Often when Elton Monroy Durán walks into a business in Southwest Detroit, he gets more than a warm welcome.
One early May morning, Durán went it into Tamaleria Nuevo Leon on West Vernor Highway and got recognized immediately. He struck up a conversation with the owner and ordered a dozen chicken tamales. But when he tried to pay—insisted on paying—the owner refused. His money was no good there.
That’s because, on the low-slung wall outside the tamaleria, Durán painted a mural of the Monterrey skyline at night, the capital of the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon. There’s also a portrait of the business’ founder, now deceased, who started it over 50 years ago. You can see why they never let him pay for tamales.
Durán hails from the Hidalgo region of Mexico, but has called Southwest Detroit home since 2014. In that time, he’s developed a close affinity to the community that he paints, and has developed ideas about how to preserve the neighborhood’s identity through art.
Mural painting in Detroit was not something Durán expected to be doing 10 years ago. While he studied art in school, he ended up with a job as a design engineer making prototypes for a Mexican printing company.
But Durán was desperate to get back into art making. When the company offered him a promotion, he quit instead. At first, it wasn’t obvious that was the right decision. “Instead of becoming an artist, I became unemployed,” he says with a laugh.
Unsure what to do, a friend of his father’s living in Detroit encouraged him to visit. He fell in love with the city right away, particularly Southwest Detroit, which has a majority Latino population.
One thing Durán soon discovered is that, to much of Detroit, Southwest is nearly a different city altogether. “The Latino community here was invisible,” he says. “I think it’s connected to the situation of many fellow immigrants who are here illegally. They hide, keep quiet.”
In Durán’s artwork, Mexican heritage is not hidden—it’s showcased.
For example, the mural at the Plaza del Norte Welcome Center in Mexicantown is a celebration of Mexican culture. The foreground is filled with icons from early Mexican cinema who are dancing and hamming it up. The people behind them enjoying the entertainment are former residents of the area. The location features contemporary businesses and buildings in Mexicantown prior to the I-75 freeway construction which bifurcated the neighborhood.
And the whole piece is inspired by the “Detroit Industry Murals” at the Detroit Institute of Arts, painted by the celebrated Mexican artist Diego Rivera. In Durán’s mural, a portrait of Rivera and Frida Kahlo cover the sky.
“It resonates with people who grew up with those figures,” says Raymond Lozano, executive director of the Mexicantown Community Development Corporation, which runs Plaza del Norte and commissioned the piece. “A lot of folks who are immigrants came during those times. They have fond memories of those icons.”
Using Mexican icons is a theme in much of Durán’s work. On a nearly completed mural on a State Farm building at Junction Avenue, Durán painted a portrait of Pedro Armendáriz, a Mexican actor who was particularly active in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The mural, called “Dream Picker,” depicts the actor as a fruit picker.
Of Durán’s 20 murals in the state, nine are located in Southwest Detroit, with more on the way. He got a big break in 2015 when he won a Knight Arts Challenge grant for $30,000 to paint six murals in the neighborhood.
The “challenge” with the grant is that you have to get matching funds to complete the project. At first, Durán thought it would be too difficult to raise the money. Instead, it proved to be a great opportunity to connect with neighborhood and business leaders, residents, and other artists.
That’s a point he’s always trying to drive home: the importance of connection. His murals are often festive, like the one depicting a Cinco de Mayo parade that spans the length of the parking lot outside E&L Supermercado. (Other local businesses he’s painted murals for include Lupita’s Beauty Salon, La Michoacana Ice Cream, and one currently in production for Mexican Village Restaurant which features Adelitas, a well-known image in Mexico of the women who fought in the country’s revolution.)
The painting parties Durán holds for nearly all his murals are as festive as the murals themselves. Anyone, regardless of race, is invited to come and help paint outlined sections. “Everything I do comes from a place of love,” he says. “These murals are an act of love to my community. I want people to be happy, I want people to be represented.”
That’s the case even when the images don’t resonate with American culture. The city of Detroit, as part of its City Walls program, commissioned Durán to paint three viaducts along Livernois Avenue. On one viaduct, Durán and his team of local artists painted possums. Most Americans have negative connotations of the animal, but in Mexico, it’s celebrated.
“If I could give a Nobel Peace Prize to any creature it would be the possum,” he says. “Instead of fighting, they play dead—they’re pacifists. They also carry their children on their backs, which is the same as native Mexican tribes.”
The owners of the Conrail building next to the viaduct, however, didn’t appreciate having possums displayed outside their building and sent a representative to confront Durán. He says he couldn’t reason with them, but ultimately welcomes conversations like that. “Everything is a misunderstanding,” he says. “Racism is caused by ignorance.”
Art is a way to fight against not just ignorance, but also gentrification.
Even before Ford’s announcement that it would redevelop Michigan Central Station, adjacent Corktown had been seeing a proliferation of high-end restaurants and skyrocketing home values. The natural progression for real estate investors and first-time homebuyers is into less affluent Southwest Detroit, a trend that’s already begun.
Painting images of Mexican culture all over the neighborhood is a way to hopefully slow displacement. “That’s why I wanted to paint these murals—to help provide an identity to this community that is visible,” Durán says. “Not only for people to just eat their tacos, but also see their faces.”