DALLAS — Jonathan Molina-Garcia joined a family crew of ruferos in 2009 to earn money for college. In many ways, it became college.
It seeded curiosity and respect in him for the tile roofers, who sweated through their crafts with dancers’ balance atop Dallas’ mini-mansions.
Later, as he labored on a double degree in photography and art history, he also worked as a house painter. There, as with the roofers, he took intimate photographs of crew members who were immigrants like him.
The experiences led to two portfolios of photographs, titled “Ruferos” and “Odessa,” and other work, and won him accolades from the University of North Texas and even the Dallas Museum of Art.
Now, he’s been awarded a $100,000 scholarship to the California Institute of the Arts, where he plans to get a master’s degree in fine arts. The award comes from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which supports those who “work hard, stay focused and defy the stereotype that poverty precludes high achievement.”
Exploring borders of rich and poor, immigrants and natives is the hallmark of his work.
While working as a painter, he noticed that work days started on streets named after great artists of the Renaissance — Botticelli, Raphael and Da Vinci. The names struck him as a “kooky juxtaposition,” where homeowners were “trying to put themselves in this status position.” His parents fit into that real-life canvas, too.
“I liked the names next to my parents, painters who are proud of their work,” the wiry 24-year-old said.
His mother, Maria Alarcon, landed her first job as a baby sitter in Los Angeles at age 28. After moving to North Texas, she sent for the four sons she had left behind. She and her children are here legally under temporary protected status, which is given to immigrants from select countries hit by war or natural disasters.
She is posed proudly in a portrait of house painters in the “Odessa” portfolio. Her oldest son, Elmer, can be seen in “Ruferos.” Both portfolios were part of Molina-Garcia’s application for the graduate school scholarship.
His studio arts professor at UNT, Dornith Doherty, says she’s never had a student like Molina-Garcia.
“He’s a bottle-rocket,” she said of his energy. “It’s so important to see immigrant workers through the perspective of an immigrant family member.”
Molina-Garcia often used a large-format camera with superior resolution on a tripod — gear that weighs about 15 pounds. He’d perch himself on the incline of a roof as he photographed his brother and his friends.
There was an added dimension to the work, Doherty said. Molina-Garcia writes graceful, punchy prose to go with his work. He’s heavily influenced by what he calls the “phenomenal” work of the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and Dominican immigrant, Junot Diaz.
Doherty said that when Molina-Garcia would read his artist statements, the class would melt into mindful listening.
“Here was Jonathan writing artist statements that were so beautiful and emotionally intense … ,” she said. “He is not afraid to fail.”
The Dallas Museum of Art gave him an award for an art history paper focused on the decorative folding screens of New Spain. The screens reflect a hybrid artistic culture that developed as 17th century trade bloomed across borders among the Dutch, Italian and Spanish. Screens spoke of Greek tragedies or contained proverbs that tickled Molina-Garcia’s mind.
“Money doesn’t mean lineage” was one that jumped out, he said. “It was this not-so-subtle jab at the Mexican elite.”
His fascination with border frictions saturates his scholarship application. “Concepts of marginality and community have inspired what I do,” he wrote.
That’s clear in the twin projects, “Ruferos” and “Odessa.” In that work, he takes the pedestrian and artfully juxtaposes it against the geometry of color and shape or comic signage or pays homage to the workers themselves.
A painter in white coveralls looks ghostly as he’s caught in the blur of movement. Two workers are shot from the second-floor roof as they lay tiles in patterns.
Molina-Garcia frames his mother working as a painter beside guys named Enrique and Lencho.
His mother, who is now 49, says her son rocketed through his studies with a fascination for stories. Among her prized possessions is her son’s first-grade tale about a relative’s wedding, complete with his drawings.
“I could never study as a little girl,” she said. “I wanted that for my children. ... I made this sacrifice for him. Thanks to God, he knew how to appreciate it.”