Image: Cesar Martinez “SRA Estrada in the 1930’s” oil on canvas. Collection of Harriett and Ricardo Romo

The Texas Chicano art movement began approximately 50 years ago. A precise date for the beginning of an art movement is generally difficult because no one knows the exact date of when a movement starts. It is possible that the anniversary of the Texas Chicano Art Movement will fall in 2022 or we might have missed it already. This essay is an account of what I have discovered about the San Antonio origins of the Texas Chicano art revolution.
Five decades ago Chicano artists, especially college students, began to express themselves more adamantly through protest art and images of their community. Some of these artists were inspired by Mexican muralists and painters, notably Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros, who glorified the Mexican Revolution and its heroes. Others looked to the street art of Black Power artists who introduced new forms of the art of culture and resistance.
In San Antonio, a band of young but determined Chicano artists molded a new vision that blended the art of the post Mexican Revolution era filled with Nationalistic imagery with that of American expressionism that placed a high value on emotions and raising consciosness. For the first time we witnessed the emergence of new Chicano visions that signified a formal protest of the status quo.
Art historians credit the United Farm Workers [UFW] as a major catalyst for the early efforts to utilize art as a means of reaching the general public and educating them about the dire status of Latino farm laborers. Chicano artists in both California and Texas were influenced by the labor and political activities of the charismatic labor leader Cesar Chavez. Following a series of strikes in California and a call for a strike in South Texas, artists began using the arts to promote La Causa or the struggle for workers’ rights and better working conditions.
The Chicano art movement was also strongly influenced by contemporary cultural and political events. Every community with a sizable number of Mexican American residents, however, had a different evolution of Chicano identity. In Texas the transition from Mexican American art to Chicano art proceeded through a middle stage whereby the self identification terms of homeland [Aztlan] and La Raza prevailed.
By the late 1960s Texas Mexican American artists were moving away from traditional labels and figurative art exemplified by artist Porfirio Salinas, famous for his bluebonnets and Texas landscapes. A March 1964 New York Times article referred to Salinas as “LBJ’s favorite Artist.” Frustrated with the exclusion of their activist art in contemporary museums, La Raza artists turned to curating and showcasing their own work.
An example of this identity evolution emerged in San Antonio when Mexican American political activists and artists met under the banner of “La Raza Unida” in January 1968, an event which drew 1,200 delegates.
Chicano artists were also more politically active than their Mexican American predecessors. By the late 1960s Mexican American artists embraced terms such as La Raza and La Raza Unida. The Raza Unida term was first used in 1968 to distinguish the political difference between Mexican Americans who joined President Lyndon B. Johnson in his “War on Poverty” and those Latino grassroot activists who believed that the president was too limited in introducing programs to erase poverty and confront racial injustice in America.
When the Mexican American Youth Organization, under the leadership of Jose Angel Guttierrez, met near Mission, Texas in 1969, the group asked Carmen Lomas Garza, then living in San Antonio, to curate an art show for the participants. The use of the term “Mexican American Youth” demonstrates the acceptance of this ethnic identification in Texas as late as 1969.
By the early 70s, Mexican American artists in San Antonio had begun to form art groups and art collectives. Cesar Martinez, who had just returned from active duty in the United States Army, participated with both the Aztlan and Con Safos groups following his move to San Antonio. Martinez was educated at Texas A&I Kingsville with Amado Pena, Carlos Guerra, Carmen Lomas Garza, and Santa Barraza.
In the early 1970s several of these South Texas artists organized under the banner “Los Pintores de la Nueva Raza.” Two years later, some of the Los Pintores de Aztlan members formed a new group which they called “Con Safos.” Prominent Con Safos members included San Antonio College art professor Mel Casas in addition to Felipe Reyes, Jesse Trevino, Jesse Almazan, Chista Cantu, and Cesar Martinez.
These Chicano artists greatly influenced the artistic transition in the Latino communities of Texas. San Antonio art professor Mel Casas spoke for many of the emerging Raza or Chicano artists when he expressed the thought that “Chicano artists are duty bound to act as spokemen and give visual reality to the Chicano vision.”
Mel Casas’s comments appeared in Jacinto Quirarte’s monumental book Mexican American Artists. Casas also told Quirarte that Chicano artists are “iconoclasts, not by choice but by circumstances–out to destroy stereotypes and demolish visual cliches.” That Mel Casas interview in late 1971 points to one of the early metamorphosis moments for Chicano art.
Young Chicano artists wanted not only to “destroy stereotypes,” but also to create new imagery that addressed the socio-political realities of their barrios. In the 1960s the majority of Latinos lived in communities distinguished by their poverty, poor education, and segregation.
For his trail-blazing book Mexican American Artists, art historian Jacinto Quirarte documented the lives of dozens of early Mexican American artists and finished his book in 1972, just as the Chicano art movement was beginning to blossom. Quirarte’s last chapter, “Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano Art” anticipated the coming artistic transformation.
The research for this essay has demonstrated the need for more studies to document the Chicano Art Movement as a follow-up on the early works of Jacinto Quirarte and later that of art historians Carlos Francisco Jackson. Gary Keller, Constance Cortez, and Ruben Cordova. We can also anticipate new influences in the Chicano Art Movement as cultural groups associated with Latinx, for example, begin to emerge and reflect the growing diversity in our Latino communities.