Mazatlán’s Banda Plaza

Ernesto Rios Rocha and Mazatlán’s mayor Benítez Torres

The mayor, El Químico Benítez, has been planning a Plaza de la Banda for Mazatlán, inspired in Guadalajara’s Plaza del Mariachi and Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi. Those plans were put on hold during the COVID pandemic, but activity seems to have resumed in recent weeks.

While nothing is yet firm, locations discussed for the plaza include the empty lot in front of the aquarium, where buses and tourists now park, as well as possibly building an extension of the malecón out into the ocean. 

When I recently saw an incredibly Instagram-friendly projection of a five-meter-tall public artwork intended for the new plaza, El Pedro Infante Besador (Kissing Pedro Infante), I was motivated to interview the artist. He is one of the best muralists in Mexico today, widely exhibited internationally, and a native-born Sinaloense from Mocorito (1968): Ernesto Rios Rocha. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Maestro Rios told me that in 2019 the mayor called to request him to draw up the initial plans for the plaza. He worked on them for four months, and the plans he presented included kinetic sculptures with illumination and music. One of them was the Pedro Infante, and another a sculpture of Don Cruz Lizárraga with a 30 meter tuba!

Ernesto Rios is the artist who spent three years (2008-2011) living in Mazatlán, and with a crew of 28 built the Guinness-record-holding large mural on the outside wall of the convention center. He and his helpers also painted the striking figurative-surrealist murals inside. He has works displayed in the national palace in Mexico City and was commissioned for AMLO’s presidential portrait.

Maestro Ernesto is quite a Renaissance man: he paints, sculpts and composes music. He studied with the Fridos, those well-respected students of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo: Arturo García Bustos, Rina Lazo and Enrique Estrada. He has campaigned for the past five years or so for the opening of a School of Muralism and Monumental Art in Mexico City. Such an endeavor sounds smart to me; Mexico is so well known for its tradition and artists in that vein.

During my interview Rios Rocha made two main points that he’d love for me to share with our readers:

  1. Murals need maintenance every five to seven years. Properly cleaning them will double their lifespan. He urges everyone in Mazatlán and Sinaloa to campaign to have Mazatlán’s convention center mural properly cleaned and restored.
  2. There is a beautiful Byzantine-style mural by the artist Rolando Arjona Amabilis (the same artist who made Mazatlán’s escudo in Olas Altas) in Culiacan’s Parque Constitución, on Obregón Street, that is badly in need of restoration. This is a valuable piece of art and heritage that he strongly urges us to preserve.

Street Art Tour in Concordia

Happy Valentine’s Day, dear readers, Feliz Día del Amor y la Amistad. Thank you for being here. Thank you for being part of this community, for helping do good work here in Mazatlán, for enjoying the beauty and the people of our adopted city, for encouraging my photography and my writing.

Today I am joined in wishing you happiness by Chema—José Manuel Velarde Chávez, of Concordia; his wife Claudia Belén; and their son Angel Adán. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Chema is a graphic designer. By day he works in Mesillas on CAD programs on a computer, designing furniture and sizing parts so that the carpenters can do their magic. In the early mornings and evenings, however, Chema loves to draw and paint. He wakes up before dawn, turns on some music, and paints in his patio while the rest of the family slumbers.

A couple of years ago he decided he wanted to spruce up the street where he lives. His wife’s family owns most of the two block street, so he asked his in-laws for permission to paint murals on the alley walls.

The first mural he painted was on a door that no one uses anymore. He painted a charro or Mexican cowboy kissing a pretty lady in 2018. “Aw, you painted it for your wife,” I asked. Chuckling, he quickly caught on and said, “yes, yes, that’s right!”

In 2019 Chema added a catrina for Day of the Dead: she happily dances with the all-too-true caption, “In Mexico death is living culture.” This is a link to him painting the catrina.

After those two wall murals, Chema painted a window with some flower pots, then the wings that every town now seems to have to have for Instagram photo ops, his version of Frida (faceless, as he reminds me “her eyebrows are her distinctive trait”), and my personal favorite, a gorgeously colorful xolo or xoloitzcuintli dog, the intelligent, hairless pets of the Aztecs.

The family lives on the now very picturesque Callejón Nana Chon— Encarnación Valdéz Avenue, in this beautiful historic mining town called Concordia.

Chema tells me that he and Claudia have been pleasantly surprised at the response to his artwork, and the fact that it appears to be contagious. Residents of another nearby street have now painted and installed benches, and he’s thinking they are planning to paint murals as well. He hopes that the street art might provide another attraction for the busloads of tourists who visit here to tour the church and enjoy a raspado (shaved ice) in the plaza.

The couple and their family decorated the callejón or alleyway at Christmastime. Chema tells me that neighbors and townspeople came over to donate decorations they had to add to the display, so it became a real community effort. When we visited last week the alley was all decked out in Valentine’s finery. They even light it up at night for lovers to enjoy—evidently the callejón is known as lover’s lane! Soon they will be putting up superheroes in preparation for Día del Niño or Children’s Day.

The most challenging aspect of his voluntary beautification project? Finding the time to paint. He works 8-6 every day, till 1 on Saturdays. When he comes home he’s tired. In the winter the sun sets early, and he can’t paint in the dark. But he loves painting the murals in any spare time he can find, and Angel Adán loves watching him do it.

When we visited Chema had a Quetzalcoatl plumed serpent (which he’d drawn to resemble a dragon) ready to begin painting on Sunday. After that he hopes to paint a totem of the busts of three Aztec warriors: a jaguar, an eagle and a woman. I know I can’t wait to see either of these newest paintings! He is also planning a homage to Concordian musicians, including Greg’s favorite, Roberto Junior (“El Coco No”).

On Sundays Chema and his family open a “bazaar” or art market in the alleyway, where they sell handicrafts including painted roof tiles. He has painted since he was 15 years old; he loves it. As a young child he drew. He remembers his father loved to draw, and when he entered elementary school, his Dad bought him a set of colored pencils. It was his favorite gift ever.

I met Chema because my ahijado, Carlos, shared with me photos of Chema’s very colorful Mexican-themed street art, and I then got in touch with him in hopes of watching him paint. I invited Greg to join me for a ride to the mountains for the afternoon, and we found our spirits soaring from meeting a lovely young family so committed to spreading good cheer in Concordia and beyond. I trust you might join us in heading up to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Nana Chon
Who is the alley named after? Quite an incredible woman, actually. You can see a statue of her in front of the town hall on the plaza. Incarnación (“Chon” for short) Valdez was the town midwife, a strong, wise woman who singlehandedly stood up to the French army. You see, the French had their eyes on the gold that came out of the mines in Concordia and Copala. The men and older boys of both towns banded together in an effort to defeat French colonization of this area. The women and children remained in town, unprotected. When the French army arrived, they herded the local population into the homes along this street and threatened to harm the women and children unless they told the army where the men and boys were. Nana Chon stood up to them, encouraging everyone to remain silent. Her bravado gave them hope. Fortunately, I am told, the women and children were not killed or harmed, the location where the men lay in wait for the army was kept secret, and the Sinaloans were able to defeat the French.

Concordia is an excellent day trip from Mazatlán, just one hour southeast. The church and plaza are gorgeous, El Granero restaurant is delicious and was very careful about observing sanitary protocols during the pandemic, and you’ll enjoy walking around the quaint streets and visiting with the friendly residents. Chema paints portraits and would welcome work for hire; you can contact him through his Facebook page.