Latino Art: New Horizons and Earlier Visions
In America’s largest states, California, Texas, New York, Illinois, and Florida, Latino art is getting noticed. Smaller museums such as the Mexican Museum in Chicago and Museo del Barrio in New York City were founded decades ago solely to preserve and promote Latino art. Their efforts to collect and showcase this genre of art has been exceptional. While Latino art has been around for fifty years, it has taken decades for most larger museums, many funded with public funds, to acquire the creative works of Latinos. In the last decade several major museums have begun their acquisition.
Beginning in the early 1980s, the Smithsonian American Art Museum [SAAM] was among the first of the national museums to take serious interest in Latino art. In 2001 SAAM published ARTE LATINO: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum edited by Jonathan Yorba. The book featured 54 works by Latino artists from across the United States, including the territory of Puerto Rico.
San Antonians Mel Casas, Jesse Treviño, Kathy Vargas, and Angel Rodriguez-Diaz were included in this prestigious Smithsonian exhibition which toured the nation from 2000-2003.
In the seventies, Latino artists in San Antonio began turning to businesses such as restaurants and bakeries that catered to Mexican Americans to showcase their art. Armando Sanchez’s well known Zapata image proved among the most successful commercial art ventures in Texas.
While working for Lionel Sosa’s advertising firm, Armando Sanchez met Jorge Cortez, then CEO of Mi Tierra restaurant, and they began a life-long friendship. Armando painted a portrait of Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata in 1970 and gave it to Cortez. Armando’s friend, Lupe Garcia, who also worked with Lionel Sosa, suggested that they print Armando’s portrait of Zapata on tee-shirts and sell them at the Mi Tierra restaurant. His Zapata image graces the aprons and tee- shirts at Mi Tierra, which are sold in the thousands annually.
When President Bill Clinton visited San Antonio in the 1990s, the Cortez family presented President Clinton with a tee-shirt with Armando’s Zapata image on the front. On a jog the next morning along the Riverwalk, President Clinton wore the Zapata shirt and later signed to Armando a photo of himself wearing the shirt.
In 1970, soon after Armando painted his Zapata portrait, he proposed to George Cortez of Mi Tierra that the Cortez family commission artists to paint murals inside the restaurant. Thousands of tourists visited Market Square where Mi Tierra was located, stopped to buy bakery goods or eat at the restaurant, and the murals contributed to its ambiance of a Mexican establishment. Cortez agreed to the mural concept and over the seventies and eighties, several artists
completed large murals inside the popular restaurant. Thus, Armando’s artistic legacy goes beyond his own personal creative work.
During the first three decades of his painting career, Armando’s restlessness took him from one job to another. In the early 1990s, he decided to try self-employment and opened a gallery and studio on Market Square in downtown San Antonio. Since thousands of people came to the Square on a daily basis, he met many people and sold hundreds of his art works.
Armando’s specialties are Texas landscapes and portraits. He recalls that a customer with a striking pink striped suit came into his gallery and asked about an art piece selling for $600 dollars. After the customer told Armando that he only had $300, Armando suggested that the customer could acquire the painting in exchange for the money and the pink suit. The customer agreed and left Armando’s shop in his underwear.
Armando calls himself a Mexican American artist and like many of the artists of his generation, he is mostly self-taught. Growing up in the Southside of San Antonio. Armando began drawing and sketching at a young age and recalls that as a child in elementary school his teachers would ask him to use his artistic skills to help decorate the classroom for holiday events such as Thanksgiving and Halloween.
At age ten, Armando’s family moved to Detroit, where his father worked at the Ford Motor Company. Armando decided at that time that he wanted to be an artist. He tried to enroll in the Detroit Art and Craft School but was rejected because he was only twelve years old.
After three years in Detroit, the Sanchez family returned to San Antonio, and Armando enrolled at Burbank High School where he took art classes in the
mornings and spent afternoons and evenings at the public library. At the library he sat for hours studying the lives and works of famous artists. On many days he would stay until closing time.
One Burbank teacher noticed his art skills, in particular, his excellent lettering, and suggested that Armando find work as a sign maker. The following year, Armando left Burbank High School before graduating and started working at the Schuler Sign Company. Not satisfied with a focus on his lettering abilities, he sought out art classes at the Art Institute at the McNay Contemporary Art Museum and Coppini Academy of Fine
Armando credits the mentorship of another self-taught artist, Doro Perez, who also worked at the sign company, with giving him informal art lessons and creative tips as well as encouragement. Perez was an excellent landscape painter who often accompanied the very accomplished bluebonnet artist, Porfirio Salinas, on his plien air art activities in the countryside.
Over the past 30 years Armando has been self-employed and works from his home where he has also carved out ample painting space for his art classes. Although he is best known as a watercolorist, his outdoor and indoor murals at Mi Tierra and Pico de Gallo Mexican Restaurants are also highly admired by the San Antonio community. One prominent mural features the famous Mexican singer, Jorge Negrete. Another mural captures more than one hundred well-known personalities in San Antonio.
I have always admired Armando’s use of color and line and began acquiring Armando’s watercolor paintings 20 years ago. Over the last ten years, my wife Harriett and I have donated more than 100 of Armando’s art pieces to the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas in Austin. We have also given nearly 50 watercolor paintings to St Philips’ College, an Hispanic Serving Institution and Historically Black College in Southeast San Antonio.
Copyright by Ricardo Romo. Photo of National Mexican Museum in the public domain. All other photos copyrighted by Ricardo Romo.