Latina Art Virtuosos Celebrate Santa Cecilia in Austin
In 1991 the Austin City Council proclaimed Austin as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” and thirty years later the vibrant music scene found its patron saint, Santa Cecilia. This humble saint was a martyr who refused to accept a forced marriage and chose instead to sing songs from her heart to God for the rest of her life. An exhibition at La Peña Gallery on Congress Avenue and 3rd Street gives the organizers, Latino art aficionados, and community activists hope that the inaugural celebration of Santa Cecilia’s Feast Day on November 22 will become an annual event in Texas.
La Peña Gallery, which is sponsoring the exhibit, has been promoting Latino artists since its founding in 1981 by two San Antonio-born siblings, Cynthia and Lydia Perez. The Perez sisters came to Austin to study at the University of Texas but decided that preparing food was their real calling. I knew their parents who operated a popular bakery in the Westside of San Antonio on Perez Street.
When I met the Perez sisters in Austin in 1980 they operated a small taco cart across the street from the west
entrance to the university. They worked hard and actively searched for a more permanent location. They found a vacant space on Congress Avenue where a small diner had served downtown office workers for decades. It was there that they established Las Manitas, a Mexican restaurant that served delicious food with an authentic
home-cooked flavor and became a favorite hang-out for politicians, artists, musicians, and long-time Austin
The exhibit at La Peña is the brainchild of Dolores Carrillo Garcia, the exhibit curator, working with her close associate, La Peña’s director Cynthia Perez. Born in Lubbock, Texas, Garcia’s first Latino cultural experiences revolved around music. Her father played the accordion and her brother played guitar in a local band. Garcia moved to Austin in 1988 and landed a job at the University of Texas Graduate Opportunity Program. Her work included visiting colleges and universities to recruit minority students. Four years later she accepted a post with Latino USA, a national Latino radio program. She became interested in art when her future husband, Gilberto Cardenas, introduced her to printmaker and artist Sam Coronado. Garcia and Coronado worked together in exhibiting Latino art for the Center For Mexican American Studies at UT Austin.
Garcia began planning a Santa Cecilia event nearly ten years ago when she moved with her husband, Notre Dame Sociology professor Dr. Gilberto Cardenas to South Bend, Indiana. Her initial efforts included a collaboration with Latina artist Esperanza Gama of Chicago, Illinois to stimulate artists’ interest and wider knowledge of Santa Cecilia and the saint’s association with music and art.
When Cardenas and Garcia moved back to Austin two years ago, Garcia approached La Peña and Cynthia Perez about a Santa Cecilia program. The result of the collaboration with La Peña is an exhibit that includes the works of 25 artists who were inspired by Santa Cecilia. Half of the participating artists reside outside of Texas. The exhibit features, for example, a lithograph “El Canto a Santa Cecilia” by Chicago artist Esperanza Gama. There is also a beautiful linocut and watercolor print by Rene Arceo, a highly respected artist and printmaker also from Chicago. His work depicts a pious-looking Santa Cecilia holding a musical instrument in her hand. Another painting by Woodland, California artist Jose Arenas titled “Melodies in Mind” places Santa Cecilia in the center surrounded by a half dozen musical instruments including two guitars, a bongo drum, and a French horn.
The Santa Cecilia exhibit enhances our knowledge of Latino music evident in the painting and comments of Julia Santos Solomon. Solomon’s work graces the entrance of the Santa Cecilia exhibition. Solomon’s painting portrays Sheila E., a musician who has performed with Prince, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Lionel Richie, and many more musical stars. Solomon is a fan of Sheila E., a great master of the Cuban timbales which consist of two drums mounted on a single stand. Traditionally the drums are made with metal shells. The timbales, according to Solomon, were imported from Cuba and “carry a Latin beat with clarity and history.”
The exhibit includes a superb work by Malaquias Montoya who is a prolific and highly successful California Latino artist veteran with over 50 years of painting, printing, and exhibiting. His Santa Cecilia submission titled “Singing Our Way to Freedom” portrays a serigraph print of San Diego musician Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez singing in front of a bright red United Farm Workers’ flag. California Filmmaker Paul Espinosa commissioned the print for a documentary film on the life of civil rights activist “Chunky” Sanchez. Espinosa donated the Montoya print to La Peña and the proceeds from its sale will go to the Santa Cecilia project.
Liliana Wilson, who first exhibited at La Peña nearly forty years ago, added a beautiful piece to the Santa Cecilia exhibit portraying a young woman playing the accordion while a hummingbird swoons at her side. When Wilson immigrated from Valparaiso, Chile to Texas in her twenties, she had just completed her law degree. Her English language skills initially restricted her to work cleaning houses. Cynthia Perez saw Wilson’s drawings and encouraged her to participate in a solo exhibition at Las Manitas restaurant, which housed the La Peña Gallery during the 1980s and 1990s. After receiving warm support and encouragement from many Las Manitas patrons, Wilson decided to pursue painting full-time. Since that time Wilson has sold hundreds of her paintings and participated in dozens of art shows. She now lives in a community just west of San Antonio.
The Covid-19 crisis prevented La Peña Gallery from opening its exhibition “Renderings of Santa Cecilia: La Patrona de la Musica” with music by the Grammy award-winning band “La Santa Cecilia” from Los Angeles and the Austin group “Cecila & the Broken Hearts,” an Afro-Chicano Futurism band. Although the pandemic forced organizers to postpone this dream event of blending art and music to celebrate Santa Cecilia this year, the organizers believe that the creative foundation has been set for an even more expansive Santa Cecilia art and music event in 2022. The gallery exhibition runs from November 13 to December 20, 2021. Virtual Exhibit at www.lapena-austin.org.
Copyright 2021 by Dr. Ricardo Romo. All photos courtesy of Ricardo Romo.