By David Burge
If you have ever been to the cultural center for the Tigua tribe, you have seen his work – a 14-foot-tall statue of “Nestora Piarote,” the tribe’s matriarch, standing proudly out in front.
If you have ever visited Fort Bliss’ 3rd Brigade, you have seen his work – a memorial to fallen soldiers of the Bulldog Brigade, as it is nicknamed.
Julio Sanchez De Alba’s life has taken him from his native Bolivia to his adopted home of El Paso and all over the world, from accomplished engineer in the maquiladora industry to widely respected artist.
The 66-year-old artist, who has the energy of a man half his age, specializes in realistic sculpture.
“I am very diverse,” Sanchez De Alba said. “I can do just about everything. I make realistic airplane models as a hobby. If I want do an African elephant, I want it to look like an African elephant from the Savannah, which is very different from the Asian elephant or the elephant from the jungles.
“I am very particular in my subjects,” Sanchez De Alba said. “I try to be an interpreter of God’s creations. I try to be as close as possible to what he did.”
In El Paso – his adopted home of nearly 25 years — he is perhaps most well-known for creating the original Company E monument located on Delta Avenue near Bowie High School.
The bas relief sculpture honors a group of World War II Mexican-American soldiers, mostly from El Paso, who served and sacrificed with great distinction during the battle of Rio Rapido in Italy in 1944.
Many were killed or taken prisoner while trying to cross the heavily fortified river.
The original monument was unveiled in 2008, but its location has been criticized over the years as being too hidden.
Last year, the El Paso City Council approved a new Company E monument that will be located in Cleveland Square in Downtown, a much more prominent location near the main library and across the street from the home of the El Paso Chihuahuas baseball team.
Sanchez De Alba has been commissioned to build this new monument, which will be a three-dimensional sculpture showing these brave soldiers in action.
When completed, it will be an impressive 17 feet long, 18 feet high and 5 feet wide.
The original monument will remain on Delta.
“I travel all over the world and have seen monuments that talk millions of words in one scene, because it depicts the action,” Sanchez De Alba said. “It sucks you in.”
He intends the new Company E monument to show how difficult it was for these soldiers to cross the Rio Rapido and the extent of their sacrifice.
“It was a tremendous, tremendous task,” he said. “They did it with bravery, resolve and the cost of many, many lives. The ones who weren’t killed were taken prisoners. Seventeen were able to come back out of 124. Most of them were from El Paso, most of them from Bowie High.”
A powerful monument should make people think and want to discover the history behind that particular moment in time, Sanchez De Alba said.
“Monuments are a way of educating the people, the kids, raising awareness of people and making them interested in history,” he said.
“When you see a monument, the first thing you ask is, ‘Why? Why is this?’” he continued. “If you are curious, you are going to learn about it.”
For the past 19 years, Sanchez De Alba has been living his dream as a self-employed artist.
After a successful career as an engineer and regional supervisor in the maquiladora industry, he decided he needed a change and made the leap to pursue his first love — art.
“A lot of people approach me at art shows and tell me how lucky I am,” Sanchez De Alba said.
“Luck plays a small part,” he said. “It is hard work that makes you be what you are. If you keep dreaming about being an artist or whatever you want to be, you will only be dreaming. It is action that makes a difference.
“You have to dream first, but you have to put it in action and have a due date,” he continued. “Then, you stop dreaming and start living the reality.”
Sanchez De Alba said he’s loved art from the time he was a young boy growing up in the South American country of Bolivia.
He would visit art galleries, hang out and see what the artists would do. He would also make his own toys and model airplanes, a passion he still pursues as an adult.
Sanchez De Alba arrived in El Paso back in 1995. At the time, he worked for Clinton Industries, which supplied automated equipment to jean manufacturers, like Levi’s, Wrangler and Lee, in the maquiladoras.
After 22 years with Clinton Industries including five years here in the Borderland, he wanted a changed and tried to buy the company. When they were unable to agree on a price, Sanchez De Alba decided to turn to art.
“I knew failure was not an option,” Sanchez De Alba said. “I needed to make it happen no matter what. I put all my effort into it.”
He started his first studio out of his home. He later shared space at the Glasbox, a collective of local artists, before opening his own studio along Texas Avenue near Downtown El Paso.
He built his business over time by visiting art shows all over the country. He also took advantage of the city of El Paso’s public arts program, which dedicates 2 percent of capital improvement projects to the arts. This program was originally President Ronald Reagan’s idea and was adopted by cities all over the country, including El Paso, Sanchez De Alba said.
Sanchez De Alba also created the Vietnam memorial at the Old Glory Memorial in Northeast El Paso and the 6-foot-tall Husky dog sculpture at Chapin High School.
On Sept. 11 this past year, the statue he made for the Guardian of the Defenders Memorial in Wilmington, Del., was unveiled. This statue depicts an angel picking up a fallen soldier on the battlefield and is dedicated to service members who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In addition, he is widely regarded for his realistic sculptures of African animals.