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When sicarios threatened to kill her, the muralist brought her art to El Paso

By Danielle Urbina, Photography by Ivan Pierre Aguirre

EL PASO – Her art name means magician and just like a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, muralist Margarita “Mago” Gandara pulls creativity and rebellion from deep within her soul to produce intricate murals, sculptures and bronze pieces that mirror the Mexican-American culture that she fell in love with as a young child.

The lively 82 year-old artist spins her story of survival in Juárez like a skilled story teller.

After living in Juárez for nearly 40 years, Gandara was threatened by “sicarios” or assassins, who targeted her after seeing her truck with Texas license plates outside of her adobe home studio in a southern Juárez colonia.

Immediately after being threatened, Gandara, with the help of her son, fled from her home taking as many pieces of art as she could, while still leaving some behind. Many of the pieces, along with additional new works will be displayed at an exhibit she calls, “Peregrinas Immigrantes” at UTEP on October 13th.

“The purpose of the exhibit is that since I was in Juárez for 35 to 40 years with my studio, I had a beautiful life. Then the sicarios threatened me to give them money, or else. So I had to flee and this exhibit is my response to that,” says Gandara.

The exhibit will display over 20 works of Gandara’s artistic response to the violence in Juárez, along with a more positive light that she wishes to shed on the culture and the people of the run-down city.

“I didn’t want my peregrinas to look miserable and to be chopped in pieces and hacked. The evil gets enough publicity,” says Gandara. “All that culture, all that energy, that was positive. I resent that they have so much publicity on the violence, they don’t talk about these other things.”

Her bright artwork is deeply submerged in the historic culture of the Mexican-American people, a culture she was born into with two Mexican-Americans as her parents. Her voice fills the room and her face lights up with excitement when she speaks about her father whom she closely relates to in many ways.

According to Gandara, her father faced ex-communication from the Catholic church, exile and corrupt governments in the time of Pancho Villa, a moment in history that she believes is repeating itself today.

“He was kicked out of Mexico, and I’ve been kicked out,” says Gandara. “It is history all over again except this is worse – if that can possibly be. The Mexican is killing the Mexican.”

While living in the Mexican colonia, Gandara’s hope was to make a difference in a community that had already seen street gangs and poverty. She used art and murals to bring the children of a violence — ridden colonia together, in the hopes of seeing them become something better.

“It starts in little ways and all those young guys are sicarios and narcos now,” says Gandara. “There was a school across the street, and mothers would take their babies. I said to one, ‘Lady, turn your baby around so he sees the mural. He’s looking at the graffiti, he’s learning the wrong thing!’ You see; that’s where it starts.”

Her artwork and community involvement came to an abrupt stop…

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