Since recently relocating from Austin to San Antonio, I’m part new resident and part tourist. I find myself enchanted by the artistic expressions of cultural and historic importance throughout the city. From time-worn buildings and plazas, to colorful murals and monuments honoring heroes of the past, San Antonio is filled with stories just waiting to be told. It’s easy for locals to dismiss the downtown area as a destination geared toward tourists, but there are several distinctive and undiscovered sights for residents to explore and uncover.
Across from the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center stands an oft overlooked but nonetheless impressive sculpture. Depicting a larger than life Samuel Gompers, founder and president of the American Federation of Labor who died in San Antonio in 1924, the 19-foot shellcrete masterpiece was created by Betty Jean Alden and installed at its current residence on Market Street in 1982. Addressing a crowd of workers that surround Gompers as he cries out on their behalf, a plaque at the base immortalizes his decree: “What does Labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails/More books and less guns/More learning and less vice/More leisure and less greed/More justice and less revenge. We want more opportunities to cultivate our better nature.” Uttered more than a century ago, the words still reverberate today.
Also on Market Street, at the Briscoe Western Art Museum, art and artifacts highlight the experiences of labor, migration, conflict, and opportunity. One of the many notable works on display is the vibrant silkscreen print, “Departure: Braceros Departing Mexico City for California” by artist Carlos Francisco Jackson. As hands unite, the piece suggests a hopeful journey. However, the stark, clean white shirts against the dominating, blood red train, invites further interpretation (see top image).
The Braceros were migrant farm workers recruited from Mexico by the US as part of an American-Mexican work program that started in 1942. Once they arrived, many were forced into inhumane conditions, sprayed with pesticides and other chemicals, denied access to clean running water, and other abuses. Despite this, Braceros worked the longest hours for the lowest wages, exploited by crop growers to replace workers who went on strike or attempted to organize.
The Bracero Program lasted more than 20 years, and many workers took up participating in labor strikes as part of the fledgling National Farm Workers Association (Later the United Farm Workers), founded by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta in 1962. Generations after Gompers helped unite laborers to gain better wages and conditions, Chávez and Huerta sought to represent and help the many workers who had been silenced, marginalized, and mistreated.
In his 2011 TEDxFruitvale talk, Carlos Jackson shared his ideology, “Why or how, could it be possible to dehumanize somebody? That’s a fundamental question that I think really provides a lot of inspiration for me…” He goes on to describe Dolores Huerta as “an image of who we all could be and should strive to be.”
One of the most famous images of Huerta, the iconic piece Dolores, by Barbara Carrasco, 1999, was shown this year at the Pasadena Museum of California Art as part of the exhibit Serigrafía. “Dolores Huerta is a labor organizer, human rights activist, feminist, and considered to be the most important Chicana activist of our time,” said curator Carol Wells, who described the symbolism of color in Dolores:
“Yellow ocher for Dolores’ face to represent sunshine, the essence of her energy; a rose-colored blouse to symbolize her femininity and gentleness, combined with her unwavering support of women; and, finally, to recognize Dolores’ lifelong commitment to farmworkers, Carrasco selected a background of mint green to illustrate growing plants, agriculture and life itself.”
The exhibition surveyed the powerful tradition of information design in California’s Latino culture.
“There are so many icons of men, and icons of women painted by men, that I wanted (as a woman) to create an iconic image of Dolores to recognize her as an equal of César Chávez and, historically, the most important negotiator for the United Farm Workers,” Carrasco said.
This week, the Briscoe Western Art Museum is proud to host Dolores Huerta in the final installment of this year’s Distinguished Lecture Series: Voices of the West. Now 84 years old, still fervent and spry, Huerta continues to use her long and distinguished career as a platform to champion social justice. A 2012 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she has unique perspective on the history and future of the American West.
As individuals, how do we deal with the experiences of inequity and dehumanization? At best, we create art, we channel our most eloquent voice to speak for justice, and we find inspiration in the individuals and communities who serve each other for a greater good.
Dolores Huerta Distinguished Lecture starts at 6:30 p.m., Thursday Dec. 4 at the Jack Guenther Pavilion on the Briscoe Museum Campus, 210 W. Market Street. Admission is $10, free for Museum Members and UTSA staff, faculty, and students (valid ID required). Doors open at 6:00 p.m. Space is limited, please reserve a seat online or call (210) 299-4499.
*Featured/Top Image: Carlos Francisco Jackson, “Departure: Braceros Departing Mexico City for California,” 2009, Silkscreen. Briscoe Western Art Museum Collection, Gift of Ricardo and Harriett Romo.