Don Vicente Barajas: Retablo painter

Based on an interview conducted by Jorge Durand

As testimonies of personal experiences, retablos capture the most significant moments in a votary's life. Once placed on the walls of churches, they become public records that provide a unique glimpse at the dreams, thoughts, and fears of  their creators. Yet retablos are seldom prepared by the votaries themselves. These paintings are generally the commissioned works of untrained local artists who offer their skills to capture the most deep-seated feelings of their clients. 

To this date, little is known about the lives of retablo painters. Anonymity is a main characteristic of rural artists like the retablistas. Luckily, a few retablistas do sign their work, even fewer include an address next to their signature or on the back of the retablo. This was the case with Don Vicente Barajas who lives, works, and paints in the ranch of San José de la Calera, Guanajuato. A retablo from 1969 found at the Sanctuary of the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos, contained on the back an address in the city of León, Guanajuato that helped track Don Vicente back to his hometown. 

Don Vicente BarajasBorn during the Revolution times in 1916, Don Vicente left his native rancho when he was very young. Migrating to the state of Veracruz, he found work at the Río Blanco textile factory. Although he was first employed in the pressing department, it was later in the electrical plant that he met Don Joaquín Arreola who, in addition to his factory work, painted and decorated fabrics in his spare time.

The two men began working together and Don Vicente slowly learned the intricacies of painting. Together they cut pieces of fabric into one-meter squares and sewed them together to form cushions and table covers. On these items they painted floral designs and sold them in the market each Sunday. After a while, Don Vicente became assistant to another painter and joined him in decorating churches, painting miniatures, and adorning small religious images. Later he worked painting leaves, plants, and flowers on cardboard sheets for a "pharmacist" who used them as advertisements for herbal medicines he hawked in the market.

Although Don Vicente was quite content in Veracruz, bad news from home eventually forced his return. Back on his native rancho in Guanajuato, his liking for drawing and his artistic abilities soon became known, and he began to attract commissions for votive works. Don Guadalupe Rangel, from the nearby rancho of Mezquitillo, was the first to request a retablo -a votive of thanks to the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos.

It seems that Don Lupe had been assaulted by bandits on the highway and his horse was wounded. The animal fell several times, and in desperation Don Lupe invoked the holy name of the Virgin. At the last moment, the horse succeeded in standing up and galloping away from the robbers, who were on foot, thereby saving his life. Don Vicente listened carefully to the story and painted a rendition of the miraculous event accompaigned by an explanatory text. That day in 1942 when Don Vicente delivered his first painting, he earned three pesos (less than a dollar at the time) and began his career as a retablista.

In 1942, the United States organized the Bracero Program to recruit Mexican laborers for temporary agricultural work north of the border; and like thousands of others from the state of Guanajuato, Don Vicente joined the wave of men moving northward. On March 22, 1945, he obtained a Bracero Contract and set out for el norte for the first time. Over the years, he traveled back and forth to the United States a total of 26 times, performing farm work in the states of Arizona, Michigan, Texas, New Mexico, California, and Nevada.

As a bracero, he combined his talent for art with his new vocation of migrant worker. Art provided a good way of earning extra money on his trips away from home, because during the long train journeys to and from the United States, he could occupy himself by drawing pictures of fellow travelers and selling them for modest fees.

He also continued to paint retablos from migrants who wished to fulfill some vow of thanks to a holy image upon their return. The votive topics typically dealt with work accidents or worries about family members so far away. At this stage in his career, Don Vicente charged $10 per retablo. On his trips to the United States he always bought new tin sheets, paints, and brushes, because he preferred American supplies and materials, especially the brushes.

On one of his return trips to Mexico, he found work as a painter in a hat factory in San Francisco del Rincón. At that time Mexican cowboy hats with painted decorations were in fashion, and there weren't enough people able to paint the intricate designs. After showing the factory owner some samples of his artwork, Don Vicente was hired to paint 60,000 hats stored in a warehouse ar 35 cents per hat. He settled in town for a year or two to work for the factory, reserving Sundays to paint religious objects that he sold in the market and at regional fairs.

Retablo WallDon Vicente estimates that over the course of his life he has painted some 5,000 retablos. He still keeps a sign in the Aldama Market and goes into León each day to pick up new requests and deliver the retablos he has completed. His clients are ordinary men and women from the west-central states who seek votives dedicated to the principal icons of the region: el Señor de Villaseca in Guanajuato, la Virgen de Zapopan near Guadalajara, la Virgen de Talpa in Jalisco, el Niño de Atocha in Zacatecas, and el Señor del Saucito in San Luis Potosí. By far the largest number, however, are dedicated to la Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos.