As you drive around Denver, the old and familiar in so many places have given way, or, at the very least, lost ground to the new and modern. Brick and mortar, long the staples of community and neighborhood, are now supplanted with columns of glass and steel. And this architectural consumption of the past is, little by little, replacing or erasing altogether the colorful life stories of communities that once existed.
“We’re moving very much away from that especially with what we’re confronting now with gentrification,” said Lucha Martinez de Luna. “Our communities just aren’t there anymore.” Martinez de Luna is Colorado History’s Associate Curator of Hispanic, Latino and Chicano Culture and History.
Murals have been in Martinez de Luna’s blood as long as she can remember. Her father, Emanuel Martinez, is perhaps Colorado’s best known muralist. In the 1960’s he painted what is thought to be the first Chicano-inspired mural in Denver. “It was in the dining room, kind of banquet area, basement area, of the Crusade for Justice,” she said. The Crusade, once the epicenter of Denver and Colorado’s Chicano Movement, was long ago razed. But for Chicanos---young and old---ready to take their place in a society that had few places for them, 15th and Downing was the place to be.
The first mural that adorned the walls of the Crusade, along with what Martinez de Luna estimates to be as much as 80 percent of the murals her father created are now gone. Murals painted between 1968-78, she guessed, “have all been destroyed.”
But a hundred miles to the south, a young muralist is gaining traction with his colorful and spiritual artwork and motifs. Vincent Benavidez, a 32-year-old painter and artist is breathing new life into this long and storied artform. His latest work, a ten-foot by twenty-foot effort, adorns the walls of the Pueblo Soup Kitchen at 7th and Greenwood, in the shadow of Pueblo’s center city.
“It’s a rebirth,” said Benavidez of his multi-colored mandala, a geometric configuration of symbols representing the Universe. “It’s a rebirth through the seasons,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “There is a black break between each one (segments),” he explained. The breaks symbolize a momentary pause in spiritual growth.
The mural, done with donations from a local paint store, was therapy for Benavidez. Before visualizing it, he had to move through the grief of losing several grandparents. “I was in a weird spot in my life,” he said. It was encouragement from one of his grandparents that the image began to germinate. “He said, ‘You have a gift. You’ll know what to do when the time comes.’”
Benavidez work appears in a number of places across Pueblo and the metro area. “I’ve been showing at the VFW on Santa Fe and CHAC (Chicano Humanity and Arts Council) every once in a while,” he said. And, like Martinez art, the Pueblo artist says he puts as much of his heart and soul into his work as the materials that end up telling the story.
The artform has been around since as long ago as 400 BCE, said Martinez de Luna. The first known murals, found in Central or South America, were probably “about origins or creation,” she said. “It was sacred art or monumental art,” she said. “They most likely served a socio or political purpose.”
The story of the Aztecs and pre-Columbian civilization runs deep in many if not most of Martinez creations, said his daughter. They pay homage, a spiritual and cultural homage, to the collective culture. But there is also a tribute, sometimes veiled, other times more apparent, to the era in which Martinez, the muralist, originally made his mark. The thread, a statement, is woven into the fabric and for all to see as long as the mural has life.