Among our prized possessions are five large pen-and-ink drawings of Southwestern horsemen, meticulously detailed and historically accurate, by the late El Paso artist José Cisneros.
We inherited four of them from Al’s parents, who lived in El Paso for almost 40 years, where Dr. Ray Past taught English and linguistics at the University of Texas at El Paso.
The fifth was a gift that Ray commissioned his friend José to draw especially for us. It depicts Charles Siringo, whose book, “A Texas Cowboy,” was probably the first published cowboy autobiography—and it mentioned Beeville. Published in 1885, the book describes Siringo’s experience on a ranch “five miles west of Beeville” (probably near where we now live) in the late 1870s.
Cisneros read Siringo’s book, which tells about him coming to Beeville to offer his services to Charles Word for an upcoming cattle drive. Cisneros had loved history, especially that of Mexico and the Southwest, from childhood.
José was born in the village of Villa Ocampo, Durango, Mexico in 1910, where his father was a carpenter. The family had to escape that area in 1917 because of the Mexican Revolution, during which Villa Ocampo and the Cisneros home were destroyed.
The family eventually settled in Ciudad Juárez, across the Río Grande from El Paso, and José got to cross the river to attend the Lydia Patterson Institute for Mexican students, where he learned English and pursued his lifelong obsession with history.
He only had one art class in his life, from an itinerant painter who charged 25 cents an hour for a lesson. When the man found out José was colorblind, he advised him to give up art and work as a bricklayer.
In 1927, at the age of 17, José dropped out of school to help support his family, through a job dressing the store windows at the White House, a large El Paso department store. He used the backs of discarded commercial signs for his artwork, and by 1930 was publishing some of it in Mexican magazines.
He later got a job with the El Paso City Lines, painting buses and streetcars for the company for some 30 years. He added colorful flags of all the states along the US-Mexico border to the international streetcars.
In 1937, he saw El Paso artist Tom Lea painting a mural on the El Paso Federal Courthouse, introduced himself and showed him some of his drawings. Lea was impressed, and suggested to the head of the El Paso Public Library that she exhibit José’s art—his first exhibition.
Lea also put Cisneros in touch with J. Carl Herzog, an El Paso printer and publisher, who hired José for illustration work: books, book plates, greeting cards, calendars, programs, etc. Many of those jobs were for history books, requiring research for accuracy.
It was probably through Lea that Al’s father met Cisneros, for Ray had written about the El Paso artist in his dissertation about Western writers who illustrated their own books.
José designed the coat of arms for Ciudad Juárez, and also for Texas Western College. He updated that design in 1966 when TWC became the University of Texas at El Paso.
In 1939 José married Vicenta Madera, and the couple had five daughters. In 1948 José became a naturalized US citizen.
Cisneros continued earning a living by painting city buses, drawing in his spare time. Vicenta advised him on colors, so that he could add them to some of his works. She labeled his colored pencils to help him use appropriate ones.
In 1969 he was able to get a six months’ leave of absence from El Paso City Lines in order to accept a Paisano Fellowship, which pays for artists and writers to live for six months at J. Frank Dobie’s old ranch, the Paisano, on Barton Creek, west of Austin. There he was able to produce many of the drawings for his “Riders of the Borderlands” book, which was published in 1981. During his time at the Paisano, José also did research at the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio.
It was in the mid-1980s that Al’s dad took us to meet Cisneros in the home where he and Vicenta had lived for most of their married life. It was a pleasure to visit with the quiet, unassuming artist, whose basement studio was filled with shelves of history books and stacks of his drawings.
In 1984, 120 of Cisneros’ horseman drawings were purchased by UTEP for permanent display on the fourth floor of the university’s new library. One hundred of those were included in “Riders of the Borderlands.”
That collection of his art earned José the 1985 Outstanding Western Book Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. It also resulted in an exhibition of his drawings at the Texas State Capitol in 1987.
In 1990 Cisneros was knighted by Pope John Paul II in the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem—and in 1991 by King Juan Carlos of Spain. President George W. Bush presented him with the National Humanities Award in 2001.
A UTEP student once asked Cisneros, “How long did it take you to make all those drawings?”
José answered with a smile, “All my life.”