I will never forget my first dinner visit, sometime in the mid-1990s, to the Monte Vista home of Drs. Harriett and Ricardo Romo. A walk through the first floor of their historic home was like a visit to a small museum specializing in Latin American Art. The collection delighted at first, then astonished after passage through several rooms. Ultimately, it added up to a bit more than one could absorb in a single evening. These guys are art collectors, I thought to myself. Crazy, fulltime committed art collectors.
Later that evening, after dinner, we were invited to visit the second floor of the home for what I assumed was a quick walk-around of the upstairs rooms. No, the Romos knew they had someone in their clutches who shared their passion for color and weavings and masks and art that mocked death and celebrated life, and they were about to show us even more of their collection. Tall cabinets with broad drawers built to curate loose prints were opened, artist's proofs were brought out for inspection. Pretty soon, Latin American prints were spread across every available surface.
My affection for the Romos was sealed that evening, although my appreciation for this city's academic power couple has only grown over the years. People who rise above their surroundings have always drawn my special admiration. What propelled Romo, a young man raised in a West Side barrio, to become the first Latino athlete to run a sub-4 minute mile? How did he manage to keep such athletic accomplishment from getting in the way of his intellectual ambitions? Where did he acquire the skills to rise to his current position as president of one of the fastest growing public universities in the country, and endure in that job beyond all norms?
Romo's arrival and ascent in his hometown coincided with my own completed effort late in life to finally earn a college degree. Amid pomp and circumstance --or at least I thought so - I finally walked across a stage and became a proud UTSA alumnus just in time for the Romos' return to San Antonio. It was a different university then it is now. The job of president when Romo first arrived, frankly, was a bulging portfolio of challenges and seeming impossibilities. It took a lot of guts to last in that job and actually get things done, to build something. He's done it.
I remind myself each year, come February, of Harriett's role in helping build UTSA. The Mexican Center is one reflection of her own accomplishment as a scholar in the field of Mexican and Mexican-American studies. The reminder always comes, however, when I attend the "Great Conversations" dinner at the Institute of Texan Cultures. "Great Conversations" is casual, often unscripted, and overwhelmed after a while by table hopping. It mixes and introduces people who might otherwise spend a lifetime in San Antonio and never meet one another. It's the antithesis of a late night gala, one of the five best evenings on the city's annual public calendar. And it was Harriett who had the vision and who built it. And every year the honors college students I meet are smarter, more accomplished and even more ambitious than the previous year's class, if that is possible. Every year, alumni and others in this city pull together and up the ante in the fundraising drive to provide those honor students the scholarships they need to complete their studies and that San Antonio needs to keep them in a local university.
Amid all that accomplishment, the Romos keep traveling the world. And President Romo keeps turning into Photographer Romo. I have other amazing San Antonio friends who have achieved success in their professional careers -- Harold Wood, Omar Rodriguez and Barbara Ras come to mind -- while also establishing their credentials as well-regarded artists. We can only admire the polymaths among us. Envy is futile.
The occasion for this homage is "Family Traditions," the exhibition commissioned by the Brackenridge Park Conservancy and the Witte Museum of Romo's photographs of Easter Weekend in the Park. The exhibition opens Saturday, March 24 and runs through June 24. The images depict families who have been coming to Brackenridge to celebrate the Holy Day
and the holiday -- it is both -- for generations, some returning to the same picnic tables, the same shade trees, the same places along the banks of the San Antonio River year after year after year.
"Every year, families convene along the banks of the San Antonio River in Brackenridge Park during the Easter holiday to express and reaffirm centuries old traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation," said Arturo Infante Almeida, the Exhibition Curator and the Art Curator for the UTSA Art Collection. "The images in this exhibit capture and document this annual rite of merriment celebrated with egg hunts, cascarones, piñatas, Easter baskets, games, food and music, all a customary part of the remarkable movable feast that is Easter in San Antonio."
Romo isn't afraid to turn his camera toward a San Antonio tradition that most would pay no more heed than a quick glance from a car window. The photos portray an authentic San Antonio tradition, one embedded in Romo's own childhood memories. The photographs are not meant as great art. They are meant to celebrate something, to make us appreciate the people who fill the city's showcase park, where family memories once again will reach back generations and then into another April.
We asked Ricardo Romo the Photographer to express, in his own words, what Easter in Brackenridge Park does mean to him:
"On Easter Weekend, Brackenridge Park is transformed into a celebratory community attracting families from nearly all corners of the city. Many arrive days before, reserving prime spots near the San Antonio River or the playgrounds for their family.
"These photographs are part of a personal mission to capture images that represent the best of San Antonio. This photographic journey through the park was nostalgic because of my own Easter Weekend experiences as a child. On Easter weekend, we experienced sights, sounds and smells that were at once familiar to us, yet different from other weekends.
"Over the three-day weekend, the park glows with color. Piñatas in the shapes of various superheroes and Easter rabbits dangle from tree branches and children take turns striking the bright-colored paper until it erupts with candy. Suddenly, the ground is blanketed with sweets of all sizes and varieties. The candies compete with the broken egg shells and confetti from playful chases with cascarones.
"For the cooks in the family, this is an occasion to demonstrate the art of outdoor cuisine. The grills provided by the City of San Antonio and mobile BBQ pits glow with hot coals as family chefs prepare beef, chicken, and sausage. Over the years, the cooking equipment has become more sophisticated and elaborate; what has not changed is the great pride taken in preparing favorite dishes.
"For these three days, family members come and go in the park or camp out, enjoying the meals, music, and games and the joyful experience of being together."
Photos by Dr. Ricardo Romo