The story of Martín Ramírez’s life is curious and tragic. A tenant rancher from Jalisco, Mexico, he was Catholic and un hombre de caballo (a man of the horse), a badge of social standing in his community. In 1925, he left his family and came to California seeking high-paying work with the railroads. Six years later, because he was exhibiting an odd and disorderly demeanor, he was arrested in Stockton and committed to a state hospital. Later transferred to a facility in Auburn, Ramírez occupied his time with drawing, using any materials at hand: crayons, charcoal, fruit juice, shoe polish, and saliva applied with matchsticks.
Untrained, Ramírez was gifted at pictorial organization and graphic design. His compositions tended to sprawl off the paper, and when this happened he simply attached more and continued. In The Virgin, Ramírez represents Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception venerated in his homestate, with her attributes the globe and snake. Ramírez’s frontal portrayal with raised hands shows her welcoming all. While the snake represents the smashing of heresies, it may also symbolize Mexico. The artist has bestowed Our Lady with a crown, an adaptation of her halo or borrowed from depictions of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
During his years in Auburn, Ramírez’s drawings came to the attention of art professionals and were subsequently collected and exhibited. Ramírez’s first exhibition was organized by the Crocker.