For Crystal Tamez, the mural on the side wall of a South Trinity Street corner store has special meaning. Not only did she as a 13-year-old help paint the mural, which highlights the names of victims lost to inner-city violence, it signifies a point in her life when she made the choice to follow her own path.
Earlier this year, Tamez was hired to restore the 18-year-old Peace and Remembrance mural, which displays religious symbols – a dove, Jesus leaving the cross, the Virgin of San Juan, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and St. Francis holding a bird – juxtaposed with the names of community violence victims. The commission prompted her to reflect on where she was when the mural was first painted and where she is today. Now a full-time artist, Tamez can look at the names on the wall, which include those of her sister’s father and some of her friends, and appreciate how easy it could have been to go a different direction.
“When the time came to select an artist to work with [on the mural], it made total sense to work with Crystal,” San Anto Cultural Arts Executive Director Ben Tremillo said. “She’s from the neighborhood, she knows the names on that wall, and she can understand what that mural meant … of any of the artists we could have worked with, she has the deepest understanding of what it means to the neighborhood.”
Growing up on the West Side, Tamez, 32, was immersed in a community riddled with domestic and gang violence and other crimes, including some that affected her own family. To create what she called an “outlet from the madness,” Tamez joined Inner City Development, a nonprofit organization on the West Side that inspires local residents to improve their neighborhood through community involvement, and San Anto Cultural Arts. The two entities taught her to channel her emotions into poetry and art, and, looking back on it, Tamez credits them with saving her life.
“Instead of partying, I was painting,” she said.
As a preteen, Tamez enrolled in a cooperative home school founded by Patti Radle, co-director of Inner City Development. Every week, Radle gave students a poem to memorize, which eventually prompted students to write their own pieces. Tamez remembers this exercise as her initial form of self-expression. “Growing up on the West Side, showing emotion was a weakness,” Tamez said. She combated this mentality by learning how to express herself through words, which transitioned into pursuing visual expression.
“We convinced her that she was smart, as smart as anyone else, and [gave her] a lot of positive reinforcement and affirmation,” Radle said. “She became much more confident.”
It was that confidence that kept Tamez pursuing her passion for art and surrounding herself with it. She’s since moved away from the West Side to an area northeast of downtown to be closer to her mother, but her home is a tribute to artistry. From the rainbow-colored car in the driveway to a bucket of paints in the bathroom sink – the room that offers the best lighting in the house – to the darker, more personal works that line her walls.
“My personal work has always represented what I’ve been through as a woman, as a single mom, and what I’ve seen,” she said.
Victor Zarazua, community mural program coordinator at San Anto Cultural Arts, has known Tamez since her early 20s. He has been instrumental in keeping her involved with mural projects on the West Side.
“She’s had some challenges in her life. She had some lows and she bounces back,” Zarazua said.
“When I got the job at San Anto, I had to build a [mural] team. … I brought her in on some projects. She’s never let me down. I’m always impressed with her energy.”
Zarazua recalled a time when kids from the San Antonio Children’s Shelter wanted to help with a mural, but it was already finished. Seeing the children’s discouraged faces, Tamez told them they could paint her own car, and they proceeded to paint colored triangles on the front hood.
Zarazua also remembers that Tamez once noticed that the vacant lots around San Anto Cultural Arts were littered with used syringes. She grabbed a gallon bucket from Bill Miller Bar-B-Q and started safely picking up the used needles.
“This girl’s always been about helping everyone and giving back and never expecting anything out of it,” Zarazua said. “She does that without even thinking about what she gets in return. That’s why I care about her so much. In this day and age, it’s something rare that you see.”
Tamez’s decision to become a full-time artist was not an easy one. She was working two jobs and painting commissioned murals to pay the bills, but when the opportunity to restore Peace and Remembrance was offered, she decided to devote all her attention to the project.
As Tamez has refined her own artistic ambitions, she’s been cultivating those of her children. She notes her 9-year-old daughter, Harmony Torres, is producing better drawings than she was at that age. And her 13-year-old daughter, Rain Valdez, has become skilled at video editing, fusing popular rap songs with children’s cartoons. Her children are already involved with San Anto Cultural Arts, and Tamez’s long-term goal is to move back to the West Side. She identifies most with the West Side neighborhood and wants to show her children the culture and community that raised her.
The Peace and Remembrance mural wall signifies a full circle in her life. The work she restored was not exactly like the one she originally painted. Every year on Día de Los Muertos, San Anto Cultural Arts leads a procession to the mural, where community members add the names of those who have passed. But in addition to those names is a growing list of those who have assisted with the mural in an effort to make the community stronger. The name Crystal Torres, the name Tamez signed as a 13-year-old, is prominently displayed, and a few rows underneath is that of her 13-year-old daughter, signifying the continuation of a positive familial trend.