José Cisneros was born in Villa Ocampo, Mexico in 1910. The Cisneros family home was situated on a twenty-seven-acre plot located just outside of the village. In addition to carpenter work, José’s father, Don Fernando Cisneros, also operated a barber shop and blacksmith business out of the family home. As political unrest cast a veil over Mexico under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, José and his family were forced to flee their home as revolutionary forces began to occupy territory in north-western Mexico. The Cisneros family lost all their belongings, their home, and José’s maternal grandfather was killed.
As they fled to Parral, José’s father was forced into serving in the revolutionary army under Rosalio Hernández (one of Pancho Villa’s lieutenants). Don Fernando was able to escape a short time later and moved his family to Dorado to seek refuge at one of his brother’s homes. During this time, young José discovered his passion for drawing. He used the home’s outside walls as his canvas, exploring a natural talent that would help shape the rest of his life.
After relocating to Juárez at the insistence of his uncle, José began crossing the border on foot into El Paso to attend the Lydia Patterson Institute to receive an education and to learn English. While attending the Institute, José found odd jobs delivering papers and groceries. Sometimes José had to work late into the evening and missed the timeframe to cross back into Juárez. In these instances, he was forced to sleep in alleyways or on stoops until the Institute opened the next morning. During this time, he continued to work on his drawings, even getting some of his pieces published in popular Mexican magazines.
With an intense desire to hone his artistic skill, José skipped lunch for several days to pay twenty-five cents for an art lesson from a local painter. During his second lesson, his instructor was teaching José how to mix different paints to make new colors. As José struggled with this concept, his instructor informed him that he was colorblind. He remarked to José that while he might become a wonderful bricklayer, he would never be an artist. Unaffected, José went back to eating lunch and continued working on his drawings.
José eventually made El Paso his permanent residence. He got married, had four daughters, and worked for El Paso City Lines as a transportation painter until he retired in in the late 1970s. But instead of becoming a bricklayer, he was also known as a highly successful illustrator. José provided sketches, calligraphy, and historical maps for than 300 books in his lifetime. He worked with artists such as Tom Lea, Harold Bugbee, and Frank Dobie. He published books featuring his art through the Texas Western Press at University of Texas at El Paso. He was knighted by the Pope and the King of Spain for his efforts to spread Spanish heritage and history through his projects and was also awarded the National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush. Not too bad for someone who was told that he would never be an artist…
If you’d like to know more about José Cisneros or see some of his amazing work, visit The Bryan Museum to see the special exhibit, José Cisneros: A Colorful World in Black & White, which runs through mid-February.