Finding My Passion
My name is Javier Zaragoza. I was born on March 18, 1944 and have lived the majority of my life in Ajijic.
My first memory of Neill James is from 1952. One day I was playing with one of my friends when he said, “Javier, do you like to draw? There’s a place here in Ajijic where we can draw, paint and look at books.” “How much does it cost,” I responded. “It doesn’t cost anything, they give you pencil, paper, pen, and if you have talent they will sell your art and give you all the proceeds of your sales. And their supplies are even better than what is sold in the store!”
So I began to draw and paint and by age nine I was selling my paintings. Neill gave us a library and everything we needed to draw and paint and then she sold our best works and gave us the proceeds.
In those days the Ajijic primary school ended at 4th grade and the only way to finish grammar school was to go to Chapala, a remote possibility for almost everyone in the village of Ajijic. About once a month Neill came in her red Volkswagen with her maid and a huge pot of chocolate to host a hot chocolate and cookie party. We were never sure when she was coming but when we heard the sound of her Volkswagen we knew it was party time! The school, Marcos Castellanos, was mixed with about 60 students, and she made sure there was enough for each of us to have two cups of chocolate and two cookies. I remember this vividly because it was an important event to us kids.
Even though Neill wasn’t an artist, she knew how to recognize quality work and she decided who to send to the Instituto Allende through her own observations and records of sales made. She practically held a knife to the tourists’ throats to get them to buy our paintings. She would tell them, “Look this is a painting by a child who has the potential to become a talented artist if I can get him to art school. Please help by buying his painting.”
When I was 13, after five years with Neill, she asked me if I would like to study art in an art institute, and she told me that she could get me a scholarship to the Art Institute of San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato. I said yes and she got me a complete 5-year scholarship to study art that included tuition, supplies, room and board. I was very proud and I believed in what I was doing and that one day I could be a master painter.
My family was very happy for me, because my father did not have a way for me to study. He was a fisherman which was then and still is one of the lowest paying professions. Even though he worked hard, it wasn’t enough to send me to an art school. Although they were excited about the opportunity, they were not convinced that I could make a living as a painter, but they accepted it.
Neill took me personally to San Miguel in her red Volkswagen with her chauffeur driving. Along the way we stopped to eat the egg salad sandwiches she had made for the trip, and I still remember the delicious taste of those sandwiches because I had never had an egg salad sandwich before. When we arrived she took me to the house where I would be staying and introduced me to the family. I hung my head in embarrassment when she said, “Take good care of this boy, because he is going to be the greatest painter in Mexico!”
NEXT STOP U.S.A.
I stayed at the Art Institute for one and a half years, but I struggled with the classes that were all in English at the time. [Editor’s note – the Instituto Allende was and is recognized by U.S. Universities and attracted many U.S. citizens, hence the classes in English]. Also the focus of the Institute at that time was abstract art, and while I enjoyed the practice and plein aire painting, it was not my passion. There was also the nagging problem that my family needed me to work, so eventually I decided to go to the U.S.A. to work. I have three brothers and four sisters, some of whom also participated in the art program and went on to different careers, but they needed my help at the time.
When I told Neill I was leaving the school, she said “Look if you don’t like this art school. I can get you a scholarship to an art school in Mexico City.” When I responded that the decision to go to the U.S.A. was made, she came back with, “Ok, if you want to go to the U.S.A., I can get you a scholarship to a great art school in Chicago.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was going to the U.S.A. not to go to school but to work and send money home to my family. And that’s what I did, starting out in the U.S.A. washing dishes like most immigrants. I went to night school and eventually got a job making billboards and became one of the best billboard artists in the western U.S. until technology made the job obsolete.
It was then that Warner Brothers hired me to paint movie sets and backdrops and I had a successful career until I decided to return to Ajijic in 1999.
Neill James’ Legacy
Neill James sent more generations of artists to art school, at least 12 in groups of 3-4. Antonio Lopez Vega went for the whole five years and became a teacher at the Art Institute for 15 years.
I think the artistic and cultural village we have today is due to her. Of the approximately 15 galleries in Ajijic today, eight belong to Neill James’ students.
Neill was full of love for people, and if she saw someone was sick, she would take them to the doctor/hospital and make sure they got what they needed. She had a lot of love for children and she believed that if she helped the children, they could be better parents, spouses, friends, and community members.
Neill could be a difficult personality, she was alone and there were people who tried to take advantage of her. She had to use all the love she had in order to achieve what she did. Today we have ten volunteers at the art program and she did it by herself. We help each other but she was alone and she still did a great work despite what she had to overcome.
Neill James did a very big work in me. I could have been a fisherman or a construction worker and she made it possible for me to achieve my dreams. I can never repay her and I must dedicate my life to helping others like she did. If the children’s art program turns out one single artist, it is worth all the work.
By Javier Zaragoza as told to Bette Brazel
You can visit Javier at his studio located at Constitution #50 in Ajijic.