The Holy Mother intervenes between gas-masked soldiers wielding rifles with bayonets. She breaks one of the bayonets. Mustard gas clouds obscure the battlefield.
A woman hangs lifeless from a cross in dirty white garb, chained by her hands and feet. She might be a nurse or a nun. I can’t tell.
Mary, dressed in loud yet regal clothes, stares at me from the church’s altar. The baby Jesus, clad in an unembellished white dress, sits on her knee.
These murals welcomed me to St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale.
The church’s pastor, the Rev. Albert Zagar, commissioned Maximilian “Maxo” Vanka, a Croatian immigrant, to paint 25 murals on blank walls in 1937-41. His only requirement was that some of the murals be religious. Vanka delivered.
“Where’s the holy water?” I asked myself. It was the first time in five years that I’d chosen to go to a church, but the routine was a familiar one. I was raised in a devout Roman Catholic Mexican household. I had to pay my dues to God in his home.
I had visited dozens of churches across the world, but these murals troubled me. Nothing was peaceful. I savored the uneasiness.
These murals are said to hold universal truths. Everyone told me: “If you go look at them, you’ll find parts of yourself.”
“Croatian Mother Gives Her Son for War” depicts a gathering of women in white mourning dress preparing a soldier’s body for burial. Rows and rows of white crosses fill the hillsides, stretching toward the distant church on top of the farthest hill.
On the opposite wall, “Immigrant Mother Gives Her Sons for Industry” shows women dressed in black crying over the body of a man killed in a mining accident. A storm of dust clouds the landscape, except for the mining complex atop the hill.
The murals ask the chilling question, “How do you want to die?” I don’t want to die at all. The murals also ask, “How can you stop this from happening?” I don’t know how to stop death.
The men in the mines are Croatian immigrants who sought better lives abroad for themselves and their families. The other men are Croatians who died defending their nation’s values against the tyranny of another nation.
It’s a painful irony to know that these men left a country that they loved because it had no more to offer them. The alternative was to travel to a foreign land that exploited them until their deaths.
I have heard why my parents decided to leave Mexico. At the time, my mother was a lawyer and my father was a seasonal migrant worker. They were a middle-class couple living the Mexican dream. They owned a house, a car and even some properties.
It was ideal for them, but not for me and my siblings. They wanted us to have the liberty to pursue our passions (as long as it was financially sound). They wanted us to dream, so they moved to South Carolina.
Within a few years, my dad had a life-or-death surgery. He lived. My mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. She survived. No one was ready to die.
The drug wars caught up with their hometowns a couple of years after they left. They’d get calls from my aunts and uncles describing the latest shootout. They said it wasn’t so bad — only a couple people were injured and one person died. Minimal chaos was good news.
My aunts and uncles obeyed drug cartel-enforced curfews, paid dues to certain cartels for “protection” and continued to live on. The cartels became their new religion, and they were devout out of fear.
I was 14 when my dad’s cousin went missing in his home state of Guerrero. A few days after he disappeared, the kidnappers called with the ransom demand. How much is a person’s life worth? It’s not priceless. My aunt and uncle sold all of their belongings. They delivered the money and waited for the phone call. No one ever called again.
My father’s cousin was one of countless kidnappings in Mexico. I remember thinking how the casket would be empty, and how my aunt would fill it with her tears.
“Who caused World War II?” I asked myself. The Nazis. What did they want? They wanted power and to erase non-Aryan people from the earth. They wanted the earth all to themselves. They were greedy.
In the Vanka mural “The Capitalist,” a rich man reads the stock reports and smokes a cigar. A black servant holding a tray of tea stands next to a table filled with a gluttonous spread. A skeletal hand reaches toward the rich man. Will it drag him down to hell or congratulate him on his success?
If there is no demand, there is no supply. But there is a demand, an American demand for Mexican drugs. The demand for drugs demands violence, demands death. What is the line between enough and too much? When does wanting more become greed? When do we stop being happy?
Opposite “The Capitalist” is a mural called “Croatian Family.” The father and children pray over pieces of plain bread as the mother brings the soup. They’re the simple people pushed to the edges of society by capitalism. Christ looks over them, offering his blessing.
My mom prays each morning, during lunch and right before she goes to bed. I can hear her muttering for the souls of the wrongfully killed to reach heaven, the souls of the killers to be forgiven, and for an end to the needless killing. She believes everyone is redeemable.
I don’t pray anymore. I used to pray out of habit because that’s what my mother taught me. I did it so everyone around me felt good — except me. Sometimes my prayers were fulfilled and I felt validated. Other times my prayer fell flat, and I felt isolated. He had ignored me. He didn’t want to help me.
I stopped going to church when I went to college. I lied to my mom for the first year and told her I was still going. She was happy and I was content knowing that she was happy.
Vanka wasn’t religious. Church members say he never attended Mass at St. Nicholas. He used to say that he was deeply spiritual. Vanka, who called his murals his “gift to America,” died swimming off the coast of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, in 1963.
I didn’t find my answers in the murals. The obvious explanation is that I am not a Croatian immigrant and no longer a devout Catholic. However, Vanka was asking the same questions I am asking. Maybe I’ll find the answers for both of us.
Arturo Pineda, a senior at Yale University, was a summer intern at the Post-Gazette.