Rivera’s DIA mural comes alive with family lore

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Eighty-five years ago this week, Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals made their public debut. So I’d like to debut a theory about the Mexican artist’s masterpiece: My grandfather, Antonio Martinez, is pictured front and center in the epic work.

Martinez could very well be the “unknown figure” in Rivera’s mural.

The man is officially described as “Detroit acquaintance of Rivera,” or, sometimes the “unknown figure” in various Detroit Institute of Arts material and academic books about the murals.

“Oh, I think it’s very possible that could be my father or one of my two uncles,” in the mural, said Juanita Hernandez, my aunt who was born and raised in Detroit. “Diego used to sketch them every time they went to see him.”

Whoever “unknown figure” is, he’s beautiful. His skin is the color of cinnamon and he has high Indian cheekbones like that of many Mexicans with indigenous blood, including my grandfather and two uncles. He’s wearing blue overalls and a hipster white Fedora hat. He’s hauling a Ford Motor Co. engine block on the assembly line at the Rouge plant.

Detroit News reporter Louis Aguilar in front of the Diego Rivera frescos, top photo, at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

He’s center left on the north wall; one of 10 men whose faces you can see on the assembly line. The identities of eight of those men are known. Most are Rivera’s assistants who helped him produce the murals in 1932 and 1933. Another is the DIA gardener, two are Ford employees. The two figures with unknown identities look Latino. At least the other mystery Latino has a job title: “Ford engineer.”

It’s family lore that my grandfather, along with his brothers Francisco and Jose Martinez, would hop on a trolley in their Corktown neighborhood and trek to the art museum to see Rivera work.

The Martinez brothers had time to watch the artist for a bleak reason: it was the Great Depression. Detroit, a factory boomtown in the early 20th century, had gone bust in a major way. The city’s jobless rate was 50 percent. Two-thirds of the city were living in poverty. Tens of thousands would occasionally march in street protests against the government and automakers like Ford, demanding jobs and aid.

Luckily, the Martinez brothers managed to keep their railroad jobs, albeit at greatly reduced hours, during the Depression.

Rivera and his wife, a then-unknown Frida Kahlo, arrived in Detroit at the height of his fame. The Mexican muralist had gained international acclaim for celebrating the common worker in realistic murals and paintings.

Rivera was commissioned by the billionaire Edsel Ford, heir to Ford Motor Co., to create a mural at the DIA based on the development of industry in the region. Rivera’s $10,000 fee was what the average worker earned in 10 years.

The north wall of the Diego Rivera frescos at Rivera Court inside the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit, March 20, 2018. The man in the white fedora is the only unidentified person in the fresco. (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)

Rivera and Kahlo were also avowed Marxists, though, at that time of his Detroit stay, Rivera had been expelled from the Mexican Communist Party for several years. In Detroit, the couple always welcomed any working class visitors to the DIA, recalls my mother and aunt.

Kahlo would sometimes offer the Martinez brothers tamales and Coca Colas. Rivera would show them the elaborate process of producing a fresco mural.

But soon the vast expanse between blue-collar men and a superstar art couple became clear.

Rivera and Kahlo loved to use the word revolution, according to family lore. The Martinez brothers had fled Mexico to escape the hellish revolution there years earlier; their sister was raped by a soldier.

Rivera and Kahlo could praise socialist ideals, but for most working class people in Detroit, the slightest hint of being associated with communists would mean losing your job and being beaten by corporate goons. Even worse for my grandfather and his brothers, it could mean being deported, despite the fact they were in the United States legally.

Detroit’s Mexican population was around 15,000 before the Great Depression erupted in 1929. By the end of it a decade later, fewer than 2,000 Mexicans remained in Detroit, according to Zaragosa Vargas, a historian at the University of North Carolina who studies U.S Latino history.

At some point, Rivera began to urge some Mexicans in Detroit to return to Mexico to form worker collectives. Depression-wracked Detroit was the best opportunity my grandfather and his brothers ever had. Their children, including their daughters, could attend public schools with whites. They didn’t live in a boxcar, as they were forced to do in Texas years earlier, but had a home with electricity and indoor plumbing.

My grandfather, according to family lore, explained to the artists that they must part ways. “You are amazing, but you are troublemakers,” he apparently told them.

Rivera and Kahlo erupted in laughter, and hugged and kissed the men goodbye.

I sometimes daydream of that conversation when I look at “unknown figure” in the Detroit Industry mural.

The truth is he looks like many Latino grandfathers and uncles.

Let every Latino who had family in Detroit around 1932 and 1933 declare him as their own. The more who make the claim, the more it helps destroy the myth that Latinos don’t have deep roots in this city. And I hope their own personal Diego and Frida story is as priceless as my family’s.

Louis Aguilar is a staff writer for The Detroit News. You can reach him at laguilar@detroitnews.com.