Seated Man in Sombrero: Art and Community Controversy at the Mission Drive-In

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Proposed artwork for the updated mural.

At 6:30pm on Tuesday, July 10th, the third public meeting focusing on the redevelopment of the historic Mission Drive-In Marquee Mural project took place at the Mission Branch Library on Roosevelt Avenue. The restoration of the mural depicting nearby Mission San Jose that once adorned the façade of the historic Drive-In Theater (which closed in 2007) is just one component of the City of San Antonio’s much larger Mission Drive-In Master Plan Framework, a project to redevelop the site that has been in process for about five years. The artwork restoration has quickly become the point of greatest contention within the community.

A little background: In 2007, the City purchased the 26-acre Mission Drive-In site and the following year selected Kell Muñoz Architects to create the adjacent Mission Branch Library and a plan for the rest of the area. In 2010, the City signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOU) with the Texas Historical Commission to, per the RFP mentioned below, “establish a partnership that would foster effective historic preservation of this important icon of Texas heritage.”

Finally, in January of 2012, Public Art San Antonio (PASA), a division of the City of San Antonio’s Office of Cultural Affairs, issued a Request for Proposals (RPF) in coordination with the Office of Historic Preservation to “re-create the Historic Mission Drive-In Marquee Mural, which was originally installed, circa 1948, on the façade of the recently‐restored City facility.” Design firm SRO Associates was ultimately selected as the contractor for the $160,000 project.

Other endeavors in the area will include enhanced drainage, lighting and parking on the loop street access drive connecting Roosevelt to VFW Boulevard, improvements to the area near the Drive-In to be called “Screen Park Plaza,” and, as stipulated by the 2010 Texas Historical Commission MOU, a “Viewshed Preservation Plan” to retain a scenic buffer around Mission San Jose.

Dissension over the mural recreation arose early in the process. Two human figures in the foreground of the original mural drew criticism for what some have identified as racially inappropriate undertones.

A close up of the two human figures in the historic mural.

On Tuesday, Councilwoman Leticia Ozuna of District 3 welcomed the crowd (which, by my count, grew to around 80 attendees). The principal focus of the evening’s discussion was revealed almost immediately, with Ozuna assuring those present that the City intends to be “mindful of the appropriateness of the artwork.”

After Ozuna’s welcome, PASA Manager Jimmy LeFlore took the floor, gently laying down ground rules for the discussion (an indication to newcomers that the night might become a bit spirited) before giving an overview of the project’s process to date. LeFlore presented preliminary sketches of more culturally accurate substitutes for the original figures, as seen below.

Sketches of potential substitute figures.

The PASA manager went on to reveal a proposed concept mock-up, in which the human figures have been removed entirely (in his words, to “create a more timeless and less contentious image for this iconic building façade”) and foliage and a wall behind the mission have been added. LeFlore explained that the trees and wall, which were present both at the time of the Mission’s construction and remain there today, give “depth to the site and have always been an integral part of the Mission.” He indicated that the changes, though visually subtle, have larger implications and give a respectful nod to the Mission’s appearance in the past while allowing contemporary observers to recognize the familiar historic site.

Proposed artwork for the updated mural.

After LeFlore’s short presentation, the floor was opened to questions and comments from the audience. Input spanned the spectrum of emotional to intellectual, calm to irate, relevant to tangential, and brief to verbose.

Several speakers communicated the opinion that complete removal of the human figures was an unacceptable solution. “Is that exceptionalism?” one man asked. “Erasing the indigenous identity? We demand that [changes be made] in a way that does not demean our history.” “Leave him resting as he was,” another man said of the seated figure in the historic artwork. “Don’t erase him completely.”

Two brothers in the audience rejected the interpretation of the seated figure (which drew more criticism and attention than the standing man) as a racially charged icon. They cited the Romulo Rozo sculpture “El Pensamiento,” likening Rozo’s work to Rodin’s “The Thinker,” and speculating that the seated man could have been contemplating his situation or resting after a day of hard, honest work.

A woman who grew up in the area proposed that the original image be left as is: “I think we’re arguing about a lot of different things and we ought to leave things as they used to be, and get on down the road with the next step.” Still another guest chimed in, calling the image a “social scar” that has caused “social trauma to the indigenous people.”

Felix Padrón, Director of the Office of Cultural Affairs, wrapped up the evening with the following statement about the figures in the original mural: “When we issued the RFQ (Request for Quotes), we heard it loud and clear from the community that they found some of these images offensive. We’re not passing judgment on what’s offensive or not. We as the City respond to what the community says. One of the things that we can safely say is that we will not reintroduce those images as part of this restoration project. We are here to tell you that we will not do that.” Greeted by clapping, he continued. “Second of all, the thing that we want to walk away with, tonight at least … is the understanding that there needs to be an effort made, at least artistically, to introduce some sort of imagery of [native peoples].”

Padrón concluded by reemphasizing his and the City’s willingness to continue engaging in difficult but important dialogues with community members. “The conversation doesn’t stop here with this mural. The conversation needs to continue. We need to start to figure out how to reintroduce or create new projects that capture the spirit of this conversation.”

Miriam Sitz works for Accion Texas Inc., the nation’s largest non-profit microlender. A graduate of Trinity University, she blogs on Miriam210.com and sells handmade goods on TinderboxGoods.com. Follow her on Twitter at @miriamsitz. [Click here for more stories from Miriam Sitz on the Rivard Report.]

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