85 years of Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry Murals

In March, Louis Aguilar, a staff writer from the Detroit News, published a touching article about the DIA's Detroit Industry murals by Diego Rivera: what they mean for his family and for the entire Latino community in Detroit. At the center of the murals on the north wall, he describes one of the figures, identified in books as "unknown man" or "Detroit acquaintance of Rivera," as a man whose "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."

Aguilar offers a theory, based on family lore, that this man is his grandfather, Antonio Martínez. The latter had two brothers, Francisco and José. During the Great Depression, the siblings were able to keep part-time jobs and had the opportunity to visit with Diego and Frida, who welcomed any working-class visitors to the DIA while he was painting the murals. The reporter illustrates his piece with a photo of him posing proudly in front of his possible ancestor. This powerful image shows how a museum can connect meaningfully with its community. Aguilar's theory may not be true, but as he states in his article, any Latino can see themselves represented in the image of the unknown man, emphasizing the idea that the Latinos have deeps roots in the city, its history and successes.

When I speak about the Rivera murals, I always underscore that they are important for at least two reasons. First, because Rivera considered this work one of his masterpieces and he did it at the height of his powers. I like to refer to our murals as the Sistine Chapel of Detroit, since Rivera admired the great works by Michelangelo, had visited the Vatican and mastered the Italian fresco technique of painting - the one he used in his murals. Second, I call attention to fact that Rivera represents the creation of the automotive industry; an industry that changed the way we thought about the world. And I like to offer the idea that future generations will consider Detroit in the same way we consider cities from around the world such as Rome, Paris, or New York that have significantly influenced the history of humankind.

Aguilar's article got me thinking and like almost every day, I walked into Rivera Court and stopped in front of the murals. I looked at the man with the "cinnamon skin" and connected. I am Hispanic. In those magnificent murals I found individuals from almost all corners of the world. Rivera represented them hard at work, here in Detroit, building the industry, forging life, human bonds and community. It reminded me how these murals are an ode to the peoples of the world coming together to create with their hands the foundations of a hopeful future and a better society. Rivera elevated those individuals whose stories are told through his colorful and powerful brushwork, reminding us that regardless of our origins we all are equal and part of each other's history. This April, we celebrate 85 years since the completion of the murals, a national historical landmark, and a good place to return to our roots, at the heart of our town square.

Categories:  From The Director