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Mr. Mendoza's Paintbrush

Albuquerque Journal

Welcome To Urrea's World

By David Steinberg
Journal Staff Writer

Luis Alberto Urrea tells a magical tale in the graphic novel "Mr. Mendoza's Paintbrush."

Mr. Mendoza is the moral compass of the fictional town of Rosario, Mexico, and the self-proclaimed graffiti king of the country.

It's a town with long-dead bodies of monks rising out of the cathedral walls during the annual June flood. It's a town with underground silver mines that twist deeper and deeper. The mine shafts sometimes cause the streets above to collapse.

It's a town with a whorehouse. And it's a town whose young boys are going through puberty and getting their kicks spying on young girls bathing naked in the river.

Mr. Mendoza has something to say, or write, about that youthful peeping-tom behavior. He grabs two boys and inscribes messages on their foreheads ("Pervert" reads one), and other declarations on their chests and buttocks. He chases the humiliated, naked kids through town.

Eventually, Mr. Mendoza has enough of Rosario's cheap thrills, belching his farewell to bar customers because "it is the only philosophy you can understand." He departs ... up and up into the clouds on a stairway he paints in front of him.

Urrea said in a phone interview that Mr. Mendoza is based on a real person, a well-known practical joker in his dad's hometown.

"I kind of blended that character with some Old Testament character, Elijah, into "the crazy borracho Elijah from Sinaloa," Urrea said.

Rosario and Tres Camarones, a setting in his novel "Into the Beautiful North," are two sides of the same Mexican town, he said.

Christopher Cardinale's broad-brush art complements the story and gives it an air of magical realism. The art can be enjoyed independent of reading the tale.

"Christopher went (to the town). So they are renderings of what the town looks like," Urrea said.

Urrea teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a recipient of the National Hispanic Cultural Center's Literary Award. Cardinale is a cartoonist and community muralist in Brooklyn, N.Y.

- David Steinberg, June 27, 2010 

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