SANTA CRUZ -- Enrique Ortiz Villegas calls himself a "colorist," and it fits. From his glittering beadwork icons to the multihued flowerbeds that he maintains on the grounds of the Shrine of St. Joseph, Villegas is a one-man emissary of beauty.
In Enrique's downtown Santa Cruz home, a Byzantine Madonna gazes serenely from her sparkling setting: one icon might require hundreds of thousands of bugle beads and crystals. Tilework materials occupy another area. Villegas' painted tile mural, "Servir al Pueblo," is on permanent display in Sacramento; his vibrant, hand-painted tiles surround St. Joseph's central fountain on West Cliff.
A trained vocalist, Enrique learned to sing Gregorian chants while attending high school at St. Joseph's Seminary and still practices the sacred singing. Allegiance to his Mexican heritage goes hand-in-hand with Villegas' love of mariachi songs, especially boleros (romantic ballads).
"My grandparents came over from Michoacan shortly after the Mexican Revolution," says Villegas. "When I was a kid, my father didn't want us to learn Spanish because of negative attitudes toward Mexicans back then. I couldn't even talk with my grandparents."
After completing his master's degree (the first in his family), Enrique spent six months in Mexico. "One day I realized I was thinking in Spanish."
With music goes dance. "I started dancing at 29, very late," comments Villegas, whose Mexican folk dance teacher encouraged him to take ballet. "I fell in love with ballet and ended up dancing in Sacramento Ballet's Nutcracker for three seasons."
While performing with Denver's National Chicano Dance Theatre, he learned jitterbug-swing, Pachuco-style. "I was awarded an artist in residence in Sacramento and taught neighborhood street kids Pachuco-swing. Their whole self-esteem changed."
He also creates meticulously crafted shirts, primarily Western and Hawaiian, and made 28 specially designed "aloha shirts" while dancing with Hula of Santa Cruz.
Villegas first visited the Shrine of St. Joseph at age 13, returning the next year to attend the seminary. After his beloved mother died in 2004, he moved to Santa Cruz and began volunteering at St. Joseph's doing yard work, which soon became part-time, then full-time employment.
He now maintains all of the shrine's extensive grounds, including the peaceful meditation walk, several statuary bowers and numerous flowerbeds, often incorporating cuttings from friends. He recently planted 432 ice plant cuttings that he promises will bloom spectacularly this spring.
Enrique is also the artist of a striking painting in the chapel's alcove, showing St. Joseph visiting a dying woman; she is Villegas' own mother at the end of her life.
"My mother taught and showed me, 'Always be very gracious,'" he says.
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GETTING TO KNOW
Enrique Ortiz Villegas
Born: March 22, 1944, in Sacramento
Nickname: 'My grandmother called me Guero -- fair one -- because of my light skin and eyes.'
Education: High school, St. Joseph's Minor Seminary; associate degree in social sciences, Sacramento City College; bachelor's and master's degrees focusing on Mexican art, Sacramento State
His roots: 'My grandmother started me gardening as a kid; I definitely got my love of gardening from her.'
Singing mentor: 'I took voice with Michele Rivard at Cabrillo College and she changed my life -- teaching me, helping and supporting me, encouraging me to sing better.'
About talent: 'When people say, "You're so talented," I tell them I don't really know what talent is: I just do the work.'
His heritage: 'I'm very proud of my heritage, Mexican and Catholic.'
His green friends: 'The folks at The Garden Company truly support my work at the shrine garden. Charlie and Maria Keutmann have donated many, many, many plants, and Lance contributes advice and cuttings.'
Side benefits of his job: 'Once when I was trimming the hedge in front of the shrine, I saw whales breaching. Another time, about 200 dolphins. I pray never to become complacent about this place we live in.'
Shrine of St. Joseph, Guardian of the Redeemer: Grounds open free to the public 7 a.m. to sunset daily; 544 W. Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, www.osjoseph.org/osj/shrine.php