Community Mural: Pages from the Marfa Storybook
The Blackwell School Alliance would like to thank everyone who played a part in creating a beautiful community mural and a fun festival for the whole family―from early financial support from foundations, to generous grants from the City of Marfa, to all the businesses and individual who contributed money, time, ideas, images, and encouraging words. Thank you for believing in our dream.
The Blackwell School Alliance created the Block Party and commissioned the new mural to celebrate our heritage, expand our under-standing of Marfa’s history, and explore the pages of the Marfa storybook. As you know, this mural is only the tip of the iceberg. Yet we hope it engages our community and educates our visitors, speaking these stories a little louder and to a wider audience. We thank our artist Jesus “Cimi” Alvarado and his team for turning our stories and images into something beautiful for our city.
And because we know that so many exper-iences and people are not represented on the mural, we want to say that our work is not done. If you feel like your story is not repre-sented here, or your identity is forgotten in the way the world sees Marfa, then let’s get to work. Let’s fix that. Across our community, let’s find creative ways to honor our history and ensure that all voices have a chance to be heard.
1. Love and Pride
The artist added this beautiful poem by Luis Valdez, an American playwright, actor, writer and film director. A pioneer in Chicano theater, Valdez is best known for his movie La Bamba, which he wrote and directed. The poem on the mural reads:
To be Chicano is to love yourself
your culture, your
skin, your language
And once you become Chicano
You begin to love other people
otras razas del mundo
But above all
to be Chicano
is to LOVE
2. Sharing Stories through Reading
As we explored ideas and images for the mural, the idea of sharing stories kept coming up. We make sense of our world through the stories we tell; we understand our families and neighbors through the stories we listen to. Our history is the collective stories of the people of Marfa. So we wanted to make a mural that shares stories that broaden the understanding of Marfa history—to pay homage to pieces of history that make us proud, that make us smile, and even those that bring out complex emotions of a time when separate was not equal.
In doing this, we also want to shine a spotlight on some amazing things happening in Marfa today, particularly at Marfa Independent School District with READ MARFA. This program at Marfa Elementary places local volunteers in classrooms to read aloud to children during their school day. In addition to supporting the school’s literacy goals, READ MARFA builds new friendships among students and adults from all parts of the community: inspiring young readers, building community, and, yes, sharing stories that teach us about our world.
3. Mysterious Marfa Lights
Seems we all like a good mystery. Generations of Marfa residents and visitors have been awed and confounded by the presence of flickering, twinkling, hovering, and dancing lights seen across an expanse of land called Mitchell Flat. Scientific theories include light refraction in layers of air of different temperatures, swamp gas sparks caused by natural petroleum hydrocarbon emissions, plasma releases, and electrical charges caused by the rock’s mineral content. Less scientific theories include space aliens, wandering ghosts, and plain old headlights from cars heading north from Presidio on Highway 67. Go see for yourself at the Marfa Lights Viewing Area 9 miles east toward Alpine on Highway 90. Look south, across Mitchell Flat. Even if you don’t see the mystery lights, you’re sure to enjoy a gorgeous starry sky.
4. Reaching for the Stars
During the 2017-2018 school year, Marfa ISD middle school and high school students worked with Blue Origin, the private space travel company, learning to build their own rockets. Blue Origin has a Launch and Test Facility north of Van Horn. Engineers came to Marfa to teach monthly Saturday classes. In January 2018, families, friends, and the engineer-teachers gathered at a remote ranch to watch the students’ first ever―and successful―rocket launch. The rocket class is an exciting new partnership between Marfa ISD and Blue Origin. It follows in the successful footsteps of other creative school programming including robotics and a high school reading club. Learn more about Marfa ISD at marfaisd.com.
5. All the Automotive Businesses
Mario Acosta remembers lunchtime as a Blackwell School student. Since the school didn’t have a cafeteria, he and his sisters would hurry over to the Casner Motor Company where their father was a mechanic. They would drive home to the Sal si Puedes neighborhood where his mother had lunch waiting. After they ate, the children played while their dad took a 15-minute nap. Just before the lunch hour was over, Mr. Acosta drove them back to school.
Casner’s wasn’t the only dealership or mechanic in town. During the 40s and 50s Marfa’s population was bigger than it is today, and all kinds of businesses flourished. Just across San Antonio Street, Webb Brother’s Service Station offered some competition. Today you can count the number of old gas stations along our main streets. Learn more and see more photos of Marfa businesses at the Marfa and Presidio County Museum at 110 West San Antonio Street. Photo courtesy of the Acosta Family: from left to right Enrique Pais, Les Lesniewski, Mariano Lujan, and Manuel Acosta.
6. A Cathedral of Sky
Wide horizons, mountains in the distance, clear air with just enough clouds to catch the pastel light at sunrise and sunset—these are a few of the reasons the Marfa landscape is irresistible and unforgettable. Shades of tan and beige burst into green in the summer of a rainy year. We watch storms roll in, or around us, and wonder which neighbor got the hard earned moisture—or the damaging hail. And on a clear night, which most of them are, we walk out and look up into infinity, feeling as big or as small as we want to be. Enjoy our daytime landscape at Dixon Water Foundation’s Mimms Ranch on the north side of Marfa; drive to the north end of Austin Street and from there take a 5-mile round-trip walk on a quiet ranch road. Learn about our skyscape at UT Austin’s McDonald Observatory, 45 minutes north of Marfa, or at mcdonaldobservatory.org.
7. Standing Tall on the Horizon
The classic Texas small-town water tower stands tall on iron legs, with its distinctive Tin Man conical hat. It serves the practical purpose of using gravity to keep water pressure high for users. Amazingly solid, these towers withstand high winds and storms of dust and hail. They are also a symbol of the prairie, the plains, the towns where water is scarce and needs to be coordinated. And they are a sign to the long-traveling motorist that just ahead lies civilization. The Marfa water tower looks particularly nice against our colorful sunsets.
8. The Blackwell School
The Blackwell School served as Marfa’s segregated school for children of Mexican descent from 1909 to 1965 when Marfa’s schools achieved integration. In 2007 a group of former students petitioned the school board to take possession of the original adobe building, and the Blackwell School Alliance was formed. The cornerstone of the Blackwell School Alliance’s mission is the original 100-plus-year-old adobe Blackwell School building—because the building itself has historic significance, and because it is the repository for the stories and community experiences held by generations of Marfa’s Hispanic population. Today it is preserved as a museum that is open to the public every Saturday. Find the Blackwell School at 501 South Abbott Street, at the corner of Waco. Photo courtesy of the Blackwell School Alliance.
9. Spinning Around
The merry-go-round image is from a photo by Mary Louise Mitchell Glann. Miss Mitchell, as she was known to her students, recently shared this and other photos with the Blackwell School Alliance. She wrote, “I graduated from Marfa High School in 1936. I continued my education at Southwestern University in Georgetown, TX. After graduating in 1940 with a Bachelor of
Science in Education, I began teaching at Blackwell. I was so proud of my paycheck of $30. To this day, I remember many of my students’ names and cherish my experiences from Blackwell Elementary.” Lionel Salgado, one of her students, remembers that the merry-go-round was usually crowded with children. He says that as a little kid he tried to get to the center so he wouldn’t get thrown off as it spun around. These stories and more can be found by talking to Marfa elders.
10. The Loveliest Courthouse in Texas?
Maybe we’re biased, but people sure do like to take its picture. The Presidio County Courthouse was built in 1886 in the Second Empire style, designed by San Antonio architect Alfred Giles. The iconic building can be seen from almost any location in Marfa and is topped by Lady Justice, rising tall above the central dome and cupola. The courthouse was designated a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark in 1964 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. Remodeling took place in 2001, including the restoration of the distinctive pink stucco on its exterior. Visitors are welcome at the courthouse during regular business hours.
11. When Cattle was King
The land around Marfa has been called a hard country. Wind, sun, and aridity leave many an outsider scratching for a reason to do more than pass through. But it does have grass—native species of the short grass prairies that have adapted to this climate. Add to that an aquifer willing to supply water to those who would dig, and the coming of the train across far west Texas, and cattle ranching became a viable way of life. Cattlemen came to what is now Presidio County in the 1880s hoping to turn this grassland into a ranching paradise. The first Hereford cattle arrived in 1884, a meatier alternative to the longhorn: and they thrived, becoming known around the country as the Marfa Highland Hereford. Much of the work on ranches was done by vaqueros of Mexican descent and their families. Learn more at the Marfa and Presidio County Museum at 110 West San Antonio Street. Photo by Russell Lee, courtesy of the Library of Congress, which hosts Lee’s 1939 Marfa ranching photos on their website.
12. Blackwell Band
The Blackwell School had an impressive marching band that played events all over town, including the greeting of soldiers home on leave. An article in the Big Bend Sentinel in 1947 reported on a meeting of the Parent and Teachers Club of Blackwell Junior High. A cake sale was scheduled, with the proceeds going to purchase new band uniforms. Imelda Dominguez was the band mascot in 1949 and her grandmother, Julia Martinez, made her uniform. Imelda Dominguez Villanueva donated the uniform and original photograph to the Blackwell School Alliance to be part of the permanent collection—helping to keep Marfa history alive. The Big Bend Sentinel remains a vital Marfa news outlet. Photo courtesy of the Blackwell School Alliance.
13. The Air is Always Moving
In the 1960s and 1970s Marfa hosted many US National Soaring Contests and the 1970 World Soaring Competition. Towed aloft by a powered airplanes, the high performance gliders released their tow ropes and circled upward in the invisible thermal updrafts, sometimes gliding hundreds of miles. If you can find it, a 1971 documentary called The Sun Ship Game features a rivalry between two of the top gliders, as well as scenery from Marfa. Today, Marfa still has great thermals, many sailplane records have been set here, and you can take a ride in a glider. Visit the Marfa Airport, just a few miles north of town.
14. Water in a Dry Land
Water. So much of life in west Texas comes down to water. You don’t see much around in the form of creeks and ponds. But we do have a significant local aquifer. The American windmill that we still see on ranches today was adapted from European windmills first in the 1850s, then improved in the 1860s and 1870s with “tails” designed to direct the wheel into the wind, and angled slats to slow the spinning in high winds. Windmills provided an inexpensive means of pumping water for steam engines on the railroad, newly incorporated cities, and far-flung ranches. The windmill made the most remote areas habitable. Many active windmills can be found driving around the scenic roads of our area.
15. A Winning Marfa Team
“Boren Hunter’s players brought publicity to their town and an inestimable amount of credit to themselves and their coach by their play in the Austin tournament,” read the article in Big Bend Sentinel on March 14, 1947. The Shorthorns had just lost in the last ten seconds of the final game for the Class B basketball champion-ship of Texas. They lost to Johnson City by two points. Yet simply being in state finals was a source of pride and accomplishment.
Brothers Abelardo and Adalberto Franco, Marfa scoring aces, were named as All-State first team players. The Sentinel noted that, “no other team but Marfa had two men on the top quintet.” Photo courtesy of the Junior Historian Files at Marfa Public Library.
16. The Mural Artist
The Blackwell School Alliance is indebted to artist Jesus “Cimi” Alvarado for making our mural dreams come true. With assitance from fellow artists Victor Casas and Martin Zubia, and with the help of Kata Decker, his wife and project partner, Mr. Alvarado turned our stories and photos into a soulful and beautiful piece of public art.
Mr. Alvarado has a long history of creating community murals in his home city of El Paso. He especially values engaging community members―elders, students, and everyone else―to find the hidden stories, those not found in the history books, and sharing them with the world through public art.
We are grateful that Mr. Alvarado said yes to our project. You can learn more at www.cimione.com.