Latino Murals Promote Cultural Legacy: The San Anto Cultural Arts Story
This summer the San Anto Cultural Arts program is celebrating its 28th year of painting community murals, sponsoring art classes for young students, and publishing an arts newspaper. Executive Director Ben Tremillo and his small staff of six are driven by “this need for community members to have a voice and agency in what their neighborhoods look like.”
The non-profit organization San Anto Cultural Arts was founded in 1993 by Manny Castillo, Juan Ramos, and Cruz Ortiz. By his early 30s Castillo had established himself as one of the leading Chicano muralists in San Antonio, determined to follow and expand the muralist traditions initiated by Anastacio Torres and Juan Hernadez at the Cassiano Homes over the decade of the 1980s.
Castillo led the organization as its first Executive Director from 1993 until 2009 when he died of cancer at the age of 40. Austin Current writer Margaret Moser considered Castillo one of the leading “Keepers of the Flame. ” She wrote a touching tribute to Castillo’s legacy in a January 2009 article. Moser followed the Austin music scene where Castillo often appeared with bands, such as Snowbyrd, and commented on Castillo’s talents as a musician. More importantly, Moser recognized Castillo as a tireless leader of the San Anto Cultural Arts, which had “tied together the Alamo City’s cultural and ethnic legacies in 30 murals.”
The San Anto Cultural Arts center is located at the 2100 block of El Paso in one of San Antonio’s poorest neighborhoods. I know the community well, having lived as a child with my family at my grandparents’ house at 2000 El Paso, one block away. It was a poor neighborhood in the 1940s and 1950s, little has changed since that time.
The 78207 zip code, home to the San Anto Cultural Arts, has long led the city in poverty rates and low high school or college educational attainment. All of the 15 schools in the community registered 100% Latino enrollment, sadly, with a high school completion rate of only 55%. The college completion rate of the 78207 zip code was the lowest in the city, registering only 6% percent.
The 2020 U.S. Census notes that the San Antonio Metropolitan area has the highest poverty rate in the country out of 25 of the largest metro areas. The Guadalupe-El Paso household community area represents the city’s zip code with the lowest median household income at $25,415, a full $5,000 below the next poorest zip code area, 78237. When Ben Tremillo joined the San Anto Cultural Arts as Executive Director in January of 2018, he knew there were great opportunities and significant challenges.
Tremillo grew up in the Southside of the city, but in his previous ten years working with the tourist industry he had learned about the power of good communication and community engagement. A published playwright and poet, Tremillo also believed that he could contribute to expanding the outreach of San Anto’s publication, El Placazo. His challenges were to learn more about the other two divisions, muralism and arts education.
To date, the San Anto Cultural Arts organization has completed more than 60 murals in the Westside and taught hundreds of young students about the arts. Arts coordinator “Midnite” Flores started painting when he was six years old and considers himself a technical abstract artist. His students range in age from five to fifteen. Midnite’s busiest time is the summer months when 30 students attend all day classes.
Victor Zarazua, a five years veteran of the San Anto Cultural Arts program, heads up its mural component. One of the better descriptions of San Anto’s muralism was provided by Scott Andrews of the San Antonio Current in 2011. Andrews wrote: “Depictions of strife and redemption are common themes in the San Anto murals, which are foremost community art projects that speak publicly to the neighborhood.” Among the most important aspects of a mural project is the selection of an experienced team. Generally there is a lead artist who consults with neighborhood residents about the themes and concepts of the mural. Current writer Andrews observed that in the San Anto murals “The conventions of Chicano Movement painting — social realist figuration and
symbolic decorative elements representing notions of mexicanidad — abound.”
Crystal Tamez, the mural preservation manager, is the newest member of the San Anto team. Tamez’ interest in the arts began at age six when her family enrolled her in the summer classes at the San Anto Cultural Arts program. She attended classes there every year until she finished high school at Robert E. Lee. A self-taught artist, Tamez has a keen eye for color mixing and an excellent sense of line and space. When youngsters added some graffiti to a San Anto mural on Trinity Street, she was quick to respond with the right color to restore the proper image on the defaced mural.
The San Anto Cultural Arts is one of the city’s bright stars focused on community art. While best known for their colorful murals, they fulfill other important
community needs in their educational outreach and weekly newsprint editions concerning history, culture and the arts. Today, The San Anto Cultural Arts remains true to its vision of building a “community where people have the opportunity to realize their creative abilities, interpret their culture and heritage through their own unique vision, and to cultivate and showcase the talents of residents living in San Antonio’s West side. “
Copyright 2021 by Ricardo Romo. All mural photos copyrighted by Ricardo Romo and used with his permission.