After Ramon Vasquez y Sanchez celebrated his 83rd birthday on May 6 with siblings, children and extended family, the revered San Antonio artist, activist and historian died Monday morning surrounded by family in his near East Side home. 

The Tāp Pīlam Coahuiltecan Nation elder co-founded the nonprofit organizations Centro Cultural Aztlan and American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions (AIT-SCM), worked as a political organizer for La Raza Unida party in the 1970s and continued his Indigenous social justice and civil rights activism throughout his lifetime. He held the position of Bexar County Historical Commissioner from 1975-1978 and was a practicing visual artist since the age of 10. 

Vasquez y Sanchez was feted on the March 24 opening day of his 40-year retrospective art exhibition titled The Man. The Myth. The Legend. in the Spirit Waters Art Gallery at the new AIT-SCM complex on East Commerce Street. 

Known for his good-natured wry humor, the increasingly frail artist had mused openly that he hoped he would live long enough to make it to the opening, which had been delayed for several months as the AIT-SCM staff readied the buildings for occupancy.

His son Ramon Juan Vasquez reflected on his father’s life and death, marveling that the 83-year-old had overcome many health challenges, including cancer, heart disease, multiple strokes and diabetes.

“He was our superhero,” Vasquez said. “He was immortal for us.”

Rocket expert, arts leader

Encapsulating the scope of Vasquez y Sanchez’s accomplishments would be difficult for any archivist.

Just a brief glimpse in the AIT-SCM archives reveals that he began making news even as a Lanier High School student, photographed as a winning “rocket expert” in a 1958 San Antonio Express article on the Alamo District Science Fair at Incarnate Word College. Soon after, his band The Chancellors won the high school’s battle of the bands contest.

The San Antonio Light recognized him as one of San Antonio’s “best-known Hispanic artists” in a story on a 1979 exhibition at what was then called the Main Library. In 1986, he directed La Pasion de Cristo (The Trial of Jesus Christ) as a theatrical downtown procession, playing the central figure Jesucristo for Teatro Aztlan, a component of the Centro Cultural Aztlan arts and culture organization he co-founded in 1977. 

Vasquez y Sanchez’s family photos go well beyond familial history, representing important moments in San Antonio culture. One treasured image of his mother, Olivia Sanchez, from 1939 reveals the origins of his activism. The faded, sepia-toned photograph shows her proudly displaying a standard of the Native American Voters League, organized to encourage Indigenous participation in local politics.

Vasquez y Sanchez enjoyed pointing out that he was in her belly at the time the photo was taken, born within months to follow in his mother’s footsteps.

Olivia Sanchez, left, while pregnant with her son, Ramon Vasquez y Sanchez in 1939.
Olivia Sanchez, left, while pregnant with her son, Ramon Vasquez y Sanchez, in 1939. Credit: Courtesy / Vasquez Family

Admiral, activist, wit

Among his many honors and recognitions were awards for distinguished service from Bexar County and the Texas Historical Commission, and a certificate of commission as an Admiral of the Texas Navy signed by Gov. Ann Richards in 1991.

Just as the personal and political were closely tied throughout Vasquez y Sanchez’s lifetime, so were his art and activism. Some paintings depict ancestral scenes of family life, one portraying his grandmother Matilda Polanco sitting atop the wall of a campo santo as a young girl, while others portray scenes of the early Alamo and other Spanish colonial missions, always rendered with the humanizing presence of the soldiers and residents who lived there and worked the land.

In late 2022, Vasquez y Sanchez told the San Antonio Report his focus on celebrating the everyday inhabitants of the region — and of the Alamo — was purposeful. “Instead of putting the three heroes,” he said of Bowie, Crockett and Travis, “I put the Mexican heroes in there.”

Nobody else had dared to so overtly upset the standard Alamo narrative at the time, Vasquez said.

Though generally lighthearted in demeanor, his father could give local politicians hell, Vasquez said. In 1977, a conservative San Antonio Express columnist labeled the young provocateur as a “tough-talking, blunt, arrogant and opinionated … young Turk,” which Vasquez y Sanchez embraced as a badge of honor.

The columnist’s criticism arose from Vasquez y Sanchez’s work as board chair of the Bilingual-Bicultural Coalition on Mass Media (BBC), which in 1977 sued the Federal Communications Commission for renewing licenses of broadcasters it found to be discriminatory against Mexican American applicants in its hiring practices. 

Vasquez said the family regularly hears from Mexican American journalists around the country who credit the BBC for helping open opportunities for them to pursue careers in media.

Scholar Ellen Riojas Clark, professor emeritus of Bicultural Bilingual Studies at UTSA, said Vasquez y Sanchez is to be revered for his cultural contributions to San Antonio, along with his activism and civic leadership.

“As an integral part of San Antonio, he has been a custodian of our history, not only artistically, but also in terms of historic facts” regarding the indigenous history of the region, Clark said. She praised his role in creating platforms for other artists to be recognized, including Centro Cultural Aztlan.

Clark recognized her longtime friend’s effusive sense of humor and said a portrait by photographer Ramin Samandari, reproduced in many honorific social media posts, deftly captures the multiple sides of his complex personality in the intense gaze, sly grin and creased landscape of his wizened face.

“Yes, he made us all laugh, but he also made us all think deeply and with content and context and challenged us to go beyond,” she said.

Ramon Vasquez y Sanchez Credit: Courtesy / Ramin Samandari

‘Raza de Bronze’

When it became apparent last week that Vasquez y Sanchez was entering his final days, goddaughter Destiny Marie Hernandez shared a Facebook post praising him as a clan leader of the Auteca Paguame tribe, now “making his transition to the spirit world.”

Vasquez said his father died with the grace he displayed throughout his lifetime. “It was so peaceful. He was so graceful, all the way to the very end.”

Reflecting on his youthful admiration for his much-admired father, Vasquez said, “I wrote a poem for him for Valentine’s when I was, I don’t know, maybe 10 years old,” “The title of the poem was ‘Raza de Bronze,’ and in there, it says something about how our people will be fine because they have my father to fight for them.”

Vasquez said he remains inspired and doubly committed to carrying on the legacy of AIT-SCM, and that his admiration for his father will endure long past the elder’s lifetime.

Vasquez y Sanchez is survived by siblings Matilda Vasquez and John Torres; children Ramon Juan Vasquez, Edna Marie Vasquez, Marisol Vasquez and Javier Ramon Vasquez; stepson Marco Antonio Gonzales; and 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

The family is planning a celebration of life on June 1 at Progreso Hall, with details to come on the Ramon Vasquez y Sanchez Facebook page.

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...