The Transformative Power of Art in Mexico

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.

The design on the grackle is Aztec. Hummingbirds are revered in Mexico for leading the Aztecs to the eagle standing on the cactus devouring the snake in the Promised Land — the Valley of Mexico — where the Aztecs built their empire. The Mayans believed the hummingbird was god’s last creation.

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.

The woman in the mural has a crown of corn, the food of the gods and a symbol of Mexico itself.

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 was inspired by a mural in New Mexico to paint his twin daughters with flowers growing out of the hearts.
This mural shares a story of how we are each born with a light inside us. Here, a young man asks death to delay extinguishing the light.
This goddess has two birds on her head to express her freedom to fly, and hands with eyes in them “because women see everything.”
Pepe says the sign is reminding caminantes to keep the callejon clean. Frida is watching you….

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.

Pepe and I stand in front of a large mural of Guanajuato with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Si puedes soñarlo, puedes lograrlo – If you can dream it, you can do it.


  1. Pepe is both a hero and a genius artist. His works are both emotionally evocative and beautiful. And your relationship with him over the years has turned out to be one of the most remarkable and rewarding aspects of your life journey Kim.

  2. Thanks Kim!, I enjoyed seeing the murals again after being there. It looks like there are new ones. I have good memories of Guanajuato, and the experiences there as well as in SMA. . In your travels if you are ever near ciudad Valles in Hidalgo check out Taninul and Nacimiento. Abrazos! Carpe Diem

  3. Wow Kim! Such fabulous artwork and a really wonderful story as well. Does Pepe paint them all himself or have helpers (a la Diego)? These murals are really lovely. Thank you for the great post!!

    1. Thanks Janet — Pepe mostly paints on his own but occasionally another local muralist will work with him. He is starting to get some broader notoriety, so maybe he will be able to work with the bigger group of artists. xoxox

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