José B. Cisneros, Tejano book illustrator, artist, and historian in El Paso, was born in Villa Ocampo (formerly known as San Miguel de las Bocas), in the northern part of the state of Durango, Mexico, to Fernando Cisneros and Juanita (Barragán) Cisneros, on April 18, 1910, during a time of national turmoil. Before the Mexican Revolution affected the northern part of Mexico, Fernando Cisneros worked for the railroad to support his middle-class family. At the time of José’s birth and infancy, Fernando worked primarily as a carpenter but also part-time as a barber, a blacksmith, and a musician. The family owned a home and about twenty-seven acres, all surrounded by a high adobe wall. Cisneros began drawing pictures at just a few years of age. His father had a small library and enjoyed reading as well as discussing politics with his neighbors.
Late in 1917, the Mexican Revolution impacted the northern part of Mexico, including Villa Ocampo. Gen. Francisco Murguía had his government troops drive everyone out of the village because many of the villagers were thought to support the revolution. Houses were looted as the villagers were expelled from the town. The Cisneros family and their neighbors were forced to flee, and they were able to take little, if anything, with them beyond the clothes they were wearing. The family walked to Parral, a city that they considered to be safe. Just before they had been driven out of Villa Ocampo, one of José’s twin infant brothers died; the other twin perished during their journey. Eventually the Cisneros family settled in Estación Dorado, in the state of Chihuaha, in a vacant house that belonged to one of Fernando’s brothers.
By 1921, through self-study and with some assistance from his father, Cisneros learned to read. When one of José’s uncles visited, he was impressed with the youngster’s accomplishment. The uncle took José with him to Valle de Allende, where he began in kindergarten, but within a few days the school’s principal promoted the boy to the second grade. Cisneros lived with his uncle for four years and progressed to the fifth grade. His favorite subject was history. The director (principal) of the school, Professor Don Manuel Villaraus, lectured on Mexican history three times a week in José’s class. At twelve years of age, Cisneros made his first drawing of a horseman for Villaraus; the work showed a tremendous amount of talent for an artist of any age. In a thoughtful gesture, the professor signed the drawing and returned it to José.
Cisneros’s family lived in the house in Estación Dorado until 1925, when José’s older half-brothers assisted Fernando’s family in moving to the border city of Juarez. About that time, José rejoined his family. In Juarez, Cisneros obtained a school passport and became a student at the Lydia Patterson Institute in El Paso, where he studied various subjects but primarily English. There he swept the halls and classrooms in exchange for part of his tuition. He also delivered newspapers in the mornings and in the evenings. The international bridge closed at midnight, so sometimes when José had to work late, he slept on the streets of the south side of El Paso. Even with this work schedule, he was able to make excellent grades.
In 1927 Cisneros quit school and took a full-time job to help support his family. He worked for the Canton Grocery Store on South El Paso Street and delivered groceries for just five dollars a week. The following year, he obtained a job at the White House, an El Paso department store. He maintained the store’s display windows and soon noticed that the used sign cards from the display windows were being discarded. He later said, “I would collect the old cards, because they were good on the other side. That’s how I began my practice of drawing on posterboard.” Cisneros developed a technique for utilizing the cards in a creative, artistic way. He used a pen to cut through the cards’ clay coating while making some lines. Then he used a wet finger or rag to rub some of the surface area. The process produced a kind of halftone, or etching, effect that was very pleasing to the eye. (Much later, Cisneros discovered a material known as “scratchboard” that was manufactured for that specific purpose.)
He avidly collected magazines and newspapers and studied their illustrations. While still quite young, Cisneros submitted drawings to several magazines in Mexico, and some of them were published. Though the magazines paid him nothing, he was thrilled at seeing his drawings published. In the mid-1930s, when Cisneros was in his mid-twenties, he again submitted his work to some of the Mexico City magazines. In March 1936 a weekly magazine out of Mexico City, Revista de Revistas, published one of his pictures on its cover. About the same time, a monthly magazine, Vida Mexicana, printed one of his watercolors on the front of an issue. Another publication, Todo, published four of his pictures on an inside page, along with a photograph of the artist. Soon a Juarez magazine, El León Juarense, began publishing his art along with some of his writings, giving Cisneros exposure that was quite beneficial. The El Paso publishers of The Mexico Magazine, a bilingual publication, printed some of his artwork, and they paid him a few dollars for each drawing. Cisneros joined El Ateneo Fronterizo, a club of artists and writers, in Juarez, where his fame was growing.
In 1937 Cisneros observed Tom Lea, an established El Paso artist, painting a mural on a wall of a public building, the El Paso County federal courthouse. He visited the building several times to watch Lea’s progress and process. Then one day Cisneros brought a few of his drawings to the courthouse and asked Lea to look at them and critique them. Lea later recalled:
The first sight I had of him was when I was working on a mural in the El Paso County Courthouse…up on the scaffolding when I noticed a kid just looking, staying there, watching me. When so many people got to staring, I made wonderful wisecracks. It’s hard to paint under those circumstances. So I said, “Can I do something for you?” He said, “My English is not good. I’d like to show you these,” very modestly.
Lea was so struck by the quality of the drawings that he immediately wrote a note to Mrs. Maud Durlin Sullivan, the head librarian of the El Paso Public Library, and praised Cisneros’s artwork. Lea suggested that she could exhibit some of José’s drawings at the library. Sullivan did invite Cisneros to exhibit his drawings for a week in March 1938. The display was so popular that the duration of the exhibit was extended to two weeks, and subsequently the exhibit was displayed in the nearby city of Juarez. Lea has said of Cisneros, “His conquistadores are magnificent.” Decades after Tom Lea met Cisneros, he wrote him a letter that said, in part, “I think that in the goodness of your heart you have always given me far too much credit for starting you on the path you would inevitably find; it was the sheer character and quality of your work itself, and certainly no action of mine that set your feet upon the rock.”
Lea also introduced Cisneros to Carl Hertzog, El Paso’s world-class printer, book designer, publisher, and typographer. Hertzog was also impressed with José’s drawings, and he began calling upon him to do illustrations for books (and other printing projects). In addition to books, Cisneros illustrated bookplates, certificates, Christmas cards, calendars, programs, newspapers, and other items. He designed the coat of arms for Ciudad Juarez. He designed the seal for Texas Western College, and when that institution became the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), he modified and updated the seal.
During the late 1930s, Cisneros continued to work at the White House department store while studying and drawing at home in the evenings. His father died in 1939, and he assumed responsibility for his mother’s welfare.
In 1939 Cisneros married Vicenta Madero. Over the years they raised five daughters and one niece. Since José was colorblind, Vicenta often advised him on what colors to use on a drawing; she also labeled his colored pencils so that he could use the correct colors for his works. At one point, he confided to Tom Lea that he had been born colorblind. Lea thought about the matter a moment, and then he told José not to worry, because in his hands he held a world in black and white.
Early in the 1940s, Cisneros took a course in working with sheet metal for airplane fabrication. He had a job waiting for him in California, but because his mother and Vicenta were reluctant to leave El Paso, he remained there. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Cisneros quit his job at the White House department store and volunteered for military service, but he was classified 4-F. He was subsequently hired by El Paso City Lines, a bus and streetcar company, which was in a defense-related business. He spray-painted buses and streetcars. In addition to his regular duties, Cisneros took on a special project—he decorated the international streetcars with colorful paintings of the flags of states along the United States-Mexico border.
Several of the artists that Cisneros looked to for inspiration were Argentinian artist Alejandro Sirio, Mexican artist Ernesto García Cabral, American artists Norman Rockwell and Howard Pyle, as well as French artist Gustave Doré. Cisneros taught himself calligraphy, and one critic once commented that José’s was the most beautiful calligraphy in America. Cisneros painted just one mural—a scene on the plaster garden wall of a good friend. His ventures into other art forms included stained-glass windows and wood carvings—things that he did as gifts to churches—and carving plaster masters for the molding of bronze plaques.
Cisneros collaborated with master printer Carl Hertzog on many projects throughout the years. One of the first of several especially prestigious projects was Everette DeGolyer’s Across Aboriginal America: The Journey of Three Englishmen Across Texas in 1568 (1947). The first book that Cisneros illustrated that did not have a Hispanic-related subject was also a Hertzog project, The Red River Valley, Then and Now (1948). Hertzog and Cisneros drove to Paris, Texas, to attend a big event that launched the book, and they visited with literary people in Dallas on the car trip back to El Paso. Cisneros was so well received in Dallas that he later said it was the first time that he had ever felt important. The following year, Hertzog and Cisneros worked together on Cleve Hallenbeck’s The Journey of Fray Marcos de Niza (1949), which was named one of the fifty most handsomely printed books of the year by the American Institute of Graphic Arts. That book also won Cisneros’s first individual award for the Best Illustration by a Texas Artist, an award given jointly by the Texas Institute of Letters and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. One of José’s own books, Riders of the Borderlands, published in 1981, was designed by Hertzog. Cisneros became the unofficial “house illustrator” for Texas Western Press.
In 1948 Cisneros became a naturalized citizen of the United States. That same year, at Hertzog’s request, he illustrated a series of newspaper ads for the State National Bank of El Paso. The series, “Signposts of Early El Paso,” portrayed many interesting facts from El Paso’s colorful history.
In the 1950s Texas Attorney General Will Wilson was fighting a battle in the courts over the state’s tidelands, and the oil beneath them (see TIDELANDS CONTROVERSY). At Wilson’s request, Cisneros drew illustrations for a twelve-part series that depicted some of the numerous boundary disputes in history that had defined the state’s boundaries. The ads containing José’s drawings were published in newspapers around the state.
Southwestern historian Marc Simmons commented, “José Cisneros is without question the leading historical illustrator of the Southwest.” Paul Rossi, formerly a director of the Gilcrease Institute of American Art and History, described Cisneros as “the leading authority in the country concerning the many varied horsemen of Spanish American history and horsemen of our own Southwest.” In a 2006 article in Texas Monthly, writer Gary Cartwright praised Cisneros’s drawings, “The level of period detail in these depictions is breathtaking.” Eventually, José began drawing a lot of book illustrations for some of the New York publishers such as Random House and Alfred A. Knopf.
In 1969 Cisneros was named a recipient of the Paisano Fellowship, which consists of a six-month stay at the late J. Frank Dobie’s ranch southwest of Austin, along with a monthly stipend to cover living expenses. Cisneros used his time wisely to immerse himself in his Riders of the Borderlands project. He was the first artist to receive the coveted fellowship. An exhibit of those drawings was soon presented at the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio, the Humanities Research Center in Austin, and the Palace of the Governors Museum in Santa Fe, as well as other venues in New Mexico, Arizona, California, Texas, and Mexico. After the Paisano retreat and the traveling exhibit, Cisneros redoubled his efforts. He routinely turned out an “astonishing” volume of work. He emerged from his stay at Paisano as the most productive recipient of the fellowship. In 1973 he took early retirement from the transportation company.
Cisneros was selected by western bibliophile Jeff Dykes for his reference book Fifty Great Western Illustrators (1975). Dykes cataloged almost 200 books that Cisneros illustrated, yet the reference was published in 1975, when Cisneros still had decades of work in his future.
Cisneros received many awards. Ironically, when Cisneros was chosen to be inducted into the El Paso County Historical Society’s Hall of Honor in 1974, the certificate that was presented to him was one that he had designed himself. Cisneros was honored by the city of San Antonio as Honorary Jefe Politico of Bexar County in 1974, and on another occasion he was honored by that city as Emisario de las Musas. The League of United Latin American Citizens presented him their Award of Merit; he was an honorary member of the Tigua Indian tribe. He was presented the Americanism Award by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) in 1979. The National Cowboy Hall of Fame presented Cisneros the Outstanding Western Book Award for Riders Across the Centuries (1984) in 1985. He was honored with an exhibit of his drawings at the Texas State Capitol in 1987. In 1990 Pope John Paul II bestowed knighthood on Cisneros in the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. In 1991 he was knighted by Juan Carlos, King of Spain, and in 1998 he received the Medalla de la Universidad de Alcalá de Henares in Alcalá, Spain. He was the first recipient who was not a resident of Spain to receive the award. He was presented with the Owen Wister Award from Western Writers of America in 1997, and Westerners International proclaimed him a “Living Legend” in 1998. In 2000 he received the American Cowboy Culture Award. He was presented the National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush on April 22, 2002.
Cisneros’s wife Vicenta died in 1994. Sometime afterward, Cisneros visited Spain and spent many hours visiting museums and art galleries. Later he returned to Spain and brought his daughters. Late in life, he lost most of his eyesight and much of his hearing.
José Cisneros was a devout Catholic and usually went to Mass on a daily basis. By early November 2009, he had become very frail and was admitted to a foster-care home in El Paso. On Friday, November 13, with his family present, he received his last sacraments. His daughter Patricia said, “We all told him we loved him and kissed him good-bye.” Cisneros died of natural causes on Saturday morning, November 14, 2009, at ninety-nine years of age. He once said, “I’ll die with my pen on the paper.” The funeral Mass was conducted on November 18, 2009, at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, and burial took place at Mount Carmel Cemetery in El Paso.
Characterized by historians and writers as modest, humble, even painfully shy, José Cisneros also had a good sense of humor; many of his illustrations that show obviously healthy horsemen and muscular well-fed horses, also inconspicuously include a small scrawny dog trotting along behind the horse. One hundred of Cisneros’s horsemen illustrations are in a permanent collection on the fourth floor of the library at the University of Texas at El Paso. One day Cisneros happened to be in the hallway, and a student recognized him. The young man asked the elderly artist, “How long did it take you to make all those drawings?” Cisneros replied, “All my life.”