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After someone brutally murdered Gloria Escobedo’s 22 year-old son in the summer of 2003, the San Antonio Express-News personalized her loss by reporting that “during his jail stays, Andrew Escobedo painted elaborate images on handkerchiefs, including one with hearts and roses that he sent his mother on Mother’s Day.”
Such expressions of faith and love on handkerchiefs, called “pañuelos,” probably originated in the 1940s among Mexicans incarcerated in Texas jails. The indigenous art has flourished among inmates, and it continues to be the artistic domain of Catholic-Hispanic males. As an example, an artist used a Fruit of the Loom handkerchief to depict Juan Diego kneeling before the Virgin, with the Basilica of Guadalupe in the background. The prisoner inscribed the drawing a week before Christmas, “To my loving Mom and Dad with love, your son, Juan D. Gonzales, 12-17-76.”
Prison artists still send pañuelos to family members and loved ones, but over the years handkerchief art has spread to prisoners of other ethnic backgrounds throughout the United States. Prisoners often trade them with other inmates or sell them on the outside for spending money. In fact, pañuelos are so popular that art galleries are displaying and selling them, and museums are mounting exhibitions of these expressive little squares of cotton fabric. On any given day, electronic visitors to eBay, the leading auction site on the World Wide Web, can find at least a dozen pañuelos posted for sale. Several additional Internet sites feature them as prison art. Prices range from about $10 to $60, or even more if serious collectors of folk art are competing for the finest examples.
Although a prisoner’s body may be strictly confined, art can set his imagination free to roam a limitless range of memories, words and images. Pañuelos provide a powerful medium for the inmate to express himself, relieve the stress and boredom of being locked up, and assert his personal beliefs and identity. In the case of Tejanos and other Mexican-Americans, pañuelos represent their pride in being Mexican. In a highly original montage of Pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial images, inmate S. Flores Duarte boldly depicted the Conquest of Mexico as the Birth of the Mestizo:
“On this spot on August 13, 1521 the Aztec forces bravely led by Cuauhtemoc, fell to the power of Hernan Cortez and the Spanish army, it was neither a defeat nor a victory, but rather the painful birth of the Mestizo People Who are Mexicanos.”
Ed Jordan, a “super collector” of folk art, jokingly asked when he first saw a decorated handkerchief, “But what if I have to blow my nose? How will I wash it?” (Making a pañuelo is considered an “art” and not a “craft” because the handkerchiefs serve an aesthetic function rather than a practical or utilitarian one.) His joke wasn’t the best way for an Anglo to begin the semester in a place where handkerchief art was already thriving outside of the classroom.
A commercial artist in Austin, Texas, Jordan had been hired by Blinn College in Brenham to teach at its auxiliary campus….the federal prison in Bastrop, Texas. Jordan says that the experience was the “best five years of my life.” He quickly enlisted a talented inmate named Paul Young as his assistant. (Personal interviews and correspondence with the two men are a primary source of information for this article. Several current or retired officials with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice also have been helpful.) Paul Young, now deceased, finished serving his prison time and began working from the “Young at Art Studio” in San Antonio, where he taught art as a way of building confidence and self-esteem in released prisoners who are adapting to a world outside the prison walls. After Jordan’s job at the federal prison ended, he began avidly collecting pañuelos. Many pieces illustrating this article came from his extensive collection.
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