Self-taught artist "Dago" creates a frieze for the Palomas library.
by Marjorie Lilly
He lives with his wife and one-year-old son in a modest pink house at the south edge of Palomas. His name is Dagoberto Rodriguez, but he's emphatically "Dago" to himself and to people who know him.
I interview him over a kitchen table with an intrepid kitten about five weeks old scrabbling around under the chairs.
Dagoberto “Dago” Rodriguez in front of one of the signs he’s painted.
(Photos: Marjorie Lilly)
Dago has been making drawings and commercial paintings on buildings most of his life, but just in the past few years he's been called on to make some public paintings in Palomas — on the base of the tall statue of Pancho Villa in front of City Hall and a few on the gazebo in the main plaza. They give a stamp of individuality to the town.
In the past year he created a highly original frieze out of cement in front of the public library four blocks west of the main street. I tell him the ancient Greeks made friezes, and he wasn't aware of that. He hadn't heard of the word "frieze" (frisa). He uses the word mural to describe his work.
The piece is an amalgam of images — an Aztec chief, a boy in a wheelchair in front of a computer screen, a peasant woman, with dreamy glimpses of landscapes in the background.
Egyptian art was partly on his mind when he made it, he says, but his most obvious influence is the great Mexican post-Revolutionary murals of Diego Rivera and others.
How did he learn to make the frieze? "Con fe (with faith)," he says. He claims he basically made up the technique himself.
This work needs to be painted, he says, and he's planning to do that when he can. He also has plans to create another mural at the library. He's getting paid for them partly by the town of Palomas and partly by the development organization Border Partners.
All his life Dago has resided in Palomas, except when he was in the US. "I've never lived anywhere else," he says. He's made drawings since he was age four or five, of Superman and other superheroes.
His mother was a dressmaker and also made lots of drawings. "She drew them and then threw them out," he says. He doesn't have any of her drawings left.
He says he was kicked out of school at age 12 "por vago" (for fooling around). "When I was just 12 or 13, I started painting advertisements on walls," he adds.
At the tender age of 14 he started transporting drugs across the border in a backpack, and by 17 he started a string of incarcerations in numerous jails in the US, including Deming, Lordsburg, Oakdale, Louisiana and Pecos and Big Spring, Texas.
That's the only place he really studied art, in the libraries in the detention centers.
There he pored over books about Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Jose Clemente Orozco and others. He's seen some good art books at the Palomas library, but he says he doesn't have time to read them.
Dago has never heard of the famous potter Juan Quezada and the town of Mata Ortiz, south of Casas Grandes, where about 300 families make pots for a living. I tell him he should get to know them.
Now, at 43, Dago works from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., for the Public Works Department in Palomas' City Hall. Besides picking up trash and caring for parks, he paints advertisements on the white walls of the baseball field. He gets paid for this as part of his job, and the town gets $40 per ad.
Outside of regular hours, Dago also does construction — laying floors and mounting cement blocks — and paints other advertisements on walls of businesses. He charges $50, $100 or $150, depending on the size of the ad and the financial resources of the buyer. He also has a tattoo parlor in a cramped room in his house, where he works on people in the evenings.
"Without work, there is no food," he says.
His passion for painting is so strong that he's rented a house just to do paintings on the walls and then paint over them again.
He shows me a crucifix over three feet tall with a six-by-six-inch hand-painted portrait of a man at the center, for use at gravesites. For years Dago has made these for people at least as far away as Agua Prieta, on the border with southwest Arizona. He says he doesn't know where they all end up.
Often he copies photographs or other people's paintings, but with some pictures he'll add an idea of his own. On a painting on the town gazebo of the Angel de Independencia hovering over Padre Miguel Hidalgo, he adds from his own imagination an individual angel freeing a slave.
He makes a point of saying he has done reproductions of Frida Kahlo paintings. He likes Kahlo a lot.
His drawings are rough and even awkward sometimes, but have the self-confidence and authenticity of a true naïve artist embracing the Mexican historical themes of the liberation of slaves and helping the poor.
Technically, he's basically self-taught. He uses mostly small cans of oil-based house paint in his paintings and used an ordinary builder's trowel and cement when making his frieze at the library.
We drive around town a bit, and he points out store after store that bears his paintings. The number is really impressive. He's painted signs for beauty salons, an exercise place called Zumba, a school for beauticians, a pharmacy and more. He's painted a big blue waterfall for the Luz del Mundo church, on the front wall facing the congregation.
Dago's in the process of teaching two guys about 20 years old how to paint ads on walls. I ask him if he wants the competition, and he sounds a little ambivalent. But he wants to help young people. "There are lots of kids who like to do drawings," he says.
He intends to create a sculpture at the baseball field, where they hold games every Sunday — Palomas playing against Casas Grandes, Ascension or Juarez. In his border Spanglish he says he wants the sculpture to represent "un big guante [glove], una bola, y un bat." The sculpture will be held together with iron bars and will be 15 feet tall.
"I want to make lots of things," he says, "but there's no money."
But he does have the strength and energy and will keep slugging out his works as often as he can.
Marjorie Lilly writes the Borderlines column.
The Tumbleweeds Top 10
Who and what's been making news from New Mexico this past month, as measured by mentions in Google News (news.google.com). Trends noted are vs. last month's total hits; * indicates new to the list. Number in parenthesis indicates last month's Top 10 rank. Below the top 10 but trending are Spaceport America (topping Popular Science's "Best Nerd Road Trip" list), NMSU's new "Pistol Pete" helmets (the only ones in the FBS to sport firearms), Susana Martinez plus 2016, and actor/Doña Ana County reserve deputy Steven Seagal. (Suddenly an expert on border security, Seagal addressed the New Mexico Sheriff's Association Conference in Las Cruces last month.)
1. (1) New Mexico + immigration — 338 hits (▼)
2. (5) Gov. Susana Martinez — 306 hits (▲)
3. (3) New Mexico drought — 263 hits (▼)
4. (2) New Mexico budget — 238 hits (▼)
5. (7) Virgin Galactic — 235 hits (▲)
6. (9) New Mexico wolves — 183 hits (▲)
7. (6) Sen. Tom Udall — 167 hits (▼)
8. (8) Ex-Gov. Bill Richardson — 161 hits (▼)
9. (4) New Mexico wildfires — 159 hits (▼)
10.(-) Sen. Martin Heinrich — 90 hits (▲)
Life in a State of Nature
Reader photos of creatures big and small.
Apparently we've opened a zoo with our call for readers' favorite local wildlife photos. Here's another batch, starting with this stunner from Marie Southworth of Las Cruces, who writes: "This photo of a bald eagle was taken at the Bosque del Apache near Socorro in January."
Back on the bird watch, this one comes from Lon K. Shelton of Deming: "The roadrunner (we affectionately call it 'Stanly') shows up from time to time to beg for a treat. He has come to know my wife to the point of actually taking food from her hand."
Kathy Cassell writes, "Deer in Silver City — you either love them or hate them. This is one of those times you have to love them. This little guy couldn't quite reach the bird bath so he had to content himself with the drips falling over the side."
This is the first photo of many promised by Erin Evans from her ranch south of Silver City. She writes, "I have missed the last couple of issues due to living far from town and not going to town unless threatened. But I picked up an issue at the library today and saw that you are printing wildlife photos. I have a few thousand. Well, OK, maybe that is a slight exaggeration, but because of where I live, it's pretty neat."
Finally, as promised last month, Elroy Limmer shares another rare insect, this time a photo of the American Burying Beetle (Nicroporus americanus): "This is a federally endangered species; supposedly only two populations are now found in the US, one in Rhode Island and another in Oklahoma. I have observed them in my yard for the last four years. This photo shows mites riding on the critter. The beetles feed and make nests in carcasses of small dead rodents and birds. Flies are readily attracted to the flesh and lay eggs on the carcasses, the mites then feed on the fly eggs. So the mites have a symbiotic relationship with the beetles."
Share your own photos of the Southwest's "zoo." Show us what you've seen out there, large or small, from hummingbirds and scorpions to eagles and elk. Send to email@example.com or mail to PO Box 191, Silver City, NM 88062, and include your postal address for a little thank-you.