Profile: Vito Valdez
by Richard Baron
Posted on February 2, 2005
Vito Valdez grew up in Detroit and El Paso, moving back and forth between America’s borders. “I’m a bordertown kid,” he says, “bordertown barrio, really.
“My dad was a migrant. He was born in Texas but he went to work in the factories of Detroit because the work down here was minimum wage or less, and there was big money up there because of the unions. Through the eyes of this little Chicano kid, that’s what I saw. My family, my cousins and uncles, they all came up to Michigan to work too, to work in the farms and the factories. Later on, I worked at the Fleetwood plant. That’s where my dad worked, and I was making the Cadillac until they shut the plant down. I saw the last Fleetwood go off the line in Detroit, in maybe ‘87.
“When I was about six, my mom and dad split up because my dad was a heavy drinker, and my brother and sister and I moved here with my mom, but then my dad came down here to reconcile, and we moved back, and that’s the way that went. We moved back and forth a lot, a carload of kids.
“The migration I saw; the fact that my family would cross the United States to find work, and when they’d go north, they brought kilos in their trucks. El Paso to Detroit was a natural route, it was good money, and I latched onto that for a while, but then I felt I had to rise above it because most of my friends and a lot of my family, they’re either dead or they’re in prison, or they’re gone, their mind is gone. Alcohol and drugs, I delved in that for a time, but I’m an educator now, I’m a role model, I’m a mentor to a lot of street kids, and I say that they can rise above that. They can do things with their eyes and they can write, they can do music, they can dance, they can do visual arts. They can do it because I’m doing it.
“As a kid we had to go to Mass every day before class, we had to sit in the pews, and I would daydream and look up at the stained glass and the architecture, the Gothic arches and all that, and I’d wonder how they did that, way up there. That’s the earliest that I thought about art, but it was when I went into the Army that I got into it. I was drafted. I was an anti-war, long-haired hippie protester, but they got me, and I had to choose between the army or crossing the border and living in Canada, so I went in. I didn’t go to Vietnam because it was 1972 and the war ended. I was a conscientious objector. I wrote a ten-page essay on why I was a pacifist, and I backed it up with the Church, so they stationed me at Fort Campbell, Kentucky where I was a surgical technician. I learned how to work on minor surgical jobs, but I had time on my hands, so after my gig, I’d go back to my bunk and I’d read and I’d paint and I’d draw
“I got married before I got drafted, so when I got out, we were living in Detroit, and I went to work at the VA hospital. The plan was that I would be an OR tech, but art got a hold of me, and I tried to convince my wife that I should go to art school, but she asked why didn’t I just draw and do my art on Sundays? I looked at her and said, ‘You don’t know me,’ and that was the beginning of the end for us.
“I enrolled at the Center for Creative Studies and I excelled in my thinking; I made good grades in art history. I went to school for about two years, but then I dropped out because it was too hard to deal with life – working and my wife, the divorce, da da da, so I quit school, and I started to do art on my own, and I started to sell and show my work. I moved to Montreal and I lived there for about two and a half years, and then I went on to Europe. I had a residency in Belgium for about three months, and then I went back to Montreal, but my girlfriend had gotten her MFA in photography, and she got a job teaching in the art department at UTEP, just coincidentally, so we moved to El Paso. I did some exhibitions here but then I split up with my girlfriend and I went back to Detroit and got into teaching.
“I wrote some grants, and I got the commission to do restoration work on an old mural by the bridge to Windsor, in Canada. It took a year and a half to do. It’s called ‘The Cornfield,’ and that launched my career there. From then on, I was teaching and doing more community art, and I was hired at the Detroit Institute of Art. From then, I worked on the Southwest side of Detroit where I’m an activist and spokesperson for the Latinos.
“It’s known as Mexican Town and it’s right across the bridge to Canada. When people cross the bridge from Canada to the United States, the first thing they see is Mexican Town. It’s a border barrio, like here.
“We do street art, abstract hip hop, funk. It’s got that streetwise, urbanized influence. We turn empty lots into site-specific installations, and we deal with gripes, like gritos. Michigan is like Michoacan – it’s this great land that’s now so polluted.
“I made a big fish of out scrap wood and aluminum just north of the Ambassador Bridge. It’s about 50 feet long and 12 feet tall, and it’s built up on a mound of stone and gravel. It represents the indigenous tribes that used to fish and hunt in the Great Lakes, but they’re all gone now.
“I work with found objects, scrap, whatever’s out there. Making art is like living, like breathing. I put as much passion into art as I put into bike riding or sex; the passion to live, to get strong and work hard. I scrape and I push and I pull. I cut it up and screw it down, take the paint off and paint it again. It’s passion; my art is a part of my blood.
“My folks are here, and I still go back and forth. I would love to do something down here on this border, recycle junk that’s out here into art, but what I really want is to work on an exchange show between the artists on the border up there and the artists on the border down here.
“I would like to come back and get a piece of land somewhere around here, or across the border, an adobe studio that could be open for other artists to come in and work and exchange ideas, visions, and I could live here part time, when it’s cold up there, and keep a link with the brothers.”
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Richard Baron is writer and photographer living in El Paso.
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