When Kansas City artist Adolfo Gustavo Martinez lived in Edinburg, Texas, in the 1980s, he spent most Sundays at bars in the border towns listening to live Tex-Mex music.
He recalls with fondness being able to see people grilling and partying just across the Rio Grande River in Mexico.
“The Rio Grande Valley isn’t very wide, probably like a street,” Martinez says. “You could see them right there, right across the river.”
In his most recent painting, El Sacrificio, on display at The Late Show gallery in downtown Kansas City, he depicts this proximity and more.
In the foreground of the painting, Martinez has captured the local cacti and desert, with the mountains of Mexico City — where his family is originally from — in the distant background.
But at the center of the painting floats one large pair of huaraches, or sandals, surrounded by dozens of smaller pairs scattered in the sky behind it. According to the artist, the huaraches symbolize the spirits of the people who didn’t make it across the border from Mexico alive.
“I have a pair — my mom bought me those when she went to Mexico last time,” Martinez says. “I looked at them one day and it just came to me. I was just going to put that one pair, and then I decided to put more and it grew. It made me think OK, it’s not just one person, it’s many people.”
At one point during his time in Texas, he stayed with a man in a three-bedroom house in the vast desert near the border.
“He told me, ‘Once in a while people are going to be coming through here. They’re just going to be moving along,’” Martinez laughs softly. “I knew what that meant. So I was helping people get across.”
Even Martinez, who had shelter above his head, an education, not to mention native-born citizenship, struggled in the climate. He would travel a mile and a half to reach the only store, where he would buy ice to melt for water, since the tap was unpalatable. But he knew he was better off than those who embarked on the dangerous trek into the U.S. in hopes of finding better conditions for themselves and their children.
“There’s no stopping it,” he says. “People are going to do what they need to do to survive.”
Though he never personally saw any lives lost, he knows there were, and still are, many. The painting is a tribute to these people, and his own heritage, which he holds close to his heart.
“It’s for the people that are searching for a better life — para toda la gente que estan buscando una vida mejor,” Martinez says. “And the ones that didn’t’ make it. That’s all.”
Andrea Tudhope is a contributor at KCUR and for the program Central Standard. You can reach her on Twitter @adtudhope.