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Hidden Treasure 

Half a century ago, ex-heroin dealer Alfredo Santos created an epic work of art inside San Quentin. Now, he's coming back to be honored for it.

Wednesday, Jul 23 2003
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The work, lasting two years, was conducted exclusively at night when the dining halls weren't in use. Typically he started by 8 p.m. and worked as long as the spirit moved him, he says. That usually meant until at least midnight and often -- "if I got on a roll" -- until sunrise. At times he painted almost nonstop for days, he says. Other days, he didn't work at all. "They [prison officials] respected my rhythms."

Except for a few inmate volunteers he was permitted to draft to move scaffolding (Santos had plenty of willing helpers because of after-hours access to the kitchen that such duty afforded), he worked alone. "I felt like Michelangelo, and the chow hall was my Sistine Chapel," he says. All the while, he was racing the clock, mindful of when he would become eligible for parole. Had he had more time, he would have gone back and added splashes of color to the reddish-brown oil used to execute the murals, he says. But that wasn't in the cards. "As I got to the end, I wasn't going to suggest it. I was ready to get out, and I didn't want anyone on the parole board inventing an excuse to keep me."


The third of five children, Santos grew up in San Diego as the self-professed "black sheep" of the family. His union organizer father, a carpenter, talked about radical politics at the dinner table ("I knew who Karl Marx was when the kids in my class only knew about Groucho Marx") and taught Alfredo and his brother how to work with wood. Santos preferred to draw. From the time he entered school in San Diego's Logan Heights neighborhood, teachers took note of his abilities. But his art talent also figured in his early troubles. He rebelled in high school, he says, after school officials took away two of the three art classes in which he had tried to enroll. After getting in several scrapes, he was kicked out of school in the 10th grade for punching a teacher.

Heading to Los Angeles as a teenager and sporting a mustache that made him appear much older, Santos bused tables at Hollywood restaurants, including the original Brown Derby, and took up running with a fast crowd. An associate enlisted him in a scheme to smuggle illegal immigrants across the border from Tijuana. Arrested at age 19, he spent 18 months in a federal prison in Oklahoma. Upon his release, he returned to San Diego and began smuggling marijuana as a sideline while helping his father build houses. His first and only "deal" involving heroin resulted in the guilty plea that sent him to San Quentin. He had come to San Francisco to make a delivery and was arrested in a hotel not far from Union Square, he says.

But Santos insists that even then he had no intention of making crime a career. "I was always going to be an artist," he says. "In that sense [San Quentin] was good for me. It was really the first time I could focus on what I wanted to do without any distractions." Yet in communications with his family while in prison, he rarely mentioned the mural project. His father, who drove to San Quentin to pick him up the day he was released in 1955, never even saw any pictures of it. "I think he would have been pleased," says Santos, "but you know I did this in a prison, and it's not like you go around publicizing it."

While in San Quentin he had developed the ability to do caricatures in less than a minute, which served him well when he took the job as a "street artist" at Disneyland upon being paroled. Stashing away his money, Santos was able to return to San Diego in 1957 and set up his own studio and small gallery downtown, while showing his budding portfolio of oil paintings and wood sculptures at a succession of one-man shows. But the newly acquired prosperity in his hometown came to a halt after yet another scrape with the law.

A press release for the opening of his gallery in Guadalajara in 1961 proclaimed that the artist had come to Mexico to "have more freedom to express himself artistically." That was putting it mildly. He had fled the United States to avoid going back to jail. By 1960 his San Diego gallery and studio had become a mainstay of that city's nascent arts scene. That spring the police raided it looking for marijuana.

The stash was above their heads, cleverly attached to a parachute suspended from the two-story ceiling. All the cops found was a roach clip or two. Nonetheless, they arrested Santos. He pleaded guilty to one count of possession, then a felony. The night before he was to appear in court for sentencing, Santos made a fateful decision. He and his 19-year-old girlfriend ran out and got married and took off for Mexico. "I advised him not to go, but he was afraid that with his prison record they'd throw him in jail for six months to a year -- which was entirely likely -- and he didn't want to be locked up again," recalls the San Diego attorney who represented him, Max Lercher, 77, a longtime Santos friend.

The marriage dissolved after a few months, with the homesick bride returning to California. But Santos flourished south of the border.

"Guadalajara gave him a fresh start in many ways," says Lercher, who was amazed at Santos' wood sculpting and abstract paintings upon arriving there for the first of several visits. Others were impressed, too. Joan Woodbury, a Palm Springs art critic and socialite who had been a B-movie actress in the '30s and '40s, declared Santos to be "one of Mexico's foremost impressionists" in one of her newspaper columns. At her urging, he slipped back into California for a monthlong show at a Palm Springs gallery despite being on the lam.

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Ron Russell

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