Fifty years ago the United States witnessed a Chicano Art Renaissance, the start of a new Latino art movement that swept across the Southwest and Midwest regions of the nation. This art movement is often attributed to the soaring rise of mural paintings in some of America’s largest barrios. The role of small businesses in the barrios, especially Mexican restaurants, is often overlooked as a contributor to the rapid evolution of Chicano and Mexican American art.
Before 1980, Mexican-American and Latino art was largely invisible in books and media and nearly non-existent in American museums. Private collectors and corporations that often bought hundreds of art pieces for homes and offices rarely acquired Latino art. Latino artists across the Southwest seldom received art commissions and were scarcely included in regional art exhibits.
During the two decades of the 70s and 80s, Black and Latino art began to challenge the dominance of American and European art in museums and exhibits. For Latinos, the breakthrough in greater artistic visibility originated with the painting of murals in public spaces, but also in the placement of this genre of art in Mexican American cultural centers and small businesses, such as Mexican restaurants.
I first learned about the work of Latino artists and the mural art movement when I began to document murals in the mid-1970s in Los Angeles and San Diego and later in the ‘80s in San Antonio, Houston, and Austin. During the
‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, my family and I lived in Los Angeles, San Diego, Austin, and San Antonio, including a one-year residency in the San Francisco Bay area. I had a front-row view of the rise of Chicano art given that California and Texas led the nation in generating this art.
During the early 1980s, restaurant owners took the lead in displaying the work of Latino artists. Today, many of the Mexican restaurants in the Southwest display Latino art in their dining areas. In doing so, they contribute to educating the general public about an important art movement in the United States.
San Antonio entrepreneur Jorge Cortez of Mi Tierra Mexican Restaurant in Market Square and Latino artist Armando Sanchez led one of the early efforts to introduce artwork by Latinos in San Antonio. This endeavor began in the mid-1980s when Sanchez approached Cortez about painting a mural on the outside wall of Mi Tierra restaurant. After a thoughtful series of conversations, Cortez agreed to set aside a large wall in the back indoor dining section for the “American Dream” mural that focused on portraits of leaders from the business, military, political, cultural, and educational sectors of the city.
Mexican American artist Jesus “El Indio” Diaz Garza was selected to launch the “American Dream” mural. After Diaz Garza died, Cortez hired Roberto Ytuarte, a portrait painter who worked in the popular Market Square. For more than twenty years, Mi Tierra Mexican Restaurant has kept San Antonio native Ytuarte busy with art projects,
most notably the mural. Every other week it seems a new person is added to the mural. Labor leader Ceasar Chavez and local military heroes are among the prominent people of San Antonio portrayed in the mural. One figure, Sgt. Roy P. Benavidez, a Medal of Honor recipient, is painted next to former Texas U.S. Congressman Frank Tejeda, a Vietnam veteran.
Reporter Camille Garcia of Austin noted that “over the years, the painting evolved to include the likenesses of Cortez’s matriarch and patriarch, Cruz and Pedro Cortez, their children, and some of the family’s third generation as well.” Thousands of tourists who visit Market Square and Mi Tierra stop to buy a bakery treat or to eat at the restaurant. The bright murals contribute to the ambiance of this Mexican establishment.
The Cortez family also became major contributors to Jesse Treviño’s eight-story mosaic tile mural, “Spirit of Healing,” across the park from Mi Tierra restaurant. Jorge Cortez, who managed Mi Tierra, commissioned Armando Sanchez to paint a portrait of Selena for the restaurant following her tragic death. Ruben Cortez, the manager of Pico de Gallo restaurant, a part of the Mi Tierra enterprises, commissioned Sanchez to paint two murals at Pico de Gallo. The outdoor murals include a portrayal of the leaders of the Mexican Revolution and a portrait of Mexican singer Jorge Negrete. Another mural inside the restaurant captures more than one hundred well-known personalities in San Antonio.
When Romeo R. Garza retired as a pharmacist twenty years ago, he opened Los Laureles, a small Mexican restaurant on West Avenue in San Antonio. Garza earned his Pharmacy degree in 1973 from the University of Texas at Austin. A native of the Rio Grande Valley, Garza accepted a post in San Antonio with the thought of one day returning to his native borderland roots. He never left San Antonio and has become one of the city’s conservators of Chicano art.
In the 1980s Garza met Jesse Trevino and many other Chicano artists including Jesse and Alex Villarreal, the two brothers who worked as Trevino’s main assistants in the completion of the Santa Rosa Hospital eight-story “Spirit of Healing” mural. Garza also attended many art shows at Centro Cultural Aztlan and Joe Lopez’s Gallista Gallery. The art he purchased there now hangs on the walls of his restaurant.
Johnny Hernandez, one of San Antonio’s top chefs and a leading Mexican restaurant entrepreneur in Texas, has been committed to Latino art since he opened the popular La Gloria Mexican restaurant at the Pearl 15 years ago. His dad, Johnny Hernandez Sr., operated Johnny’s Cafe in the deep Westside and gave the younger Johnny his first lessons in cooking. Upon graduating from Kennedy High School, Hernandez Jr. set out for New York to study cooking professionally at the Culinary Institute of America. By all accounts, he well may be the first Chicano in Texas and perhaps the U.S. to earn a culinary degree from that prestigious academy.
In 2012, Hernandez opened La Fruteria on South Flores in Southtown and commissioned Rubio [Alex
Rubio] to paint a mural depicting a serape across the entire back wall. The serape painting, with stunning red colors, stands out as one of the more colorful artworks in San Antonio’s vast number of Mexican restaurants. Mexican folk art throughout and colorful glasswork make the restaurant vibrant.
Chicano and Mexican-American artists have made many gains over the past half-century, but many museums in the Southwest have only a limited inventory of their art. Latino museums, such as Chicago’s National Mexican Museum of Art and the Hispanic Cultural Art Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contribute greatly to the dissemination of knowledge about important Latino artworks. Nonetheless, today, as in years past, Mexican restaurants continue to play an important role in showcasing the works of Latino artists. Adelante!