If you’ve ever been to Mexico City, you’ve likely encountered Luz Jiménez, though chances are you don’t know it.
Jiménez, a Nahua woman from humble origins, posed for many of the greats of the Mexican mural movement: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Rufino Tamayo and Fernando Leal, to name just a few. Thanks to them, her image adorns the walls of the national palace and other imposing buildings throughout the city’s historic center.
Despite this visibility, Jiménez lived in constant poverty and is scarcely remembered today. The story of how her image became so ubiquitous while she remained so obscure is as complex as the countless works of art in which she appears.
In addition to modeling, Luz Jiménez was a gifted intellectual, educator and artist in her own right. In this photo from 1962, she poses while painting a decorative plate.
Photo by Harry B. Crister, Col. Fondo Documental y fotográfico Luz Jiménez
Born to a Nahua family in 1897 and christened Julia Jiménez González, Jiménez’s early life and education were rooted in the small farming community of Milpa Alta, just south of Mexico City. Years later, she would recall how her relatively peaceful life was overturned by the Mexican Revolution. Of the violence that suddenly reigned in her once-tranquil home, Jiménez later told anthropologist Fernando Horcasitas: “The heavens did not thunder to warn us that the tempest was coming. We knew nothing about the storms nor about the owlish wickedness of men.”
A massacre at the hands of Venustiano Carranza’s army in 1916 took the lives of Jiménez’s father and all the other men of her village. Devastated and destitute, she was forced to move to Mexico City with her mother and sisters.
There, they struggled to make ends meet, selling bread and artisanal goods on the streets, according to her grandson Jesús Villanueva Hernández. Jiménez caught a break when she won an indigenous beauty contest in 1919. Shortly thereafter, she started going by “Luz” and began modeling at the outdoor painting schools that had sprung up across Mexico City as revolutionary violence transitioned into a decadeslong cultural revolution.