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Blackwell School Mural Tells Lesser-Known Stories of Marfa

The Blackwell School Alliance celebrated the unveiling of Marfa's new community mural with a performance by Mariachi Santa Cruz Saturday. (Photo: Diana Nguyen / KRTS)

By Carlos Morales and Sally Beauvais

As you drive west on Highway 90 into Marfa, you’ll spot a new landmark from the road: a community mural, painted in vivid colors on a wall of the Casner building adjacent to the Stripes gas station parking lot. Commissioned by the Blackwell School Alliance, the mural tells the lesser-known stories of the city’s history.

El Paso artist Jesus "Cimi" Alvarado and his team installed the mural in the days leading up to Blackwell's 2018 Block Party. Alvarado says the imagery is based on memories and photographs from people in the Marfa community.

"Seeing them makes you think of your cousin, or people you know, people you grew up with," says Alvarado. "A lot of these stories are similar to our stories, or where we came from. Most of our people stories end up linking together somehow."

The mural includes representations of the the Blackwell School, Marfa's segregated school for Hispanic students until 1965, as well as the Presidio County Courthouse. Standing prominently in the corner of the mural are brothers Abelardo and Adalberto Franco.

Gretel Enck, President of the Blackwell School Alliance, says the Franco brothers were star players on a Marfa basketball team that competed in a state championship game in 1947. She says it was a big story at the time, even though they didn't win the game.

"I don't know if we ever had another sports team that went on to state finals. They did lose by two points. But I think it's worth remembering their names," says Enck.

For Alvarado, that's the point of the mural. He wants to preserve this history for Marfa’s next generation, and "tell them about these stories, about their tios and their abuelitos and how important those people are to our communities."

At the mural’s public unveiling, Mariachi Santa Cruz, dressed in their traditional trajes, welcomed locals and visitors.

Resident Siria Acosta, who attended the party, says she remembers the era of segregation in Marfa's past. When she sees the Blackwell school prominently featured, she’s reminded of how far the community has come, but also how far it has to go. She says the city still has one thing that reminds her of segregation: a cemetery on the west side of town.

"There's still a fence there between the whites and the hispanics," says Acosta.

Jessi Silva, who attended Blackwell in the 1950s, says the mural offers people an opportunity to understand the region a little better.

"There’s a lot of history in Marfa. And a lot of people who come into Marfa have checked it out. They’ve read something about Marfa, so they’re a little bit acquainted," she says.

But according to Silva, this mural lets people come face to face with the city's history, rather than just read about it. Both Acosta and Silva say the mural is a big moment for Marfa’s Hispanic community.

Marfa mayor Ann Marie Nafziger says the mural is a counterpoint to the minimalist art the city is known for

“We don’t have to go to a museum or gallery to see it," Says Nafziger. "Instead, we’ll happen upon it as we go about our daily business.”

Mural artist "Cimi" Alvarado hopes that kind of daily exposure will keep people thinking about its message: history.

Sally Beauvais is a reporter at Marfa Public Radio.