In a 1987 Los Angeles Times article, San Antonio author, playwright, filmmaker, artist, teacher, and bon vivant Gregg Barrios reflected on Andy Warhol, with whom he had briefly worked during a 1967 stint in New York City.
The article ends with a Warhol quote reflecting on the possibility of death: “I’m so sorry to hear about it. I just thought that things were magic and that it would never happen,” followed by Barrios summing up, “Ditto, Andy.”
The magical life of Barrios — no stranger to celebrities including Warhol, Elvis Presley, Selena, Jane Fonda, Farrah Fawcett, and Tennessee Williams — ended Aug. 17 at age 80. He died at Metropolitan Methodist Hospital from a sudden heart attack after a routine medical procedure.
“To hear all the kind words and everything that people have posted, it’s amazing how many lives he’s touched,” said nephew Robert Barrios of Austin.
“He worked very hard, and he stayed true to his beliefs. I respected that greatly. You could just see that he never lost his passion to do things.”
In his eighth decade, Barrios remained as active as ever, posting on Facebook as recently as Aug. 10 about upcoming activities.
One post announced the reissue of his 2010 book of poems titled La Causa, and another appealed to the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts for a revisitation of the 2014 performance of Telling: San Antonio, in which Barrios joined other military veterans speaking of their experiences during wartime.
These two posts chart the arc of Barrios’ life, from serving in the Air Force medical corps during the Vietnam War at age 19 through decades as a writer, artist, and activist conscious of his past and looking toward the future.
Poet and Northwest Vista College professor Natalia Treviño characterized Barrios as “a maverick, such a trailblazer, such a cultural maven, just such an incredible person” and someone who influenced her through an informal mentorship comprised of monthly breakfasts over the course of several years. “He had just so much to share. I loved to learn from him.”
Barrios began his writing career at age 16 in his hometown of Victoria after a librarian recommended the young bookworm to the editor of the local newspaper. Barrios regularly wrote book reviews and went on to write for Warhol’s Interview magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Texas Observer, and the Rivard Report, now the San Antonio Report, among other publications.
In 1969, the politically conscious Barrios went to Crystal City to support Chicano student walkouts and became an English teacher at Crystal City High School.
Barrios took up the issue of immigration during his time as a teacher there, fusing his interests in emergent rock ‘n’ roll, theater, and civil rights. Though his duties as an English instructor included teaching video production and guiding the school newspaper, he noted that “the theater program … gave me the most satisfaction, for it allowed me to explore my own creativity and, just as important, share my enthusiasm for music and theater with my students.”
The result of a classwide collaboration was the 1976 “sci-fi rock opera” Stranger in a Strange Land. Based on a fusion of science fiction, the 1970 Commission on Civil Rights report on Mexican Americans, and David Bowie’s Space Oddity, the play explored the notion of Mexican and South American migrants as “illegal aliens,” drawing on Bowie’s space alien role in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth of the same year. Archival documents from the production appeared at Blue Star Contemporary in the 2018 exhibition Monarchs: Brown and Native Contemporary Artists in the Path of the Butterfly.
Crystal City native Roberto Alonzo recalled playing a lead role in an earlier Barrios production that superimposed the Chicano experience onto the classic Bizet opera Carmen. Alonzo had participated in the walkouts and appreciated Barrios’ inclusion of Chicano history and literature in his approach to teaching English.
“Through that whole teaching, we learn to be proud of who we are,” Alonzo said. “And that’s how you came out, ready to take on the world.”
Alonzo went on to become student body president at the University of Texas at Austin, and later served as a Texas state representative for two decades. He credits his experiences performing with Barrios for helping shape his life in politics. “You’re on stage and it creates your positive image of who you are, what you can do, and then you go on and do all kinds of creative things,” he said.
Barrios’s activism and advocacy also took the form of philanthropy, particularly in making a major donation to the Overtime Theater that resulted in the main stage being named after him and in establishing the Gregg Barrios Precious Words Prize awarded to one poet during the annual Urban-15 MegaCorazón poetry event.
Fellow playright William Razavi recalls first meeting Barrios at the San Antonio Theatre Coalition 24-Hour Theatre Festival in 2004. Ten years later Razavi became the artistic director of Overtime Theater and interacted with Barrios frequently.
The Overtime is dedicated to producing new plays, and Razavi said “one of the great things about Gregg as a voice for artists … is that he recognized that new voices needed a space and continue to need that space in town.”
Barrios continued actively writing and producing plays, including Rancho Pancho about the secret lover of Tennessee Williams, and I-DJ, which Barrios described as being about a gay Mexican American DJ named Warren Peace “who spins the soundtrack of his life on the dance floor by night and by day performs in a send-up of Shakesqueer’s Ham-a-lot set to a dub-step beat of ecstasy, tainted love, Rollerena and Herb Alpert.”
The mash-up of influences is common to Barrios’ artistic approach and is reflected in the thousands of records of all genres he collected during his lifetime, Treviño said.
Jon Hansen of Hansen Publishing Group met Barrios during a festival dedicated to Williams’ work in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and went on to publish Rancho Pancho, I-DJ, and La Causa. Hansen had worked with Barrios since 2017 on a new collection of poems intended for publication in 2020 but it was delayed by the pandemic. The book, titled My Life: The Poem I Never Wrote, New and Selected Poetry 1968-2021, is on track to be published late this year or in early 2022.
A new Barrios play titled Hard Candy: The Life and Times of a Texas Bad Girl about Texas burlesque star Candy Barr — who died in Victoria and whom Barrios knew personally — was nearing completion at the time of his death, Razavi said, and Overtime Theater still hopes to produce it.
Barrios received many honors during his lifetime, including a 2013 University of Southern California Annenberg Getty Fellowship and induction into the Texas Institute of Letters in 2015, and fellowships at Harvard and Yale universities. In March, he was honored by Voices de la Luna magazine for lifetime achievement in the literary arts.
Barrios served on the executive board of the National Book Critics Circle, where he advocated for a more inclusive and diverse roster of voices. He was to be the grand honoree of the Gemini Ink 2021 Inkstravaganza gala benefit on Oct. 15, where Treviño said he was to be “surrounded with love after all of his lifetime of dedication to the arts.”
Norma Cantú, a Trinity University professor and along with Treviño and others an Inkstravaganza committee member who helped select Barrios for the honor, said that though the celebration will now be posthumous, she is grateful that Barrios is receiving the recognition he deserves. She said his death leaves a gap in the San Antonio literary community.
“He would step into a room and transform it. The conversation would shift,” she said, sometimes to uncomfortable topics.
“That’s what’s going to be missing,” Cantú said. “That spark, that catalyst to get things going, to get people thinking in a different way … and being creative in a different way.”
Memorial service arrangements are pending.