Cesar Viveros at the Cesar Andreu Iglesias Garden poses with a large sculpture of the Aztec god of fire, Huehueteotl, which he created for the space. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Lea esta historia en español aquí

In the 20 years since César Viveros migrated to Philadelphia, his work has infiltrated all corners of the city. 

The native of Veracruz has created more than 40 works with Mural Arts, plus numerous fresco paintings, sculptures, mosaics, and altars, as well as performances of Aztec dance. He’s also known for his efforts to restore the previously abandoned Cesar Andreú Iglesias Community Gardenin Kensington.

Viveros was recently awarded a grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, and his work has been featured in Penn’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fleisher Art Memorial, and the Kimmel Center. 

None of this would have been possible, he told Billy Penn, if not for his childhood and heritage.

Viveros grew up surrounded by a large family near the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in Tejería, one of the oldest municipalities in the Americas. Every summer, he and his siblings would go to their grandparents’ ranch to reconnect with uncles and their many children. 

“I remember well that there were 24 of us because we managed to create two soccer teams,” Viveros said of his cousins, recounting how they learned to plant corn and watch over the harvest. The ranch has no drinking water or electricity, but there was a river where his grandmother would draw mud to create her own comales — flat, clay tortilla pans — to cook for the family.

It was from his grandmother that he learned to use clay, and turn it into works of art. 

Viveros made his first works of ceramic at just 5 years old, he said, replicating the sculptures that appeared in history books, or the remains of broken vessels he found in the muddy soil around his house. 

“It was such a cool feeling to be able to do things at that age that you had never done before,” he recalled.

Cesar Viveros at the Cesar Andreu Iglesias Garden in Kensington. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In high school, he got into painting, and when teachers discovered his talent, they began commissioning large-scale paintings for school events and festivals. Although Viveros had no formal art training, by the time he graduated high school, he was receiving paid commissions for hand-painted ads. 

Even if it was advertising, Viveros said, he and best friend/fellow artist Nicolás Nava would go the extra mile — turning the ad into a piece of art.

Unable to afford tuition for art school tuition, Viveros pursued a technical career in commercial diving. That led him to the Campeche Sound oil rigs in the Yucatan Peninsula, where worked and lived offshore for three years. 

An artist’s American dream

After an oil rig colleague from Houston encouraged him to pursue the American dream, a 25-year-old Viveros decided to return to art and move to Philadelphia. 

He got a job as a dishwasher at a Thai restaurant in North Philly to pay the bills, and began knocking on the doors of artists, galleries, and museums. No luck.

In 1997, he read a local news article about internationally renowned artist Meg Saligman doing a 10-ft. mural between Broad and Spring Garden streets — what would become the famous “Common Threads.” Viveros visited Saligman, struck up a conversation, and offered to volunteer. 

Days later, he quit his job and became Saligman’s assistant. Soon, other doors were opening. 

In 2000, Viveros traveled with Saligman to Louisiana and had his first solo show, featuring fresco technique and sculpture. Back in Philadelphia, Mural Arts founder Jane Golden, offered him the opportunity to work on projects in the city where he lived. 

More than three dozen murals later, Viveros has made a name for himself through works inspired by diversity, gentrification, ancestral traditions, and the migrant community. 

His most recent sculpture debuted last month in the Iglesias community garden —  a space transformed by Viveros and residents from abandonment to a vibrant home for educational workshops, events, concerts, and dinners, complete with a community kitchen, sculptures, a temazcal (sweat lodge), and corn fields reminiscent of his home in Veracruz.

Cesar Viveros stands on a performance stage he helped dreate at the Cesar Andreu Iglesias Garden in Kensington. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The new sculpture is of the Aztec god of fire, the oldest god in the Mesoamerican tradition. The largest piece Viveros has ever worked on, it’s made of sand and concrete, using a technique he learned as a child when he helped his father in the construction of their own house in Tejería. 

Viveros’ childhood best friend, Nava, flew in from Mexico to help as an assistant. 

“César achieved the dream he always had as a young man, and I am very happy for him,” Nava said. “I want to accompany him on that journey.”

Némesis Mora is a journalist and editor with nearly a decade of experience. She completed a master's degree in journalism from the University of Puerto Rico and holds certifications in creative writing...