In February 2020 at Centro de Artes, San Antonio artist José Esquivel stood quietly among 50 of his paintings and drawings in the exhibition Los Maestros: Early Explorers of Chicano Identity, holding a binder labeled “Pintores 1968.”

When asked, he politely paged through its sleeves containing original drawings, faded photographs, a mimeographed essay and handwritten pages documenting the formation of the Con Safo group.

Esquivel, a pioneering artist and co-founder of the San Antonio activist group, died Dec. 12 at age 87 due to complications from a bilateral stroke.

In neat penmanship on a yellowing notebook page in his “Pintores 1968” binder, Esquivel had written, “In the year 1968 a group was formed by Felipe Varela Reyes.”

As Chicano consciousness arose in the political and social realms, San Antonio artists responded by banding together both to protest their exclusion from mainstream art venues and to promote subject matter based on their experiences.

“All the members of the group agreed that with the mounting Chicano Movimiento, the time was right for the projection of Chicano ideas, feelings, visions,” read a paragraph in Esquivel’s notebook.

In the spirit of the times, the group of artists created a manifesto outlining their collective vision: “We are iconoclasts, not by choice but by circumstances — out to destroy stereotypes and demolish visual cliches.”

Esquivel and his colleagues overcame many challenges, including a lack of opportunity, according to Los Maestros curator Malena Gonzalez-Cid, reflecting at the time on the history of the Con Safo artists.

“They encountered many obstacles. It was a harder path for them than it is for us today,” she said. “There were no studios, art centers, or museums that gave them access or the accolades that they deserved.”

Gonzalez-Cid, who became executive director of Centro Cultural Aztlan 10 years after its founding in 1977, said the center was founded in part as a place to showcase the work of pioneering Chicano artists like Esquivel.

“We still see them as the trailblazers carving a path for the rest of us that were getting into Chicano art,” she said.

Ellen Riojas Clark, professor emerita at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a scholar of bicultural and bilingual studies, served as secretary of the early Con Safo group. She said Esquivel became known for focusing on the neighbors he knew growing up in the barrio, the working-class residents and family caretakers who had not previously been considered worthy subjects of paintings.  

Riojas Clark owns two early Esquivel watercolor paintings from the early 1970s, one of a señor selling fruits and vegetables, the other of a woman wrapped in a rebozo and watering her garden. 

Artist José Esquivel shows the original logo design for the Con Safo group, among other founding documents in a personal archive he's kept since 1967.
Artist José Esquivel shows the original logo design for the Con Safo group, among other founding documents in a personal archive he’s kept since 1967. Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

“These are dignified beings that nobody had ever thought to put on canvas,” she said. “But when you look at that yard with the roses, and the daisies, and all of the richness of color in green — in a community which has always been downgraded as a barrio — that, to me, was provocative.”

Santos Martínez joined Con Safo in 1971, after the group had been through several manifestations and names. First, it was simply El Grupo, Martínez said, then Los Pintores de Aztlan, then Los Pintores de la Nueva Raza, then finally Con Safo.

The name derived from a graffiti symbol commonly in use at the time, the letters “C” and “S” separated by a slash, from the words “con” (with) and “zafar,” which Martínez said was used to exclude or free yourself from negativity. 

“It’s like a shield of armor, to protect you,” he said.

A 20-year-old painter at the time he was invited into the group, Martínez said he was starstruck working alongside established artists including César Martinez, Jesse Treviño, Mel Casas, Esquivel and others as the group’s membership grew and changed. “I was in awe to be surrounded by all this talent,” he said. 

Martínez would relocate to St. Paul in Minnesota but continued collecting the artwork of Con Safo and Chicano artists. He is working on essays that closely consider works by each artist, including by Esquivel.

While several artists of the Con Safo group have gained national recognition, Martínez said, “I think it’s just a matter of time before [José’s] work also becomes recognized and will be hanging on museum walls.”

He noted that an Esquivel painting is in the collection of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, and scholar and La Prensa publisher Ricardo Romo recently wrote that Smithsonian curators have requested Esquivel’s papers and examples of his art for their archives and collection. 

Esquivel worked a full-time job and also took freelance work as a designer to support his family, Gonzalez-Cid said. That devotion and love for his family came through in his art, Martínez noted. 

A 1973 painting in Martínez’s collection titled La Ventana includes an image of the Virgen de Guadalupe, a mother or grandmother protecting her children, a blooming peach-colored rose, and a rat in the lower left corner. 

From left: former secretary for the Con Safe group, Ellen Riojas Clark sits with artist José Esquivel.
Former secretary for the Con Safo group Ellen Riojas Clark (left) sits with artist José Esquivel. Credit: Courtesy / Ellen Riojas Clark

While the rat represents poverty, Martínez said, the rose reflects the “abundance of love present in the household. The love of family is demonstrated in … how the entire family clings together and supports each other in the presence of danger.”

When the City of San Antonio acquired Esquivel’s painting Golden Hand, depicting his childhood home and his father’s work as a tile setter and mason, he said, “I’m very happy that it’s a personal story, because in my work what I’ve tried to do is personalize it. It’s an experience, it’s me, it’s my family.”

Esquivel’s son Mario recently posted to Facebook about sharing the Thanksgiving holiday with his father, and on Nov. 29 posted an image of the two, captioned “Planning and thinking about exhibit schedules for 2023.”

Esquivel’s colorful painting La Tiendita can currently be seen in the Xicanx: Dreamers + Changemakers exhibition at the Museum of Anthropology, The University of British Columbia in Vancouver through January 15.

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Nicholas Frank

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...