For almost 30 years, José Cisneros worked full time for El Paso City Lines. What had begun as a job in an essential industry during World War II became a career for the young artist. Although Cisneros had answered a draft notice in 1939, his color-blindness led to a military classification of 4-F (disabled and unfit for duty). He enrolled in vocational classes for sheet metal fabrication and was offered a job building aircraft in California. His wife, Vicenta, all but refused to move so far from their home and family. Fortunately, a painter position was available with El Paso City Lines, and Cisneros was soon hired to paint buses and trolleys for the city. He eventually became the foreman of the paint department and worked there until he retired in 1973. Even though his illustrations were in high demand during this period, Cisneros only drew in the evenings after a full day of work and dinner with his family. It was only following his retirement from El Paso City Lines that he fully devoted himself to his true passion.
The 70s were not only the beginning of Cisneros’ professional career as an artist, but also marked a time when he began accumulating a plethora of honors and recognitions. Having just completed the Paisano Fellowship, Cisneros was inducted into the El Paso County Historical Society’s Hall of Fame in 1974. That same year, he was awarded the titles of Honorary Jefe Politico of Bexar County and Emisario de las Musas by the city of San Antonio. The following year, Cisneros was presented the Award of Merit by the League of United Latin American Citizens and was named an honorary member of the Tigua Indigenous Nation. In 1979, the Daughters of the American Revolution presented Cisneros with their Americanism Award. A few years later, in 1985, his book Riders Across the Centuries won the National Cowboy Hall of Fame’s Outstanding Western Book Award.
Cisneros’ proudest honors were awarded to him in 1990-1991. He was knighted by Pope John Paul II into the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem and knighted by King Juan Carlos of Spain for his continuing efforts to spread Spanish history and heritage. He later went on to receive the American Cowboy Culture Award in 2000 and was presented with the National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush in April of 2002. It must be noted that this list of honors and awards is far from complete. It would likely take 2 or 3 blogs to name them all.
Vicenta passed away in 1997, and Cisneros spent many of his later years traveling and drawing in his home studio. In the early 2000s, he began to struggle with macular degeneration and was forced to use a video enlarger to see what he was drawing. As a result, his later work departs from the usual detailed horses and figures, and instead focuses on larger close-ups of faces. He continued to draw until his vision was almost completely gone.
José Cisneros passed away on November 14, 2009, in El Paso, Texas. He is characterized by his friends and colleagues as modest, humble, and even awkwardly shy. Cisneros had a profound impact on the study of the Spanish Southwest, and his legacy lives on through his art. If you’d like to know more about José Cisneros or see some of his art, visit The Bryan Museum to see the special exhibit, José Cisneros: A Colorful World in Black & White, which runs through February 13, 2022.