Three hundred years ago, a small band of Spanish friars and Mexican mestizo soldiers with their families built a Spanish village near the Yanaguana River [San Antonio River] headwaters. The Spaniards named the nearby clear gushing springs San Pedro Creek. The total number of colonizers numbered less than thirty recruits mainly from the Northern Mexican Provinces of Coahuila and Nuevo Leon, but their efforts launched one of the most important community-building endeavors in Texas history.
The early success of the inaugural San Antonio pueblo rested on the ample flow of fresh water from a giant underground aquifer and the presence of friendly Coahuiltecan tribes. The Coahuiltecans had been at war with the Lipan Apaches for many generations, and they welcomed the friars and soldiers who promised added protection from raids.
An informal pact between the Indigenous tribes and newcomers allowed the Catholic church, the Spanish civil authorities, and different cultural societies to coexist in an otherwise arduous living environment. With the help of the Coahuiltecan tribes, the colonizers built five missions and the foundation of the great city of San Antonio.
The first European residents of San Antonio
introduced the Catholic religion, the Spanish language, horses, cattle, numerous crops, and overall a different lifestyle from the Indigenous people. The first colonists, mostly Mestizo soldiers, intermarried with the
Coahuiltecan women, much as their ancestors had done over the previous two hundred years in the interior of Mexico. The Spanish colonists lived thousands of miles from the people who governed them. Colonization had many flaws, and nearly 300 years after their arrival as Spanish citizens, the Mestizos sought independence from the mother country.
In the Battle of the Medina River of 1813, San Antonio Mestizo residents took up arms against Spanish Royal forces with hopes of securing Mexican independence from Spain. This was the bloodiest battle in Texas history. Spain put down the rebellion, and the Province of Texas remained under the Spanish Crown until 1821 when Mexico won its independence. Texas’s status as a Mexican province lasted only until 1836 when Anglo Texans defeated Mexican General Antonio de Santa Ana at San Jacinto. Over the next hundred years, Northern European immigrants replaced Mexicans as the majority population in San Antonio.
The earliest recorded efforts to preserve Mexican culture in San Antonio began with the Comite Patriotico Mexicano and El Patronato in the early 1940s. In 1944 the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in San Antonio [UNAM] began offering classes in Spanish, Mexican Literature, and Mexican History in San Antonio. Through the efforts of Romulo Munguia, one of the founders of El Patronato and president of the Comite Patriotico Mexicano, the UNAM established a campus in San Antonio in 1946. [Romulo Munguia is the grandfather of former Mayor and HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros].
San Antonio, the seventh-largest city in the United States over the last two decades, intensified efforts to recover its rich Mexican past in the late 1960s with the advent of Mexican and Chicano artists who later became the Con/Safo group.
In 1967, a new art movement began in San Antonio with informal meetings of several Chicano artists who gathered at the Almazan Gallery at La Villita. Jose
Esquivel, whom I interviewed two years ago, recalled that initially, the group was more of a gathering of art buddies who had known each other from their commercial art classes at San Antonio Technical and Vocational High School. Nearly all the artists had day jobs and painted in the evenings and on weekends. Jesse Almazan, for instance, had a good-paying job at Lackland Air Force Base where he attained a GS12 rank. Almazan loved art and opened his gallery at La Villita in 1968 where he spent weekends selling and discussing art. The artists began meeting twice a week with Felipe Reyes and Santos
Martinez leading many of the discussions.
When San Antonio College Art Professor Mel Casas joined the group in 1970, the group identified themselves as Pintores Chicanos de San Antonio. Casas and Felipe Reyes offered a new name for the group: Con/Safo,
abbreviated as c/s. The term, which dates back to the 1940s, is associated with a magic power desire that one’s name, words, or art will be protected and not defaced. Art historian George Vargas noted in his book Contemporary Chicano Art that those Con/Safo artists had a social and political mission, quoting their statement, “We are an act of provocation. We are a point of contention. We are visual abrasion. We are visual projectionists for the Chicanos….We are the artists….c/s.”
In a 1972 Brown Paper report Mel Casas wrote, “We are iconoclasts, not by choice but by circumstance–out to destroy stereotypes and visual cliches. Because we are Chicanos we are not anti-Anglo or anti-Mexican…We are pro-human, and because of it we are Chicanos.” Mel Casas, who later received national and international recognition, produced over a period of 25 years [1965-1989] a remarkable series of 150 large paintings that he titled “Humanscapes.”
A native of El Paso, Casas completed post-graduate work at the University of the Americas in Mexico City in the mid-1960s. He acquired great familiarity with both Mexican and American art. Upon his death in 2014, a Smithsonian writer commented, “Looking at Casas’ art, we witness an artist who prodded our awareness of multiple American realities. Perhaps this is why Casas called himself a ‘cultural adjuster.’” The unidentified writer concluded with a sobering thought about Casas’ influence:
“I treasure Casas’ perspective, and others of his generation, who questioned what counts as American culture during a turning point in our national history.”
The Bullock Museum of Texas History recently exhibited the works of Roberto Rios, a talented member of the early Con/Safo group. The Museum noted that Rios was a part of the group Con/Safo “which was a politically-based art group in southern Texas focusing on the politics and concerns of Mexican Americans.”
The Bullock exhibit is an important artistic accounting of early efforts to preserve Mexican American and Chicano
culture. Such an accounting is long overdue. Because many of the works of the Con/Safo artists are in private collections or lost to art history, the gathering,
preservation, and exhibition of Latino art undertaken by larger museums with staff and a generous endowment of space is essential for the recovery of this art genre’s contributions to art history and Texas culture.
Bullock curators saw the importance of Rios not just for his creativity and sound execution but because of his message which “focused on the poverty, inequality, and despair that many Mexican Americans faced during this time.” Aptly, Bullock curators acknowledged that the Con/Safo artists “kickstarted the Chicano Art Movement.”
Recovering the work of these early Latino artists represents an important part of the recognition of Chicano and Mexican history and acknowledges Chicano contributions to the building of San Antonio’s culture.