You can’t get to most places in the hills of Guanajuato, Mexico, except by walking. Some of the “callejons” are a bit challenging, but walk slowly from the University steps up to Cerro del Cuarto and you will be richly rewarded. There is magic there on the walls and walkways, thanks to the artistry of my friend Pepe.
Pepe (Jose Eric Hernandez) grew up in Guanajuato and, like too many young men living in poverty, found the only way to support his family required him to join a Guanajuato gang. He became one of its leaders, making him a target for local police. Pepe was arrested after police planted drugs in his clothes. Pepe was sentenced to 15 years in prison, leaving his wife, Ana, and their two young children with Ana’s family in Cerro del Cuarto. Before he left, Pepe told Ana — his sweetheart since childhood– to find another partner so she could live a comfortable life. She replied, “Comia las uvas dulces y ahora voy a comer las uvas amargas mientras te espero.” I ate the sweet grapes (when we had money) and now I will eat the bitter grapes while I wait for you.
In prison, Pepe says, he never lost his faith. He became a model prisoner and was released after five years, determined to change his life without knowing exactly how he would do that. After returning home, he carried bricks up the hills, did odd jobs, and found part time employment as a caretaker for two properties in Cerro del Cuarto. But his passion was painting murals. He found a few residents willing to pay him to paint their foyers or walls. And now he spends much of the year transforming his hillside barrio into an outdoor gallery.
In various styles, the murals tell stories of Guanajuato and Mexican history. But, significantly, they offer important messages with depictions of powerful women and scenes that provide hope for the neighborhood children.
Pepe’s family still struggles, but he and Ana have raised their four children to put their education ahead of almost everything else, and they all plan to attend college. More important, Pepe and Ana’s children know their dad has chosen a life of integrity and honesty. They know he has become an example for all of the young men in the barrio.
Si puedes soñarlo, puedes lograrlo – If you can dream it, you can do it.