Among Santa Barraza’s earliest international art recognition was an 1983 exhibit in Mexico City “A Traves de la Frontera.” The show traveled to all of Mexico’s border towns including Tijuana, Juarez, and Matamoros. Eight years later in 1991, her art was also exhibited at “Alma, Corazón y Vida: Multi-Media/Multi-Cultural Art of Women from the Western Hemisphere” in Rome, Italy.
Barraza, a South Texas Kingsville native, experienced additional American exposure in 1990 when her mixed media drawing was selected for the Wright Gallery “CARA” exhibit at the University of California Los Angeles. The Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, known as CARA, traveled to ten American cities and included Washington, DC’s Smithsonian National Museum of American Art.
At the time of her selection for the CARA exhibit, Barraza was teaching at Penn State University’s School of Visual Arts in University Park, Pennsylvania. In 1997 she was hired to teach art by Texas College of Arts and Industries [Texas A&I], a predominantly Latino campus in South Texas. [In 1993 Texas A&I changed its name to Texas A&M-Kingsville]. Barraza taught for 23 years on that campus where she first discovered her passion for art. Her story is inspirational and worthy of study. Here is how her art career began.
Eighteen year old Barraza enrolled at Texas A&I in her hometown of Kingsville in 1969. She arrived during a year of unprecedented political unrest across America’s colleges. The unrest, largely associated with the anti-Vietnam war movement, resulted in mass demonstrations and protests on college campuses and in urban public spaces.
Mexican American students at the Texas A&I campus were likewise politicized by anti-war activists in the late 1960s. Even greater political influences came from labor organizers involved in Cesar Chavez’ farm workers movement in South Texas and the rise of “El
Movimiento” [Chicano political movement] associated with the Mexican American Youth Organizations [MAYO] and later La Raza Unida Party.
Barraza had intended to study mathematics, but an art course in her second semester convinced her to major in art. At Texas A&I, where she only studied for three semesters, Barraza met a score of Mexican American artists who identified with “El Movimiento” and believed that through their art they could help “la causa.” Barraza’s artist statement for the CARA exhibit included thoughts about growing up. She wrote: “Coming of age in a border-town community in Texas during the 1960s and early 1970s helped shape my art.”
Barraza wrote in her autobiographical essay that her years at the Kingsville campus were exciting, “with the Chicano movement, the women’s movement, peace movement protests against the Vietnam War, and other movements for social, political, and economic change.” Chicano artists Amado Pena, Cesar Martinez, and Jose Rivera were among the Kingsville students involved in “El Movimiento” in the mid 1960s. They remained in contact with students like Barraza and Carmen Lomas Garaza who attended A&I in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
With the intent of pursuing a bachelor of fine arts degree, Barraza transferred to the University of Texas at Austin. In the early 1970s she was one of few Chicana
students in UT Austin’s art department. The art department faculty included renowned art scholars Linda Schele and Jacinto Quirarte. She also took classes in the newly minted Mexican American Studies program.
Barraza gave careful thought to her artistic approach and philosophy. She wrote: “I am interested in borders as regions of appropriation. I appropriated pre-Columbian symbols and myths in historical and contemporary symbols as mechanisms for resistance to oppression and assimilation.” [CARA Catalogue]
Barraza currently lives in a community once populated by the Karankawas and takes pride in her Indian heritage: her great great grandmother was Karankawa by the name of Cuca Giza. Barraza writes that “I live in South Texas because I feel I am in my element of culture and environment. The land feeds me physically and spiritually.” As a tribute to her indigenous roots, she includes in many of her works the earth plants such as agave, maguey, corn, and mesquite trees which provided food, clothing, and shelter for the first people of the Americas.
As a Chicano feminist and cultural interpretor, many of her works included in her book, Santa Barraza: Artist of The Borderlands, draw upon historical figures such as La Virgin Guadalupe, La Malinche, and La Llorona. Her more modern visual presentations include labor leader Emma Tennayuca, singers Selena and Lydia Mendoza, curandero [faith healer] Don Pedro Jaramillo, and the Soldaderas of the Mexican Revolution.
Barraza recently retired and remains committed to her art. She continues to exhibit and enjoys public presentations about her art and borderland subjects. She has also opened an art Gallery in the downtown center of Kingsville to show Latino art and to continue her commitment to promoting images of cultural winterpretations and affirmation.