Each image in Xavier Garza’s new exhibition of paintings and works on paper holds layers of stories, from ancient myths and legends to the San Antonio artist’s visions of the future.

Known for his boldly illustrated children’s books on Mexican American culture, Garza’s playful images leap off the page and onto the walls of Centro Cultural Aztlan for The Return of Quetzalcoatl: Heroes, Villains, and Space Monsters, opening Friday and running through Aug. 18.

The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl features prominently in Garza’s pantheon of characters, but in the modern form of a luchador. Mesoamerican myths and Mexican wrestling are both legendary traditions passed down through generations, Garza said, so he wove them together to tell contemporary stories.

“These legends, these stories are eternal, they are passed from one generation to the next,” he said. “They might change, they might get modernized, it might be given a more modern twist. But in the end, they are still the same stories at their core.”

Luchadores in space

In the Centro Cultural Aztlan gallery, after finishing the installation of the show on Tuesday, Garza pointed to a suite of ink drawings depicting luchadores he remembers from his youth, watching dramatic movies pitting heroes against villains in the unending struggle of good versus evil.

Such movies as Santo Contra Blue Demon en la Atlantida and Anónimo Mortal elevated luchadores to superhero status, Garza said, bringing the dramas normally contained to the wrestling ring to James Bond-style scenarios with secret agents, ticking time bombs, and of course, the girl the hero always gets in the end — but also wearing the mask of a luchadora.

“They were silly movies, but they were fun to watch,” Garza said, and he had no trouble drawing forth plentiful images from memory to recreate scenes in stark, moody black-and-white ink on paper.

The Return of Quetzalcoatl: Heroes, Villains and Space Monsters features contrasted black and white drawings of luchadores. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Famed luchadores El Santo and Blue Demon both make appearances in The Return of Quetzalcoatl, but as helmeted and suited space travelers. Quetzalcoatl, with laser-sharp teeth and in a leering green mask, stars in his own painting as a space-suited luchador riding a feathered serpent rocket. Modern-day mythic figures including La Llorona, Chupacabra, and the Donkey Lady are all featured in their own drawings, stylized faces peering from glass bubble space helmets.

The outer space theme has particular roots, Garza said, in persistent perceptions that the pyramids of Egypt, Mesoamerican ziggurats and other wonders of the world were made by space aliens. Though some scholars assert that such misperceptions are the result of racism — conquistadors and colonizers were hesitant to credit indigenous populations with the ingenuity required to build such amazing constructions — Garza’s approach is lighthearted and taps the legend of Quetzalcoatl.

“The story goes that he departs in a raft made of snakes and promises that one day he will return,” Garza said. “The idea being the return of the gods of pre-Columbian myth, but they return to us [as] space travelers.”

Weaving stories in paint

The most ambitious piece in the show brings all of Garza’s stories together, tying his personal history to the many layers of Chicano heritage. Chicano Last Supper: The Children of Quetzalcoatl features the important godhead and a luchador figure, but in a format adopting the famous Leonardo Da Vinci Last Supper mural.

In the three-dimensional painting, Jesus sits at the center of a table, with the silver-masked El Santo figure hovering above as the holy spirit. To the left and right of Christ sit a Día de los Muertos calavera figure, the Virgen de Guadalupe, La Llorona, and historical personages Cesar Chavez, Frida Kahlo, Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, Moctezuma and Hernán Cortés, with photos and ofrendas of important personages in Garza’s life set on an altar extension running the length of the painting.

<I>Chicano Last Supper: The Children of Quetzalcoatl</I>, Xavier Garza
Chicano Last Supper: The Children of Quetzalcoatl, Xavier Garza Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Sharp-eyed viewers will make note not only of the attached painted Texas flags joining those of the Chicano movement, Mexico and the U.S., but also of a banner bearing the red rooster-and-thorns logo of Joe Lopez, the proprietor of the Gallista Gallery that once stood on South Flores Street, and the figure of Don Pedro Jaramillo, a folk hero of Garza’s native Rio Grande Valley.

Each element of the elaborate painting carries a story, flowing from Garza’s tongue: how Jaramillo ran into a tree when his horse was startled by a rattlesnake and the voice of God instructed him to heal his shattered nose with river mud; and how Lopez waged a five-year legal battle against E. & J. Gallo Winery when the corporate giant tried to stop him from titling his series of rooster paintings “El Gallo.”

The artist will attend the exhibition’s opening reception, Friday from 6-9 p.m., and gallerygoers might have a chance to hear Garza weave the tales that inform his art. The paintings and ink drawings are available for purchase, but any viewer can enjoy Garza’s growing catalog of elaborately illustrated bilingual children’s books, from Rooster Joe and the Bully / El Gallo Joe y el abusón to the luchador-themed Lucha Libre: The Man in The Silver Mask: A Bilingual Cuento.

Whether in images, in words, or in their combination, Garza said storytelling is in his blood. “I grew up my whole life surrounded by storytellers. My father, my grandfather, my grandmother … they were all storytellers.”

And the key to his own brand of storytelling? “First of all, see it through the eyes of a child,” Garza said.

Of luchadores, he said, they “literally look like superheroes and supervillains come to life. And it’s the oldest story in the world: Good versus evil, evil is winning and winning, and then good triumphs in the end.”

Exhibitions in the Centro Cultural Aztlan Galería Expresión are free and open to the public Mondays through Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...