Pedestrians walk past “Comprando y Prestando,” a mural on the West Side, as a small team of artists goes about restoring it on a sunny Monday afternoon in mid-July. The heat hasn’t become overbearing, but when it does, that’s the time for the artists to call it quits.
Years of sun damage and graffiti have brought about the latest restoration efforts to the 25-year-old street portrait, which illustrates two Native American tribes trading fish, corn, crafts and other goods on the side of a food mart on the corner of Guadalupe and South San Jacinto streets. In 1996, Mary Helen Herrera was commissioned to create the original painting by San Anto Cultural Arts, a West Side nonprofit that mentors youth interested in art and journalism. A poem Herrera wrote above the friendly exchange reads: “This is the day of our people. Sharing talents, food & land. Giving to your neighbor, friends & family. A word of wisdom if you can let us live in harmony again.”
San Anto Cultural Arts, founded in 1993, has coordinated the painting of 60 murals across the city—many of them on the West Side—said Crystal Tamez, the organization’s mural preservation manager, who was hired late last year to help restore some of the aging street pieces.
Tamez, who has been commissioned for other murals as an individual, has long been connected to San Anto Cultural Arts. The same year “Comprando y Prestando” was painted, Tamez began volunteering with the group when she was a kid growing up at the Alazan and Cassiano public housing communities. Her mentors were San Anto’s founders: the late Manuel Castillo, as well as Cruz Ortiz and Juan Miguel Ramos, who grew the organization out of Inner City Development, the entrenched West Side community outreach nonprofit established by Patti and Rod Radle in 1968. Tamez is now 34, and has lead the restoration of other San Anto murals even before her title became official.
For “Comprando y Prestando,” this is the third restoration, the others happening in 2005 and 2007. The undertaking began earlier this month and is projected to be completed today, Tamez said.
A team of local artists contracted by San Anto and four volunteers have helped breathe new life into the mural using nova color painting and anti-graffiti coating.
Tamez’s giving nature, and the bond she has with other artists and her community, is embodied in the mural, which translates to “Buying and Lending,” she said.
“I see myself in the way I am with my friends in the way that we trade crafts or skills that we have,” Tamez said. “We try to teach each other stuff. For example, ‘I know how to paint. What do you know how to do?’ (The other person says.) ‘I know how to screen print.’ I’ll say, ‘Let’s trade. I’ll do a painting class with you if you show me how to screen print.’ I get the same feeling with the (‘Comprando y Prestando’ mural.)”
Alex Alvarez and April Dawn Rocha were contracted to help breathe new life into the mural. Tamez said she taps volunteers to help with restoration projects so they can gain respect for the murals and their significance in the community.
So far, it has worked.
Cristina Mauri, a 19-year-old volunteer, sees “Comprando y Prestando” as a symbol of unity, something she has experienced since moving to San Antonio from Houston to attend the University of Texas at San Antonio. Her volunteerism has allowed her to create “meaningful connections” with locals, she said. One of those interactions happened when a pedestrian asked Mauri what he should do with his life after feeling called upon to change it.
She responded with her own question: “What do you feel like doing?” Mauri said the person told her they hadn’t been asked that before.
“I really like the sense of everyone coming together,” Mauri said. “Everyone is together doing something to help one another. A lot of times people have some sort of competition mindset, but if you work together, you can get more done.”
Alvarez had zero painting experience prior to being contracted for the project, he said. A tattoo artist by trade, his artistry skills on the human body inspired Tamez to recruit him.
“I have always been the type, like my father always said, ‘Push yourself to the limit’,” said Alvarez, who grew up in the south and west sides. “No matter what you do, do it to the best of your ability. I have always liked challenging myself because it makes me a better person.”
Rocha is a veteran artist who worked for the San Antonio Museum of Popular Culture, also known as TexPopS.A., before being contracted to restore the “Comprando y Prestando.” She grew up in different parts of the West Side before settling in the city’s northwest side.
For Rocha, the mural embodies respect for the West Side.
“You have to respect what’s already here,” Rocha said. “If (new neighbors) do that, then everybody already here will have to accept the change. In the West Side, it’s always about respect. If people keep that in mind, it’s going to boom, and that’s what we hope for.”
The mural carries significance with Alvarez, even though he lived in the West Side for a short period of time in the late 1990s. To him, it represents a better tomorrow.
“There is so much division right now,” said Alvarez. “When I look at (the mural) it gives me hope that we can get back (to caring) some day. People forgot what it’s like to be unified because that’s what we are. At the end of the day, we bleed the same blood.”
One can gain an insight into the significance of San Anto Cultural Arts-coordinated murals through a browse of the organization’s website. There they’ll discover a mural displayed on the La Popular Bakery that depicts two Tejano couples dancing to a conjunto performance, or a painting on San Anto’s headquarters of Jesus Christ in front of Latin America that signifies hope in the area.
Each mural represents a different voice in the city, said Tamez, who gains ideas for new murals through community feedback.
Defacement of any mural saddens her, especially as a longtime artist who remembers experiencing joy after passing by one of her artworks while riding the bus with her mom.
“I get real upset, like ‘Oh my God, why?’ ” Tamez explained about her displeasure with mural defacements. “There is a completely different wall across the street. Why wouldn’t you go across the street and hit that wall.
“Our murals don’t get too much graffiti,” Tamez said. “When they do, it’s because the people that tag them are not from here, because we know the West Side has a big sense of community, and they take pride in what they have.”
Prospective volunteers can learn about San Anto Cultural Arts’ programs through its website at sananto.org.
Jose T. Garza III is a freelancer writer in San Antonio. Follow him on Twitter at @AztecsGarza.
Chris Stokes is a freelance photographer in San Antonio. Follow him on Instagram at @_chrisstokes_.