Michael Schnorr’s world-famous murals in Chicano Park tower over the small but revered piece of tierra santa that was once the epicenter of the Chicano Rights Movement and is the globe’s greatest outdoor Latino art gallery. His ambitious Dia de Los Muertos pieces span hundreds of yards of the Tijuana side of the border fence, warning would-be crossers that el norte can be peligroso for migrants.
Not bad for an Anglo man and Muslim convert.
America’s burgeoning border art community lost a visionary pioneer in July when Schnorr jumped from the same Coronado Bridge that features his stunning murals. His suicide shocked and saddened legions of admirers, including hundreds at Chicano Park who gathered for an emotional memorial. Schnorr had recently retired as a Southwestern art professor after 39 years.
Art major David Bonafede said he was devastated by the news of Schnorr’s death and that Schnorr remains a teacher, mentor and friend in his heart.
“No matter how hard or how easy you think something is, he always made you look at things from a different perspective,” he said. “He never let you quit and he always made you finish.”
Bonafede said he did a biography on Schnorr for his art history class and came to know his mentor well. He said he loved not only his art, but also his sense of humor.
“I remembered when I asked why he chose art, he looked at me and laughed and said, ‘To meet girls,’” he said. “But more than that, he taught me to never give up, never second guess myself, even though you are your own worst critic.”
Murals painted by Schnorr gazed down at family, friends, colleagues and students as they gathered on July 14 at Chicano Park to celebrate the life of Schnorr.
Tables of balloons, flowers, candles and notes to the artist were scattered throughout the iconic grounds. Pools and eddies of mourners and celebrants formed around each shrine, shapes changing as Schnorr’s friends moved from place to place. Hard hatted restoration workers stood shoulder to shoulder in solidarity.
Under a gray, cloudy sky, all eyes turned to the park stage and the central shrine to the missing artist. As the first music notes dedicated to him and his family began to echo across the park, the gloom broke apart and the sun began to beat down on the celebration.
Schnorr’s admirers spoke of his talent and compassion, played music in his honor or told a story about him. Calpuli Mexica, a Mexican folk dance group that practices three days a week under Schnorr’s murals at Chicano Park, performed in his honor.
When Schnorr’s wife, Axa Negron-Schnorr, went forward with their four children and several nieces and nephews, they released a pair of doves. One immediately soared into the trees. The second one landed next to the central shrine and gazed up at the crowd placidly.
“Michael is with us!” someone shouted.
As his family, friends and vivacious art energized Chicano Park, it seemed that he was.
Schnorr, a soft-spoken man, created art that was loud, powerful and shouted down inhumanity. He once transformed a Southwestern College lawn into a symbolic migrants’ cemetery by planting hundreds of white crosses with dead inmigrantes’ names hand-painted on each one. He traveled to Afghanistan, Argentina and other troubled nations to create art that cried out for freedom and justice. A former Catholic who converted to Islam, Schnorr possessed an aesthetic that was stunning in its breadth and rich in its depth. When United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson visited Tijuana to study the immigration situation, she asked to meet with only one American. It was Michael Schnorr.
SWC’s quiet megaphone for human rights could seem sullen, his friends said, but had the heart of a revolucionario visionario. Schnorr painted injustice and protest, but spoke with eternal hope and optimism.
“Change is not a dream,” Schnorr once wrote. “We can leap over history and monsters. Not even the stars are out of reach. Barriers, walls and fences must be moved. Must be broken down between countries, between people, between neighborhoods.”
Schnorr’s paint brush moved barriers and moved people by prodding them to reconsider their points of view, his friends said at his memorial. Schnorr himself, they insisted, was a work of art.