By Robert Rivard
Two Mexican campesinos in sombreros: one sleeps under a cactus, the other leads a burro. Both are details in the historic mural that for decades adorned the facade of the Mission-Drive-In near Mission San José on Roosevelt Avenue.
The intense community debate over the restoration or elimination of the two figures appears to be ending with their elimination. That, at least, is the conclusion I drew from Miriam Sitz’s excellent coverage on The Rivard Report of this week’s final public hearing on the matter. Felix Padrón, the City of San Antonio’s Director of Cultural Affairs, closed the hearing by saying the City had heard loud and clear that some in the community find the images offensive. They would, therefore, not be part of the restoration of the Marquee Mural.
Padrón has written for The Rivard Report before, and I hope he decides to do so again on this subject.
Historical preservation versus cultural sensitivities. Just about everyone of a certain age has Mission Drive-In memories. It was one of those few venues in San Antonio that seemed to draw people from all parts of the city. My own family had hardly arrived in 1989 before we learned to our delight that San Antonio still had an authentic drive-in movie theater, Sadly, we also learned after a visit that it had seen better days.
The restoration of the Mission Reach of the nearby San Antonio River has captured the city’s imagination, but some of the important surface projects have not. The debate over the restoration of the Marquee Mural has largely been limited to citizens in or near District Three. A lot of credit for encouraging that community conversation should go to Councilwoman Leticia Ozuna, who was appointed to her post yet has proven to be far more capable and committed, in my view, than many of her elected predecessors.
The City acquired the 26-care Mission Drive-In park in 2007, and Kell-Muñoz Architects was hired to design a new branch library adjacent to to theater. It’s a handsome piece of work on a major urban avenue desperately in need of improvement. You can read the entire Mission Drive-In Master Plan Framework here.
Stereotypes or archetypes? The mural dates to 1948, not long after Mexican-Americans had returned from military service in World War II, only to find they were still called “Mexicans,” a word laden with second-class inferences.
South Texas was ground zero for the post-war civil rights struggle that ensued to win Americans of Mexican descent full rights as citizens. Many would say those struggles have never ended in states like Texas and Arizona where restrictive proof of citizenship laws have been passed that target people of Mexican descent only.
That’s the down side of those Mission Drive-In images, the racist memories they stir.
Yet it’s also true that San Antonio needs to have a much deeper conversation about its historic relationship with Mexico. For too many people here, it’s a story that starts and stops with the Battle of the Alamo.
San Antonio self-identifies as a city that preserves and celebrates its history, yet little attention is paid in our own schools and universities, our museums and other cultural institutions, to how San Antonio was reshaped by the Mexico Revolution in the early 20th Century. It’s no exaggeration to say that only one city outside of Mexico played a significant role in the Revolution and that was San Antonio.
It’s an irony that the cultural institution most in danger of failing, the Museo Alameda, is home right now to “Revolution & Renaissance, Mexico & San Antonio 1910 – 2010, an exhibition that richly chronicles these revolutionary links. I had seen the exhibit twice after it opened, but it was only during a longer walk-through with Lance Aaron, whose family owns the collection and is searching to find it a permanent home in San Antonio, that I gained a full appreciation of this undertold chapter in our city’s history.
The exhibition is at the Museo Alameda for several more months. You owe it to yourself to go and see it. It spans far more than than the Mexican Revolution, telling both the story of Mexico that led to revolution and its aftermath. Unfortunately, the underfunded institution lacks many enhancements taken for granted elsewhere, such as knowledgeable docents, recorded self-guided tours or a cellphone app.
It’s in that context–this city’s sadly ignored relationship with Mexico that spans far more than one war in the 19th century — that gives me pause at the thought we are going erase anything that tells the story, good and bad, of mejicanismo in San Antonio. Shouldn’t an historic Southside theater facade be restored as accurately as possible?
It might be too late for that now, but artifacts often find their way to places where they can be preserved and appreciated in their full context. In this instance I’d suggest someone call Lance Aaron and ask if he would be willing to add the two Mexicans in Sombreros to his collection now on display at the Museo Alameda.