Adventures in Mexico

When I mentioned to people that I was going to paint a mural in a town on the Mexican / American border, they were absolutely certain that my adventure would involve fleeing from drug lords and risking my life where I had no business painting in the first place. That just wasn't my experience in Piedras Negras. Yes, there were drugs and a cartel. However, there was only one cartel so they didn't run around killing each other. Who would have ever thought one drug cartel could be a blessing? So, let me state loudly and clearly, I loved visiting with my friends in Piedras Negras. And, the longer I stayed, the more friends there were to enjoy.

I planned my trip around the Mexican Independence Day festivities, which went on for much more than a day. I honestly thought that my main adventure would include traditional Mexican dancing, lots of Spanish music, and even more Mexican food. I had all of that, but it wasn't the adventure to remember from my time in Piedras Negras. I wasn't prepared for the welcome I received at the Instituto de Las Américas Montessori Bilingüe School. But, they were so very prepared for me! In fact, they could write a manual on how to welcome someone into their school. They set the bar for others to follow, and I seriously doubt that anyone can possibly ever match it. But, if you want suggestions from The Manual, here are a few that I experienced.

Throw out the Welcome Mat, er . . . Banner: The people at the school did their research. They saw my murals, explored my website and then got the word out to every student in each classroom. Upon arrival at the school, there was a six foot banner saying, "Welcome, PHILLIP MARTIN!" Of course, you can guess whose clip art adorned it. There was also a smaller banner with my photograph and biography (in Spanish) so everyone was informed.

I considered the banners more than enough. It had never happened before and I never expected anything like that. However, the director Rosie, was only getting started. She was thrilled that I was at her school and everyone knew it. All the children in the elementary knew about the project. And, it certainly seemed that most of them asked for my autograph over the course of my stay.

The Wall . . . in the beginning
Know the Way to a Man's Heart: Of course, I could be wrong, but I don't think I really ask for all that much when painting a mural. However, I do like a few random acts of appreciation from time to time. It doesn't always happen. But, when it happens, it is nice to say it with food. Not to worry in Piedras Negras, when setting the bar for others to strive for, several meals (almost every night) at Mexican restaurants were a part of the plan. And, those on the guest list included my hosts, painters, faculty, the director and a very humbled artist.

Meet and Greet and Eat: It may come as a surprise but I have painted at schools where the director doesn't come to see the mural and no teachers were ever introduced to me. That was not the case with my Mexican hosts. There was a taco night fiesta at the school for the faculty to meet me. I've never taught at a school where that would have worked, but more than half of the faculty came out to greet me (or at least enjoy some very delicious tacos).


Locate a Few Stellar Students: I always state that I want anyone who wants to paint to be given the opportunity. On the first two days of color painting, that usually includes a lot of bad painters. It doesn't matter. Mistakes can be fixed and it's all a part of letting everyone participate. On the days afterwards, I need only careful painters to touch up the project.

As it turned out, I had hand-selected stellar artists at my side. There was very little that needed to be touched up when the school day ended. I was so very impressed. But the day was not over. After my very first Mexican siesta (which became a habit I really enjoyed), we returned to school for an evening session of painting. I didn't know what to expect, but about fourteen kids showed up with smiles on their faces and paint brushes in their hands. It was a big mural, there were several evening and weekend sessions. A cast of thousands, or at least fourteen, showed up every time.

Do Something Shocking: There was a lot of English spoken, but there was also a lot of rapid-fire Spanish (and Spanish is the fastest language that I've ever heard). I tend to zone out, concentrate on painting, and don't listen to the Spanish. However, at one point, all of the kids left the mural site and headed towards the office. I didn't know why, but I thought, if they wanted me, they would have asked me to come along with them. I continued working.

A few minutes later, I had the shock of my muraling career. The entire group returned wearing yellow T-shirts that read, "Phillip's Team". Like I said, they set the standard for how to treat a guest. I felt so very appreciated and I just completely adored my "equipo".


Feed the Masses: Just when I really thought the director of the school could do no more, because there were no more thoughtful gestures that could possibly be done, she surprised me one more time. When the weekend rolled around, and we had a little more time on our hands, all of "Team Phillip" was invited out for breakfast. It wasn't a school breakfast at the cafeteria. We dined at a beautiful restaurant. I seriously don't think that was needed to lure the kids to school for a morning of painting on the weekend. However, it was such a generous (and delicious) unexpected act of kindness.

Stop the Presses: If you really appreciate the project, get the word out so people know about the work. Rosie, the director, contacted a reporter for a blog site and a few periodicals. I was interview number 166 for him. He obviously interviewed a lot of famous people in many walks of life and then there was me. Surprisingly, shockingly, the reporter was nervous about the interview. He researched my website and had all kinds of background information and questions, but he was too nervous to eat breakfast. I quickly assured him that he had no reason to fear. And, it was a great interview. He walked away with a pile of notes, a smile on his face, my autograph, and a "Phillip's Team" T-shirt.

Start Spreading the News: Piedras Negras was a large town, but it really wasn't all that large. People seemed to know what was happening and who it was happening with. It also appeared that everyone was related by marriage of a cousin to the brother of their niece. So, word got out in the graphic arts department at a local college that I was in town. About twenty students showed up to hear about my life and my art.

My Internet career started in 1998. Most of those university students were five or six years old at the time. They thought that was funny. And, it was hard for them to imagine going to school before the internet and computers. But I hoped they walked away with the message I wanted them to remember. When an opportunity comes your way, remember to say "yes". Let yourself be surprised by the events that "yes" can bring your way. There will always be good with the bad, but the good so outweighs the bad. If I hadn't said "yes" to the opportunities that came my way, I wouldn't have a website, there would be no murals, and I wouldn't travel the world as an artist. Yes, say yes.


Shout it from the Mountain Top, or at least at the Charreada: One of the events for the Independence celebration was a charreada. The closest thing I can compare it to is a rodeo. However, I've not been to enough rodeos to make comparisons. My Mexican hosts assured me that rodeo riders only took the events that they could copy but a charreada was much more. To be sure, there were lassos, bronco bulls, and very intricate horse footwork. There were also charros (riders at a charreada) in full costume with magnificent sombreros. The sombrero I got to see close up was embroidered with real silver thread.

The emcee was up in the audience with a microphone when I arrived. And, to be very honest, there were not a lot of gringos in attendance. So, when I sat down next to Rosie, the director of the school, he came over to find out just who I was. Rosie was more than willing to give him the whole scoop.

Not long after that, I heard my name boomed over the loud speaker. Three times! The emcee announced that an internationally famous artist was in attendance tonight. I wanted to take photographs for some drawings I'd create. So, please, let me take photos of whatever I wanted. And, with that said, I was escorted to VIP locations around the charreada to get the close up photos I really wanted. There certainly were perks for being an "internationally famous artist" at least for one night.

My Spanish isn't very good. I know I keep saying that, but it is so true. I didn't understand what was announced. I heard my name and Ohio a few times so I had a general understanding of the situation. It wasn't until after I left the event that I learned that the charreada was dedicated to me that evening. Viva Mexico!

Celebrate during a Celebration: I planned my time to Mexico to align with their Independence Day celebration. I had no idea that it would include so much color and so many traditional costumes. It was a photographer's paradise, especially for me, since I love to take portraits of people.

But then, in the midst of all the color, music and dance, I heard my name called out over the loudspeaker. I was asked to come to the center stage. All those kids who knew about me in advance cheered for me like I've never heard before. Then, to their delight and mine, it was announced that they were going to dress me up as a Mexican. I was given a sarape and a sombrero. It was already broiling hot, under the Mexican sun, but I added another layer of clothing with pride.

Work it! Work it! Work Your Connections: Rosie has lived in Piedras Negras all of her life. She has connections with anyone and everyone you might need to know. So, it wasn't really a shock when she said that the local television news was coming for an interview. As it turned out, the man who brought the team to the school was the father of one of my "team members". He knew all about me because I also spoke to one of his university classes.

I turned off my huge outdoor fan for the interview. It was kind of like my life-support system in the Mexican heat. Even at times when it wasn't blistering hot, I was continually drenched in sweat if the fan wasn't on me directly. So, I was fine at the beginning of the interview. But, if you watch it closely, you'll see me withering the longer the reporter asked me questions.

You would have expected Rosie to be at the interview, but she wasn't. She had more connections to make. At one point, I met a teacher at the school whose dance troupe went to Cuba. I said, "I would L O V E to paint a mural in Cuba." Well, Rosie called the Cuba Embassy in Mexico City and asked to speak to the ambassador AND GOT HIM! Who does that? After she told him about me, I got an official invitation to paint a mural in Cuba during a celebration in Guantanamo.

Translate when Necessary: There was a lot said that I would never have known, unless someone translated it for me. The goal is to give students a wonderful learning experience. I could see it on their faces, but it was also delightful to know what they were saying.

One boy whispered to a peer. He planned to have me adopt him. That way he would live with me and we could spend the rest of our lives painting murals together. I'm not sure if his parents would agree to that, but at least I knew he loved what he was doing.

Apparently, there was conversation among the kids that my visit of ten days was just not long enough. They were certain that I could stay at their homes for an extended visit. Mama Gaby was sure they wanted to adopt me.

Another girl pleaded with a teacher to never let this mural be painted over until she could have children and share the story of the mural with them. I am quite sure nobody wants her to have children in the near future, but I was touched by how important the project was to her.


Listen to the Music: Well, I don't mean listen to all music. As I outlined the mural on my final day, I tried very hard to ignore the soundtrack that played over and over all morning. It was a greatest collection of Mexican classics but somehow "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" was thrown into the mix. I appreciate traditional music. However, this tape sounded like a track that you would hear on a ride at Disneyland. Once might be considered interesting. I'm not sure about that. But, there was nothing "super" or "califragilistic" about hearing it twenty times. It was only "expletive-docious." I tried to block it out of my mind and focus on the art. Sometimes I'm pretty good at that.

I wasn't exactly sure when it happened, but eventually the music changed to a march. I thought, "Finally, a change in music and something that I liked!" And, I did. I continued painting, and focused on the music instead of the screams and giggles from the kids behind me in their physical education classes.

Eventually, and it was several minutes later, it dawned on me. I'd heard this very march before. It was the assembly call for the entire school to meet at the main courtyard. Yep, I peeked behind me and there stood the entire population of Instituto de Las Américas Montessori Bilingüe School, hopefully staring at my mural and not my butt. Standing atop the scaffolding, the view was there no matter what they wanted to see. I wasn't sure what to do so I continued painting until the music stopped and the assembly began.

I guess the message of the mural was clear. My characters held hands to show support and acceptance of others. But, they created only half a circle. It was the job of the audience to complete the welcoming circle. And, sure enough, at that moment everyone held hands - except, of course, for high school students who are too cool for that anywhere on the planet.

More speeches. More compliments. More gratitude. But, this time, I gave a little speech with some Spanish included. I had to explain "M 34.1" on a mural T shirt. "M" stood for Montessori, Martin and Murals. This was mural thirty-four in my number one mural location in the world. And, since it was Mexico, there was also some dancing. Just like experiences I've had in Africa, I declared that this man cannot dance. But, that didn't stop me from being pulled into the crowd. And, nobody listened to my cries for help!

The main event of the ceremony came when I was asked my favorite color. Red. It wasn't Hollywood, and there was no star, but my handprints in bright red paint were placed on a plaque at the entrance of the school. From that spot, you get your first glimpse of the mural. Like I said, there was no star, but there remains a glowing warmth in my heart every time I think of the friends and family I made on this second trip to Piedras Negras. If there were a star, I'd wish upon it for a speedy return to Mexico.


And the final chapter of The Manual,

Know How to Say Goodbye: There was a good measure of security at the school. Children could not exit the grounds until a parent or guardian arrived at the gate for them. Then, one woman announced over a loudspeaker the name of the child so the kid would know it was time to head for home. The day of school was over. The student was safe to leave. Parents were ready to take the child home. And, Mama and Papa were ready to hear about the adventures of the day.

As I headed out the gate after a day of painting, the woman at the exit smiled and called, "Phillip Martin" out over the loudspeaker. Papa Gaby looked at me and said, "I guess that makes me your father." I, too, was safe and ready to tell "the folks" about my day at school. I don't think they ever got tired of hearing how much I loved Piedras Negras.

Copyright 2013 by Phillip Martin All rights reserved.