Gaspar Enriquez grew up in the projects of El Paso, Texas, in El Segundo Barrio where Latino artists were few and far between. Fortunately for Gaspar, an artist, Mel Casas, lived next door and taught at his elementary school. Gaspar would catch rides to school from the artist/teacher, and on occasion, Mel Casas would show Gaspar his work. These experiences were his first introduction into the arts — a career path that very few from the Barrio considered an option. Unfortunately, when Gaspar was a junior at Jefferson High School, Mel Casas left El Paso for other opportunities in San Antonio, Texas. During that time, Latin@ and Chican@ artists were vastly underrepresented and none seemed to be achieving recognition or making any money, so there weren’t many role models for students like Gaspar to look up to. After seeing how difficult it was to succeed as a Chicano artist and once Mel Casas left, Gaspar let go of the idea of a career in the arts. He moved to Los Angeles, California after graduation for more work opportunities. A few years and a few jobs later, he began working as a machinist at a United States military defense plant. There he witnessed men who had been working for 20 years get fired before retirement and lose all their benefits, so he resolved to pursue a higher education so as not to suffer the same fate. While taking part-time math classes at East L.A. Junior College, his interest in the arts was kept alive through visits to museums and galleries in L.A. Later in life, once he became an established Chicano artist, he would learn that many of his art contemporaries had attended L.A. Jr. College while he was taking classes.
Gaspar and his late wife, Anne Garcia-Enriquez, moved to Denton, Texas in support of her education while he continued work as a machinist. His final decision to pursue a career in the arts was after Anne gifted him a chest of oil paints to motivate him toward his passion. She helped him realize that to be a successful artist, he would have to seek a higher degree in the Fine Arts. So he did. In 1971, he received his BFA in metals from the University of Texas at El Paso and an MFA from New Mexico State University in 1985. He is now one of the most successful and influential artists from El Paso, Texas.
Gaby, like many subjects in his work, was a student of his who he chose based on her rebellious character. He noticed that his students held a certain attitude that they develop to survive growing up in the barrio. It is a kind of defiant, self-righteous defense mechanism that emerges from coping with life in a rough neighborhood.
Gaspar grew up in the same barrio as his students, and even then they embodied the same rebellious attitude. Upon returning to his hometown to teach after 10 years, he found that these kids, his students, were encountering the same difficult choices and hardships as he had: violence, drugs, gangs and dysfunctional families. After 10 years, the community hadn’t changed at all. He wanted to record their experiences because they reminded him of his upbringing. The images are not meant to romanticize this lifestyle, they are meant to portray these kids as something other than a stereotype, but as individuals themselves.
When he began teaching, Gaspar hadn’t thought of himself as a role model. He just wanted to do the best he could to teach these young students art. He knew that while many of them would not become artists, he wanted to instill in them the drive and possibility of being the best and excelling in any field they wanted to pursue.
As it turns out, a number of his students chose to pursue a career in the arts. This past year, five of his former students created a mural in his honor for his exhibition at the Rubins Center at the University of Texas at El Paso.Written by: Natalie Villarreal February 25th, 2015
For more information on Gaspar Enriquez, visit gasparenriquez.com or watch him speak of his life and work through his Serie Project Artist in Residence interview:
The Serie Project is supported in part by the Cultural Arts Division of the City of Austin Economic Development Department, by the Texas Commission on the Arts, and an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Art Works.