Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Heroes are remembered. This is a safe assumption in San Antonio, where a 60-foot Cenotaph stands in memory of Alamo defenders, a boulevard is named after César Chávez, and controversies persist over statues of Confederate icons.
But not every hero gets a monument, and not every monument finds a permanent home. Two recent instances of public art in San Antonio address how history and its heroes can be hidden, lost, unearthed, rediscovered, spun, and recast. Both also reveal generational differences in how we choose to commemorate our past, and gender differences in who gets to be called a hero.
Making the Story
Without iconic Mexican Revolutionary Francisco Madero, San Antonio might not have breakfast tacos, suggested Ricardo Danel, historian and president of the Club Ateneo de San Antonio. Danel spoke at a Nov. 20 formal rededication of the bronze statue of Madero in its new home on the River Walk.
Danel made light of the enduring presence of Mexican culture in San Antonio, but only to emphasize a more serious point.
“It’s cheap to talk about tolerance,” he said. “Everybody talks about diversity and tolerance. In San Antonio, we don’t talk about it, we live it.” The statue, and the city where it's located, are examples of “how two great nations can coexist and get along,” he said.
As a key figure in the 1910 Mexican Revolution, Madero came to San Antonio “because of freedom, because he could move around here without fear,” Danel said, relating the story of the “Apostle of Democracy” who fled arrest by Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz. Madero stayed with relatives, friends, and supporters at several locations in what is now downtown San Antonio, finding safety north of the border while planning a revolt against tyranny in his homeland.
Madero drafted his famous revolutionary Plan de San Luis de Potosí in the former Hutchins Hotel, now a parking lot after the building was razed to make way for HemisFair ’68. In 2001, the Mexican State of Coahuila gifted the City of San Antonio the bronze statue, sculpted by Mexican artist Juan Antonio Lugo and placed by the Mexican Cultural Institute at Hemisfair until construction necessitated its removal.
The rededicated statue now joins an informational plaque near the spot of the old hotel, nestled in a nook along the River Walk near Jack White Way and East Nueva Street.
Danel said one purpose of bringing the statue out of storage is to draw out hidden aspects of the city’s history and culture.
“When you have a kid going through this park and they see this fellow Madero, they’re gonna ask, ‘Why is this guy here?’ Maybe it’s a kid from Chicago or New York, and they’re here for a convention, and that’s gonna open their horizons,” Danel said. “What is Mexico and why are there so many Mexicans in San Antonio?” are questions the statue might help answer, he said, along with explaining why breakfast tacos are a regular feature of life here.
Tellingly, though, Danel drew attention to those who also make history, but are not commemorated by bronze sculptures.
“History is like an old lady that is sitting on the bench and watching all the events,” he explained. “But history by itself is nothing. What makes life is architects, engineers, musicians, poets, writers, kids – they make the story.” Research into what that “old lady” sees helps us all understand better “who we are,” Danel said.
Ghosts of Peaches Past
The outliers of history play an outsize role in Travis Park: First Fruits, Emily Fleisher’s new public art installation in Travis Park. Her small bronze and concrete crates of peaches and baskets of peach pits might seem out of place, but actually tie together several threads of local history.
Fleisher’s initial research turned up a couple of seemingly random facts: that the area of Travis Park was once the peach orchard of Samuel Augustus Maverick (1803-1870), and that the park was also used as an open air hospital during the Civil War. These facts, combined with 2018 being the centenary of the 1918 World War I armistice, launched Fleisher on her quest to create a public artwork appropriate to its setting.
A Google search turned up a 1918 image from the National Archives, of a soldier kneeling on top of a mountain of peach pits, Fleisher said. The peach pits had been collected as part of the war effort, used in the manufacture of gas masks to combat the wave of chemical warfare the German army launched against its entrenched enemies.
The peach pits are used for making the best grade of absorbent charcoal ever produced ... used in the respirators for absorbing the deadly gasses in the inhaled air. It saves lives, reads a National Archives image caption of the era.
Fleisher noted that women had collected the peach pits, and that the photograph was labeled as “miscellaneous women’s work” in the archives. Another historical image portrayed three young Girl Scouts with five overfull baskets of peach pits. The enterprising scouts had been crowned champions of a peach pit drive, winning a trip to the nation’s capitol.
Fleisher connected with the image. “I was a Girl Scout,” she said, recalling her days as a (pre-Brownie) Daisy. “I still have my sash with all my badges,” she said, and automatically recited the Girl Scout pledge from memory: On my honor I will try to serve God and my country to help people at all times and to live by the Girl Scout Law.
“I haven't said that in 30 years,” said Fleisher, 39. But her work as an artist reflects her keen interest in unearthing history.
A memorial stone already in Travis Park gave her the final clue for how to approach her project, including its scale. This tree is dedicated to those who fell 1917-1918, reads the small engraved bluestone, placed by the American War Mothers in 1928 in memory of fallen soldiers. Nearby, Fleisher set three cast concrete crates of peaches on the ground in the shade of the park’s trees. In the opposite corner of the park, she placed five bronze baskets filled with cast concrete peach pits, representing the basketsful collected by the winning Girl Scouts.
Visitors to Travis Park could be forgiven for missing Fleisher’s life-sized sculptures entirely, particularly since the city’s monumental 40-foot Christmas tree was erected Nov. 23 in the center of the park.
The small scale and unassuming presence of her artwork was a deliberate choice, she said. Jimmy LeFlore, public art manager for Public Art San Antonio (PASA) and the City's Department of Arts and Culture, concurred.
“She tried to address the scale of how people actually sit in the park and what they would be proximate to,” LeFlore said. Rather than a massive object best seen from across the street, he said, Fleisher wanted her work to be “more active and participatory.”
Masculine v. Feminine
Fleisher said she regards the history of sculpture as a long continuum, as a search for immortality. “Most of the time, that’s rendered as masculine figures on horseback or some other heroic pose,” she said.
Fleisher explained her work is “wrapped up in the politics of gender,” recognizing that women likely harvested the peaches in Maverick’s orchard and used them in his kitchens, that female nurses likely treated those wounded in the Civil War, and that young girls helped the war effort during WWI.
“So it’s digging deeper into more of the hidden history, the things that don’t get included in history textbooks,” she said.
LeFlore re-emphasized both Danel’s and Fleisher’s points, saying a figurative statue can be effective, but is not the whole story. “History is never one frozen moment or individual, it’s a whole lineage of how things come to pass,” he said.
Now, during the rest of this Tricentennial year and into the next, a stroll through downtown San Antonio can bring its formerly hidden historical figures to light.
The Madero statue is permanently placed, and Fleisher’s installation will be up through the spring, LeFlore said, with plans for several events in the park to come. Check PASA’s Facebook page for updates.