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Essayist Examines Art of a Former Migrant Worker

March 5, 2007 at 5:50 PM EST
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RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, NewsHour Essayist: At a time when the Mexican migrant worker illegally entering the United States is a disturbing figure to many Americans, one migrant laborer is being posthumously lionized in New York City.

The art critic from the New York Times places Martin Ramirez, a Mexican migrant worker, among the greatest artists of the 20th century. Look. Look at this exhibit of his work at the American Folk Art Museum, and you will see the cartography of cruel fate.

Ramirez would spend the last 30 years of his life in U.S. mental hospitals, which is where he became an artist. He was born in 1895 in Mexico. Lacking formal education, he worked as a sharecropper and journeyman laborer to support his family.

Already in those years, the 1920s, America was luring Mexicans north to work. Martin Ramirez’s journey from Mexico to Northern California was on trains. In his drawings, trains emerge from tunnels and plunge into tunnels.

He worked for a time building railroads; he worked the mines. His tunnels, sexual or elementary or paranoid, are portals to mystery, and loss, and possibility.

There is no sky. The laborer’s attention is always to the ground. The swirling parallelism of fields, the tedious geometry, furrows, corrugations, the sickness of repetition, the discipline of perspective, serial progression. Even the curls of the Breck girl have become a cultivated field.

It is a measure of the tragic paradox of Mexico that, early in the 20th century, Mexico, a deeply Catholic country, had a fiercely anti-Catholic government. Skyscraper-like Madonnas electrify Ramirez’s imagination. Some consolation of the remembered Mexican church merges with the gigantism of America.

Ramirez came from Jalisco, a state where Catholics, calling themselves Cristeros, resisted the secular federal government, whose soldiers on horseback, vested with bullets, brought death and ruin to resistant villages.

One day while working in California, Ramirez received a letter from home. He misread the letter to mean that his wife had changed her political affiliation and joined the side of the federal government. Ramirez and his wife were estranged for the rest of their lives, separated in a labyrinth of simple misunderstanding.

The tragic forms of the world ensure that the man, the woman, the dog will never find one another. Always an anomaly on the obsessively formal landscape, the man on the horse might be Martin himself or a hated Mexican federal trooper. The woman might be his betrayed wife or an idealized cow girl, her head cut from a magazine.

In the 1930s, during the Depression, Ramirez was homeless and acting erratically when he was arrested by the police in Stockton, California. Hospitalized, he was first diagnosed as manic depressive, later as schizophrenic.

Until his death in 1963, he remained an asylum inmate. He would have heard trains passing near his hospital in Stockton.

Always the life, the thought is contained within doors and windows, perhaps accounting for the proscenium for which his vision is presented. In larger landscapes, he transcends the proscenium. Several times, Martin escaped the hospital. Several times, he returned, stood at the door, waiting to be readmitted.

On scraps of paper, on pages of newsprint, on the paper used on medical examination tables, using broken or melted Crayolas, forming glue from mashed potatoes and spit, Martin Ramirez drew the two worlds he had known. Cars speed between Mexico and America; the roadway is continuous. Behold, the idealized village of Mexico joined to the glittering American city.

In reality, as we say on leaving the museum, Mexico and America form an unlikely continuum. One culture is seized by a feverish dream of the future; the other cannot escape memory.

The remarkable thing is that the migrant worker who spent his life looking at the ground saw the Americas whole. The irony is that Ramirez’s Mexican-American vision of past joined to future was the vision of a madman.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.

JIM LEHRER: The work of Martin Ramirez will be on exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City through April 29th.