Recently, a colleague asked me if I knew what the cheetahs represented in the artwork on the I-25/Missouri bridge underpass. Did cheetahs once roam the Mesilla Valley? I have seen the artwork while driving by and thought the spotted cats added a nice touch to the mural, accepting that the “cheetahs” looked very natural in the desert landscape. But why would cheetahs be in the desert? Are they connected to some indigenous folklore? Were they abandoned after a circus broke down here long ago? What story were we missing? I told her I would find out.
First, the spotted cats are not cheetahs, nor panthers, nor leopards. They are, in fact, jaguars. As the name of the mural informs us - “Running with the Jaguars” by Santa Fe artist Meg Hachmann. The art piece was commissioned by the Department of Transportation in 2014 as part of their bridge rehabilitation project.
Side view of "Running with the Jaguars" mural on I-25/Missouri Bridge
The mural, made from poured concrete with form liners, features six jaguars running along an arroyo, hence the name. According to the artist, “The mural was inspired by, and is a tribute to, the restoration of natural habitats for endangered species such as the American jaguar.”
Partial view of "Running with the Jaguars" mural on the underpass walls of the I-25/Missouri bridge.
Bringing awareness to this cause is great, but in my research of jaguars in the Southwest, I didn’t see anything that showed they lived in this area at all. They migrated from Mexico to Arizona and the Lordsburg/Silver City areas of New Mexico. However, there is a strong Mexican cultural tie to jaguars that fits into our culture here.
Jaguars have been one of Mexico’s most enduring symbolic animals for thousands of years according to the Mexicolore website. The image of the America’s largest and most powerful cat appears in the art of most ancient Mexican civilizations. Jaguars symbolize bravery and strength. Throughout history, Aztecs and Mayans idolized the cats as fantastical creatures possessing supernatural powers. Jaguars are revered in many ancient rituals and ancient artwork found in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. In modern times, the jaguar is still culturally relevant to native Mexicans.
Two shamanistic jaguar masks, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. Photo Credit: Mexicolore Website
Stone Aztec jaguar sculpture, Nation Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. Photo Credit: Mexicolore Website
Huizache Jaguar by César Martínez, one of several featured artists in the "Icons and Symbols of the Borderland" exhibit now showing at the Las Cruces Museum of Art.
Rounding back to the “Running with the Jaguars” mural – the artists intent was to bring awareness to a worthy cause but perhaps unintentionally and because art is open to interpretation, the artist created a vignette that may inspire the viewer to imagine a time when these beautiful animals were abundant, running wild and inspiring people to adopt their majestic spirit in the material culture and art that is very much a part of our lives today. Hope that answers the cheetah question.
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