Each Stone Has Its Face

Story, community, and history in Frederico Vigil’s Mundos de Mestizaje

Frederico Vigil, photographed during the creation of Mundos de Mestizaje. Photograph courtesy National Hispanic Cultural Center.

On a brilliant, hot August morning, I met with Frederico Vigil to speak inside his virtuosic fresco Mundos de Mestizaje, which he created over the course of a decade. Located inside El Torreón at Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center, it measures over 45 feet tall and covers 4,000 square feet; it is North America’s largest concave fresco.

I handed Vigil a black coffee, and sipped my own. Our plan was to meet to share un chanate y una plática: a coffee and a chat. It seems apt that chanate, local slang for coffee, is derived from the Mexican Indigenous word tzanatl, meaning grackle; what better way to begin an interview about mestizaje manifest than with English, Spanish, and Nahuatl? 

But upon stepping inside the cool turret, we fell silent, immediately enveloped by hundreds of stories over thousands of years of Hispanic history. And though the fresco features many troubling figures and fraught historical times, the overall effect is, if not peaceful, at least one of bounty and balance.

Mundos de Mestizaje is a sea of countless people, a dazzling circular array of color and form bursting forth from the adobe-colored base of the walls. Its message, however, is simple: as Vigil tells it, “It’s who we are as mestizos.”

Vigil’s own lineage traces back to the people of Santa Ana Pueblo, the Sephardic Jews, and Spaniards from Asturias, the northwestern principality of Spain. His people used to homestead near Budaghers, where exit 257 is today on I-25, and they spoke Spanish and Tewa. Portraying the many ways in which Nuevo Mexicanos are mixed, the fresco has images from Spain and the American Southwest, but also some from Mesoamerica and Mesopotamia. 

The overlapping figures on the walls of the Torreón create the kaleidoscopic impression that no one story is prioritized over another. Photograph courtesy National Hispanic Cultural Center.

Though the fresco’s production committee originally planned for the mural to be by the NHCC’s fountain or in the library, the curved, contained space of El Torreón was a natural choice after some thought. The space is named for a castle tower, but its muted light, color, and shape are also reminiscent of an aboveground kiva; one can almost picture climbing down a vast ladder from the inset oculus skylight. The sanctuary-like space itself is a blend of the European and the Puebloan.

After they decided on the location in 2000, it was a full two and a half years before the committee came to a consensus as to which historical figures and objects belonged in the fresco. Vigil describes a process wherein he and a panel of scholars engaged in rich discussions inside El Torreón. He also read deeply into the many contexts of Hispano history, making notes and sketches in his notebooks, documentation very beautiful in its own way: the Arabic script for water, Hunab Ku’s square and circle to symbolize the Mayan union of the material and the spiritual, and the Aztec waning suns of el quinto sol, our present age of decline and redemption. He captioned all the images in black ink with slanted handwriting. For every figure, object, and word in the fresco, Vigil made sure he had at least a couple sentences of contextual summary.

When it came time to begin the design phase in 2002, Frederico notes that it took him a long time to figure out how to lay out the fresco. The key came from a conversation he had with El Torreón’s architect, Sofia Márquez, when she confirmed that the four arrowslit-like windows were aligned with the four cardinal directions. That orientation—knowing that the nichos lined up with the solstices and equinoxes—grounded the project, and Vigil felt he could commence.

The narrative depicted in the fresco and the process of its creation are inextricably combined; its art is a beautiful coordination of mind, body, and chemistry. Beyond the dialogue, the research, and the careful planning, the spatial intelligence required boggles the mind. It required a constant adjustment of figures in relation to one another and to the space. To visualize some of the more complicated overlapping figures, Vigil created still-life dioramas in which oranges and apples stood in for Olmec heads or wagons on the Camino Real. When he began outlining the figures on the wall from his sketches, he realized that he hadn’t calculated enough for the curvature of the wall; he was 50 square feet short. So he had a small, to-scale sheet metal version of El Torreón built, and adjusted again.

After designs were done, there was the heavy labor of mixing tons of sand and lime, ascending scaffolding (Vigil praised his luck of getting a Genie lift for much of the painting), plastering four layers of quicklime, and tracing the vast outlines of figures onto the wall. Then, Vigil made cartunes (cartoons) by tracing over the outlines on paper and rendering them in full color. Then he applied a final, smoother layer of plaster called intonacco. While it was wet, he placed the cartoon on top of the plaster and punched holes through the paper to create a connect-the-dots outline in the intonacco. If those small perforations fill with water, or he needs more definition, Vigil uses his thumbnail to trace silhouettes in the plaster. After all this preparation, the painting is ready to begin. 

The chemistry behind creating a fresco is no less inspired. In this ancient process, limestone (calcium carbonate) is first heated to become lime (calcium hydroxide) in a process called slaking. The lime is then mixed with sand to form a plaster. The pigments consist of ground-up stone, minerals, or even soil, which are then mixed with water to make paint. Bugs and leaves get “eaten up” by the lime, notes Vigil, but anything inorganic is fair game; Vigil’s partner Luz Reyes mentions that in addition to always carrying a notebook for ideas, Vigil now always carries jars for collecting potential pigments from the local landscape. The pigments are painted on the wet intonacco; the more layers, the darker the hue. As the plaster dries, the pigments are absorbed, and the surface solidifies into limestone again. The figures in fresco, then, are not painted on the surface of the wall—they are, chemically and physically, part of the wall.

Upon viewing a new fresco of Vigil’s in progress at the Albuquerque Convention Center, it becomes clear that it is one thing to hear about this intellectual alchemy; it’s quite another to smell the barrels of slaked lime, study the swatches of layered pigment, page through the piles of books and notes, and run a finger along the perforations of the cartoons. In fresco, the stories are ink and ocher and pinpricks before they can become stone.

In Mundos de Mestizaje, this beautiful coordination results in a pantheon of figures. It is a gorgeous, kaleidoscopic codex. And because it lacks a central focal point, the fresco can be initially dizzying. It doesn’t say that one certain thing is more important than any other. Instead, like the Mayan prophetic texts of Chilam Balam, time and presence are cyclical and recursive. 

To transfer his drawings to the walls, Vigil placed a cartoon on top of wet plaster and punched holes to create a connect-the-dots outline. Photograph courtesy National Hispanic Cultural Center.

Vigil does not privilege one narrative over the other; the characters and texts in many cases literally overlap one another. (Right above Chilam Balam, for instance, is seventeenth-century Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés’ vehement rejection of a regional bishop’s claim that she, as a woman, should not be intellectually engaged with the secular world.) Vigil intentionally levels the stories not only spatially, but in terms of representation. He made a fresco that demonstrates the equal, and in some ways superior, power of feminine energy. When I asked, in this entire galaxy of lives, what stories he found the most inspiring, it was this energy he highlighted. As he notes, “the maternal is the one who will save the world:” the mothers, the thinkers, the protectors. Vigil specifically pointed out the faces of the three women who walked back and forth among De Vargas’ ranks to give the illusion of greater numbers; they are framed with the red block letters of “courage and fuerza.” 

He also showcases the equal intellect and accomplishments of the great Mesoamerican civilizations as compared to those of the Iberian peninsula: a rolling toy to symbolize their knowledge of the wheel, treatises evidencing their use of zero in mathematics, the advanced Mayan conceptualizations of the universe. Mesoamerican architecture, art, and hallowed texts have the same amount of wall space as the aqueducts of Segovia and the arches of la Mezquita. Vigil wanted to show the plurality of cultures in both southwest Europe and southwest North America. In Mundos de Mestizaje, exclusionism is impossible. 

That Monday morning, following Vigil’s lead, I oriented around the four nichos on the cardinal points: four nichos decorated with four star-like tangles of primordial energy that represent the concepts of African animism and the origins of life. From the four nichos there are four columns topped by four virgins. The four virgins’ pedestals house four nude figures who hold up four infants. These babies are the future generations, partnered with both the four stages of the moon and a dozen of their possible occupations; in the frame of the oculus, the Creator hands these future generations the four elements of wind, fire, earth, and water.

One column transforms into an horno and a kiva. It is framed below by the Matachines—a Hispano-Pueblo dance that has origins within Europe and Mesoamerica, and features Montezuma and La Malinche, Cortez’s gifted translator and mother to his children. The iteration of the virgin La Peregrina tops the column. Often called La Conquistadora, the patron of conquerors, Vigil chooses instead to represent her patronage of pilgrims. This creates a different emphasis for her, and also would come to honor his own pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in 2015. She sits between the Nahua virgin, whose name means “she who comes like a flaming sun with wings,” and Padre Martínez, who brought the first printing press to New Mexico in 1835. 

Another column begins with a pile of potatoes, a staple food of the Inca, who selectively bred 1,500 varieties. It also features La Malinche and Montezuma, beautifully arrayed in feathers and gold. An earlier sketch included Cortez, but Vigil didn’t like how he felt in the fresco. So he cut him out. His name remains, an echo of his utter desolation of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, spooling out of La Malinche’s hands on a scroll. Above them, La Virgen de Guadalupe de Extremadura, in whose monastery the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel authorized Columbus’s voyage, holds court.

Another column features the Celtic-Iberian infinity knot, La Señora de los Remedios, and the New Mexican railroads; another, Nebrija, who published the first standardized book of Castilian grammar; Our Lady of Guadalupe; and the trifecta of the Franciscans, Maimonides, and Averroes. The last two were twelfth-century contemporaries in Moorish-controlled Spain who each penned invaluable treatises attempting to reconcile religion with philosophy—Maimonides within Judaism, and Averroes within Islam. Over and over again through the fresco, you see great minds seeking to unite the spiritual with the secular. Indeed, Maimonides’ A Guide to the Perplexed would make a very good subtitle for Mundos de Mestizaje; the NHCC offers guided tours of the space from knowledgeable docents, but even these cannot hope to completely catalog the fresco’s beautiful multitude of stories and symbols.

In between the columns, there are hundreds of stories more: diverse as Seneca, Chacmool, an ox. The bison of Altamira, painted on a cave wall as early as 34,000 BC, curl up near an Aztec altar, a Phoenician prow, and the shoulder of Celtic-Iberian statue La Dama de Elche. There are countless dates and plurilingual texts written on scroll-like banners that intertwine the fresco’s figures.

Penitentes near the kiva, kneeling by a basket of grapes and cabbage (imported European cultivars), seem to offer us one such banner: “para vos, para nos, y para los animalitos de Dios.” The dicho of “for you, for us, and for all God’s creatures” speaks of the local practice of saving part of the harvest for all of Creation. It also alludes to the sound environmental management practices of traditional Latinx agriculture, and is a metaphor for the gift of this fresco’s rich bounty. Most stories in the fresco are like this; they, like the literal space, are layered.

The blue background was a simple, natural choice for Vigil to be able to simultaneously highlight and isolate figures, but it is also beautifully reminiscent of sky, water, and lapis—historically chosen for the Virgin’s blue manta because of its great value. It gives El Torreón the feeling of a sanctuary in flowing movement. 

Perhaps the pantheistic religious invocations of the space can be jarring, given the history along the fresco’s walls. In several places, we see a world poised on the edge of the very violent paradigm shift of 1492: the Capitulations of Santa Fe, the sack of Granada, Columbus praying on the sands of San Salvador. Later, we see Juan de Oñate, Don Diego de Vargas, an unnamed slave lifting a heavy burden. Vigil prefers the titles of La Virgen Peregrina and the Santiago of the Camino, but there’s no avoiding their more common names: La Conquistadora, patron of la Reconquista, and Santiago Matamoros, whose name in English is “James the Moor Killer.” 

Vigil chose to veil some of the more gory elements of mestizaje history, because, he says, today “violence is everywhere.” He chose to step away from the “blood and guts” in his artwork. The closest you’ll find is a fractured skull, punctured with the dates of Popé’s rebellion. Beside it is a Pueblo warrior, smiling grimly as he brandishes an obsidian-tipped spear at a Spaniard lying on his back. Because of the composition of the fresco, from one side the Spaniard seems in danger of being crushed by Juan de Oñate; his hand on the other side reaches towards children that symbolize the shared family ties that Spanish and Pueblo peoples would eventually share. So even in the portrayal of dark historical times, Vigil chooses to show the tender and the hopeful. “People forget how mixed we are,” he says; this fresco is a monument to mestizaje’s humanity.

For although Mundos de Mestizaje’s style is mythic, almost heavenly, it is also highly factual. There are replicas of many religious and national symbols and figures with mythic origins, and some stories are surely part fact and part legend. But there is perhaps only one character purely from myth: the lone black ant that carries a kernel of yellow corn, trundling along the braided border between the horno and the sculpture of a priest in the belly of a feathered serpent.

Natural pigments are painted onto wet intonacco; the more layers, the darker the hue. Photograph courtesy National Hispanic Cultural Center.

That ant is simultaneously a perfect representation of Quetzalcoatl bringing the corn to the human race, of the connection that mestizo people have with the Earth, and of the tireless labor of Vigil, who, day in and out, painted the fresco over six years. And remember, for the pigment to be absorbed to become colored limestone, the intonacco must still be wet; if an artist makes an error, the whole five layers must be scraped off and re-plastered. So, like the ant, the fresco artist must create with methodical hurry.

Opening the doors of El Torreón reveals a burst of color and culture almost unimaginable based on its simple outward appearance.

After the illumination in El Torreón and before I saw Vigil’s artistry in practice at the Convention Center, we continued the plática and chanate over huevos rancheros at Barelas Coffee House. We had a wide-ranging conversation about teaching, music (Mundos de Mestizaje was painted with a lot of Joaquin Rodrigo’s guitar concerto Aranjuez as soundtrack), and our travels. We also spoke about the life stories that make a mark on us as artists. Reyes, who accompanied us, shared a story from her primary school; she spent hours writing a tale about a magical rabbit under the trees of her family farm in Colombia only to have a teacher ask her from where she had plagiarized it. 

Vigil talked about learning the art of fresco as a young man from understudies of Diego Rivera in Gualala, California. He spoke warmly of his little gallinero quarters right next to the chicken coop, without running water. When I asked if the manual labor aspect of fresco was part of the reason he was attracted to it, he confirmed. Then he mentioned that his father, Ramon J. Vigil, was a builder, and later a barber in the Civilian Conservation Corps—both physical arts as well. (Vigil’s brother Gilbert now owns the family barbershop, which is the oldest in Santa Fe.)

Vigil spent six years painting the fresco. Photographs courtesy National Hispanic Cultural Center.

When they worked building together, Ramon would always tell his five sons, “cada piedra tiene su cara.” Each stone has its face. From the stones used for building, to the mineral pigments, to the beautiful visages in the limestone of El Torreón, this is never truer than in fresco.

Whenever possible, Vigil works from a live model. This includes ears of corn and animals, but also, of course, people. Just as he and Reyes pull off to the side of the road to gather jars of pigment, he also asks people he meets on the street to model. He can tell if someone has the spirit of a doctor, of Hope, or of La Malinche. Many locals can find their faces in the pantheon of Mundos de Mestizaje. How apt it is that the faces in the stone are both those from thousands of years ago and those from today. 

As Dr. Edward Lujan, former director of the NHCC and commissioner of the fresco project, said, “If you know someone, it is very difficult to hate them.” Today, Vigil notes, we need this understanding more than ever. And when you spend time with the panoply of faces in El Torreón, it is very difficult to feel as though you do not know them.

Alix I. Hudson is a dual language educator, librarian, writer, and company member of Teatro Paraguas. She lives and works in Santa Fe.