McALLEN — Alamo muralist Alexandro Gonzalez loves to see a boring wall.
He’ll drive by and think about what he could do with the space, what sort of portrait would fit and what colors he would use for the background.
He knows where all the best walls in the Rio Grande Valley are — the big, broad ones suited for murals — and you can hear the excitement in his voice when he talks about them.
“When I see a wall, I think, man, I wish I could go do some art on there,” he said.
Gonzalez doesn’t have to wish so much anymore. After nearly giving up on art earlier this year, he’s found success as a muralist, painting 11 of them in Hidalgo County, all portraits honoring people who died tragically.
Gonzalez started working on his latest mural last week, a painting on the wall of the McAllen Boys and Girls Club that will depict three Hidalgo County law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty —Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Moises Sanchez, and McAllen policemen Edelmiro Garza Jr. and Ismael Chavez Jr.
He started on Garza’s portrait Saturday evening, pulling dozens of cans of spray paint out of his car and leaning an aluminum ladder up against the wall.
Alexandro’s brother, Tony, sat in a camp chair in front of a folding table holding a laptop and a projector. A little generator hummed beside the table and the projector splayed a portrait of the officer onto the wall by Gonzalez’s ladder.
Gonzalez climbed up and started outlining Garza’s head with broad, dark strokes, pausing to think for a moment before working on the finer details, like the eyes and the nose. He climbed down occasionally to grab a new can or move his ladder.
“Tony, stop the projector,” Gonzalez shouts. Tony looks up from his phone for a moment and scoots his chair in front of the projector, blocking the light, before looking back down at his phone.
Gonzalez took a moment to look at the wall. It’s looking good; in another half hour it’ll be easy to recognize Officer Garza.
To the left of Garza’s portrait is a substantially completed painting of Trooper Sanchez, astoundingly vivid from the crown of his Stetson to the top of his tie. Sanchez was a volunteer coach and karate instructor with the McAllen Boys and Girls Club.
“We have a very, very strong relationship with the police at our Boys and Girls Club. They’re mentors to our kids; if it wasn’t for the pandemic we would have had officers there all summer,” Boys and Girls Club CEO Dalinda Gonzalez-Alcantar said. “You don’t want to be selfish with these individuals that you memorialize. They served this entire community, so it’s an opportunity for people to pass by and remember.”
Gonzalez finished Sanchez’s portrait Thursday morning after a marathon painting session, working through the night to avoid the heat.
“Eleven p.m. yesterday there was nothing on that wall, and at 5:30 a.m., there was that mural,” Gonzalez-Alcantar said. “He just took a spotlight and put up his ladder and spray-painted all night. It’s neat.”
It almost seemed miraculous: one day the building had a drab yellow wall, the next it was adorned with a striking portrait of the fallen DPS trooper. In many ways, Gonzalez’s success as a muralist has been just as miraculously unlikely.
Although the 27-year-old was interested in art in high school, everyone but his mother discouraged him from pursuing it professionally, telling him he’d never be able to sell a painting or make a living as an artist.
While attending Donna High School, Gonzalez found someone who did believe in him, an art teacher. Gerardo Gorena told Gonzalez he had talent and told him to pursue it.
“No one has ever told me that, only my mom. Someone outside my family has never told me that,” Gonzalez said.
Gorena helped Gonzalez on campus, and off campus he started teaching himself. Gonzalez did graffiti for local businesses that wanted their names or logos painted, teaching himself about dimensions and how to blend colors. He learned how to paint on canvases and how to do portraits, developing a style that’s bright and vibrant.
Despite the practice, Gonzalez couldn’t make paint pay the bills. He worked as a professional mover and as a farm laborer, working in Dallas and Chicago and California.
He was working in construction when the pandemic hit. He lost his job.
Gonzalez was depressed, dealing with family issues and financial strains. He was ready to quit art and reconcile himself to a career working 9 to 5 jobs he despised.
“I was broke. No money, nothing,” he said.
He was there, at his lowest point, when he bumped into Mr. Gorena again. The art teacher, who’d never even officially had Gonzalez as a student in one of his classes, remembered his talent and encouraged him again.
“You’re gonna be someone in life,” Gonzalez remembers Gorena saying. “Don’t stop. Don’t quit. Go ahead.”
Not long after, still dead broke and without many prospects, Gonzalez decided to give art another try. He had seen the desperate pleas made by Vanessa Guillen’s mother, asking for someone, anyone, to find her daughter.
Gonzalez decided that was something he and his art could help with.
“So I decided, ‘Hey, let me use my gift to do something about it,’” he said. “I put in the last money I had and I started Vanessa.”
He was so broke he had to siphon some borrowed gas into his car to make it to the wall. Eventually, the community saw what he was doing and pitched in, helping buy supplies and offering words of encouragement.
Gonzalez started painting more murals, more soldiers, all people who were missing and killed and, in Gonzalez’s view, in need of a memorial and more awareness. He’s painted celebrities, too, like Kobe Bryant and Chadwick Boseman.
Gonzalez’s murals pop up within days of a tragedy, a physical expression of grief that’s inevitably photographed and circulated on social media.
“This is what I love to do. I’m just gonna do faces, faces, faces,” he said.
All that attention is translating into real, financial success. The Boys and Girls Club mural is a paid commission, and he has another paid commission lined up with the Mission Police Department.
He’s been getting calls from people who appreciate his work throughout the country.
“People from all over the United States have been calling me,” he said. “Come to New York, come to California. Houston, Killeen, Texas. It’s just a blessing. Now I don’t gotta work for anyone.
“It’s just changed my life.”
Gonzalez says those people who told him he’d never go anywhere as an artist have changed their tune. Now they’re joking with him, telling him they’re surprised he’s not too famous to be hanging out with them.
“There’s more artists, but there’s just a lack of support that’s been holding them back,” Gonzalez said. “That’s what I want to do through my art. I want to inspire people that think they’re never going to have a chance in life.”
Gonzalez regularly posts updates on his work, including the triple mural at the Boys and Girls Club on Instagram under the handle @popc_ulture.