For November’s Siempre Verde: Music for Feeling & Healing poster art, I knew I wanted to muerto-fy a classic Mexican-American album cover, and there is no record that proclaims GATEWAY to me as much as Linda Ronstadt’s Canciones de Mi Padre (1987).
I asked Mary Agnes to re-imagine the cover art in her signature style, and she produced a painting for all the “healings & feelings.” She made the tagline plural which is actually perfect: we need multiple healings, and all the feelings, and that’s exactly what art, gardening, and music can inspire.
Every month since June 2020, I add a new poster to the wall and ask my daughters which is their favorite, and they never waver: Mary Agnes’s painting, Mom, the calavera one.
Honestly, I couldn’t dream up a series of poster art to commemorate my monthly DJ residency at Evergreen Garden without asking Mary Agnes Rodriguez to collaborate. I say commemorate because we are (still) living through a global pandemic. Posters are usually a method of advertising and encouraging attendance, buy I’m not trying to lure hoards of people to our monthly outdoor, distanced, and masked DJ sets in the garden.
I am, however, trying to mark our space in San Anto in this particular place in time. I’m doing my best to keep busy, and to inspire a cycle of creative mutual aid. Edward Vela, co-owner of Evergreen, is an artist and a patron; when he hired me to DJ, I found a way to be a patron too. He refers to what we are doing as an ecosystem, and I see that. I feel it.
Whereas this Siempre Verde poster art project has me working with artists in a new way (I had never commissioned artwork before this past summer), when I think about it this was not my first rodeo, as they say.
I’ve often proclaimed how San Anto Cultural Arts (SACA) changed my entire trajectory as a working artist, scholar, and preservationist of culture, and for me SACA means Manny Castillo.
I met Manny in the summer of 2005 (I always remember Hurricane Katrina was brewing just as we began our email correspondence) the very first night I stepped foot in Saluté International Bar. He was playing drums with Suzy and the Soul Revue, and spinning records with DJ Plata between sets.
We met at that corner of the marble bar top close to the silver double doors. At the time, I was teaching and traveling and dreaming of writing screenplays and directing movies about South Texas. Within the first twenty minutes of our first conversation, he had handed me his business card:
San Anto Cultural Arts / 1300 Chihuahua / San Antonio, TX 78207/
Executive Director / Manuel Diosdado Castillo, Jr. /
cell 210.452.5921 /
Human & Community Development Through Arte y Cultura /
(glossy black Aztec Heart embossed on white cardstock)
I still have that card.
But I digress. So many years have passed, and I feel like I have drafted this part of the story so many times. Meeting Manny changed my entire life for the betterment of myself, yes, but also for the betterment of my community. And I am only one of many who can say that.
But back to Mary Agnes.
Unlike most of the other artists in the series so far, Mary and I have worked together before. A lot. For one fever-dreamy year, I was the El Placazo Barrio Newspaper Coordinator, a long title for a multi-faceted job at San Anto Cultural Arts, the nonprofit org in the heart of the Westside of San Antonio Manny helped found in el mero hueso, the main bone, that composes the skeleton of a historic Mexican barrio rippling with the repercussions of colonization, battles, wars, skirmishes, lynching, segregation, poverty, yes, but also spiritual brilliance, creative ingenuity (see: rasquachismo), ancestral energy, and barrio community y cultural corazón.
In that whirlwind year that changed the course of my place in the community as well as my creative trajectory, the person I worked closest with, and got closest to, was Mary Agnes. She’d been a mainstay at the center for around a decade before I popped in, a lead muralist on multiple mural projects who had been published in El Placazo countless times.
(Mental note: someone needs to gather all her work from the Placazos. Digitize it. Print it out. Not just hers, of course; SACA is the creative epicenter/jumping off point for MANY San Antonio artists.)
Often, I would drive her home after a long workday or a late night special event, and she’d tell me stories as we cruised down those Westside corridors that I swear sparkle at night, or we’d keep brainstorming on an upcoming project, or we’d vent about something brewing at the center. Something was always brewing.
Time fogs the clearest of memories. As I was working on this, I recalled her telling me about growing up on the Westside, how her childhood home was adjacent to creeks that were cleaner and wilder then. In my memory, little Maria Inez would wade in the creeks and catch turtles.
I texted her a couple of nights ago to sort of fact check my own memory, and she texted back that, yes, the house was at 24th St. and Rivas, at the crux of the Alazan and Martinez creeks, and that, no, actually she would wade in the waters to catch tadpoles and fish, and search for crystals and pretty pebbles. No turtles.
See how memory can embellish fact? This is as good a place as any to proclaim a disclamer: these memories are ours, and yours might be different. And though it's always important to compare notes, please accept these accounts as our best attempt at patch working the past. You can write your version at any time. I'd love to read your how you remember it.
I decided to keep up our text interview through Messenger, which got so interesting that Mary and I agreed to publish the highlights here:
Bonnie: Also…what’s the story of how Manny saw your artwork somewhere and then invited you to come to SACA?
Mary Agnes: It began with the Placazo. I was at my cousin Cathy Garcia’s business in Southtown called Alamo Street Garden. She owned a floral shop with art, antiques and a deli. Even back then, many tourists came to that area, though it wasn’t called Southtown yet, to shop.
She had a newspaper rack for El Placazo. When I picked one up and looked through the pages, it caught my interest. Soon after, there was an announcement for a contest to design a new masthead for Placazo. So I submitted three designs!
Weeks passed and each time I’d go into my cousin’s to check inventory of my artwork, I would open up the latest Placazo to see if they’d announced who had won the contest.
Finally, they selected a new design, but it wasn’t one of the ones I submitted. I said, oh, well.
More weeks passed, and each time I’d go to my cousin’s to check my inventory, I would pick up the new copy of Placazo. Well, guess what? They selected one of my designs! I was so excited!
I kept submitting artwork to the publication, and at one point I decided to submit a poster-sized drawing. One time I went to one their exhibits on S. Flores, but I didn’t reveal myself, but that was before Cruz Ortiz invited me to a mural meeting. I was nervous, but excited. Cruz asked me to bring my artwork to the center.
So I went to SACA, that’s when they were still housed with Inner City, and there I met Manny Castillo, Alex Rubio, and Cruz Ortiz. I introduced myself and Manny says, “FINALLY! We smoked you out of hiding!”
They had been wondering who kept submitting all this artwork and wouldn’t go.
(SIDE NOTE: Like Mary, I was shy to show up at first. It wasn’t until right after Manny’s funeral that I first stepped foot in that pea green building on Chihuahua. I started showing up. Making friends. Socializing and learning. A few years later, I pivoted from public schoolteacher at a plum inner-city academy where I’d taught for five years to work at SACA. But, again, that’s a connected, highly relevant digression.)
Bonnie: Ayyyyyyy, that’s such a great story, Mary. I love it. So SACA became your community where you developed more art skills, and from there you branched out. How did you find the Esperanza?
Mary Agnes: I was showcasing my artwork at my cousin’s business, but she ended up closing…it was the building where Tito’s restaurant is now. My transition meant getting more involved with SACA. Volunteering. Drawing for Placazo. Designing murals eventually.
I would go hang out with Susana Segura who ran the Placazo program, and after that, with Cristina Ordoñez. One day, I there at a table and Manny was in a meeting. Manny’s office door opens and a woman comes out, they’re in the middle of talking and the woman turns to me and says well, why can’t she help? Manny looks at me, and says, oh, yes she can.
I didn’t know what they were talking about until they told me they wanted to purchase the historical Westside landmark called La Gloria.
Apparently, they had been negotiating with the owner of the building, Paty Elizondo, who I believe is the granddaughter of the original owner of La Gloria, Matilde Elizondo.
So anyway, I became involved.
The current owner of La Gloria had said he would sell, but in the long run he didn’t sell to us. He was going to demolish it. Every time they met about purchasing he would raise the price.
That’s when different organizations collaborated in trying to purchase and save the historical landmark La Gloria.
That’s when I became familiar with other local organizations like Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, P.E.A.C.E. Initiative, NALAC, Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, Centro Cultural Aztlan, Gallista Gallery, and others.
Bonnie : What did La Gloria represent? Why was it worth preserving? You put your body physically on the line to try to save it. Why?
Mary Agnes: San Anto Cultural Arts wanted to purchase the La Gloria because they wanted to move their offices there and at the same restore and preserve the building, which was a piece of history, as well as bring back the rooftop dancefloor for community again. There were dreams to raise funds to maintain the building and many other possibilities.
San Anto’s original office was small, but we made magic happen.
The story goes that Mr. Elizondo named the building after his wife, I believe, so it was very special for him. For the people, I think it represented the spirit of our gente, the joy, cultura, the camino (connection) between Laredo and San Antonio. The architecture was conducive to it being a special place where the community could go up to an open-air rooftop and dance to live music. There was a filling station, a movie theater, and other things all packed into one.
We tried to save it. There were two of us chained to the building. There were two plans: plan A was to form a human chain and plan B was for us to chain ourselves to the building. We were using tactics so we could get the restraining order to delay demolition. We could get the restraining order until the following Monday morning when the office opened.
Later, we found that they had demolished the building illegally during the night.
We had a vigil and spent the night until the next morning. During the night, around midnight, a van painted like the U.S. flag came and parked his van underneath the arches. A person got out of the van, opened the hood, and pulled wires from the van and let the air out of the tires and said, “If La Gloria goes, so does the La Glory,” and then left.
He called his van "La Glory," apparently. This was another delay tactic that we didn't expect. I remember seeing this van around the neighborhood. So he lived around there.
People arrived in the morning with signs, and began forming the human chain and chanting: Save the La Gloria! Our historia vive!
Still, there was no restraining order. So plan B started where they chained us to the building. First, the other person, Joleen, was chained in the front of the building, then me on the side of the building. The chain was tight. I had to keep my head up so it wouldn’t tighten.
Just as they put the lock on the chain, the person with the restraining order runs by me. They had been told that they had thrown away the key and the only way was to cut. But it took a while until they brought the key to unlock me. Everybody was relieved for a while at least.
Texting these past few days with Mary Agnes has riled up a lot of personal memories for me, they say this Mercury Retrograde has a tendency to do that, but hearing her side of the La Gloria story and its subsequent demolition reminds me how many historic San Antonio landmarks and sacred spaces with undeniable Mexican roots we have lost in the years that have passed since 2001.
And there is a common theme of violence when our spaces are lost. It’s like the value we see in a space like La Gloria or Saluté or Acapulco Drive Inn or the Malt House or Gallista Gallery or Tacoland or ________ is reduced to the glint in an out-town-developer’s eye and an eternal tattered welcome doormat emblazoned with dollar signs---like always. Never valuing what we have and always underbidding ourselves.
People like Mary Agnes see it. They’re willing to chain themselves to a building because of what happened in that building---our Chicano ancestors living, thriving, making something out of nothing, yes, but also for our Chicano descendants to live, thrive, remember how they come from both beauty and resilience.
What will be left when all the patches of urban land are parceled out for Monopoly-hotel-like buildings constructed to temporarily house masses of young-ish, educated transplants until it’s time to move on to the next city? What will be left when the murals deteriorate and covered up with the latest trendy (I Love
You Taco Tuesday So Much) slogan? What happens when our sacred cultural landmarks are stripped of their soul so a chain sandwich shop can move in?
I don’t have the answers. I've got a monthly DJ residency at a garden during a global pandemic. I've got my visions. I've got my records. I've got this website.
Like Miss Nina Simone sings, I've Got Life.
If you've made it this far, gracias por leer.
Here's the formal interview we conducted within the pages of a yellow composition book. When the pandemic retreats, I will sit with Mary Agnes again and gather more stories. She showed up to Siempre Verde in November. And when I saw her arrive, I felt all the feelings.
Q:. A lot of us struggle with imposter syndrome, feeling like we are not enough or that we don’t belong in spaces designated as academic or artistic. Working class backgrounds and capitalism in general don’t necessarily encourage artistic expression, much less pursuing art as a way of life that can actually pay the bills. Do you remember when you knew that you were not just dabbling in art, but that it was your true calling?
A: I believe being involved with non-profit organizations and with community reinforced the need in me to continue with my artwork. It gave me a purpose and showed me the importance of expressing my voice with images.
Q: Recently we lost Breaking the Cycle, a mural collaboration between San Anto Cultural Arts and the P.E.A.C.E. Initiative in 2002 at S. Zarzamora and San Fernando. It was a landmark piece that addressed the domestic violence crisis and many local residents were heartbroken to see it painted over. Can you please tell us about the process of creating the mural? How are you dealing with the loss of the mural and what can we learn about preservation and protecting our murals as we move forward?
A: The process of creating Breaking the Cycle began with P.E.A.C.E. Initiative. They wanted a mural that addressed the issue of domestic violence to be created at a school, since the theme was teen dating.
They collaborated with San Anto Cultural Arts, who commissioned artists to create mural designs. Both organizations met together and discussed the theme. The mural coordinator at the time scouted a potential wall for the mural. Once the building owner agreed, then the process began to organize a crew of volunteers from the community.
The lead artist begins to create the mural design from the information provided by the organization. Then the mural coordinator makes a call for volunteers to help paint. Once we get volunteers we get input from the crew working on the mural, as well as input from community. We also conduct workshops once the artist completes the mural design. Then it’s presented to the owner of the wall and the community. We also get approval from the executive director. Then we begin to draw out the design on the wall and buy supplies at the same time. We try to complete the mural design in two to three months depending on volunteers and the weather, of course.
Working on a mural creates bonds with the community; it builds a bridge between the artist, the organization, and the people. After the mural is completed then we have a dedication and a blessing with the crew, the community, a celebration with music and food.
I was saddened with the whitewashing of Breaking the Cycle. Time passed and the owner of the building left, so it was vacant for quite some time. The mural was fading and the wall itself was deteriorating. Once in a while when I had time I would go and touch it up where I could reach to try and help maintain it.
It’s kind of difficult when the building changes owners. The original owner lives in the neighborhood so they know the history of the neighborhood. But if a new owner comes from out of town, they don’t really know anything about the ‘hood. So the mural doesn’t mean anything to them. They don’t respect what the mural meant to the people of the community.
I think there has to be some kind of agreement to preserve our murals. Funds need to be set aside to maintain our public art and to pay artists to upkeep the murals.
Q: Through all your styles, mediums, and experiments, it seems like your admirers can always recognize your work because your style is unmistakably yours. From the El Placazo masthead, to your murals, paintings, and clay sculptures with MujerArtes, your work is always clearly yours. Can you tell us about your artistic influences and any lifelong and more recent inspiration that keep you excited about making art?
A: It began with my mom. She taught me how to paint cascarones and decorate them. I always read the comic strips and was fascinated with illustrations in magazines and newspapers.
Most of all, my surroundings, my history, and current events keep me motivated to always keep drawing and painting and creating.
Q: I think lots of us are really fascinated by artists’ creation process, the magic that happens at the studio, and their breakthrough moments. How did this Siempre Verde project unravel for you? Can you tell you about any dream projects for the future?
A: It unraveled for me based on the music itself and the plants of the garden. These are two things that inspire me greatly and that I enjoy, so the poster was a combination of that.
For the future? Maybe I will make a book. There are still many possibilities!
Q: You are a quintessential San Antonio artist. You draw inspiration from the land and history, and you have witnessed to the intense gentrification of the neighborhoods. How does your upbringing and your homeland influence your art? What mark do you hope to leave upon the city? What is you advice for those of us who love our city and are old to remember the past, but who also live in the reality of the present, and want to create and work towards a future where local culture and history are honored, preserved, and never whitewashed to extinction?
A: My traditions. My ancestors. My familia. My history. My neighborhood. My community. The environment. Social justice. I hope my artwork makes an impact of some kind in my community.
I love to teach and show the youth what I have learned along the way and inspire them to fight to preserve their culture and history, to honor and respect their roots so that our art and stories and style and traditions never go extinct.
Mary Agnes Rodriguez is an established multimedia artist based in her hometown, San Antonio, Texas. Her work documents political events, while empowering all segments of the community, especially young people. Her work showcases depictions of the Westside, the city’s historically Mexican quadrant, include overarching themes of activism, peace and social justice, and includes portraits of iconic figures that embody these principles. Many of these themes can also be seen in her mural work like “Mis Palabras, Mi Poder” (Burleson Elementary) and “Stained Glass Mosaic Mural Para Herbolaría La India.” Rodriguez’s work has also been shown in 7 major exhibitions, including Cheech Marin’s “Chicano Now: American Expressions” and “Portrait of Xicano Conscience: The Great Judge Albert Peña, Jr.” She has also exhibited at Texas Women’s Museum (Dallas), the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, Centro Cultural Aztlán, Gallista Gallery and 1906 Gallery.
(bio from esperanzacenter.org)
Facebook: Mary Agnes Rodriguezs
Mary Agnes in Her Element. Foto by Harvey Mireles.
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