August 11, 2021 415 PM
ALPINE –– In late July, a number of artists and school faculty gathered at Sul Ross to begin painting portraits that are part of a new mural that lines the side walls of the “fishbowl” outside of the Gallego Center.
In the early afternoon of July 22, artist Monica Saenz was putting the final touches on a portrait of Alejandro “Alex” Ramón González, a judge who graduated from Sul Ross in 1959.
González is just one of twelve influential leaders, all Hispanic, from the region that will be celebrated in the mural that’s 7-feet tall and over 40-feet long. And for Saenz, her portrait of González was personal.
“He’s my ex-father in law,” said Saenz, who holds a masters degree from Sul Ross. “He was a very nice man, very down to earth. Then I hear different stories from other people, but then again he was a judge. He was doing his job.”
Carol Fairlie, who is a senior professor of art at Sul Ross and spearheaded the project, wanted to place Alpine’s history center stage on the mural, drawing from the region’s rich Hispanic heritage. “Here we are, a Hispanic-serving institution,” Fairlie said. “So why don’t we have anything depicting Hispanics on campus?”
The inspiration behind the mural came out of a 2018 report from the members of the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee at the university. The report examined, in part, the extent to which the environment on Sul Ross’ campuses reflected their student body and faculty –– in terms of their backgrounds, cultures and identities. Boiled down, the report recommended ways to create cultural spaces that are inclusive to the entire student body and faculty.
“We don’t have any cultural outdoor spots where people can gather and celebrate,” said Savannah Williamson, who wrote the report and heads the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee. “Also as a Hispanic-serving institution, there are no places for our students to see themselves reflected and included as part of our campus.”
“So that was something that we wanted to be more intentional about was creating spaces that acknowledge who we are and where we are, but also where we’re going,” she said.
Soon after Williamson’s report came out, Fairlie began developing a plan for a mural based on its recommendations. “I started studying the history of Hispanics in Alpine, and I was appalled,” she said. “There is no written history. There’s only oral histories and nothing was recorded until after the civil rights movement in 1963.”
The Hispanic Heritage Mural is, in part, a response to a 1940s mural inside Alpine’s old post office, depicting a view of Alpine from Hancock Hill. The mural shows a group of Sul Ross students reading on the hill, but as Fairlie pointed out, there are no Hispanics in frame.
So Fairlie decided to take the background from the post office mural, reimagine it, and then center these 12 influential Hispanics from the region.
One figure that will go up on the mural is Dr. Abelardo “Abe” Baeza, who was the first Hispanic Ph.D. to teach at Sul Ross. Baeza was born and raised in Alpine and received his masters in English and Spanish from the university in 1970. “[Abe] told me he used to walk up Sul Ross Avenue to school and people would come out and yell at him for being on the wrong side of town,” Fairlie said.
One portion of the mural also pays tribute to the Native American Jumano community, who lived throughout the region up until the Spanish colonization. Muralist Feather Radha painted two members of the Jumano nation looking out onto the Alpine landscape and the 12 portraits.
“She’s the local reference illustrator of the Jumano Indians,” Fairlie said about Radha. “When I wanted to include their impact, I asked her to come in to depict them.”
Despite taking almost two years to complete, the mural –– which is expected to be completed within the next month –– came at a fitting time, considering the recent tumult over at the university. As The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported, a faculty-led report in June recommended firing professors and slashing both the fine arts and Spanish programs.
The new mural, incidentally, brings together the two programs that have uncertain futures at the university. Even though President Pete Gallego has announced that there won’t be many staffing cuts, Fairlie still has her worries. “I’m hoping they don’t kill my program,” she said.
Yet, once the mural is complete, Fairlie has dreams of extending the mural to other walls inside the fishbowl. She said she would love to paint the history of the buffalo soldiers in the region, and is also considering adding new portraits to the mural of people who become prominent figures in the future.
Williamson is on board with the idea. She said, “The idea and the goal is that we will be able to have more of these types of cultural spaces on our campus highlighting the history of our area, and who we are and where we come from.”