Luis Lopez celebrated his 45th year of canvas painting and public murals by transitioning to full time creative work in public art sculpture. While he remains proud of his murals at San Antonio College, paintings at the University of Texas-San Antonio, and murals and paintings at various popular Mexican restaurants, he believed it was time to move on to other challenging aspects of creative art.
Luis Lopez’s life is one of adaptation and transformation. Although he emigrated to Texas as a teenager, his story tells us much about the changing dynamics of Mexican migration during the second major 20th century phase of Mexican migration [post 1960s].
His career illustrates how Latino artists fared in the growing art community of San Antonio. Lopez is proud to be a U.S. Latino, but he also strongly identifies as a Mexican artist.
Young Luis grew up in the 1950s in the Mexican Borderlands, in a family with few opportunities for an adequate education. In elementary school, he showed promise and was selected to study math two years beyond secondary school. However, his education ended in the eight grade because his family, subsistence farmers, needed his labor. The family also raised chivos [goats], and as a child young Luis helped to herd goats.
His family left their small ranchito when his father took a job working to irrigate farmland near the small Mexican pueblo of Nuevo Progreso on the Rio Bravo [The Rio Bravo is the lower Rio Grande River]. Luis, only eight years old when he arrived on the border, had to adjust to a new life: his new home was in an ejido.
To secure the peaceful transition from violence to stability after the turbulent Mexican Revolution, Mexican political leaders instituted a land reform policy known as the ejido system. The Lopez family lived in an ejido village which consisted of land communally held in the traditional Indian system of land tenure. Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, who led his armed rebel forces flying the banner of ”Tierra y Libertad” [Land and Liberty], proposed the ejido system as a federal program guaranteed by the Mexican Constitution.
The ejido system represented a practical solution for landless peasants who fled peonage work on the large haciendas of central Mexico at the start of the Revolution in 1910. At the time, Mexico was largely rural. Nearly 90 percent of the nation’s workforce was tied to the agricultural and livestock economy. By the late 1950s when Luis’s family moved into the ejido, only 50 percent of Mexican workers lived on ejidos. Lopez did not see a prosperous future in an ejido community and at age fourteen he left home to travel and explore throughout Mexico. He worked at various jobs in Mexico, settling for a time in the Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo.
Lopez emigrated to Texas in 1973 following his wife and new baby son. Settling in San Antonio, he initially found work painting signs and pictorial images for a billboard company and then worked as a dishwasher and busboy at Mi Tierra Mexican Restaurant. He told me that nearly all the restaurants needed dishwashers because restaurant workers never stayed very long in the same job. Luis was ambitious and after several years, he managed to move into a waiter’s position at a popular Northside Mexican restaurant where he was pushed to learn English. Those jobs offered flexible hours which allowed him to meet other artists and pursue painting. He continued working in restaurant jobs for eleven years, quitting only after finding work in his true love, art.
Lopez had not given much thought to becoming an artist until he met Armando Sanchez in 1976 at the famed Mercado, the San Antonio Market Square. I have written several stories about Armando and was pleasantly surprised to learn that he served as Lopez’s first artistic mentor. Armando was involved in the painting of a new sign for the Mi Tierra restaurant in the heart of Market Square. The owners of this Mexican restaurant, founded in 1946, were constantly renovating. Lopez needed a place
to stay and a job. Armando shared his rented apartment with Lopez and gave him some art guidance. Lopez met the Pete Cortez family, owners of Mi Tierra, La Margarita, and Pico de Gallo, who had hired Jesus Garza to paint the inside of the Mi Tierra restaurant. Garza hired Lopez as an assistant to help paint Mi Tierra’s first mosaic mural.
By the mid 1980s, Lopez, who had worked two jobs for most of his life, was able to devote much of his time to art. He worked in Armando’s art shop in Market Square selling original pieces to tourists and local residents alike. For the tourists, Lopez painted scenes of San Antonio’s Riverwalk, the Missions, and the Alamo on small canvases. One of Armando’s favorite clients was Maya Angelou. She came to town often to visit her lifelong friend, Aaronetta Pierce. Over a period of several years, Ms Angelo bought six paintings from Lopez. Upon her death, the Maya Angelou estate contacted Lopez thoughtfully to inform him of her passing.
Lopez’s big art break came in 1991 when managers of a fern and wreath company, Continental Floral Greens, hired him to paint oil landscape scenes on large canvas formats. For Christmas, Continental Floral Green gave its best customers a landscape painting by Lopez. The company managers paid Lopez very well, and he eventually saved sufficient money to buy property in midtown San Antonio to build a home/studio. Although his work with Continental Floral Green was largely seasonal, Lopez’s increased earnings enabled him to leave his restaurant job in 1992 to devote full time to the arts.
Over the past ten years Lopez has devoted his time and talents to a new artistic field, metal sculpture. Among his recent works are a tall metal sculpture for the Metro Hospital and a “planet sculpture” for the San Antonio College Planetarium. Lopez stays busy on many different projects. Recently he completed the building of a villa on a mountain top in Mexico near the U.S.-Mexico border. While he enjoys the villa thoroughly, spending extensive time in improving the structure and landscape, he spends an equal amount of time in San Antonio doing what he loves best, creating art.