Maria Ines Rodriguez, 57, known to friends as Mary Agnes, paints images of the Westside’s struggles and joy. Her work documents social justice issues over the past 15 years. From delicate eggs to walls along Westside streets, her work is as vibrant as the neighborhood she grew up in.
“I grew up en el barrio,” Mary Agnes said. “Leal Street is my homestead, where my grandfather lived.”
Mary Agnes is back in her childhood grounds, currently living at her grandfather’s former grocery store, Rodriguez Groceries.
“You would see me down at the creek when I was young. Looking for rocks or minnows,” she said. “My dad would take me kite flying in the empty lots. I had always wondered why there were empty lots. When I heard about the big flood in the 1920s, I thought, ‘Oh, I guess they didn’t rebuild the Westside.’”
Mary Agnes moved with her family to the Northwest side, close to General McMullen. Her mom designed tailored clothes and uniforms.
“When I was born, she went into business on her own. That’s where I get my independence, from my mom,” she said. “She made wedding dresses, folklórico dresses, mariachi trajes. She even made shirts for the Memorial High School Band. All 125 members. We always had people in our home. Her clients would call her La Famosa Rodriguez.”
San Anto Roots
Mary Agnes’ first mural was “Nicho para La Virgen de Guadalupe,” a collaboration with Janie Taberes-Ornelaz, in 2001.
“My cousin Cathy Garcia had a business, Alamo St. Garden and Market, at Alamo and Beauregard streets in King William. I was hand painting eggs and selling them there. Real eggs,” she said. “I would drain them, dry them, and paint them. I also did wood pieces. I didn’t paint (canvas) that much; I was used to small things. I found out years later that (former District Attorney) Susan Reed collected my eggs, also Henry Muñoz and Nelson Wolff.
“One day I saw the El Placazo Newspaper from San Anto at the store. They were having a masthead contest. I designed about four. They selected one of my images and that’s when it all started,” Mary Agnes continued. “Cruz Ortiz was the mural coordinator at the time. He sent me a letter inviting me to a meeting and asked me to bring samples of my art. I took my nicho with a Virgen egg. Alex Rubio was there, too.”
Ortiz and Rubio are two contemporary San Antonio artists who have worked with San Anto Cultural Arts since its inception. They had their meeting with Mary Agnes at Inner City Development on Chihuahua Street, San Anto’s original headquarters.
“Alex got real excited about the little Virgen nicho,” Mary Agnes said. “He said, ‘Mary, you can do a 3D mural!’”
This 3D mural became “Nicho para La Virgen de Guadalupe” now located at the 200 block of South Cibolo Street.
Mary Agnes found continued artistic opportunities through San Anto Cultural Arts. Their founding Executive Director, Manny Castillo (q. e. p. d.), kept her in mind when a national exhibit came around looking for Chicana artists.
“Manny Castillo put us in touch with the Cheech Marin exhibit organizers,” she said. “They were looking for two Chicana artists to submit mural designs for the touring exhibit. Manny said, ‘Just do it,’ so we did.”
Mary Agnes submitted a proposal with Janie Taberes-Ornelaz, her collaborator on the Virgen mural. “We came up with two designs: a family room and a kitchen. Cheech Marin liked un gallo que pinté como stained glass on the kitchen wall. He loved that. They commissioned us to do both,” she said. “It was all new to us. We didn’t grid anything, did it all freehand. They gave us only two weeks to finish. Janie’s daughter helped.”
Mary Agnes has witnessed an erasure of the Westside’s cultural history over the years.
“They painted over my mural at Guadalupe and Trinity, Seeds of Solidarity,” she said. “The owners had abandoned the building. I found out about it while I was in the hospital. (The new owner) said it just didn’t work for his business. I collaborated on that one with José Cosme. The mural featured people that had an impact on the community: David González, Patricia Castillo, Rosie Castro. José wanted to paint Raúl Salinas, who had been a mentor to José.”
Qué lástima – what a shame – the mural was painted over. It’s not the only San Anto mural that has been lost over the years. Of the 49 murals completed since 1994, at least three have been painted over.
A map to San Anto’s murals can be found here.
Mary Agnes’ work focuses on social justice issues, often depicting Westside scenes of family and culture. When a hot issue emerges in the community, Mary Agnes produces artwork really quickly.
“Some people have told me, ‘Mary you’re fast.’ Yes. I express my thoughts (through my art).”
Some of Mary Agnes’ pieces are iconic images of Westside inequity and cultural preservation, like the visuals she produced during the Save La Gloria campaign in 2002.
“The owner already had intentions to demolish it, but we enacted a delay tactic by spending the night there,” she said. “Joleen Garcia (now executive director at the Martinez Street Women’s Center) and I had volunteered to chain ourselves. A man with a van con el American flag showed up about midnight. He said, ‘Si se va La Gloria, tambien se va la Glory.’ That was the name of his van, la Glory. He took out the air in his tires then took off and left the van there.”
“First we did the human chain. Second step was being chained to the building. Helicopters showed up. We had the restraining order. I ended up on the news with my chain around my neck,” Mary Agnes continued. “The media gives the Westside a bad image. Discrimination is still present. It might be sugar-coated, but it’s still there.”
Ultimately, the Save La Gloria Alliance lost the campaign to save the 73 year-old building from demolition. An 18-wheeler repair shop now stands in its place on the corner of Brazos and Laredo streets.
Although life has brought Mary Agnes a series of chingasos, she continues to create.
“It’s not easy. Now that this happened it’s even harder,” she said as she pointed to her foot which was amputated in September 2014 due to complications from diabetes.
Living with Diabetes
Mary Agnes did not know she was diabetic until a wound on her foot did not heal. About 14% of San Antonio’s population has diabetes, double the national average, according to the American Diabetes Association.
“Art was my therapy. Art saved me,” Mary Agnes said. “My health issues are a little more stable now. Only thing is, with this prosthetic leg, my stump shrinks and starts rubbing. I have to be very careful with that and might have to get a new one. And they’re not cheap, either. This one cost $11,000 (or) $12,000. They can get fancier, too. My insurance didn’t cover the cost, but I received assistance.”
Mary Agnes gets around town, despite her challenges with mobility.
“As long as I am still moving, I am going to be doing my art. I’m not going to be at home. I will take care of myself. Sure, I have my limitations, but art keeps me going,” she said. “I am terca – stubborn. You have to continue. I have a neighbor…the doctors told him his leg needed to be amputated. His amputation will be a little harder. Mine is at the ankle. I encourage him: you can’t give up. I told him you need inner strength. I told him you have to prepare yourself. I asked if he had rails. ‘No,’ he said. ‘My son-in-law can carry me.’ I said, ‘Maybe a few times, but you have to be independent. Tener ganas.’”
Mary Agnes uses the VIA Metropolitan Transit Taxi Subsidy Program to get around the city.
“I get 20 rides per month. I use it to go everywhere,” she said. “I even went to the International Women’s Day March. I’m familiar with several taxi drivers. One of them pulled up and said, ‘I never know where you’re going to pop up. You’re the only one that goes not just to the clinic or to the dialysis, you go everywhere.’ Yes. I’m going to live it up.”
The Taxi Subsidy program covers 20 trips per month. The rider gives the driver $2 and there is no additional cost if the meter rate fare at the end of the taxi trip is $10.95 or less, about three miles.
Mary Agnes is currently working on San Anto Cultural Art’s 50th mural, a collaboration with the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, with an impressive group of collaborators including Gerardo Quetzatl Garcia, Cardee Avila Garcia and Juan Miguel Ramos.
“We all came up with ideas. Each one of us has our own style, and we combined them,” Mary Agnes said. “The process is about building community.”
San Anto’s 50th mural, still a work in progress, is located at 723 S. Brazos St.
Top image: Mary Agnes Rodriguez is an artist working on San Antonio Cultural Art Center’s 50th mural. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.