By Carlos Morales
Marfa is known as an art destination for a lot of people, but there’s a different kind of art exhibit opening this weekend as part of the Blackwell School Alliance’s second annual block party.
At a dozen locations around the city, you’ll spot 15 photos. Mostly black-and-white pictures, showing the day-to-day life of kids who went to Blackwell, Marfa’s once segregated school for Mexican-American children.
Outside the Chinati pool, there are two giant photographs covering up most of the pool’s outside wall. Not far from there, posted to one of Blackwell’s aging facades: a black and white photo of kids at recess, crowding a metallic slide. In front of the Palace Movie Theater is another black-and-white photo — and that’s where I find Alice Hernandez Rivera.
When she was a kid growing up in Marfa in the 1950s, Rivera didn’t go out much. had her chores and she stuck to them. But on weekends there were times when she and her mom would get out.
“Me gustaba venir mucho a las vistas,” says Rivera.
She says she liked going to the movies. But the theater in Marfa — like the Blackwell School where she attended elementary and middle school — was segregated.
“No nos dejaban que nos sentar arriba,” says Rivera. “No mas los americanos.”
When Rivera would come to the Palace movie theater, she says she and other Latinos weren’t welcome to sit in the balcony. Although sometimes others were able to get up there, she never tried. She was worried she’d get run out of the theater.
“Yo tenía mucho miedo que nos corrieron de las vistas,” says Rivera. “They could do that, but nunca lo hicieron.”
She was worried she’d get run out of the theater. It never happened, but in the back of her mind, it was always a possibility. Today though, in front of the old theater, instead of worrying about being kicked out, Rivera — or at least an image of her — will be here for the next year.
“Tiene unos retratos de las basketball girls que estoy incluida yo. Mi y mis friends,” says Rivera, looking up at the black-and-white photo.
The picture plastered to the theater’s outside wall shows Rivera with her teammates and coach. They’re sitting in a semi-circle, all dressed in their Blackwell Broncos uniforms. Matching socks, and silk tops and shorts.
“I was real surprised que los pusieron y que los tienen, says Rivera of the photos.
She was surprised someone even had a copy of the photo. She says, at 76 years old, she didn’t remember if she was actually in the picture. And she didn’t even have a copy herself. But she smiles when she sees it and says she can’t wait for the other women in the picture to come back and visit — so they can see the photo for themselves.
“Yo quiero que la otra gente que venga de afuera del pueblo, que estuvieron de aquí, que los miren.”
Mark Menjivar teaches at Texas State University. He’s been working with the arts and education group Borderland Collective to set up the photos across Marfa. It’s a public arts project meant to celebrate and preserve the history of the Blackwell School.
“I think a lot of times people come out to Marfa and, you know, they do engage with the incredible artwork that is there, but we don’t often think about the generation that came before,” says Menjivar.
Menjivar is working with Borderland Collective co-founder Jason Reed. Reed grew up in West Texas and remembers coming through Marfa as a kid. Later as an adult, he remembers reading about Marfa’s segregated past.
“I’ve heard the story of the burying of Mr. Spanish,” says Reed.
Blackwell students weren’t allowed to speak Spanish while at school. And there was even a ceremony, a sort of mock funeral, for the students’ native language.
“And so I knew about the Blackwell School and I knew about those kinds of narratives of the community, which are narratives that are true in a lot of the small towns in West Texas.”
Borderland Collective was tapped for the project by the Blackwell School Alliance, a local nonprofit aimed at preserving the school’s history. Along with the photos they’ve set up, there are also QR codes. Scan them and you’ll hear oral histories with alum. The group is also putting out a newspaper which will have more archival images of the students and the school.
There, you’ll find Alice Rivera’s picture — the one of the basketball team. She says when she looks at it, she doesn’t think of segregation. She thinks about playing their rivals and making a game-winning shot.
“Yo no se como lo hice, ni nada. Yo tire ese long shot porque vas a caber el juego, cayó la bola y ganamos!
Playing basketball with her friends, running around during recess at Blackwell and swimming at the pool. They’re memories Rivera — and other members of Marfa’s Latino community — recall vividly. Now, they’re on display for others to experience too.