Experiencing the Rock House Cafe and Gallery: A Haven for Artists
By Carlos Fidel Espinoza
Jaime Santiago Gonzalez Aragon de Chuco y Que wearing a black fedora and a priest’s stole and robe stands at the entrance of the century old building that is the Rock House Café. Dia de Los Muertos calaveras decorate Santiago’s purple stole hanging around his neck. His hands fold over his belly and his long beard lends the determined look of a monk ready to give a sermon. It feels more carnival then café.
We clasp hands as I took in the clean sweet copal burning in the café.
“Ask me if I’m Hispanic?” he says.
Before I can ask if he’s Hispanic, Santiago starts his poem.
“Am I Hispanic, there is need to panic, I’m Chicano, Mexican on my mother’.”
As I listen to his poem, my attention splits between the language frothing from his mouth and the bookrack stacked with books by Jim Morrison, Daniel Chacon and Carlos Castañeda.
Jaime ends the poem with “my name is Jaime Santiago Gonzalez Aragon de Chuco y Que?”
Without any hesitation or pretense, I am in the world of art and language, poetry and performance.
Santiago both curates and manages the café. For the past year, he has brought artists, poets and musicians together in celebration of El Paso and Juarez cultural art scene.
“It is a haven for artists,” boasts Santiago.
It could have been a pretentious statement, but as soon as I walk in, I meet the legendary Nacho L. Garcia, the El Paso Times’ satirical cartoonist. He towers over me, but his soft eyes and grey beard are welcoming. He shows me his artwork hanging on the gallery wall, caricature drawings of Mile Cyrus, Adolf Hitler and even a drawing of Santiago.
His use of pen, pastels and charcoal draw me into use of satire and parody. With the news of the attack on cartoonists working for the French magazine Charlie Hebdo still ringing in my ears, I ask Nacho if he has ever felt intimidated or threatened over his cartoons on local, state, and national politics.
Nacho shows me the paintings, sculptors and a fiberglass piece celebrating December 12th, a day dedicated to the Virgen de Guadalupe. Some of the pieces are crude, primitive, and others pieces are the inspiration for the pilgrimage to Basilica in which thousands crawl on their knees to worship at the Virgen’s feet.
I follow Santiago into the hallway, a tunnel of stone, mortar and concrete connecting the gallery to the café. Santiago stops me half way and points to the paintings in the hallway. He picks up a walking stick with a skull carved into the handle. I notice the paint on the paintings seem to sag as if the artist had cried or pissed on his paintings as he painted, allowing the paint to run and bleed.
Santiago recited another poem. This poem told the story of his paintings, la Llorona and the femicide in Juarez.
“Do you know the Llorona?” he asked. “Have you seen her?”
I’ve never seen the Llorona, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him she was made up, a folklore, an imagination, a literary device.
“I’ve only heard in life and seen her in nightmares.”
“Me too,” he said. “I dedicated all these paintings to her, promised her that I would tell her story if she let me be in piece.”
He paused for a moment and I snapped some pictures of the paintings.
“She and I have a close connection. When my mother was pregnant, the doctors told her she should have an abortion. Carrying me to term could kill her, and me. But, she had faith and I stand before you today. Since I was a little kid, the Llorona has been haunting me because of that. One day, I made the deal with her, the Llorona. She is here because of all the murdered women in Juarez and she was always in my dreams. She lives here now. I tell her story and she leaves me alone.”
I snapped more pictures, the digital click of the camera bounced off the stone and mortar.
Marcos Rey split the silence and tension that had accumulated in the hallway. Marcos does PR for the café and is an artist. His pieces were on the hallway entrance into the café, which is more of a venue then café because a large stage dressed in mirrors and speakers takes up a sixth of the space.
Marcos shows me his work. His long manicured nails seem the perfect instrument for pointing out the detail in his art.
“Call me if you need anything,” he said. “If you have any questions.”
Santiago then introduced me to two artists sitting at the café table, sketching and painting. Elizabeth Siqueiros and Martin Medina.
It turns out that Elizabeth is the great granddaughter of David Alfaro Siqueiros. She paints, is poet and is rich with humor and insight. Her work is also on display at the Rock House Café.
After speaking with Elizabeth, I take photos of Medina and his artwork. I then watch as he works on a painting, his brush coloring the canvas. His movements are careful and precise but the painter’s strokes are familiar even before he paints them. A horse, carrying a slumped over Zapatista materializes before me.
I put my notebook and camera away after interviewing the Artists. I stay to hang out with them. I to talk to Elizabeth about Siqueiros, and spirit, I ask Nacho’s opinion on the O’Rourkes and their ties to the El Paso del Norte Investment group. I watch Santiago corral people into the gallery, innocent pedestrians walking through Chihuahitas, pulled into a haven for art, language and performance.
The Rock House Café and Gallery, located at 400 W. Overland Ave, in the downtown El Paso district known as Chihuahita, pulses with artwork, artists, musicians and writers that define the Chuco Art scene. At the Rock House, you’ll find Chicano poets roaring through language, paintings of Tin Tan in mid dance and sculptors of archaeological Mayan artifacts embedded with plastic saints. It is both humble and proud and one-hundred percent Rasquache.
The Rock House Café will host the Inaugural release of The Rio Grande Rift on January 16, 2015. Waldo the Amazing Hypnotist, Pasithea Dance Co. and Transparent City will be performing at the Rio Grande Rift release. The evening will include an open mic and poetry by Free Hole Slam.
Rock House Café opens Saturday and Sunday from 10am -3pm, and offers Menudo on Sunday mornings. In addition, The Rock House hosts an art crawl on the last Thursdays of each month featuring a new artist. The Free Hole open mic happens every other Friday. Visit The Rock House Café online for upcoming event at: https://www.facebook.com/RockHouseCafeandGallery.