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Latino organization launches campaign to restore Vietnam War veteran's mural in Ft. Madison

Roberto Sanchez
A rendering of a restored mural by Vietnam War veteran Felix "Felis" Sanchez. It used to be displayed on the side of the LULAC building in Fort Madison. It has since been painted over, and the family has launched a campaign to restore it.

To break a tie in a scholarship competition, a prospective college student named Felix "Felis" Sanchez painted a mural of a matador and a charging bull on the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Fort Madison building in 1963.

He won the scholarship, attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and the Universidad de las Américas in Mexico City. After graduation in 1964, Sanchez served in the U.S. Army in the First Cavalry Division as an artist. His job was to depict the war through drawing and painting.

Sanchez's mural was eventually painted over, and the family isn't entirely sure why.

Roberto Sanchez, Felis' brother, remembered he was there on the day Felis started painting. Felis had bought Sanchez a soda and a snack and sat him down outside so he could work. This was a special moment for Sanchez, as he said he didn't often get moments alone with his older brother. It was a big deal to him to hang out with the best marble player in the neighborhood.

"There wasn't really anything that he thought that he couldn't do. Because he saw the things he had to do—that we didn't have the money—that he had to do this on his own in order to do the things that he loves," Sanchez said.

The younger Sanchez said he remembered Felis being very humble about the mural. He didn't show concern that his scholarship-winning artwork was no longer displayed on the wall after a few years.

Credit Sanchez Family
Roberto Sanchez remembers his brother Felis painting all the time. At the beach once, Felis painted by hand a scene, which he eventually gifted to his mother.

"[He] didn't say a word. But I could just tell, his first reaction, he was like, 'wow,' you know? That there was a lot of memories of him doing that and stuff, but he never said a word. And everyone brought it up, even to his last days," Sanchez said.

That wasn't entirely surprising, Sanchez admitted. At one point, he remembered his brother had planned to try out for the St. Louis Cardinals and didn't tell anyone about it. Felis instead chose art school.

Sanchez hesitated, choked on his words, "Sorry, it's kind of hard to talk about that part of it, but it's still kind of fresh."

The Iowa native worked as an artist with the Seattle Times for about 30 years. But in 2019, Felis died from Agent Orange at age 76.

Now, his surviving family, in partnership with LULAC, has launched 'Operation Restoration' to bring the painting back to life. Sanchez said he also hopes to make some sort of plaque describing his brother's life, awards and contributions to the community.

"So when people come there, especially young kids, they just don't see a painting. They see somebody that grew up in the neighborhood that they grew up, and that they can do it too," he said. "They can accomplish whatever their dreams are, things like that. So that's why we're pushing to get that painting back up. To me, he was [an] inspiration for a lot of people, especially in our neighborhood."

Sanchez, the second youngest in the family of nine, said his brother would be happy and humbled about the work put in to preserve his memory.

Credit Roberto Sanchez
People pose for a photo in front of the original mural.

"When people start hearing about how [and] what this guy has done and accomplished and things like that, they want to remember him. Not just the family," he added.

The Sanchez family had worked with an art restorationist in the past, but the Fort Madison Daily Democrat reported that artist backed out before the restoration was complete. Sanchez said the family has already spent around $3,000. He estimated to have the entire painting redone, and redone well, it may get up to $15,000. Especially to hopefully hire someone from Felis' alma mater.

Felis always told Sanchez art was supposed to be felt, not just looked at. An investment, Sanchez said, that is completely worth it for Fort Madison and its surrounding communities.