A mural trail driving tour, a new feature of the 6th annual World Heritage Festival, will offer a view of thousands of years of San Antonio history in 10 murals.

The driving tour was inspired in part by the pandemic, said Colleen Swain, director of the City of San Antonio World Heritage Office. While the five day festival, which runs through Sept. 12, offers several in-person events, including outdoor movies and the sold-out Tour de las Misiones bike ride, walk, and run, the mural driving tour is one way to be immersed in the city’s heritage from the relative safety of a car.

“Because we’re in this weird time, it’s something that people can do if they don’t feel comfortable in a crowd, even if it’s outside,” Swain said. “It’s something they can do on their own time and in their own manner.”

Printed brochures detailing the driving tour are being distributed at festival events, and are also available as downloadable PDF documents.

A community of stories

Artist Cristina Sosa Noriega painted her mural in 2017, one of a group of Four Seasons murals along Villamain Road under the Loop 410 underpass.

As the title suggests, each of the four murals represents one season, with Noriega’s wintry blue and purple painting depicting mountain lions and pecans. Noriega said mountain lions are common in Big Bend and around West Texas, but San Antonians might not be aware that they once roamed freely in this region.

Much of the city’s public art is informed by input from residents of the various districts the works inhabit. When Noriega was given a choice among natural elements to include, she jumped at the chance to paint pecans.

Humans and squirrels are commonly found gathering fallen pecans as late autumn slides into the winter season, so the ubiquitous nuts of South Texas make a natural subject for a mural. However, this represents one instance where community input and personal experience conjoin.

Noriega recalled frequent pecan-gathering walks with her grandmother Dahlia Leal, and watches as passersby collect pecans from under the huge tree in her front yard. Her other grandmother represents an even closer connection to San Antonio history.

Anita Sosa worked as a pecan sheller, and was part of local labor heroine Emma Tenayuca’s effort to properly recognize and compensate the hard work of cracking millions of the hard-shelled nuts each year.

Noriega said kids of her generation — she’s 42 — were not taught Mexican-American history in school, and she only learned about it through her family connection. While she appreciates that the mural is personally meaningful, “it gives me a platform to share the story with others,” she said. “It’s relevant to me, but also to a whole generation and whole culture and our city.”

Cristina Sosa Noriega’s Four Seasons mural represents winter, and features pecans and mountain lions. Credit: Tom Bugg / San Antonio Report

A storytelling focus

Swain said telling San Antonio’s stories is the goal of the mural project, which originated as a beautification effort that grew out of funding from the 2017 municipal bond.

Several local agencies including SMART (Supporting Multiple Art Resources Together), American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions, Urban-15, and San Anto Cultural Arts, were enjoined to collect community input and choose mural artists.

Participating muralists include Noriega, Jason Eric Gonzales Martinez, Jose Cosme, Joe De La Cruz, Albert Garza, and Chris Montoya. Oscar Alvarado and David Blancas are the duo behind the elaborately tiled, multi-site Windows to Our Heritage decorating several U.S. Highway 90 underpasses near Steves Avenue in Roosevelt Park.

Each mural depicts multiple facets of San Antonio heritage, from the ceramic nests and Mesoamerican iconography on simulated bark paper of Gonzales Martinez’s Where I End and You Begin, to the historical deep-dive of Alvarado and Blancas’s multi-faceted Windows murals.

Community input was especially important in the development of the Pioneers of the Sky painting by De La Cruz, Montoya, and Cosme at Stinson Municipal Airport. During a public presentation, a local historian focused only on male aviators, Swain said, and a member of the public stood up to ask why the Stinson sisters Katherine and Marjorie, who along with their mother Emma Beaver Stinson, opened the Stinson School of Flying in 1915.

The sister’s faces now feature prominently in the 300-foot-long mural’s design.

“We wanted [the mural] to inspire young women to not be stopped by ‘No,’” Swain said, “to be a pioneer in whatever their chosen field is.”

Two more murals are on the way in 2022, said Swain, one at the intersection of Mission Road and Huff Avenue, and another near Roosevelt Park at the northern entrance of the Mission Reach.

If you go

The 9-mile tour takes about 30 minutes of driving time, but Swain recommends reserving an hour or two to park at each location for closer viewing. Several murals contain details not well-suited to drive-by viewing.

We drove the trail recently and offer the following tips:

Plot your course in advance or bring a navigator to help using a smartphone maps app.

Starting downtown at the confluence of the Steves Avenue and Mission Road murals of the four-part Windows to Our Heritage artwork, parking is possible under the U.S. Highway 90 overpass, but the grounds are rough. Street parking in mostly unavailable nearby for the moment.

Parking on Wilkens Avenue just north of the Roosevelt Avenue mural is a good option, as Wilkens leads east to the Presa Street mural. A turn onto South Presa Street leads past Hot Wells and eventually to Southwest Military Drive.

The location of Where I End and You Begin is not apparent from the road, but a turn just west of the San Antonio River bridge — onto what Google Maps identifies as Mission Parkway but street signs call Riverfront Parkway — leads to the hidden mural location under the bridge. A parking area is available just to the north. Riverfront Parkway makes an easy return to the trail route down Mission Parkway to the Stinson mural.

Mission Road becomes Villamain Road as it crosses the river near Mission San Juan. The murals are just north of the entrance to Mission Espada, with a small gravel lot suitable for parking on the entrance road.

The driving trail map starts at this southernmost location, for drivers approaching from the south.

Note that the mural trail brochure map places the northernmost mural at Probandt Street, but those underpass pillars remain unpainted for the moment. The brochure detailing the multiple-location Windows to Our Heritage mural is more accurate, and provides rich detail on the artwork’s content.

Both brochures can be accessed on the World Heritage Office website, by clicking on their respective tabs at the bottom of the page.

Nicholas Frank

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 an indie rock...