November/December 2011
Stephanie Elizondo Griest

The Michelangelo of New Mexico

Frederico Vigil, Frescoist of Latino History, Needs a New Wall.

Discussed: Lost Toenails, The IRS, Victims of Black Lung, Fish-Filled Ditches,Youthful Drawings of Dragons, Brief Stints with the FDA, The Idea That Hispanos Can’t Make Real Art, Creating Stone, A Smithsonian Task Force, Loaded Colonial Symbols, A Bolshevik Devil, Freakish Proportions, “Pouncing” the Phoenicians

Frederico Vigil is afraid of heights.

“When I first went up here to paint the ceiling, I would clench the bottom with my toes como chango, like a monkey. I clenched so tight, my two big toenails popped off.”

A scissor-lift ascended through the middle of the watchtower. The enormity of Vigil’s latest work—a four-thousand-square-foot fresco depicting three thousand years of Latino history—became even more apparent from an elevation. There was Benito Juárez. A steam train blazing out of California. Oxen pulling carts along the Camino Real. A smirking Cervantes. Each image gleamed as if painted a moment ago, in bold, gestural brushstrokes.

At thirty-seven feet, the lift began to sway.

Vigil was fifty-five when he started this project. Good timing, he said: he might not have the stamina to do it today. It’s been a rough decade. He divorced for the second time. His baby brother died, and Vigil, while grieving, developed Bell’s palsy. Although the fresco has been deemed a “million-dollar project,” with most funding provided by the state ofNew Mexico, only a fraction found its way into Vigil’s pocket. He received about four hundred thousand dollars over nine years, and a fair portion was funneled into supplies, materials, and honoraria for his assistants. (And in March 2011, the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs would demand back nearly the same amount from the foundation that funded the fresco, claiming it had been spent on “impermissible” expenditures, such as administrative fees. Vigil’s share, however, would remain uncontested.)

In the past decade, Vigil has been levied by the IRS. He has hired lawyers. He has fired lawyers. Twice, he grabbed his brushes and threatened to quit.

Yet the wall kept luring him back.

Despite these trials, Vigil remains handsome and gallant, with slick brown hair, a Don Quixote goatee, a paint-splattered smock over jeans, and Fluchos sandals over socks. His hands resemble a carpenter’s, callused and capable. Friends call him Miguel Angel, the Michelangelo of New Mexico, and this is his Sistine Chapel: the interior of the forty-five-foot-high watchtower, or torreón, guarding the front gate of the National Hispanic Cultural Center (NHCC) in Albuquerque.

In May 2010, five months remained before his fresco’s grand opening, and entire stretches of wall bore either charcoal outlines or nothing at all. The notion of meeting his deadline seemed quixotic, at best. But the same could be said of the entire enterprise.

Like many nuevomexicanos–that is, New Mexicans of Mexican descent—Vigil can trace his roots in the state back twelve generations. His family never crossed the border: it crossed them. His grandfather was a coal miner who died of black lung disease; his father started out as a sheepherder and later opened a barbershop. Vigil grew up on Santa Fe’s Canyon Road. Today, it is a renowned arts district lined with galleries and cafés, but then it was a dirt road running along a ditch full of fish. Vigil and his seven siblings learned English at school and masonry and carpentry at home.

At age five, Vigil began drawing. Dragons, mostly. After high school, he enrolled in the seminary in San Antonio, Texas, seduced by Catholicism’s pageantry and ritual, but found it wrought with racism. “One of the seminarians told me, ‘All you Mexicans want to do is have babies,’” he said. Vigil departed soon after to study biology at the College of Santa Fe on a basketball scholarship, then spent the next decade in the sciences, working first for the county’s water services and then for the Food and Drug Administration. He married in 1970 and fathered two children. Although he always kept a sketchbook inside his satchel, the year he turned thirty he decided that “to be a painter, you have to paint full-time. So that’s what I had to do, not weekend painting or evening painting but full-time painting.”

But while Santa Fe boasted a world-famous arts scene, nuevomexicano artists had few venues for showing their work besides the annual Traditional Spanish Market, where only handicrafts such as santos (religious figures), textiles, tinwork, baskets, and pottery were allowed.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Stephanie Elizondo Griest is the author of Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana and Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines. She splits her time between Iowa City and Corpus Christi. Visit her website at

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