Going Places Mosquero
Painting the Town
Murals enliven the remote ranching village of Mosquero, pop. 94
Story and photos by Tim Keller
It’ll stop you in your tracks. Driving across the vast open grasslands and red canyons of remote northeastern New Mexico, you’re passing through the Harding County seat of Mosquero, population 94, when suddenly you realize you’re in a Technicolor world. Every storefront is covered in bright murals that breathe life into the town’s past and its present.
Few travelers traverse isolated N.M. 39 or reach Mosquero, but those that do slow for the inevitable double take. Many reach the end of Mosquero’s Main Street and make a U-turn for another look. Those who stop and ask discover that every person on these walls has a name and a story. Some of them are still here.
The Paint the Town project was born in 2008 with a modest rural education grant to Mosquero Schools’s state-of-the-art multimedia education program called Roundup Technology. Staff sponsor Donna Hazen found and hired artist Doug Quarles, a Louisiana transplant, to commute the 74 miles from his home in Tucumcari, where he’s developed his own active mural projects along historic Route 66.
For five years, Quarles has spent a day or two every week teaching Mosquero students in grades 7-12 to make murals. Students repair and re-plaster the old adobe surfaces, select subjects and images, scale the images to the walls, and apply layers of paint. Historical figures and events are collected by the 7th and 8th grade students’s ongoing research project, Familias de Nuevo Mexico, which has also produced annual books and a short film.
Gabriel Trujillo was a lead artist the first two years; he’s continued to lend his hand since his 2010 graduation. “This project took us out of our comfort zone,” he says. “We had to learn a lot of new skills, including communication skills. Painting on the street, I’ve spent a lot of time talking with townspeople and passing tourists.”
Hazen adds, “Locals don’t spend much time hanging out on the main street generally, but when the kids are out painting, the street is bustling with people.” Aaron Martinez, a lead painter and 2012 graduate, adds, “It makes people happy. The old people get proud of the town and the tourists stop and take pictures.” Trujillo says, “Community members bring us food and Cokes while we’re painting. They even play music for us sometimes.”
The village’s businesses have donated funds to buy paint, which costs up to $200 for a five-gallon pail. One wall can swallow 10 gallons just for a base coat. The students have raised $30,000 on their own through various fundraising activities. The project’s biggest boost came when Roundup Tech was awarded a $125,000 Microsoft Partners in Learning Grant.
Superintendent of Schools Bill Ward says, “Sprucing up properties has become contagious. All around town, people have been out making improvements to their homes and properties.”
Local rancher Tuda Libby Crews went even further. When she learned that St. Joseph’s Church was about to raze its long-abandoned rectory, she bought it. After years of loving renovation, with furnishings and art works gathered slowly from antique stores and flea markets, The Rectory is now Mosquero’s gem of a guesthouse. Crews says, “The Paint the Town project has been an incubator for positive change. It feels like one big happy family here and everyone’s going in the same direction.”
Jimmie and Ellen Ridge moved to Mosquero three years ago after retiring from the Air Force in Mississippi. Jimmie says, “We searched the West for a place to make a contribution. Mosquero’s murals grabbed our attention. We were attracted by the vitality here.” They bought and now run Mosquero Town & Country Market and they’re developing a B&B to be called The Bunkhouse.
Their next-door neighbors on Main Street are Erma’s Coffee Shop and Pat’s City Bar, anchor businesses renowned for great food and atmosphere, but recently Erma and Pat Trujillo had to close their Ma-and-Pa businesses and move away due to illness; their businesses are for sale. A burrito wagon has opened for the time being; otherwise, people drive 19 miles north to Annette’s Café in Roy, Harding County’s biggest town with 300 people.
Mosquero sophomore John David “J.D.” Chatfield is growing into a lead role in the Paint the Town project. “It’s fun,” he says, sitting on a bench next to a painting of two cowboys. The cowboy on the ground is his father, Jack Chatfield. “A lot of us come from ranches,” J.D. says. “This project gives us freedom and responsibility. Doug teaches us how to do it and he’s low-pressure. His motto is ‘It’s only paint, we can always paint over it.’”
The students have rich stories about the subjects in the murals, and they enjoy standing for photographs next to paintings of their own relatives. J.D. tips his big black cowboy hat to an approaching tourist. It didn’t used to be this way, but Mosquero’s residents are growing accustomed to visiting with tourists. For a passing traveler, the murals are hard to resist. They’ll stop you in your tracks.
Need to Know
With fewer than 700 people in all of Harding County, the county’s website includes pages for the following businesses and more at www.hcnm.net.
Annette’s Café Green chilé cheeseburgers, Mexican, breakfasts; daily 8:30-4:00. N.M. 39 at N.M. 120, Roy, (575) 485-9616.
La Casita Gorgeous Western guesthouse, full kitchen. $75-150. 150 Wagon Mound Hwy, Roy, (575) 485-5599 or 485-2559.
Ma Sally’s Mercantile Arts, crafts, antiques, snacks. 450 Richelieu St. (N.M. 39), Roy, (575) 485-5599.
Mosquero Schools Roundup Tech Program Donations. PO Box 258, Mosquero 87733.
Mosquero Town & Country Market, 30-C Main Street, (575) 673-2930.
The Rectory Bed & Bath Exquisite 3-bedroom, full kitchen. $125-325. 10 S. 4th St., Mosquero, (575) 673-2267.
Sundance Bed & Bath $53. 408 Chicosa, Roy, (575) 485-2289 or 447-7026.
Raton-based Tim Keller posts his work at TimKellerArts.com.