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On a small stretch of Zarzamora Street on San Antonio’s Southwest Side, there’s a feeling of nostalgia. Between the carwash where hearses from the local mortuary are cleaned, the abandoned gas station, and a handful of nondescript buildings, beautifully adorned tile mosaic billboards harken back to a time when that stretch of one of the city’s oldest thoroughfares was a vibrant staple of the Hispanic community.
This is Oscar Alvarado’s memory of Zarzamora, a place that’s frozen in 1968, when classic cars cruised at a leisurely pace and music from Arturo’s Ballroom filled the night air. And it’s depicted in what he calls three 3- by 9-foot “shade walls,” each with two sides, that informally mark bus stops along a four-block stretch.
In response to an open call for artists to help revitalize Zarzamora in 2013, Alvarado submitted a bid, drawn to the project because of his desire to rebuild the community that helped shape him as a young man.
“I lived in that neighborhood. I lived right there off Zarzamora,” said Alvarado, a mosaic tile artist responsible for much of the public mosaic work around the city, including Hemisfair’s well-known blue panther and anhinga bird that tells the Payaya creation story in Yanaguana Garden. “I wanted to tell the story of 1968. [The mosaics] were all supposed to be somewhat inspirational. I was 6 years old, and when you’re young and poor in the working class, everything seemed possible.”
The first mosaic, which sits in front of a carwash near Winnipeg Avenue, depicts a ’57 Chevy, similar to the one that was Alvarado’s father’s pride and joy, cruising toward a crater-pocked moon with the words “Take me to the Moon” on one side and “Llevame a la Luna” on the other.
The second piece, in front of what is now La Michoacana Meat Market on South Zarzamora Street, shows a couple – Alvarado’s parents – dancing in front of a disco ball with the words “Today we Dance” on one side and “Hoy Bailamos” on the other. For Alvarado, it recalls the fond memories of when his parents were still together.
The third mosaic, on the opposite side of Zarzamora near Humble Avenue, is of a military airplane, the model Alvarado’s father was commissioned to work on at Kelly Air Force Base, with the words “To the Skies” on one side and “A los Cielos” on the other. Alvarado added the constellation of Orion on an inch-thick steel disk behind it, because at age 6, it was the only constellation he knew, the one he always looked for in the night sky.
“I could have made them one-sided and gotten the same amount of money, but I wanted to make them two-sided,” Alvarado said. “I wanted to give a lot more bang for the buck and the private property owner adjacent to the public right-of-way … something to look at from behind, not just the back of something.
“So I chose the English at the back and the Spanish toward the street to bring people in and say, ‘I speak your language and I’m from here.’”
The project “has helped increase connectivity within the surrounding neighborhood,” said Debbie Racca-Sittre, director of the City’s Department of Arts & Culture. “Oscar has shown his ability to capture the spirit and identity of a community and tell these stories in a meaningful way.”
Alvarado, 57, looks back on the Zarzamora mosaics as his most personal project in the city, the one that reminds him of his roots and why he returned to San Antonio after stints in Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. They are why the University of Texas at San Antonio grad with a degree in business administration and finance traded his career as a computer salesman making bonuses that would rival others’ salaries to create tile mosaics – the most famous of which is at Hemisfair.
Alvarado said he wasn’t one of the original artists picked for the Hemisfair grounds, but Andrés Andujar, CEO of Hemisfair, recalls seeing Alvarado’s mosaic mural work in the Hilton Palacio del Rio. The initial idea for Yanaguana Garden included serpents, but when Alvarado came aboard and met with the Payaya people and heard the story behind the Yanaguana, a new direction was charted.
Originally, Alvarado was asked to create benches – similar to ones he later crafted at Elmendorf Lake – depicting the story of where the Yanaguana, a Payaya Indian village on the San Antonio River, began. After several iterations, including ones where the blue panther was coming off the back of a bench, the contractors noted that children likely would climb on Alvarado’s structures, so they needed to be safe and able to withstand heavy use. That’s when he made the pitch to make the blue panther a standalone entity.
The larger-than-life panther has become the most recognizable part of Hemisfair and the piece that makes Alvarado beam when he talks about it.
“Before the park even opened up, there was a national convention here of, like, civic improvement people, whatever it was, and they took pictures and they used images of my work,” Alvarado said. “San Antonio’s revitalized, and they used images of the colors I chose, which were harkening back to ’68 Pucci prints, and they got it, and I was like, ‘That is satisfying.’
“Pantera Azul weighs about 7 tons. It’s not going anywhere. It’s going to be there forever. I don’t have any kids. That’s my legacy.”
It’s quite an accomplishment for someone who still says he’s on the outside looking in when it comes to the San Antonio art community.
“I got in the service entrance and not the front door,” he said.
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Alvarado recalls when he first started making mosaics on the concrete floor of a garage he was renovating for his aunt after finding a treasure trove of broken tile in a dumpster. He honed his skills in the 1990s at the Esperanza Center for Peace and Justice, where he and twin brother, Robert, who is now the owner of South Antonio Builders, were renovating the downstairs bathroom. Alvarado offered to turn what was supposed to be a vinyl installation into a mermaid mosaic for no extra charge. It remains Alvarado’s first work in public view.
“I didn’t even know what tools to work with,” Alvarado said. “I didn’t look it up, [and] there was no internet, so I got a hammer and some pliers and some mortar to stick it. But even then, it was really, really crude.”
From there, Alvarado did all he could to get his name into San Antonio’s art circles. He created pieces for display and sale out of a local restaurant and thought he received his big break in 2002 when Felix Padrón, then the executive director of the City’s arts and culture department, asked him to do 12 mosaics along the River Walk in an area damaged by flooding. The pay was so paltry, Alvarado said, he was asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement to keep the meager investment quiet, and he had to rummage for his own supplies.
The work got him noticed but not necessarily appreciated. He had to beg for sponsorship into the Red Dot art sale at Blue Star Contemporary. One year, he sneaked in with the help of Jimmy LeFlore, the City’s current public art manager who at the time was a program manager working at Blue Star. He placed his assemblage – a TV screen with a multimedia mosaic of himself as Jesus – in a spare room off from the rest of the show.
Within an hour, Joe Diaz, who was then the director of Blue Star, had placed a red dot on it, signifying that it had sold. Alvarado said it’s still part of Diaz’s collection.
“When I first came and I started making art, people were like, ‘This isn’t art, this is whatever,’” Alvarado said. “It was frustrating.”
Even if Alvarado is not mentioned alongside some of San Antonio’s more prominent artists, he has created a following. He’s made several pieces, including a mosaic Buddha, for Red McCombs’ wife, Charline, and daughters. He created the facade of the Travis Building off Fredericksburg Road, the Walters Street sidewalk mosaics, a couple other mosaics in the Esperanza Center for Peace and Justice, and several other private pieces that are displayed inside and outside of local homes.
In some cases, like the seemingly out-of-place mosaics along Zarzamora, you might not even know what you’re looking at is his.
“Oscar, in my view, for the work that we have at Hemisfair, is a fine artist that is competitive at the highest level,” Andujar said. “He’s extremely capable and efficient, but also an artist in the ability to design the kind of work that he’s now established at the park. So he’s got the utmost respect for sure.”
Still, Alvarado is content with his rebel status that doesn’t conform to the rules of the art establishment and instead creates content that he just hopes people will enjoy.
“I’m an outsider artist, I’m not a fine artist,” Alvarado said. “I break every rule of art because I don’t even know what the rules are. I just make stuff and let it say whatever to you. Whether or not people know what goes into it, I don’t care. They can see it and say that’s pretty colors, and I’m happy.”