Latina Mary Agnes Rodríguez: Muralist, Community Activist, and Versatile Artist
By Ricardo Romo
Mary Agnes Rodríguez is a San Antonio, Texas artist known for her murals, paintings, bus stop designs, and ceramic works. She is an artist and also a community activist committed to works that beautify the Westside as well as projects that give needed visibility to her Mexican
Rodríguez grew up in the Westside of San Antonio in a community known for low-income households, aging urban infrastructure, and poorly financed schools. The median income of most households is below the poverty level and most children qualify for food assistance. Most of Rodríguez’s Edgewood classmates never completed education beyond high school. Rodríguez grew up frequently witnessing how discrimination and injustice hamper the educational and career aspirations of Mexican Americans.
In the 1980s Rodríguez’s community made national headlines when the Mexican American Legal Defense Education Fund [MALDEF] filed the famous lawsuit known as Edgewood Independent School District et. al. v. Kirby et al., a landmark case concerning public school finance. MALDEF filed the case in 1984 on behalf of school parents citing discrimination against students in low-income school districts. The Edgewood schools relied on property taxes to fund the school, yet the local taxes which were twice that of most schools yielded only $2,987 per student. Richer districts, with a tax rate of half as much, could produce $7,233 per student.
Rodríguez attended Memorial High School in the Edgewood School District where she devoted most of her classes to improving her art skills. When Rodríguez
enrolled as a freshman at Memorial, her teachers were surprised at her talent in drawing and painting, art skills she had acquired from correspondence classes taken over the previous five years. She excelled at art. Upon graduation in 1978, she enrolled in the art department at San Antonio College where she took classes with Mel Casas, one of the state’s best-known Chicano artists and a highly regarded art educator.
Rodríguez’s community artwork began in 1999 when she submitted three design ideas to the Placazo newspaper published by the San Anto Cultural Arts organization. At San Anto she met the talented director Manny Castillo, one of its founders, and was introduced to muralist Alex Rubio. Castillo, whose creative background was confined to music, had a contagious love for Chicano art. The mural movement, which began in San Antonio in 1979, had fizzled after a decade. Castillo knew that community art was important and sought to provide new energy and ideas in the Westside muralism movement. He hired Alex Rubio to lead the San Anto organization’s mural art initiative.
Rubio, an established mural artist, recognized Rodríguez’s artistic talents and convinced her to set aside her newspaper design work and give full attention to muralism. Rubio suggested that her first mural, an image of the Virgin Guadalupe, should have a three-dimensional design. Rodriguez’s mural, completed in 2001, has weathered well and can be viewed at a private housing project on El Paso and San Jacinto street.
When the Cheech Marin art exhibit came to the San Antonio Museum of Art [SAMA] in 2000, the museum curators hired Rodríguez as one of the artistic designers for part of a large indoor art exhibit at the old Kress building in downtown San Antonio on Commerce Street. Rodríguez and Janie Ornelas created a kitchen and living room, inspired perhaps by California artist Pattsi Valdez.
In 2002, the Burleson Elementary School in the Edgewood School District invited Rodríguez to paint a mural on an outside wall facing the school grounds. Rodríguez collaborated with Becky Rush and Pablo Martinez to develop the mural concept, and she was assisted by a half dozen young artists. This mural, a celebration of women in the arts, humanities, and labor movements is one of the few murals in the deep Westside.
Several of the women featured in the school mural, such as labor leader Emma Tenayuca and famed Latina musical star Lydia Mendoza, are well known to most in the San Antonio community. The inclusion of librarian Isbel Bazan and educator Margarita Huantes, two women dedicated to education but unknown in most households, demonstrates that although Latina educational leaders have made a significant difference, they often go unrecognized.
The Family Dollar mural on Brazos street near the Guadalupe Cultural Center was perhaps San Anto’s most ambitious and certainly the San Anto’s largest Westside mural project. Rodríguez contributed to the mural introducing new creative imagery associated with indigenous Mexico reflecting the period before the arrival of the Spaniards. In her three previous mural works, Rodríguez had drawn on imagery from her community, focusing on struggle, protest, history, and culture. For the Family Dollar mural, she reached into her Mexican Indian roots, featuring the women of Mexico before the conquest in 1521. If viewers read and interpret the mural from left to right, the mural begins with the profile of a Mayan woman and ends on the left side with the modern age, with Manny Castillo’s portrait prominently included.
Rodríguez identifies herself as a mestiza, a Chicana with indigenous genealogical ancestry. She is proud of her ancestry which includes themes and images that reflect the lives of women in that historical era. The mural at La India Store, La Herbolaria, on West Commerce Street represents her most ambitious art project associated with her indigenous past. With funding from the San Anto Cultural Arts, Rodríguez painted women performing native healing processes. She included text on the mural near three women using branches of the Pirul plant indicating that the branches are “used in the traditional spiritual cleanings called limpias.”
La India herb store is a well-known fixture in the Westside, one of several stores in the community that sells native plants believed to have healing powers. When San Anto artists were offered the sidewall of La India to paint murals, they chose women’s themes. Several women of great accomplishment are featured on one wall with a bright yellow background. The women include poet Maya Angelou, human rights activist Rigoberta Machu, author Gloria Anzaldua, and Mary Agnes Rodríguez. Rodríguez was surprised and humbled by the inclusion of her image with such famous personalities. The mural is a tribute to her artistic contributions and her community activism.
Unfortunately, the murals of the Westside of San Antonio lack permanence. Rodríguez completed two murals near the San Anto Cultural Arts offices that no longer exist. A mural completed in the early 2000s featuring domestic violence was recently whitewashed. That mural, located on the corner of San Fernando and Zarzamora, faded after two decades, but Rodríguez believes that it held value for a community in which violence against domestic partners and children persists.
Today Rodríguez has channeled much of her artistic energy to creating ceramic and clay pottery works. She works in an adobe studio at the Mujer Arte Cooperative de Esperanza on Colorado Street with eight other women creating and discussing art. While health issues limit engagement in painting murals, Mary Agnes Rodríguez always finds time to mentor young artists.
Copyright 2022 by Ricardo Romo. All photos by Ricardo Romo.