Mural History of the
Puerto Rican People

"The best things and best people
rise out of their separateness;
I'm against a homogenized society
because I want the cream to rise."

Robert Frost, American Poet

2009 update:

"Are Puerto Ricans US citizens?"

This question is one of the most popular net searches that brings visitors to this page. The answer is "YES". Puerto Ricans have been US citizens for almost one hundred years. As a matter of fact, Puerto Ricans had the unique distinction of being the only Spanish-speaking nation "forced" to become U.S. citizens without even leaving their beautiful island! To learn how it happened, click on the Writings link in the menu and read Part Two of the essay American Propaganda: Controlling Public Opinion in Puerto Rico. To see the mural inspired by this issue, keep reading this page. -jrr

Marzo del 2011:

Comentario para mis amigos en Puerto Rico. Favor de continuar hasta el final de la página para leer el comentario. -j

Summer 1986

Thanks to the combination of local grants and public funds, the city of Cleveland provided inner-city youth the opportunity to earn money during the summer hiatus. Under the supervision and guidance of trade professionals, a variety of community service projects were designed to develop good citizenship skills and work ethics among the youth. The programs not only kept kids off the streets by providing instruction and gainful employment, they also provided area non-profit agencies and community centers with badly needed help. In addition, college students and local artists were also recruited as instructors and supervisors. In every respect, this was the type of civic program that benefited everyone in the community.

During the spring of that year I was approached by my good friend Ana Sanchez (a very talented and dedicated youth social worker) to design a project for Hispanic students, ranging in ages from fourteen to seventeen. I was twenty seven at the time and not being particularly inclined to work with teenagers. But I agreed to get involved on the condition that, instead of working with students assigned to the project at random -as was the custom, I reserved the right to do the selection.

high school students learning from John Rivera-Resto Youth Shelters and Family Services provide a temporary refuge and security to homeless, runaway and young people in-crisis. They also address health, safety, education and workforce opportunities so they can achieve lifetime independence.

My main concern was not one of artistic skill, but rather, it was one of discipline. In my experience, nothing proves more chaotic and counter productive on a worksite than a group of unruly kids, and I have no patience for it. Ana worked the arrangement and, after reviewing about one hundred applicants from the Cleveland Public Schools, I selected a group of thirty students. Not one of them had ever painted before but they were smart and eager to learn and I was pleased with their enthusiasm.

All the students were of Puerto Rican heritage (Cleveland's largest Hispanic group in the 1970s, 80s and 90s) However, only two of the students had been born or raised in Puerto Rico. The rest of the group were third generation Puerto Rican-Americans; they had little or no knowledge of Puerto Rican history or how their parents and grand parents ended up living in the United States mainland. I soon realized that this "knowledge deficiency" was also endemic in the Hispanic community at large. The non-Hispanic community could not be expected to know better; all their information came from stereotypes reinforced by television and the media.

Finding a theme

I am a firm believer that the cultural diversity enriches and strengthens the fabric of a community. Not only does it make the world a more interesting place to live, it also makes the living more tolerant of others. But to define individual identity it is important to preserve cultural heritage. Individual identity and cultural heritage go hand in hand. Look for a person with a strong sense of self and you'll find an individual with strong cultural roots.

a press article about the project, by Rick Haase, West Side Sun Newspaper There was great coverage by the media. In the days before the internet, YouTube and social media, people read. Most reporters did an excellent job of working their stories in depth. The writing was more complex as were the questions asked. We had several smaller papers in addition to the Cleveland Plain Dealer (which also gave good coverage) such as the Sun Newspapers or the Cleveland Plain Press who followed the work progress and helped generate great public interest. By the time the project was finished, the public was beginning to associate my name with murals.

During our initial discussions, Ana and I had decided to take advantage of an empty wall at the Spanish American Committee building. The brick surface was not perfect, but it was available, it faced the street, and it could be made suitable for a mural painting. So we settled on turning this opportunity into our project. However, the subject matter for the mural was left to my discretion and, up to a couple of weeks into the program, I had no idea what to do about it.

a press article about the project, by Rick Haase, West Side Sun Newspaper John returned the following years to complete the mural. His friend and collaborator artist, Gabriel Céspedes, came along to assist with the final touches.

I began the program by teaching basic theory, doing demonstrations, and running the students through hand-training exercises. As I got to know the students, a common thread kept repeating in our conversations. Many of them (myself included) had been asked at one time or another about our 'green cards' (immigration permits). The fact that Puerto Ricans are the only Hispanic group "forced" to become citizens of the United States is not known by most Americans (or younger Puerto Ricans). Therefore, I decided to turn the issue of "how Puerto Ricans became United State citizens" into the central theme of our mural.

high school students learning from John Rivera-Resto The Plain Press article (Feb. 1987) was instrumental in describing the content of the mural in detail. When I returned to the site in the spring of 1987 to complete finishing touches, the mural had already become a tourist attraction.

Researching the history for the mural was quite a revelation for the students. Living in a society that defines individuals in terms of black and white has been a troubling concept for Puerto Ricans. Puerto Ricans come in every colour of the spectrum since we are descendants of three very distinct groups: the European, the Native American, and the African. Centuries of living in the confines of a secluded tropical island have distilled the best qualities of each group into what we are today, namely, the people of Puerto Rico. But when the ties to this cultural heritage become vague, individual identity also begins to fade.

Naturally, each person has a yearning to belong to a group, but, as in the case of the Puerto Rican people, we do not fit either the white or the black model. We fit only our own. This was precisely one of the key statements the mural was to communicate to the students creating the work, to the Hispanic community of Cleveland, to the general community at large, and to anyone who happens to see this painting in any form or shape, just as you are now seeing it through this page.

mural history of the puerto rican people before completion

The student's work was almost completed by the end of the summer. I returned the following year to complete the project. Notice Mr. Francisco Molina, Executive Director of the Spanish American Committee standing at the center of the mural.

The Mural

Murals are indeed the kings of visual arts. This is so because, like music, the language of images is universal. For example, regardless of ones language or culture an image of the moon will always remain the moon. It's that simple. Therefore, a group of images organized in a certain order, consequently, can communicate a message that can be read by anyone. Interpretations of the visual message may vary from culture to culture or even within sub-cultures, but people within a specific society will basically "read" AND understand "the message" because they share a common background and points of reference.

Organizing visual images into a clear and effective message is "the art" of a good narrative mural. This is the key to being a good muralist. Being a natural storyteller also helps. And, since public murals are accessible to the masses, murals have been throughout history a powerful tool of mass communication. This is why murals are the kings of visual arts.

mural history of the puerto rican people by John Rivera-Resto

In 2003 I began painting an updated version in preparation for redoing the mural professionally exactly as shown above.

During the summer months my group of dedicated young artists worked diligently on the project. I created the original 'cartoon' (working drawing) which they proceeded to transfer and fix to the wall. Our colour palette was limited to exterior grade water-base household paints with colour accents added in artist's acrylics. All the colours had been pre-mixed and canned by the students and the work progressed in an orderly and highly structured routine.

mural detail of Ramon Frade's painting -Our Daily Bread In the mural I give homage to Ramón Frade de León, a prominent Puerto Rican painter and architect (1874-1954) by including the iconic image of the Puerto Rican farmer from his painting titled "Our daily bread (El pan nuestro)." Don Ramón died on November 7, 1954 -the exact month and day of my birth four years later.

Paints, supplies and equipment were transported each morning to the site and stored again during the evening after the days' work was completed. Each student was responsible for a specific task and worked in groups of five. The wall was about fifteen feet high by fifty feet wide so each group could comfortably work on an assigned section, though not always painting at the same time. Still, thirty painters is a lot of artists for one mural so Ana and I assigned some of the groups to other chores, like, painting posters and signs for an upcoming community festival (I had taught sign-painting to the students at the beginning of the program). But all the students worked on the mural at one time or another and were extremely proud of each individual contribution.

image of how puerto ricans became us citizens The centerpiece of the mural is a teenager with his hands tied behind his back and the American flag draped over him. This is how Puerto Ricans became US citizens. The imagery is very effective because it tells the story at a glance. No words are needed.

Spring 1987

Cleveland weather can be highly unpredictable and rain was a big problem that year. As a result the mural project was not completed by the time the Youth Summer Job Program ended. The painting was about 90 percent completed, as seen in the above article from The Plain Press, a very popular community newspaper. Still, it was impressive and the story received a lot of coverage in the media. But I was dissatisfied with the unfinished work so the following spring I went on to complete it. My friend, artist Gabriel Céspedes came along to help with the finishing touches.

mural detail representing the discrimination Puerto Ricans faced in the United States of America This mural detail represents the discrimination Puerto Ricans faced in the US mainland and the resilience demonstrated by the generations that followed. I grew up in a land without racial discrimination. But I became a victim of it within months of my arrival to Cleveland in 1977. Seeking a job while in art school, an employment agency sent me to a printing company for a job consisting of feeding paper to a press. They loved my resume and showed me around. When the lady boss came to greet me, she noticed my accent and asked were I was from. Once I told her I was from Puerto Rico, she told me there had been a mistake and sent me away. As I left I overheard her scolding someone for bringing "spics" into her place.

Once finished, the mural became a focal point of the Cleveland Hispanic community and was favorably received by the non-Hispanic community as well, being counted among its most devoted fans. For over a decade there was not one single incident of graffiti. But as was to be expected, the mural began to deteriorate to the ravishes of time. By the late 1990's I had approached several administrations of the Spanish American Committee to restore the work. Funds from the Ohio Arts Council were available to cover the cost but no one took the initiative (I'm sorry, but I just don't get it).

image of the American Eagle feeding on the Puerto Rican lamb The symbol of the United States of America is the Eagle; the symbol of Puerto Rico is a lamb laying on the Gospel. In this image the meaning is clear: the eagle represents the army of shady investors, businessmen and speculators who came to feed on "the lamb" -their new colony, and continue to do so to this day.

In anticipation I had done new research for the project and prepared colour sketches. Since I intended to redo the work along professional lines, I would use sophisticated painting techniques, which are hallmarks of my work. When the mural was originally painted I had designed it to take into account the artistic level of the students. It was basically a paint-by-numbers affair. For its second incarnation I would maintain the exact composition but upgrade the painting style (as shown above). Unfortunately, this was not to be.

image of John Rivera-Resto as the Spanish conquistador and the native girl Running out of time and in need of a model, I did what many artists do meet deadlines: sit in front of a mirror and paint themself into the artwork. This image represents the union of Europeans, Native Americans and Africans in Puerto Rico that gave birth to me: a Puerto Rican.

Spring 2004

In 2004 I received an email letter from Ian Randle Publishers. They had come upon the Muralmaster website where their artistic director took notice of the image of the original mural as shown above. The photograph had been taken years before the mural's completion but it was enough to impress them. They wanted to use it for the cover of Gordon K. Lewis' classic -Puerto Rico: Freedom and Power in the Caribbean. The book had been out of print for some years and they were going to publish a limited edition.

To me, this was no small honour. The Gordon K. Lewis estate approved the project and I completed the new painting of the mural started the year before to be used on its front and back cover. By then, through this website, the Mural History of the Puerto Rican People had been seen and appreciated by a world wide audience. But the book cover gave the work more stature.

Book cover of Gordon k. Lewis' Puerto Rico: Freedom and Power in the Caribbean. Wrap-Around Book Cover

"Probably the most important book ever written on Puerto Rico, and one of the most significant studies of the whole Caribbean area". -Hispanic American Report

"... by far the best general survey of Puerto Rico ever written". -American Historical Review

"John Rivera Resto's stunning mural which graces the cover, depicts the broad sweep of Puerto Rican history and provides a rich visual accompaniment to this important work." -Chattel House Books

For all readers who have come this far, I have a gift for you. Below is a PDF file that explains in detail how all the visual elements in this mural was crafted and organized into a cohesive visual narrative. In addition, I have explained in detail what everything means and represents -all the history, the people, the drama, the times and the tragedy that has been the subject of this colorful panorama.

I also urge you to read my essay: "American Propaganda: controlling public opinion in Puerto Rico" which is available in "the Writings" page of this website. The first part is about the use of art in propaganda (really interesting stuff that will make you a hell of lot smarter). The second part of the essay is the part dealing exclusively with Puerto Rico and the United States (you will be shocked!). Happy reading.

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