On February 13th of this year, San Antonio lost Jesse Treviño, one of America’s premier Latino artists. He was 76 years old. Treviño had been ill for the past year following a surgery for cancer. Treviño endured nearly a dozen serious and painful surgeries since being wounded in Vietnam in 1967. Many of his cancer issues were related to serving in a region where Americans used burn pits, as well as napalm and other dangerous biological chemicals against the enemy. His monumental tile mosaic sculptures and murals are among the city’s best known works of art.
Jesse Treviño was born in Monterrey, Mexico and came to the United States as a young child. His father, Juan Treviño, immigrated from Monterrey, Mexico to the United States in the late 1920s. Juan Treviño drove trucks and repaired cars for a living. He worked as a mechanic in San Antonio when he first met his future wife Dolores in the nearby city of New Braunfels. Following their marriage in the mid 1930s, Juan and Dolores moved to Monterrey, Mexico where most of the Treviño’s twelve children, including Jesse, were born.
Juan Treviño and his growing family moved back to San Antonio in 1951 and bought a house on Monterey Street in the Westside neighborhood of Prospect Hill. Dating back to the turn of the century, the Prospect Hill community had been popular with German, Italian, and Lebanese families. In the years after World War II, the neighborhood became a popular destination for middle class Latinos. Prospect Hill emerged as one of few integrated neighborhoods in the city.
Prospect Hill at this time was a quiet neighborhood with modest but elegant homes. Latinos began moving into Prospect Hill in the mid 1940s, and by the 1950s they represented nearly half of the residents in the community. Among the first Latino families to buy homes in Prospect Hill were the parents of Lionel Sosa, founder of the nation’s largest Latino advertising firm; Jorge Cortez, whose family developed the nationally recognized Mi Tierra restaurant enterprise; and the family of San Antonio Mayor and U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Henry Cisneros. Years later when Lionel Sosa headed his advertising agency, he bought several of Treviño’s paintings for the agency office, including the famed Treviño portrait of the San Antonio Mexican Theater, the Alameda.
Treviño began drawing as a young child, and his interest in art and design led him to Fox Tech where his older brothers had attended. Treviño’s early years were formative and important to his development as an artist.
After finishing high school in 1965, Treviño headed East to the prestigious Art Students League of New York on a scholarship. His mentors and teachers there included some of America’s finest portrait painters. Additionally, he studied alongside some of the brightest young artists in the nation. Treviño’s stay in New York lasted less than a year, ending when he was drafted into the United States Armed Services.
Anthony Head’s biography, Spirit: The Life and Art of Jesse Treviño, best tells the Treviño story. Head described Treviño’s Vietnam service and his return after being wounded from the war as the beginning of a tortured experience extending from many months to many years. Head wrote: “Under heavy fire, Treviño sustained life-threatening injuries.” Treviño’s injuries were devastating. He seriously injured his right arm, which was his painting arm, and his right hand. Eventually his arm was amputated below the elbow, but Head wrote, “Jesse had already started training himself to live
left-handed—especially as an artist.” Few major painters
in history have had to overcome greater physical challenges than Jesse Treviño.
In 1997 Treviño created a huge mosaic tile mural, the “Spirit of Healing,” a masterpiece constructed on nine floors of the hospital which is one of the most visible murals in Texas. The mural is a mammoth 93 by 43 foot wall that required thousands of small pieces of tile of 70 different colors. At its completion, the art piece was reputed to be the largest ceramic mural in America. The mural depicts a young boy (his son) holding a dove under the watchful protection of a guardian angel. Because of its central location near touristy Market Square and the busy I-35 corridor, this mural is viewed by millions every year.
Treviño is also known for his monumental art mosaic tribute to the Virgin of Guadalupe, “Veladora,” located at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, considered the heart of the Westside. The 40-foot Veladora that Treviño
created in 2003 is one of the most popular art pieces on the Westside. In addition to being an outstanding artist, Jesse Treviño is an inspiration to individuals of all ages and backgrounds who are challenged by difficult circumstances in their quest for achievement and success.
Anthony Head noted that the Treviño story is one “of sheer determination to follow a dream. When he was at
his lowest, Jesse found faith in himself to continue working. He simply was not going to be denied the life he always wanted to live.” My more than 40 years of friendship with Treviño has allowed me to understand his purpose and to appreciate his art and inspiration from close up. He was a true fighter. He never gave up, and he got up many times after being knocked down. He fought the good fight. His life of overcoming challenges is a lesson for us all.
Treviño’s artistic legacy will live forever in San Antonio. Several of his paintings of the Westside of San Antonio were selected to be included in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and San Antonio Museum of Art during the 1990s, making him among the first Latino artists to receive such prestigious recognition.
Jesse Treviño has left San Antonio and beyond a bountiful archive of artistic creations that promote positive images of the Chicano community. Treviño’s determination and success in overcoming devastating life experiences establish him as an heroic model for future generations.