Jose Cisneros

National Humanities Medal


“My aim has been to rescue the picturesque characters of our past because they belong to everybody,” says pen-and-ink artist José Cisneros. “The past is the basis of our future.” Inspired by a deep connection to the history of the Southwest, Cisneros has spent a lifetime turning his passions into art.Cisneros’s own background encompasses many places throughout Mexico and the Southwest. “I’ve always been especially interested in the history all along the Southwest and down into Mexico City,” he says. His family lost their home in Durango in 1910 during the Mexican Revolution. Their belongings were looted. “My father lost everything,”says Cisneros. “We wandered for a long, long time. Those were the toughest years of my life.” His family settled in Juárez, Mexico.Eventually, Cisneros arrived in El Paso, Texas, when he was fifteen.“Due to the conditions, I had only had four years of school,” he says,“and I had to repeat those four years when I came to El Paso.”He remembers being fond of books. “I collected clippings from magazines, and drawings from the books I could afford,” he says,“and I went to the library. I was especially interested in Spanish American history. The horsemen became my main subjects.” Cisneros took what he saw back to his own art. He had preferred to work in pen-and-ink because he is color-blind, but armed with a box of colored pencils marked so he could read their colors, he set out to recreate the excitement he’d felt from illustrations created by Norman Rockwell and Howard Pyle. Cisneros’s family viewed his illustrations as amusing. The rest of the world took them more seriously.

Cisneros’s illustrations now grace the walls of the White House; the Texas state capitol; the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe,New Mexico; Spanish embassies—and a local Texas supermarket.His illustrations can be found in more than one hundred books and publications. The book he considers his greatest achievement is Riders Across the Centuries: Horsemen of the Spanish Borderlands. It contains one hundred full-page drawings,sixteen smaller ones, and the artist’ sown text. Recent works include:Borderlands: The Heritage of the Lower Rio Grande through the Art of José Cisneros; Cisneros 2000: Faces of the Borderlands; and El Ratoncito Pequeño, a bilingual children’s book based on a Mexican nursery rhyme.Among his many awards, Cisneros has won a certificate of honor from the King of Spain; a commendation for his art and life from the President of Mexico; a lifetime achievement award from the Western Writers ofAmerica; and the Western Heritage Wrangler Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. The Tigua Pueblo Council has made him an honorary Tigua Indian.

“I want to thank all of the fans that were interested in my work and collected it,” the ninety-two year-old Cisneros says. For many years, those collections have provided a vision of the Southwest’s past through the eyes of a remarkable artist.

By Lynn Fabian Lasner

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.