Xavier Garza, Latino Artist and Author: A Premier Storyteller
Xavier Garza grew up among storytellers in his hometown of Rio Grande City along the Texas-Mexico border. The best of the storytellers included his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. When his parents, who made a living as migrant farm workers, left annually to pick the crops in agricultural fields far from home, Garza would spend weeks, sometimes months with his grandparents. His early art training was assisted by his grandmother who made sure that Garza always had a batch of crayons and paper to keep him occupied drawing and doodling.
Garza’s grandparents grew up in Mexico and mainly spoke Spanish to him, contributing to his bilingualism. They also introduced him to Mexico’s legendary singers, actors, and iconic characters such as La Virgen de Guadalupe and La Malinche. Describing the inspiration for his art on the Latina/o Art Community Web site, Garza wrote: “From the flour tortillas filled with rice and beans that I ate as a boy to the songs by Pedro Infante that my grandmother sang to me as she rocked me to sleep, I paint what I know and have experienced in my life.” These stories and his drawing skills influenced him profoundly.
Today Garza, a prolific author with more than 20 books, is one of the few Latino artists in the United States who writes and illustrates his own stories. Among some Latino collectors, Garza is well known for introducing the “Luchador” series, Mexican wrestlers who wore masks to enhance their mystic as performers.
Garza attended the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg in the mid-1990s and moved to San Antonio to teach and pursue a Masters’ in Art History at the University of Texas-San Antonio. I met Garza in 2000 at Joe Lopez’s Gallista Gallery and studio complex on South Flores in San Antonio. The following year Arizona State University writer Gary Keller selected his art for the monumental Latino art book, Contemporary Chicana and Chicano Art: Artists, Works, Culture, and Education. By including a painting of a luchador, “El Santo,” [acrylic, 2000], Keller helped to document the pioneering imaging of luchadors by Garza, an image that few, if any, Chicano artists had incorporated at that time.
In El Santo from the Super Luchas series, Gary Keller wrote, “Garza pays homage to the most famous of the luchadores enmascarados [masked wrestlers], El Santo [The Saint]. “In this acrylic on canvas depiction, El Santo’s head, torso, and red cape occupy the entire frame. El Santo looks out and engages the viewer. His eyes are bold but inscrutable, inviting the viewer to contemplate the mystery behind his mask….El Santo is so visually striking in part because the white-silver-yellow-tinged mask literally telescopes out of the deep blue backdrop. The way the crimson red cape is flipped over the shoulders also contributes to this forward movement and vitality.”
Garza came of age as an artist in 1996. That year, he participated in two exhibitions, one in Reynosa, Mexico, and the second one in Corpus Christi, Texas. Sarah Kessinger of the McAllen (Texas Monitor) saw great talent in the young artist. She wrote that year that “Xavier Garza doesn’t see the world through rose-tinted glasses. His painting reflects his view of the Latino experience. Vivid colors accentuate his portrayals of conflict, contradictions, death, and despair on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border….The paintings involved issues of religion, racism, gangs, machismo, mistreatment of immigrants, and others.”
Garza’s illustrated children’s books have reached readers across America. The bilingual “Lucha Libre Thriller, Maximilian: The Mystery of the Guardian Angel” is an award-winning story of a young boy in San Antonio who connects with a luchador [wrestler] from across the border. It is a story of grudge matches and fantastic villains
The “Creepy Creatures and Their Cucuys” is among Garza’s most popular illustrated storybooks. The author draws on the age-old story about the cucuys, a Mexican term for supernatural beings capable of haunting our imagination. The book notes that Garza has “preserved the stories just the way he heard them at the knees of other masters when he was growing up in South Texas.”
Garza has been a middle school art teacher for the past thirty years. He currently teaches at Vale Middle School with the Northside school district. He has also been an adjunct art professor at Northwest Vista College. In the evenings and weekends, he writes and works on his art in a small home studio near the Medical Center. Every wall in his studio and much of the other rooms of his home are filled with art. His wife Irma collects art depicting the Virgen de Guadalupe and a living room space is dedicated to her collection.
Following the horrific events at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas last week, Garza was one of the first authors to sign up to do a reading [pro bono] at Uvalde’s El Progreso Memorial Library. I am the lead volunteer for the collection of books for the children’s section of the library and we are currently raising funds to buy books for students of elementary to middle school ages. All of Garza’s books currently in print will be acquired. His stories and illustrations, all bilingual, resonate with young Latinos. Garza has been a featured artist and author presenter in book festivals and public readings around the country, as well as in Mexico.
Copyright 2023 by Ricardo Romo. Book covers courtesy of Xavier Garza. All other photos copyrighted by Ricardo Romo.