Denver’s first Chicano muralist found his passion in prison

COLORADO (KDVR) — Using a brush to bring a vision to life is as natural as breathing to Emanuel Martinez.

Performing his passion hasn’t always come easy. As a 13-year-old Chicano in the 1950s living in Denver, Martinez found himself on the wrong side of the law and behind bars at a juvenile detention center.

One day, he stole matchsticks from the common area and snuck them back to his cell.

He recognized his talent and took what materials he could and drew some more. It was a profound discovery.

Then at 15, he was recruited to an art apprenticeship for at-risk youth. Martinez credits his boss Bill Longly with saving his life and heavily influencing what was next.

“He got me into the civil rights movement,” Martinez said. “He was very progressive, very political.”

The burgeoning muralist, sculptor, and painter added activist to his title. Martinez joined prominent leaders like Corky Gonzalez in protest and created works like the farmworkers’ altar for labor leader Cesar Chavez.

When he lived in the projects in west Denver, he was eager to cover walls where he could. Like his time behind bars, Martinez once again found himself breaking the rules to express himself.

“They considered me defacing the wall by painting a beautiful mural on a place that looked like a prison,” Martinez said.

He was almost evicted, but the city allowed the work, and Martinez eventually became Denver’s first muralist. He used the medium to share what he saw as the overlooked yet significant contribution of Chicanos and Latinos to the mile-high city and the injustices they faced. They were often located in lower-income neighborhoods.

“Since they don’t go to art galleries and art museums, you got to take art to the people,” he said.

Some of the murals that still exist today are undergoing detailed preservation work as part of a broader effort to preserve Chicano murals in Colorado.

Over the last six decades, Martinez has earned a reputation as a decorated artist who depicts the spirit and struggle of his people. Some of his pieces are part of the Smithsonian collection, and he has a spot in the Colorado Latino Hall of Fame.

Martinez is not done contributing to the fine arts but has achieved the pinnacle of life as an artist.

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