Special Report: The People’s Painter

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The Borderland is rich in centuries worth of history. 

Much of it has been captured by great artists known around the world including one whose masterpieces capture the struggles playing out in our backyard to this day. 

Manuel Gregorio Acosta is one of the best in the Borderland to pick up a brush. From the poet to the bullfighter, Manuel Acosta painted what was in his backyard. 

A world-renowned artist himself, Hal Marcus is one of Acosta’s closest followers. He even met him Acosta as he started making a name for himself in the art world. 

Marcus believes those unique pieces could only come from the bristles of Acosta’s brush, “It’s the soul behind the person that made his paintings what they are, and you can’t teach that. You can’t even learn that. It’s something that is a deep passion that comes through his work because he was a very deep person. 

Making the Borderland His Home

Born in Villa Aldama, Chihuahua in 1921, Acosta made his way to the Borderland at the age of one. 

Susie Aquilina wrote her doctoral thesis on Acosta. She thinks his work shows how he values his roots as an immigrant, “His mother was skipping around in the ditch and then went into labor. She went into labor right there and gave birth to him right there in the ditch and it was a source of immense pride for Acosta.” 

Critics believe Acosta’s down-to-earth nature is also grounded in the people he painted.  

“They asked him why do you want to paint the people of this place and he said well we are just as important as what you would see in any art museum in Europe or New York. We matter too,” Aquilina said. 

Brutally Honest Paintings

“The way he did the skin tones. The way he not only did the face of the artist, but the soul of the artist lots of times they are very haunting,” Marcus said. 

These portraits were sometimes too haunting. 

During the Worker’s Rights era in the 1960’s, TIME Magazine asked Acosta for a portrait of civil rights icon Cesar Chavez for the magazine’s cover. The original painting was rejected for being too serious. 

“Of course Manuel must have been like ‘what you want me to paint a portrait of a man, a great man, and you want me to make him look not so brown, not so tired, not so young, ” Marcus said. 

A version of Acosta’s take on Chavez did make the cover. 

A Victim of Crime

Instead of future fame and fortune, the talented artist returned to his humble life. A life that abruptly ended 20 years later as a victim of crime. “He was murdered in a very hostile, tragic, violent sort of way and he was robbed. They say he was robbed, and they say he was killed with a screwdriver, so it was very messy,” Marcus said. 

His legacy lives on through his art and from those who knew him best.  

The struggles he so expertly put onto a canvas playing out in present day. 

“Really trying to break those stereotypes that people had in Mexican immigrants and so in that way he shares a lot in common with people today struggling against racism, against white supremacy, against anti-immigrant hatred,” Aquilina said. 

Paintings of Acosta can be seen at the Hal Marcus Gallery, on the UTEP campus and at the El Paso Museum of Art. 

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