was realistic, maybe it wouldn’t be my place to paint,” he says. “That’s why I like to go abstract. As an artist, I have to tell it as it is. But I don’t emphasize the pain.” Media outlets, always challenged to represent stories of death and violence with both accuracy and tasteful restraint, tend to seize on Marquez’s murals as poetic emblems of the event.

A few of them have been picked up and shown by museums, including one in Poland, near the Ukraine border, where Marquez was responding to the influx of war refugees. His Ukraine travels, he says, were explicitly inspired by Guernica, and he found it easy to get the attention of reporters by telling them he was making updates to the painting for the present-day European war. 

Marquez painting on a bridge destroyed in Irpin, near Kyiv
Marquez painting a work inspired by Picasso’s Guernica on a bridge destroyed in Irpin, near Kyiv, on April 26, 2022.Emilio Morenatti/AP

“In order for people to connect to a story, they need something they already know. The Guernica was for that purpose,” Marquez says. He suggests, with some humility, that he doesn’t have his own style, but it’s clear that Picasso has provided Marquez with a template for delving into horrific situations with empathy and respect, and that he has developed a highly original, if not pictorially groundbreaking, practice on top of his imitations. 

In the past few years, as he’s broadened his storytelling focus from the migrant crisis to other moments of violence and catastrophe, Marquez, who describes himself as not traditionally religious, has begun building crosses to honor the dead. Some are waist-high, others head-high, and they’re typically painted, often with the name of a victim on the crossbar. Flowers or other items are sometimes eventually hung or tied to them. The 53 crosses he built in San Antonio, in collaboration with Sandragrace Martinez and a team of mourners turned volunteers, still stand at the spot where the box truck was abandoned by its smuggler driver. At that site, the Kafkaesque immigration-enforcement system loomed large: family members of the dead migrants in the U.S. often couldn’t collect the bodies of their loved ones because of needlessly bureaucratic and exorbitantly expensive processes. For many of the bereaved, a few of whom Marquez talked to while working on their relatives’ crosses, this spot became the locus of their mourning. 

“That’s kind of what it evolved into, a quasi cemetery, and their last resting place,” Martinez says. “So many people still come, throughout the week and on the weekends.” Martinez notes that memorial sites like these, where ofrendas such as flowers, teddy bears, and candles are brought for the dead, are especially important in Mexican culture. 

In Allen, the quasi cemetery was smaller, and it stood for only eight days—it was on commercial property, and Cheryl Jackson felt she couldn’t keep it safe from potential vandalism or theft much longer than that. But during those eight days many loved ones of the dead and injured visited. Media had reported that the killer had tattoos and wore patches indicating what police called “neo-Nazi ideation,” but Marquez, despite his commitments to the immigrant cause, kept this artwork apolitical. He sketched out a mural celebrating the heroism of the officer who shot the killer, but, burdened by the emotional weight of the tragedy, he was unable to complete the painting in the brief time frame he had. “People come in, and before you know it, they start crying,” he explains. “It’s difficult sometimes just to deal with the pain of the people that come by.”

“But being present, as well, is important for them,” he adds. “Other than that, I don’t know what else I can do.”

Instead of a finished mural, at the Wednesday night vigil Marquez offered up his incomplete panels to the mourners, inviting them to take paintbrushes and add their own messages of grief or love. “He really gave them a place to express their feelings,” Jackson says. “Nobody else thought about it or even tried to do it.”

Marquez often invites participation, but this was perhaps the most he’d ever handed his process over to the heartbroken around him. For him, it was the meaningful culmination of an artistic approach that is always unpredictable and guided by the enormous emotional needs of the situations he enters. “I don’t come saying, ‘Can I have the chance to paint another tragedy?’ ” he says. “I go and say, ‘What is it I can do to help?’ It’s not part of the problem; it’s trying to be part of a solution. But sometimes, there’s no solution. It’s only the process of people getting healed.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Disaster Artist.” Subscribe today.

  • More About:
  • Art