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A brush with a mission: a conversation with Ray Patlán

A brush with a mission: a conversation with Ray Patlán

Recently, as I left the offices of El Tecolote, I noticed a rather imposing man sitting by a little outside table, enjoying an ice cream. He was Ray Patlán, a well-known muralist. 

Over the years, I have seen his works painted on the walls of various cities around the Bay Area. I also know of his work as an artist with Creativity Explored, an organization that focuses on helping differently-abled people.

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On an impulse, I asked to sit next to him. He readily agreed.

“I do this every day,” he said, showing me the ice cream. “It’s my break from working on a mural that I’m painting on that building on the corner. It’s a Center for homeless seniors.”

When I sat and took off my COVID mask, he laughed. “I thought you were someone else! Man! I’m getting old!”

Ray Patlán poses for a portrait in front of his latest mural, located at Casa de la Mision, which provides affordable housing for seniors. Photo: Alexis Terrazas

He had good reasons not to recognize me right away. Although we had known of each other for many years, we had never sat down to converse. I was not going to let this opportunity pass by. 

I gave him a copy of the latest Tecolote. There, I had written about Afghanistan, comparing the botched recent departure to what had happened many years before, when the war in Vietnam ended. Ray nodded and said that he was a Vietnam veteran. 

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He was drafted in 1966. Coincidentally, that was the year when I first arrived in the United States, on a scholarship to U.C. Berkeley. While a student, I participated in many anti-war demonstrations. At that time, Ray and I were both in our late teens or early twenties and—clearly—we had very contrasting experiences in connection with that war. So, I asked about his Vietnam experience. 

Ray said that he tried to avoid the draft but that he could not do it. “The worst part was this,” he added. “The same day that I got the note from the Draft Board, I received a letter from a group of supportive liberal artists, awarding me a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago. But, when I went to the Draft Board and told them that I planned to attend school, they told me “No way, José. You’re in the Army now!”

In Vietnam, he did his best to avoid combat. “I grew up in a harsh part of Chicago and I knew how to take care of myself…but I was not interested in killing people. So, I applied to be a Chaplain’s helper. But that damned Chaplain…he wanted to go into the field! I think that he wanted to become a martyr. Chingáo! So…I looked for an alternative. Then, I read an ad on “The Stars and Stripes,” a paper the military printed. They were looking for ‘Artists to do combat Art.’ Photography, illustrations, stuff like that. Since I was a kid I could draw pretty well…so, I applied. I got the job and I spent most of the time in an office, drawing action stuff, propaganda-like, you know.”

A mural depicting the struggle of the Vietnamese people that Ray Patlán painted while stationed in Vietnam. Courtesy: Ray Patlán

Better than becoming a martyr, that’s for sure.

As an aide to that wannabe-martyr Chaplain, Ray had seen some nice walls on the Chapel that beckoned to be painted. 

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“I asked if I could do it. They said that it was OK…but they were not too happy with my proposed mural. It was not pro-war propaganda. It was a very general message for all the Vietnamese people…figures on struggling motions, under duress, stressed out. They let me do it, but they gave me a wall hidden in the sacristy, away from many viewers…and no paint. I had to pay for it myself. My sister Cecilia bought the paint and sent it to me, from Chicago! My sisters have always been great supporters…my sister Ana, older than me, she could have been a great artist…but my parents did not allow her to go away to the National Arts School in Washington, DC. I feel that I owe them a lot.”

For a few seconds, Ray is silent. Then, he smiles, as he shakes his head from side to side: “My sisters allowed me to paint. Without them…who knows.”

I asked about the mural that he was painting today for the homeless seniors. “Oh…it’s just something peaceful, serene, restful…birds and animals they might not have seen…people there they might be turning the last corner of their lives…like me! I’m happy painting for others…for people my age…I’ve never been too peaceful myself, you know!”

I suddenly think about the clear connections between the mural that Ray painted in Vietnam when he was a 19 year old reluctant recruit and the mural that he was painting 50 years later for homeless seniors. There is a wonderful congruence between those works, a clear consistency in the reasoning given by Ray Patlán as a young man and now as a senior, well-respected artist. I told him that, in a way, he sounds like a man who has been on a long mission, armed with a brush and a desire to promote peace.

He laughs again: “Well, maybe there’s something to that missionary stuff! You see, I went to Catholic school…and—for a short while—I was in the Seminary…and I like to serve…especially our Raza!”

He gets up. His break is over and he has to go back to his mural. To his brush. To his mission.

El Tecolote turns 52 this August!

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