Shades of yellow, blue and orange burst across what was once a red brick wall. The colors come together to depict one of Catholicism’s most revered images.
The mural at St. Anne Catholic School in Santa Ana is the work of Fabian Debora, a former gang member who began his spiritual journey after his second suicide attempt.
“As a child all I saw was trauma, abuse and neglect,” said Debora, now a noted artist. “I didn’t understand God was walking with me all that time. I eventually realized there was something greater.”
Debora decided to trade a troubled life of violence on the streets of East Los Angeles for a rewarding career as an artist. Today, his work adorns canvases, walls and the sides of buildings across Los Angeles. His art is vibrant, colorful and often reflects social issues and cultural identity.
And on a sun-drenched morning in March, students, parents and teachers at St. Anne celebrated the unveiling of Debora’s latest work – a mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The mural is painted on the side of a building lining the K-8 school’s parking lot entrance off Sycamore Street.
“Our Lady will greet us every morning when we arrive to school, and bless us as we leave,” said St. Anne School Principal Sr. Teresa Lynch.
Bishop Kevin Vann offered a blessing before students and teachers sung “Immaculate Mary.” Then they dropped roses at the foot of the freshly painted mural.
The roses symbolize the mural’s connection to those who pass by it each day, Debora said.
“The dedication allows for the community to take ownership of the mural because Our Lady belongs to us, and we belong to her,” Debora said.
The Our Lady of Guadalupe project at St. Anne began after Sr. Lynch called Rev. Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, asking for help with a potential mural. Boyle reached out to Debora, who had worked with Homeboy Industries for more than a decade on community advocacy work and public art projects. Funding for the Our Lady of Guadalupe project came from a grant from Sisters of St. Joseph in Orange.
St. Anne sits in a Hispanic community in Santa Ana. Debora said he wanted the mural to reflect the community’s identity.
“To paint Our Lady of Guadalupe in a community that can see itself in the image is important,” said Debora, who was born in Texas to Mexican parents. “It’s a reminder of the resiliency and respect the image symbolizes.”
The mural depicting the patron saint of the Americas is inspired by a renowned Our Lady of Guadalupe mural painted in 1973 by David Lopez on Mednick Avenue at Cesar Chavez Avenue in East Los Angeles.
Debora and his children – Fabian Jr., Andrew and Maya – painted the mural at St. Anne together, working about 26 hours through two days. It was more than a chance to complete a project together – it was a learning opportunity for the entire family, Debora said.
“We put our love and energy into the mural,” Debora said. “I try to engage my kids to create art with me whenever I can. This was an opportunity to do that.”
Socially and culturally relevant murals help transmit education and culture to new generations, Debora said.
“Murals have always been a window to a different realm and a point of engagement,” Debora said. “By engaging my kids, I encourage them to ask questions – Why the Virgin Mary? Why here at this school, in this neighborhood?”
Debora said he hopes his mural will spark inspiration, hope and redemption for those who walk by it each day.
“I’ve always seen art as a healing tool,” he said. “The arts can create access to a successful pathway. It’s a language and a form of expression that’s often minimized by society. Art is healing and can help people through the dark times.”
Debora discovered his love for drawing and painting when he was six years old. After battling addiction and troubles with the law as a young adult, he twice attempted suicide, the second time by running across the I-5 freeway in Boyle Heights.
“It was only by grace of God that I survived,” he said.
Debora soon entered rehabilitation, sought counseling and re-engaged with his Catholic faith. He started focusing on his artwork.
“Art helped guide me through my journey,” said Debora, who once belonged to a violent street gang.
Today, the Los Angeles-based muralist is a committed Catholic who volunteers teaching arts to youth locked up in juvenile detention centers across Los Angeles and adults in state prisons. Debora said art played a major role in helping him navigate a positive, rewarding path in life. He works to help those who were once like him to express themselves through art and find beauty in their own creations.
“God blessed me with a gift,” he said. “I want to share that gift with others.”