When Mario Jaramillo sits down to paint his retablos, he’s not just putting color on wood — he’s creating a piece that comes from his heart and his firm belief in God.
Jaramillo, a 15-year-old sophomore at Belen High School, may be one of the youngest santeros in Valencia County. His love of art began at an early age, when he would draw and trace pictures.
As he grew older, Jaramillo’s artwork progressed. He became interested in painting retablos when his grandmother, Carol Jaramillo, and his mother’s friend, Carissa Otero, told him he had a natural gift.
“My grandma always told me about this (retablos), and she would talk to me about the different saints,” Jaramillo said. “Before that, I never really painted.”
With guidance from his parents, Marcia and Max Jaramillo, the then-13-year-old began painting retablos. Although his first mentor wasn’t readily available to give him advice, Jaramillo pushed on with his art.
It wasn’t until a year ago that Jaramillo’s retablos started to look the way he wanted them to. He credits much of his advancement to his new mentor, Nick Otero of Los Lunas.
Otero, who is also an accomplished young santero, started mentoring Jaramillo a year ago. With Otero’s influence, Jaramillo said, his artwork has flourished.
“He’s taught me a lot,” Jaramillo said. “He’s taught me how to make my own gesso (primer) and more about the saints. He’s also taught me how to paint and where to get the colors.”
The young santero is looking forward to his second trip to the world-famous Spanish Market in Santa Fe later this month. He said the pieces he will be showing this year will be a lot different and better.
With hundreds of other artists showing and trying to sell their artwork, Jaramillo was a bit anxious before his first trip to the Spanish Market.
“I was a little nervous,” Jaramillo said. “I took about 30 of my retablos, and I sold about 20 of them.”
This year, Jaramillo is planning to take 25 of his best pieces. With more detail and traditional skills put into his work, Jaramillo is more confident in showing his work among the best artisans in the world.
During the past year, Jaramillo has learned more about his culture, his heritage and his beliefs through his artwork. He uses his artwork as a sort of devotional guide to God.
“I’ve learned how the saints lived and what they did for everyone,” Jaramillo said. “I learned how they became saints, what they are the patron saints of and how they are connected to God.”
Although the preparation of the wood, gesso and varnish takes a lot longer than the actual task of painting, Jaramillo says, the end result is worth all the detailed groundwork.
Jaramillo has created a routine for working on his retablos. He’ll light several prayer candles before he paints the wood.
When he finishes a particularly good piece, the young santero will take a deep breath and, through prayer, thank God for his talent.
“I really like to paint,” Jaramillo said of his artwork. “I like to see how everyone else feels when they buy my work. I can tell they really enjoy it.”
Jaramillo says he plans to continue to create retablos and feels a sense of responsibility as a young santero to carry on the tradition. He also said he would like to be a mentor himself in the future.
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.