A set of murals depicting native wildlife were revealed near Mission Espada Wednesday as part of the World Heritage Trail Public Art Project, organized by the City's Department of Arts and Culture and the World Heritage Office.
Located at the Southeast Loop 410 underpass on Villamain Road, the four murals are organized thematically around the four seasons and place an emphasis on the indigenous plants and animals that sustained the livelihoods of Coahuiltecan peoples in South Texas before the arrival of the Spanish.
“The first people who lived here were hunters and gatherers,” said Ramon Vasquez, executive director of the American Indians in Texas at the Spanish-Colonial Missions (AITSCM). “They moved around the area based on the seasons, and each one provided something different. But we know that they always returned here.”
Local artists Joe de la Cruz, Albert Garza, Chris Montoya, and Cristina Sosa Noriega convened with historians and the AITSCM to create murals that reflect the local history and culture of the landscape. The public art project was created to enrich visitors’ experience of the Mission Trail by tying the area together with 10 murals – all created by local artists.
"This is about telling the stories of San Antonio, the stories of the neighborhoods and the communities,” said Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), noting that the murals will make the area more inviting to locals and tourists while discouraging the underpass’ use for nefarious purposes.
“It allows people in the neighborhood [who are] biking and driving by to see the history of the area," she added, "and it brings the larger community together by highlighting local artists through public art.”
Mural designs have taken into account community input through nine official public meetings and several neighborhood association meetings, which began on Jan. 25.
The first mural for the public art project was presented in May at the Stinson Municipal Airport and celebrates the achievements of women in aviation. Of the remaining five, one will be on the Southeast Military underpass on Mission Parkway, and four will be on the U.S. Highway 90 underpasses at Steves Avenue, Mission Road, Roosevelt Avenue, and Presa Street.
During the unveiling Wednesday, Cruz and World Heritage Office Director Colleen Swain commended the community support the project has received and highlighted the involvement of SMART, a local arts organization that collaborated on the project's vision. The inclusion of animals alongside flora and fauna in the Villamain Road murals came on the heels of one local's suggestion, officials said.
“The images represent plants and animals that would have interacted with the native peoples and early settlers," Vasquez said after the unveiling. "They all served a purpose whether for food, medicine, or spiritual values.”
Vasquez went on to describe the vitality of life represented by the icons and the renewed public interest in restoring some aspects of San Antonio’s natural ecology. Restoration efforts have caused some local wildlife, like native black bears and mountain lions, to return to the area. For Vasquez, this goes along with an appreciation for indigenous culture.
“San Antonio is realizing [that] the original people are still here. It’s a reversal of extinction, and that’s how we’re bringing it back to the present," he said. "It's a small gesture of remembering the people of this area, the first inhabitants that welcomed all the people who came after, and reconnecting them to the community of San Antonio.”
Vasquez then invited his father, Ramon Vasquez Sr., to speak and ceremonially bless the murals with a feather and bundle of burning sage. As he went around each of the four murals, Vasquez Jr. and Garza intoned a rhythmic prayer.
“These things have a lot of context for native people,” said Garza, who created the spring mural. He explained the historical context of each season’s motifs.
“[The murals] remind people that we’re more than just what we see now. We are a continuity of what came before. These things might seem trivial at first glance because they are part of our everyday lives, and we take them for granted. But they provided us life. It has a lot of spiritual context for me.”
Sosa, who painted the winter mural, talked about the connections the project has to her own life.
“These icons were selected with a purpose, and they have deep meaning," she said. "My grandmother was a pecan sheller in the 1920s. When I was a child, that’s all grandmas wanted to do: take us out and pick pecans … And even now, my two daughters on the way to school are always picking them up and eating them. It’s just deeply engrained in the culture here.”
Sosa said she attended the first public meeting at Stinson Airport because she wanted to help beautify the Mission Trail, recalling bike rides around the missions with her father that she continues today with her own children.
“It's not about one person. It’s not about what I want to do. It's about what the community wants, and it's really an honor to represent them," she said. "I really am proud to see the Department of Arts and Culture invest in public art beyond downtown. It makes a big statement to put art all throughout the Mission Trail. It causes people to slow down, and it creates a sense of place for this area that has such a rich history.”
Viagran added that there will be plenty of opportunities for more community input before the end of year – just before San Antonio's Tricentennial celebrations begin. Two more community meetings are planned for Aug. 15 and 18 at the Presa Community Center regarding the four murals at Highway 90.
“It’s something we’re all celebrating together," Viagran said. "... We have a lot of stories still to tell.”