José Esquivel (1935-2022), Pioneering Chicano Artist, Part 1: The Con Safo Group Years

by Ruben C. Cordova February 17, 2023
Portrait of a man in profile smoking a cigarette

José Esquivel, “El Caballo c/s #2” (cropped image), 2004, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 48 inches, the artist’s estate. Unless otherwise noted, photographs are from José Esquivel’s website or were provided by Mario Esquivel, the artist’s son and artistic representative.

José Esquivel (b. 1935, San Antonio – d. 2022, San Antonio), one of the pioneering artists of the Chicano art movement and a co-founder of Con Safo, one of the earliest and most important Chicano art groups, died on December 12. He was one of the most original Texas artists of his era, though he received relatively little attention from journalists, scholars, and museums prior to the last two decades. This is the first of a two-part article that focuses on the art Esquivel produced from 1962 to 2022, with emphases on his training in commercial art, his interactions within the orbit of Chicano art in San Antonio, and the influences he received from Mexican art and from modern art generally, including Surrealism. Part 2 will focus on Esquivel’s return to Chicano art, from the 1990s to 2022. 

José Esquivel, the Con Safo art group, and its History

I have known Esquivel since I first arrived in San Antonio in the fall of 1999, when I wrote my first article on the Con Safo art group. I had taught Mexican and Chicano art at UC Berkeley while I was a graduate student in the history of art, and this group had such a garbled and contradictory literature (even though it was very small) that nothing could be said about it for certain. Like several other co-founders of the group, Esquivel primarily blamed a dean and professor of art history at the University of Texas at San Antonio: “Like I say… Jacinto Quirarte was our worst nightmare… he purposely and by design got everything wrong to destroy our history” (email to the author, July 17, 2021, ellipses in the original text). No one was more helpful to me in providing documentation pertaining to the group and assisting in setting the record straight than Esquivel. My research culminated in a book, Con Safo: The Chicano Art Group and the Politics of South Texas (UCLA: Chicano Studies Research Center, 2009), which was the first book written on a Chicano art group (hereafter abbreviated as C/S, 2009).

I included Esquivel’s work in several exhibitions I curated in San Antonio. I wrote about Esquivel’s art in connection with several exhibitions, and I reproduce some of these texts below and in Part 2. Esquivel was an eager participant in panels I organized in San Antonio, and I reproduce photographs from these panels in Part 2. I exhibited photographs and conceptual works in several of the exhibitions in which Esquivel participated, and he always welcomed and supported other artists. Esquivel attended my other photography exhibitions, as well as other exhibitions I curated locally. 

While I was researching the Con Safo group in 1999 and the early 2000s, Esquivel and César Martínez (a Con Safo member from late 1972 – Nov. 1974), had the most enthusiasm for the project. I spoke with them about the group on an almost daily basis for a period of years. Esquivel, who was the warmest and most good-natured member of the group, was always conscientious, scrupulous, and honest in his assessments. He was also humble, describing himself as “a foot soldier” in the group who followed the lead of “the intellectuals” Felipe Reyes and Mel Casas

Uniquely, Esquivel preserved a large number of group-related documents. Moreover, he maintained notes of meetings and phone conversations from his time in the group, which were invaluable in assessing rapidly changing situations and dating group priorities, activities, and conflicts with detail and chronological accuracy. The role Esquivel played in helping me reconstruct the history of the Con Safo group figures only tangentially in this account, since it is recounted at length elsewhere, and I will discuss other aspects of this history in future articles in Glasstire

The Con Safo group played a formative role in Esquivel’s artistic development. It served to shape his identity as a Chicano artist. His aspirations — individually and for the field of Chicano art in general — were deeply connected to the group. When a conflict between other group members led him to quit Con Safo after a tumultuous November 5, 1973 meeting, the effect was devastating. Additionally, Esquivel had a good income, health insurance, and a pension plan at City Public Service, San Antonio’s conservative public utility company, and he worried that his continued association with Chicano art and the Chicano movement could imperil his job. As a consequence, Esquivel, who had already distanced himself from the group in 1973, eschewed Chicano art for around two decades.

Esquivel told me that he quit making Chicano art until 1999 (see C/S, 2009, p. 45-46). However, in a recent article, Esquivel stated that he returned to “social and political themes” in 1991 (“… And The Barrio Did Not Devour Me,” Hispanic Theological Initiative Open Plaza). After his last Con Safo exhibition in 1972, the list of group exhibitions on Esquivel’s website features only one exhibition before 1993 (the Dále Gas exhibition discussed below). He also had a one-person show at the San Antonio Public Library in 1975 and one at the Raul Gutiérrez Gallery of Fine Art in San Antonio in 1976 (these were the last one-person exhibitions Esquivel ever had). 

For many years, it was too painful for Esquivel to revisit his time in the group. He did not consult his own records and notes pertaining to Con Safo (which he said he made out of habit from his training at the utility company) until I asked for his assistance when I began researching the group in 1999.

A list of my Con Safo group publications (all of which are indebted to Esquivel) are included in the appendix at the end of this article. A series of future Glasstire articles will serve as my final words on the group. They will include many issues I have not previously addressed, and some I discussed only in passing, including the animosity between Quirarte and several group members. I had already begun asking Esquivel some questions in mid-2021 in preparation for these articles, and I am saddened that I will have to carry on without him. I had planned to meet with him soon and have him listen to my latest product relating to the group, which is an episode in a podcast series called Healing with Dr. George: The Power of Chicano/Latinx Art, in which I discuss Con Safo and the origins of Chicano art in Texas. I also wanted to inform him about a Latinx indexing project at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Watson Library, which includes him, as well as many Texas artists (I will write an article on this project). I did consult with Esquivel (and several other Con Safo members) when I wrote my entry on the group for A Handbook of Latinx Art, forthcoming from the UC Press in fall, 2023. 

The Chicano movement served to transform Esquivel’s place in society and it set the stage for the formation of the group and his participation in it:

Before the Chicano movement, we had no politicians who would stand up to the system. We basically stayed in our place. We did nothing about our condition — we accepted things as they were. Until MAYO [the Mexican American Youth Organization] under José Angel Gutiérrez led the student rebellions, we accepted the white man’s rule. . . . You know where you belong and where you don’t. I didn’t go out of the barrio very much. I hate to make this comparison, but it was like training a dog. You just wouldn’t dare go most places! (C/S, 2009, p. 6-7). 

Felipe Reyes (b. 1944) was the principal founder of the Con Safo group, which was originally called El Grupo or El Grupo Seis. In mid-1968, Reyes and Jesse Almazán (b. 1937 – d. 2002) successively brought in José Garza (b. 1947 – d. 2021), Jesse “Chista” Cantú (b. 1935 – d. 2018), José Esquivel, and Roberto Ríos (b. 1941) (See C/S, 2009, p. 5-6). 

Photograph of four men standing in front oof a building

Roberto Rios, Felipe Reyes, José Esquivel, and Jesse “Chista” Cantu, at La Universidad de los Barrios (an alternative school for Chicano youth on the West Side of San Antonio), probably October, 1970.

This is a rare early photograph of four group co-founders. The group received an invitation to meet representatives from La Universidad de los Barrios in October of 1970, which is probably when this picture was taken (not in 1968, as Esquivel’s website dates it). Esquivel and Cantú taught an art class for children at La Universidad. Esquivel thinks they were active with the group for about eight months. Cantú remained on the faculty of La Universidad, which had been founded by the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO). For its establishment and demise, see David Montejano, Quixote’s Soldiers: A Local History of the Chicano Movement, 1966-1981, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010, p. 67-73; 120-21.

These six group co-founders were from the West Side barrio of San Antonio, and all had received commercial art training in high school. Almazán, Cantú, and Esquivel knew one another at the Technical and Vocational High School, and Reyes and Garza had been friends at Lanier Vocational High School. Esquivel brought in Ríos, who had been his supervisor at City Public Service. Ríos and Almazán worked for the military, which had also employed Cantú before he became a freelance artist. Due to the circumstances of their employment, Esquivel, Ríos, and Almazán were moderating forces within the group, which otherwise would have taken a more politically activist trajectory.

The group changed its name to Los Pintores de Aztlán sometime between November 1970 and July 1971; sometime after early August of 1971, it changed its name to Los Pintores de la Nueva Raza (see C/S, 2009, p. 23-23). 

Newspaper clipping of two young men drawing at a table with their teacher between

Newspaper clipping with photograph at Tech High, with “Joe” Esquivel, instructor Katherine Alsup, and Becky Ramon, before 1954. Alsup entered her students’ work in many national competitions. Here they are completing works for the Junior Red Cross Art Program that traveled abroad, as noted in the caption.

Reyes and Garza studied fine arts at local colleges. Esquivel had completed his studies a decade earlier. Katherine Alsup at Tech high helped him win a scholarship to the Warren Hunter School of Art in 1954. Hunter (1904 -1993) was a highly regarded watercolorist who specialized in traditional landscapes. Esquivel received a certificate of completion in Graphics and Watercolor Painting in 1958. Esquivel regarded his studies at the school as transformative. He received rigorous training in hand-lettering, drawing, and watercolor that enabled him to earn a living as a commercial artist. The skills Esquivel acquired also served him well as a fine artist — his paintings are clear, balanced, and well-proportioned.  

César Martínez recalls that Esquivel told him that Hunter was one of the rare establishment figures who welcomed Mexican American students and provided them with scholarships. Esquivel did freelance work before he began working full time at City Public Service in 1957, and he soon began doing considerable freelance work for hotels in the evenings. When he retired after 29 years at City Public Service, he was the supervisor of the art department. 

The Art of José Esquivel

In this section I look at particular works and series of works by José Esquivel, and I return to the history of the Con Safo art group only when it has a direct and critical bearing on his art. 

But first I want to consider what Surrealism meant in San Antonio in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Salvador Dalí was the most ubiquitous frame of reference for Surrealism in the U.S. Double imagery (a face that was also part of a landscape, for instance) was its most common currency when Esquivel matured as an artist in the 1950s and 1960s. A particularly well-known example of double imagery was Hide and Seek (1940-42) by the Russian-born American painter Pavel Tchelichew. As noted by Hamilton Morris, the painting was always popular with the public, though many in the art establishment loathed it (“Finding Hide-and-Seek,” MoMA Magazine, May 31, 2019). 

Other features widely regarded as Surreal were extremely elongated figures (again, like those of Dalí) and fantastical and dream-like imagery (the latter make an appearance in many of Esquivel’s late paintings). Images that combine elements from disparate times and places in a hallucinatory manner, such as Con Safo member (Dec. 1971-73 or 74) Jesse Treviño’s Mi Vida (1971-72) were also regarded as Surreal. (See my Glasstire article, “A Baptism of Fire: Jesse Treviño Paints ‘Mi Vida,’” January 26, 2019.) When Treviño was a student at the Art Students League in New York City (probably in late 1965), he witnessed what he later understood to be a staged Dalí performance. Dalí came into the school, took a plaster bust from the administrator’s desk, went back outside and smashed it, saying that’s what he thought about art. 

Roberto Ríos, the most highly accomplished handler of paint among the Con Safo artists, attributes “the birth of Surrealism” in his imagination to the haunting folkloric stories told by Panchita, an elderly neighbor who always dressed in black. Commencing when he was ten years old, Ríos would, in his imagination, transform local passersby into various creatures (see C/S, 2009, p. 26-27). This spirit of metamorphosis long preceded Ríos’ vocation as a painter. Whereas his works often bring to mind Dalí, his fantastic visions ultimately stem from deep, local sources. Mind Windows: The Art of Roberto Rios his six venue retrospective in San Marcos, Texas (this Jan. – Feb.) provides a unique opportunity to see this artist’s rarely exhibited works. 

For Mel Casas, Surrealism meant juxtaposing disparate realities. (See my article: “The Cinematic Genesis of the Mel Casas Humanscape, 1965 – 1967,” Aztlán, Fall, 2011.) Of course, many religious paintings — including all of those that include miraculous appearances or intercessions — combine disparate realities. When André Breton stole ex-voto paintings from Mexican churches in 1938, he regarded them as fine Surrealist works. 

I can’t ask Esquivel what Surrealism meant to him during his time in the group, so I asked Felipe Reyes. Reyes received degrees from San Antonio College, Trinity, and Texas State University in San Marcos; he also studied at the San Antonio Art Institute at the McNay Museum. Reyes says he didn’t really learn about Surrealism until he attended the University of Michigan (beginning in 1973), where he took an art course with the noted Surrealist artist Gerome Kamrowski and an excellent course on Surrealism with the art historian Victor Miesel. Reyes said he received some Surrealist influence “unbeknownst to myself” via the teaching of Theodoros Stamos at the McNay. Abstract Expressionism emerged from Surrealist techniques and processes, and Stamos imparted something of the technique of automatism when he taught Reyes to paint intuitively. 

Surrealist ideas were transmitted primarily through art magazines in the 1960s and 1970s in San Antonio, and, like elsewhere, Dalí was its best-known practitioner. Reyes says that in San Antonio Picasso was positioned as a Cubist, never as a Surrealist; he understood little about Joan Miró; information on Diego Rivera was impossible to find; Frida Kahlo was completely unknown, as was Mexican Surrealism generally. 

Four men posing for a photo

Four former members of the Men of Art Guild, December 1979. From left to right: José Esquivel, Philip Evett, George Pinca, and Finis Collins.

Esquivel’s post-high school training was with a commercial artist, so how was he exposed to Surrealism? Both Reyes and I think it was through magazines and the Men of Art Guild. Esquivel was a member of that art group from 1961 to 1965. (See the Appendix for a list of Esquivel’s group affiliations.) Influences from literature, fantastic art, Surrealist art, and religious art mixed freely in paintings produced in San Antonio. 

Chicano art was almost exclusively representational — see my Glasstire article on Con Safo member Roberto Gonzalez for one of the few exceptions to this rule. After World War II, mainstream critics and academics lionized abstract art, conceptual art, and minimalist art. Chicano art was therefore out of phase with the entire postwar evolution of taste away from representational art. Chicano artists, for their part, admired artists who had mastered traditional representational techniques. Highly skilled artists with Latin ancestry, such as Picasso, Dalí, and Rivera, became their most highly regarded artistic progenitors. 

A painting by artist José Esquivel.

José Esquivel, “Garcia’s Grocery Store,” c. 1961, water based medium(s) on paper, 19 x 29 inches, collection of Philip Sawyer. Photograph Philip Sawyer.

On the basis of the extremely high contrast, poor quality image I was familiar with, I had always thought that Garcia’s Grocery Store depicted a barrio store in the snow. In that reproduction from an old magazine, one could not discern that the sidewalk was made of wood. Moreover, the little boy in the center was invisible, and the foreground looked like it had tire tracks in snow.

I am grateful that the current owner, Philip Sawyer, provided a quality reproduction that reveals the great sensitivity and nuance in Esquivel’s handling of paint. Esquivel probably used gouache and/or casein, perhaps with transparent washes of watercolor in the very delicately rendered foreground.

The boy is partially reflected in the water, as is the round light on the left. Clearly, we are witnessing the reflective qualities of small bodies of water within the landscape, rather than snow. (Also note the beautifully rendered reflections in the water puddle in West of Town, another rediscovered painting that is discussed below.)

It must be a foggy or slightly drizzly day, since the red-on-yellow parking sign on the far left is blurred and half-effaced, and only one of the signs on the building is legible. The latter reads, in dramatic red letters that were perhaps a late addition to the painting, “HENRY B to D.C.”

“Send Henry B. to D.C.” was the slogan used by Henry B. González during his successful campaign for the U.S. congress, in a special election held November 4, 1961. The Snap News reported that the slogan (quoted with one additional word), devised by the politician’s wife Bertha, “is soon to ornament the bumper[s] of local automobiles” (Bill Donahue, “In Our City,” August 25, 1961, p. 4).

González had earlier lost the special election to replace Lyndon B. Johnson in the U.S. Senate on May 27, 1961. By winning the November election, González became “the first Hispanic American to represent Texas in the U.S. Congress. In a state where segregation laws undermined the voting rights of thousands of black, Hispanic, and poor voters, this was a remarkable feat” (“González, Henry B.,” History, Art & Archives, United States House of Representatives). González opposed segregation and supported civil rights, but he was also an implacable foe of the Chicano movement (for the latter, see Montejano, Quixote’s Soldiers).

When the original buyer of the painting (a member of the Lewis Moorman family) noticed the sign, he had a problem with it, because, as Esquivel told me in the early 2000s, his cousin had been one of González’s opponents in the congressional election (C/S, 2009, p. 78, note 8). Instead of painting out the sign, Esquivel exchanged Garcia’s Grocery Store for another one of his works.

Esquivel regarded Garcia’s Grocery Store as one of his most important early works. He feared it was destroyed, and he lamented not having a good reproduction of it in several conversations I had with him.

Sawyer obtained the painting in a San Antonio area estate sale in 2021, and he quickly made contact with the artist, who was happy to learn that the painting had survived. In an email to Sawyer on May 28, 2021, Esquivel informed him: “I told Dr. J. B. Gonzalez, Henry’s brother [and the Esquivel family physician] the story [about the first buyer’s objection to the political sign] and he could not stop laughing, so he bought the painting. Dr. Gonzalez died later and our efforts to find it was not successful.”

Garcia’s Grocery Store is Esquivel’s most important depiction of the barrio prior to the formation of the Con Safo group in 1968. The political sign, in conjunction with the barefoot boy, serves to express hope for a better future, one in which political representation will bring about improved social and economic conditions in the barrio. In the artwork, one can sense the need for paved roads, sidewalks, and flood control.

Jesse “Chista” Cantú believed that many Chicano paintings were made prior to the foundation of the group in 1968 (see C/S, p. 6). In Cantú’s terms, Garcia’s Grocery Store would be one of those paintings. Some other group members thought Chicano art began only after the formation of the group. I had planned to get Esquivel’s current opinion on this issue in my next communication with him, but now I will never have it.

In the past, Esquivel had tended to regard Chicano art as something that arose in tandem with the Chicano movement. At the very least, this is a proto-Chicano painting, one made prior to the start of the Chicano movement. Esquivel would have been very pleased to see it discussed and published in color, after many years of worrying that it would never be seen again.

Ink drawing on a board

José Esquivel, “Untitled,” 1967, ink drawing on board, private collection. (Esquivel’s website lists the date as 1961, but it looks like he signed it “66” and then overwrote a “7” over the second “6”), private collection.

This untitled drawing is Esquivel’s most fascinating early work. It is a cross-section of a tree stump whose annual rings (most visible at the top) morph into a complex scene, as if the stump had been transformed into an Etch a Sketch, the wildly popular mechanical drawing toy introduced in 1960. An apparent hole in the upper center of Esquivel’s drawing functions as the sun. It emits rays that strike a flock of doves that is becoming airborne. Beneath them, one can make out several fish in a body of water. Clouds form on the right. 

Detail of an ink drawing on a board

José Esquivel, “Untitled” (detail), 1967, ink drawing on board, private collection.

In this detail of the left side of the drawing, flame-like forms arise from the water. Further to the left, a schematic head sports a nimbus with multiple rays or points of a crown. This could be the sun (or some type of god, goddess, spirit, or allegorical figure). Unfortunately, I’m not even certain whether it is meant to represent a man or a woman.

Beneath this allegorical form, we see a fish that is perhaps pursuing the dragonflies that are beneath it. To their left, a small primordial female shape seems to be taking place, with a circle for a head, two circular nipples, a constricted waist, and larger hips. Perhaps this small female figure is the moon, a waxing and waning object that orbits the sun.

In this drawing, a stump, a natural form, is seemingly alchemized into a representational scene, bounded by the irregular borders of the stump itself. This early drawing serves as a dramatic foreshadowing of features that could be termed Surreal. We will see them in a good number of Esquivel’s subsequent works. 

Stylized painting of a cross

José Esquivel, “La Cruz,” 1970, 20 x 30 inches, mixed media on watercolor board, collection of the artist’s estate.

La Cruz looks like a relatively simple painting. Yellow-green and orange rays shoot out diagonally from an orange cross on a reddish-brown background. But the upper center section of the painting is mysterious.

Detail of a drawing with a rose, flames, and human eyes

José Esquivel, “La Cruz” (detail of upper center of painting) 1970, 20 x 30 inches, acrylic on canvas, collection of the artist’s estate.

Four undulating contours emanate from the top of the cross. A human head congeals out of these curving forms, though it is very difficult to see. It possesses a thin slit of an eye, visible just beneath the leaf that is attached on the right side of the rose blossom. The head’s nose, partially constructed out of negative (white background) space, is to the left of the leaf on the right side, below the lowest tongue of fire. 

The horn-like forms in the vicinity of this head were likely inspired by Dalí, who was obsessed with rhinos and their horns. See for several examples of Dalí’s work that feature disembodied rhino horns (Paranoiac-Critical Study of Vermeer’s “Lacemaker,”1955; Blue Horns (design for a scarf),1955; Ascensionist Saint Cecilia,1955). La Cruz arguably also possesses some other Surrealist elements. 

When one closely examines the nine flames that cap the cryptic head, several of them seem to also read as human heads. These heads are most noticeable in the third flame from the left and the third flame from the right. 

Under the three leftmost flames, one can discern another human eye. From a greater distance, it resembles a face that is turned sideways (with the iris and the pupil serving as the round eye that belongs to the face). 

Pointy, thorny-looking greenery sprouts on both sides of the head. The cross appears to be an object that causes mysterious transformations in the forms that emanate from its top. 

Esquivel’s La Cruz is an unusual, hybrid work that reflects his background as a commercial artist. The major portion of it is quasi-abstract (the cross, the diagonal rays, and the solid background), with a rose, flames, and some subtle Surrealist soup​çons of double-imagery at the top. 

The rose was also one of Dalí’s favorite emblems. It appears most dramatically as a large red blossom hovering above a landscape in The Meditative Rose (1958). In La Cruz, given its position at the top of the head, the rose must be adorning a female figure. The flames that emanate from the head represent creativity and inspiration. This incidental juxtaposition of these two pictorial elements (a rose and flames) in La Cruz is apparently the root of the flaming rose motif that recurs in several of Esquivel’s paintings that I discuss in Part 2. 

Mosaic mural of the four elements

Francisco Eppens, “Life, Death, Mestizaje, and the Four Elements,” 1952, tile and glass mosaic, curved West façade of the School of Medicine, UNAM, Mexico City. Photograph:

Life, Death, Mestizaje, and the Four Elements, Francisco Eppens’ mosaic at UNAM, which features dramatic flames shooting out of a tri-facial head, is the likely artistic source for the flaming head in La Cruz. Eppens’ mosaic was enormously influential in Mexico and the U.S., and I discuss it below in connection with Esquivel’s painting Las Nubes (2016). Eppens deployed pre-Hispanic iconography, including a skull devouring an ear of corn and a representation of the rain god Tlaloc. 

In La Cruz and other paintings, Esquivel instead utilizes Catholic iconography. Most of the older San Antonio-based Chicano artists I met hold traditional Catholic beliefs, and they often use standard Christian iconography. Most of the California-based Chicano artists I met do not hold such beliefs, and they, like Eppens, often prefer to use pre-Hispanic motifs in their work. 

Portrait of the artist standing in front of his painting

José Esquivel with his painting “Puffying Away,” 1970, 20 x 23 inches, watercolor on board, collection of the artist’s estate.

Dressed for work and holding some papers in his arms, Esquivel stands before Puffying Away. The painting depicts a horned, smoking, caricature of a man who, like Esquivel, wears a white shirt and a tie. The Mad Men of this era were heavy smokers. 

Painting of a demon puffing at a cigarette

José Esquivel, “Puffying Away,” 1970, 20 x 23 inches, watercolor on board, collection of the artist’s estate.

Esquivel’s smoker has red eyes and a stained face and shirt. 

The artist’s son Mario informs me that Esquivel never smoked and rather disliked smoking. Moreover, the painting is an early example of human self-destruction and environmental degradation. The horned figure, says Mario, “represents the corporations, the ‘devil’ in man’s destruction of our planet and resources.” The smoking devil symbolizes self-pollution and that of our planet.

The lower portion of the painting features parallel horizontal lines that demarcate fields of different tones of green. Esquivel utilized similar devices in several works discussed below, as well as in the first state of Dreamers in Space (2014 – 2018, discussed in Part 2), which is no longer visible because it was painted over with clouds.

Painting oh houses, signs, and people in a street

José Esquivel, “West of Town,” 1970, graphite and watercolor on paper, 22 3/8 x 27 3/8 inches, San Antonio Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Willson. Photograph: Alayna Barrett Fox, courtesy San Antonio Museum of Art.

Esquivel’s website does not list any local museums as collectors of his work. I looked at museum websites and called registrars just to double-check. I was surprised to learn that the McNay Art Museum and SAMA each own a watercolor by Esquivel. The artist never mentioned his inclusion in San Antonio museum permanent collections to me. Local artists and collectors I spoke with thought he would not be in local museum collections, and that he would have been completely unknown to most local curators over the years. Both works were gifts from collectors. As far as I know, neither work has ever been exhibited at the McNay or SAMA. Otherwise, I trust Esquivel would have heard about it. 

La Sirena (1966), a watercolor by Esquivel, was donated by Amy Freeman Lee to the McNay in 1990. She gave over 100 works to the museum. Among her many philanthropic activities, Lee was a founder of the San Antonio Art League and the Texas Watercolor Society. La Sirena is on the McNay website without a photograph. Mario Esquivel informed me that the family learned that the watercolor was in the McNay collection “a couple of years ago,” and he provided me with a photograph of the nearly abstract work, which does not resemble anything else I have seen by Esquivel. La Sirena was exhibited at the Texas Watercolor Society Seventeenth Annual Exhibition held at the Witte Memorial Museum March 13-April 3, 1966.  

Lee’s obituary notes that she “fought against racism and discrimination from her earliest years.” She supported union activist Emma Tenayuca, and played on a softball team with activist Mario Cantú (cousin to “Chista” Cantú), whose restaurant was the epicenter of Chicano political activity in San Antonio.  

West of Town, the watercolor at SAMA, is, in some respects, a unique work in Esquivel’s oeuvre. It is one of his most explicitly political paintings. I am surprised that he did not discuss it with me at length, especially because it relates very directly to Roberto Ríos’ Chicano Gothic (1970), which has an important place in my book (C/S, 2009, p. 18). (Esquivel mentioned it in passing as a work he wished he had a good reproduction to show to people.)

When the watercolor version of Chicano Gothic (Ríos also made a version in acrylic) was exhibited in a Texas Watercolor Society exhibition, it virtually ended Ríos’ solo career in San Antonio. Galleries told Ríos, who was the most successful Chicano painter in San Antonio at that time, to retrieve his work. Someone from the UT Board of Regents requested that the watercolor be taken down. Thereafter, he was blackballed.   

What was so offensive about Ríos’ watercolor, which featured a bedraggled family in the barrio? It had two signs. One read “Pete for Mayor.” The other said “Walter is a racist.” Walter McAllister, San Antonio mayor from 1961-71, was an influential banker and the head of the local political machine known as the Good Government League (GGL) (see C/S, p. 15, 19). (Felipe Reyes mocked the GGL in a painting called Fast Buckaroo Politics. It is discussed in my book, C/S, 2009, p. 18-19, and in my Glasstire article Felipe Reyes, Part 3.).

Controversial statements and actions by McAllister provoked Chicano ire, resulting in pickets, protests, and boycotts (see C/S, 2009, p. 16-18). Pete Torres, Jr. was the first independent to secure a seat on the city council (1967-71) after many years of GGL domination. He unsuccessfully attempted to censure mayor McAllister, then he lost the mayoral race in 1971 to a GGL-backed candidate.  

Monochromatic painting of homes, fences, and words on signs

José Esquivel, “West of Town” (detail of right side), 1970, 22 3/8 x 27 3/8 inches, San Antonio Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Willson. Photograph: Alayna Barrett Fox, courtesy San Antonio Museum of Art.

If we look at the upper right corner of West of Town, we see a foreshortened “VOTE” sign above what could be a line of people with long hair (presumably women). But this form below the sign also reads as a single male face with two eyes and a nose, which terminates in a mustache. In this reading, the hair above his head would be standing dramatically on end. This puzzle-like (rather than organic) instance of double-imagery has more in common with Pop Art and Op Art than with Surrealism. On the far right, under the sharply pitched roof, a man appears to be incarcerated behind bars. This could represent unequal opportunities and unequal justice, and also the fact that, as Esquivel noted above, he was essentially imprisoned in the barrio because he knew his presence was unwelcome outside of it. In either case, the implication — or the hope — is that electoral enfranchisement and electoral success will bring deliverance from bondage. 

On the right, the letters MAYO appear above the fence, over which the tops of six faces of people peer outward. MAYO stands for the Mexican American Youth Organization, which, as noted by Esquivel, helped ignite the Chicano movement in Texas. When this watercolor was painted, Chicanos were organizing for significant electoral victories. Gutiérrez and Mario Compean were primary organizers of La Raza Unida Party in January of 1970. It helped Chicanos sweep elections in Zavala County in late 1970. This victory caused Texas governor Dolph Briscoe to refer to the county as “Little Cuba.” 

West of Town must have been completed early in 1970 in order to appear in the watercolor exhibition. That timeframe also accounts for the bare branches on the trees. Had it been painted late in the year, Esquivel probably would have added LA RAZA UNIDA, which became an important political entity. 

Three names are written on Esquivel’s fence: BERNAL, PENA, and TORRES. The latter refers to Pete Torres, who, as noted above, was trying to move from city council member to mayor. Albert Peña, Jr. was a lawyer, a leading civil rights activist, and a four-term Bexar County Commissioner (1956-1972) until he lost re-election in 1972. Joe Bernal began his political career with the GGL, but, as a state senator in 1967, he was radicalized by the violence the Texas Rangers used against striking farm workers in the valley. He allied himself with Peña, and lost his seat in 1972 to Nelson Wolff (see Rodolfo Rosales, The Illusion of Inclusion: the Untold Political Story of San Antonio, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000; and David Montejano, Quixote’s Soldiers).

Painting of homes and painted signs

José Esquivel, “West of Town” (detail of buildings in center), 1970, 22 3/8 x 27 3/8 inches, San Antonio Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Willson. Photograph: Alayna Barrett Fox, courtesy San Antonio Museum of Art.

In this view of the central portion of the watercolor, flocks of birds are taking flight in the upper right and the left-center. Human figures are also rising up from behind a roof with outstretched arms, as if they, too, were taking flight. This seemingly aspirational vision may also give expression to a deep-seated pessimism: Esquivel’s mother Elvira despaired of ever escaping the barrio, saying they were “trapped” within it. 

The weathervane is topped by a “W,” indicating that a political wind is coming from the West, in the form of the rising Chicano populace. Reyes’ Southwesterly Winds (1970) (see Reyes, Part 2) gave expression to similar sentiments.

Directly below the birds, we see what appears to be a flat screen (rather than a pitched roof) that is roughly parallel to the wall. In what looks like a projected image, the Frito Bandito is brandishing pistols. The Frito Bandito was the advertising mascot for Fritos Corn Chips. Animated ads featuring this mascot were created by Tex Avery and voiced by Mel Blanc. Click here for a link to a pair of vintage Frito Bandito ads. 

Esquivel’s roof resembles a movie screen. Mel Casas utilized a “screen image” in the center of his Humanscape paintings that referenced a movie screen. His most famous painting, Humanscape 62 (Brownies of the Southwest), completed in July of 1970, features an image of a Frito Bandito eraser rendered as if it were a jade figure riding on an Aztec skeletal figure. This stereotypic image had a long genesis: after a failed attempt to cast the eraser in silver, the stereotypic image “migrated” to Casas’ painting. (See my “Getting the Big Picture: Political Themes in the Humanscapes of Mel Casas, 1968 – 1977,” in Víctor A. Sorell and Scott L. Baugh, eds., Born of Resistance: Cara a Cara Encounters with Chicana/o Visual Culture. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2015, p. 178-79. I also discuss Humanscape 62 briefly in Glasstire in connection with Treviño’s Mi Vida.) 

Esquivel’s screen-like surface was very likely inspired by Casas’s cycle of Humanscape paintings. But he painted West of Town before Casas completed Humanscape 62. Esquivel and Casas almost certainly created their Frito Bandito images independently from one another (Casas did not join the group until the end of 1971). It is not surprising that they did so in the same year: the mascot was especially controversial in 1970, before it was definitively banned or withdrawn by Frito-Lay (the latter took place only after a $610 million dollar lawsuit was filed). See Ralph Schwartz, “The Real Reason Fritos Got Rid of Their Mascot,”, Oct. 13, 2020.

Below the Frito Bandito, a Chicano family is glimpsed through a window, seemingly imprisoned by crossbars. The implication is that they are limited and confined — effectively imprisoned — by stereotypes, such as the Frito Bandito character. MAYO itself was given the bandito treatment in the press: “The mainstream press sometimes gave a ‘bandido’ image to MAYO by characterizing its members as “wearers of brown berets, combat boots, serapes, and rolled blankets slung over [their] shoulder[s]” (Teresa Palomo Acosta, “Mexican American Youth Organization,” Texas State Handbook Online, updated April 8, 2020). 

Several crude patches are visible to the left of the window, evidence of the poverty of the neighborhood, which is another effect of stereotypes and the discriminatory practices that stem from them. Esquivel recalls that when his family moved to the Westside, they and their neighbors lacked basic amenities, such as phones, cars, and televisions. Esquivel’s house even lacked interior walls in some areas, so the family insulated those spaces with newspapers.

Detail of a painting of people with dogs standing in front of a house

José Esquivel, “West of Town” (detail of trashcan area), 1970, 22 3/8 x 27 3/8 inches, San Antonio Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Willson. Photograph: Alayna Barrett Fox, courtesy San Antonio Museum of Art.

Further to the left of the double-barred window, a group of people seem to hide in the shadows by the trash cans, which have dogs rummaging through them. These people may be desperate and hungry enough to compete with the dogs for food in the trash, because one of their heads is below one of the dogs. Behind the trash cans, a rose is emblazoned on the side of the house. The red rose, which appeared as an adornment to a hidden female head in La Cruz, becomes Esquivel’s symbol for the fragile beauty of the barrio. (It resurfaces a number of times in Part 2.)

Detail of a group of people in a painting

José Esquivel, “West of Town” (detail of people in foreground), 1970, 22 3/8 x 27 3/8 inches, San Antonio Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Willson. Photograph: Alayna Barrett Fox, courtesy San Antonio Museum of Art.

A group of seven Chicanos stand in the foreground of the watercolor. They have emerged from the shadows and the barred windows and doorways to come out into the light. The jagged forms around them recall the flames within the mandorla that surrounds the Virgin of Guadalupe. This imagery derives from Revelation (12:1), which speaks of “a woman clothed in the sun, and the moon under her feet.”

 Esquivel sacralizes these Chicanos by enveloping them in the sacred aura and fiery power of Guadalupe. By means of this artistic transmutation, he, in his own manner, anticipates the famous re-workings of the Guadalupe image by Ester Hernández and Yolanda M. Lopez. Hernández’s The Virgen de Guadalupe Defending Xicano Rights (1975) presents an activated, karate-kicking alternative to the passively praying Guadalupe. Lopez, in her three pastelsall made in 1978, inserts three generations of everyday Chicana women (including herself) into the sacred space occupied by Guadalupe. (The New York Times obituary linked above mistakenly refers to them as paintings.)

Esquivel’s horizontal cluster of buildings surrounded by fences evokes a ghetto: it is a place apart from the city proper. The defining qualities of barriers and separation are so deeply a part of their existence that these barrio inhabitants are seemingly constructed out of fence planks, even those who have moved into the foreground. 

I have already noted the level of poverty that pervaded the Westside. Moreover, due to voter disenfranchisement and the lack of geographical districts for city council representatives, the Chicano and Black neighborhoods of San Antonio had suffered decades of neglect and lack of infrastructure development (see Reyes, Part 3). 

The seven foreground figures in West of Town have escaped from the confines of the barrio and are making their presence known. Enveloped in their fiery aura, a day of reckoning is at hand. 

Esquivel’s West of Town won the 1970 Pace Food Co. Purchase Prize in the 21st Annual Texas Watercolor Society Group Exhibition, held at the Witte Memorial Museum. Since Chicano art was very controversial in the local art community at that time, and given the work’s explicitly political content, only an extremely progressive juror would have selected Esquivel for this award. I speculate that it was Amy Freeman Lee or one of her allies. Ríos said a juror called him and had wanted to award him first prize in the show, but that was not possible because Mrs. McAllister was the head of the show!  

West of Town was given to SAMA in 1994 by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Willson, who gifted a significant collection to the museum. Robert Willson was a glass artist who is represented in SAMA’s collection. Margaret Pace Willson (1919-2006), a former owner of Pace Picante (Pace Foods Inc.), and the mother of heiress and collector Linda Pace (who built Ruby City for her collection), was a watercolor artist. (See her obituary in The Aspen Times.) 

One central, half-century old mystery remains: According to the museum’s records, the work was not displayed in an exhibition at UTSA “due to subject matter.” Unfortunately, no additional information, including the date of this exhibition, is provided. UTSA was founded in 1969. As a new public educational institution, there may have been reluctance to hang any image that was regarded as advocating for particular candidates or parties — not to mention one that directly confronted the deeply entrenched (and newly threatened) Anglo American power structure, as represented by the GGL. In any case, the MAYO reference and Esquivel’s slate of activist Chicano candidates would have been highly controversial for quite some time in Texas.  

Based on the artist’s website, I had expected to say in my conclusion (in Part 2) that Esquivel was not represented in local museums, but at least he was in the UTSA collection. The opposite proved to be true — which is why I advise students and researchers to verify information provided by artists. 

If I had not made some calls, I would not have been able to analyze West of Town, which is a beautiful and complex work that is steeped in family experience, rich in the politics of the moment in which it was made, and enriched with innovative iconography. I hope that someday I will be able to see it displayed on the walls of SAMA, where it may yield even more of its secrets.  

Painting of an old man sitting outside with chickens

José Esquivel, “El Viejo y sus Gallinas” (The Old Man and his Chickens) 1970, watercolor on watercolor board, 15 x 20 inches, private collection.

In this work, Esquivel depicts an old man and his chickens. He is presented with dignity, as the proud possessor of fowl. The scene is depicted in an unidealized, relatively realistic fashion. Esquivel was an eclectic artist, who simultaneously worked in different styles. Such artistic flexibility was advantageous for a commercial artist. El Viejo y sus Gallinas also foreshadows — in both style and content — the wildlife phase of Esquivel’s career, which is discussed at the end of this article. 

abstract painting of workers

José Esquivel, “Farm Workers,” 1971, Santos Martinez Chicano Art Collection.

Farm Workers, one of Esquivel’s most original creations, is perhaps the clearest example of his unique artistic personality. I regard it as his most important work. I wrote the following analysis of it in my Con Safo book: 

Esquivel created exquisitely stylized images of families and laborers that made remarkable use of “negative space” (unpainted areas of the white ground). Farm Workers, a watercolor from 1971, features fragmentary heads that are like leaves linked by a few spare, thorny branches. These family members are part of an organic whole: the sparse droplets imply that they are part of a family tree linked by blood, sweat, and tears (C/S, 2009, p. 42).

This “family tree” is a thorny one. Esquivel also suggests that these family members are part of a social fabric. The branch on the left terminates in a ripe piece of fruit. It is also connected to a textile with red and green, Mexico’s national colors. A recollection of this textile also figures in Cultural Genocide, discussed below. The woman’s hair in the upper left also possesses a textile-like pattern.  

Abstract painting of brown shapes and negative space

José Esquivel, “Cultural Genocide,” 1971, watercolor on board, 23 x 29 inches, private collection.

Esquivel again makes daring use of negative space in Cultural Genocide, which is so austere and generalized that it is almost abstract. A creature is suggested in the center, with prominent ribs. The lower body and the hind leg in the lower right suggest a quadruped, presumably a beast of burden. But the two human-looking arms that reach out in the lower left corner contradict this reading. The implication is that humans are laboring like beasts of burden. 

Some sharp pointed shapes in the upper left penetrate and crush a green, yellow, and red form, which recalls the textile in Farm Workers. This green, yellow, and red form evokes human lips. Thus we can interpret this portion of the watercolor as a symbolic silencing of a Mexican/Chicano voice. 

Painting of people bent over, resembling the landscape

José Esquivel, “Southwest Landscape,” 1973, watercolor and pencil on watercolor paper, 20 x 30 inches, private collection. (On the artist’s website, this work is dated 1971, though he gave me the date 1973 in 2004.)

I also wrote about Southwest Landscape in my book: 

In Southwest Landscape (1973) the workers are so accustomed to stoop labor that they appear to be quadrupeds planted into the earth. They seem to exist in a dreamlike state, hypnotized or locked in suspended animation, perhaps awaiting a social and political awakening that will set them free. Meanwhile, embryos mature like sprouting seeds in the background hills (C/S, 2009, p. 42).

The motif of humans sprouting in the soil is similar to that of the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s fresco panel called Germination, painted at Chapingo in 1927-27. In Rivera’s fresco, humans are like seedlings in various stages of development. In the mature figure in the center, the woman appears to be half-tree. I don’t know if Esquivel knew of Germination’s existence at the time he made Southwest Landscape — Reyes noted above that he could find no information on Rivera in San Antonio during the time he was in the group. Nonetheless, the similarity is striking. Esquivel’s embryos evoke the labor of multiple generations. While their work sustains human life, the farm workers and their progeny may never escape the fields. The human infants that germinate in the earth and the dream-like state of the workers are qualities one can associate with Surrealism.

Watercolor of people hunched over resembling the movement of the land

José Esquivel, “Labor Rhythms,” 2001, watercolor and pencil on watercolor paper, 20 x 30 inches, private collection.

Esquivel revisited this theme in a 2001 watercolor, Labor Rhythms, which features a sharp bifurcation. The farm workers inhabit the land, with only a cloudy sky above them, and no suggestion of rolling hills. Their stoop labor has again transformed these workers into virtual quadrupeds, seemingly rooted in the earth. The three figures have helmet-like hats and stylized clothes. They are a little bit reminiscent of turtles. 

There are no clear depictions of gender in this watercolor, though the figure on the right has a smaller face and might have been intended to be female. The partial figures that are visible behind them look like embryonic figures, as do those on the lower level. Unlike Southwest Landscape, no plants are visible in the foreground. In this work, the only crop seems to be embryos, as if the workforce is only replicating itself. This implies generations of labor, in which perpetual toil results in no change, no upward mobility, no release from bending over an endless field in the hot sun. 

Abstract painting of a coowboy

José Esquivel, “Cowboy Rhythm,” 1970, watercolor on watercolor board, 20 x 30 inches, private collection.

The first Con Safo group exhibition in late 1968 treated the theme of Cowboys as an example of Americana. Many group drawing sessions preceded that exhibition. Esquivel continued his exploration of this theme in Cowboy Rhythm of 1970, in which a cowboy is depicted above and parallel to a bull (perhaps he has just been thrown off of the bull). 

In Southwest Landscape, Esquivel effectively synthesizes the forms of the cowboy and the bull that appeared in Cowboy Rhythm. He transforms these two figures into multiple quadruped-like people who perform farm labor. Consequently, forms in Southwest Landscape, one of Esquivel’s most important early works, can be traced to his earliest group exercises on the cowboy theme that began in mid-1968, since Cowboy Rhythm developed out of these exercises.

The extended arms of the cowboy in Cowboy Rhythm are also the likely the source for the extended arms in Cultural Genocide, which also seems to merge man and beast. Stylistic evolution and thematic continuity sometimes go hand-in-hand.

December 19, 1971 marked a watershed development for the group. After much determined effort, Felipe Reyes succeeded in bringing in Mel Casas, who suggested the group name Con Safo. Casas, who taught at San Antonio College, had an MFA and brought considerable prestige to the group at a time when Chicano art was regarded with extreme disfavor by the art establishment. Casas, who presented his “Brown Paper Report” at the December 19 meeting, was elected president of the group. He served as the group’s chief spokesperson until 1973, and he was the group’s primary writer until its demise. Esquivel said the environment was “electric” when both Reyes and Casas were active in the group. As noted above, Reyes moved to Michigan in 1973 to pursue an MFA.

At the same time that Casas entered the group, co-founder Jesse “Chista” Cantú was excluded from it. Cantú, who was the most politically active group member, was connected to the most radical elements of the Chicano movement through his cousin Mario Cantú. He always advocated a higher degree of political engagement for the group, and several of his proposals (such as harvesting sugar cane in Cuba without pay) made other group members extremely uncomfortable. When I first interviewed Esquivel, he recalled that he was kept entirely in the dark about the decision to exclude Cantú. But when he read his notes from 1971, he realized that he had been informed of this decision before the meeting. Though Esquivel had a very good memory, this example of unconscious repression proved the importance of his notes. 

Gray scale Painting of an elderly woman

José Esquivel, “Abuelita,” 1972, watercolor on watercolor board, 20 x 30 inches, private collection

An old woman — who is specified as a grandmother in the title — accompanies a child and two dogs on what appears to be a treacherous crossing. The dark and muted colors evoke the night and unseen dangers. The dog on the right is perhaps responding to a potential threat it senses from the rear. The dramatically contrasting ground evokes snow or ice and the accompanying threat of freezing in the night. Abuelita could symbolize migration to the cold north.

Profile portrait of two individuals named Lupe and Beto with a red heart in the center

José Esquivel, “Lupe and Beto,” 1972, mixed media, 20 x 30 inches, private collection.

The precision, clarity, balance, and the carefully rendered lettering in Lupe and Beto belie Esquivel’s training as a graphic artist. 

Neither the artist’s son nor I know the back-story of this work, so its meaning may never be known. 

Graphic text of Con Safo

José Esquivel, “Con Safo Graphic,” 1972.

Esquivel created this graphic for the July, 1972 group exhibition at the Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC) at the Assumption Cultural Center, San Antonio. It served as the cover image for the pamphlet that was produced at that time. Editors also selected it for the cover of my book on the group.

Esquivel spelled out “Con Safo” in orange block letters. On the left side, he rendered the abbreviation “C/S” in letters with parallel lines passing through them. 

Black and white photo of a bunch of men standing outside in front of a building

Con Safo group photograph, summer 1972. Left to right: Santos Martínez, Jesse Almazán, Carlos Espinosa, Roberto Ríos, Felipe Reyes, José Esquivel, Vicente Velasquez, Mel Casas, and José Garza. Photographer unknown. Reproduction courtesy of Mel Casas Collection, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

This is the only Con Safo group picture I have been able to locate. It has been reproduced many times since I had the Archives of American Art scan it in 1999. The picture was taken in mid-1972, at the time of the MACC group exhibition, and it also appeared in the group pamphlet. 

An elderly woman standing in front of a quilt

José Esquivel, “La Colcha,” 9/1973, watercolor on watercolor board, 18 x 24 inches, private collection.

Esquivel returns to depictions of daily life with La Colcha, an image of a woman who has washed a quilted bedspread (presumably in the bucket beneath it) and hung it on a precariously suspended clothesline. It is a work of great economy and precision. In La Colcha, Esquivel eschews the radical use of white ground featured in Farm Workers and La Raza Growing Wings (the latter is illustrated below). Nor does he utilize painterly or highly stylized techniques. La Colcha is firmly within the social realist tradition.

Abstract watercolor of three generations of people

José Esquivel, “La Raza Growing Wings,” 1973, watercolor on watercolor board, 20 x 30 inches, private collection.

Esquivel makes daring use of negative space in his depiction of a Chicano family in La Raza Growing Wings. Their white bodies bleed into the blank bottom of the watercolor board. The father is in the foreground. Just the head of the mother is visible to his left, as her body is tucked behind his shoulder. Their son, in turn, is on her left. To the right of the father, just beneath his ear, one can make out an eye that belongs to the couple’s daughter. She is further defined by undulating contours on the right that signify her hair. This shape recalls the four undulating contours in La Cruz that constitute the head above the cross. 

The father and the son are the darkest of these figures: they presumably spend more time working in the sun. The background is constituted by washes of red and green. These are Mexico’s national colors, and they point to the family’s heritage. On either side of the family group, eagle wings, following the form of a stylized United Farm Workers (UFW) emblem, begin to congeal. The wing on the left is black, and the one on the right is dark red, which are the UFW’s colors. (For the development of the UFW eagle emblem, see my 2020 Glasstire article “Felipe Reyes, Part 2: The United Farm Workers and UFW Imagery, c. 1970-72”.). The nascent wings reflect a growing Chicano consciousness. 

Part of a rose blossom and a leaf are visible to the left of the family. On the right, one can make out part of a leaf and a tiny sliver of the rose blossom. Just above it, a large, menacing black point evokes a thorn, symbolizing danger, pain, and suffering. A whitish drop abuts the black point, and other white drops flow down the image. 

As in Farm Workers, the droplets evoke the blood, sweat, and tears of Chicano labor and struggle. Moreover, the wings of the UFW emblem specifically enable the Chicano movement to take flight. 

Sketch of a profile of a man smoking

José Esquivel, “El Caballo,” 1973, pencil on paper, 20 x 30 inches, the artist’s estate.

Note the parallel lines in the background, similar to those in Puffying Away, but here covering the entire field of the drawing rather than just the foreground.

Painting of a man in profile smoking

José Esquivel, “El Caballo c/s #2,” 2004, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 48 inches, the artist’s estate.

In 2004, I included Esquivel’s El Caballo drawing in Arte Contemporaneo, an exhibition I curated at the Centro Cultural Aztlán in San Antonio. I asked him why he never made a painting on this subject, and he told me that he had meant to, but had never gotten around to doing it. I asked him to make the above painting, which was exhibited alongside the drawing. I wrote the following text for the exhibition:

José Esquivel’s El Caballo is an acrylic on canvas painting (2004) that enlarges a drawing he made in 1973. The work is a verbal/visual pun: the caballo (horse) is partially made out of cabello (hair). Esquivel explains how this work came about: 

“This was one of the characters that we grew up with in the fifties. He’s a bato loco type of character that was about my age. Hair was very important in those days — Elvis Presley reinforced the importance of hair to the male image. Nicknames were also important. Just about everybody got one by hanging out with friends. I wanted to find a way to illustrate the character of this person who had the look of the day. We called him Caballo. He would hang around a small shoeshine place on Houston Street called Tony’s Mirror Shine. Kids who wanted to work would stand in front of the window until Tony called on them.”

In his 1973 drawing, Esquivel sought to record a popular “look” from around 1953, but in a contemporary style. In 2004, he decided to render this archetypal image from his high school years in acrylic. As Esquivel puts it, “the horse is in the process of becoming.” While the eponymous “Caballo” metamorphoses from the smoke from his cigarette, it seems to bear a special, formative relationship to the wavy hair on the bato loco’s head.

If anything, the young man’s exquisite “mane” outshines that of the horse that is Surrealistically summoned via smoke from his cigarette. Esquivel’s verbal/visual pun follows Mel Casas’ habitual practice in his Humanscape series. See my article: “The Cinematic Genesis of the Mel Casas Humanscape, 1965 – 1967,” Aztlán, Fall, 2011.

Profile of a man smoking against a red backdrop

José Esquivel, “El Caballo c/s #3,” 2012, acrylic on canvas, 20 x 16 inches, private collection.

Esquivel made a third version of this composition in 2012. He described this iteration, with its saturated colors and sharply demarcated planes, as a “posterized” version of the El Caballo motif. Esquivel subsequently utilized the term posterized as a more general description of his style. The parallel lines now demarcate bright colors, but they have been relegated to the lower left portion of the painting. 

Esquivel’s Wildlife Painting Phase, 1970s and 1980s

Esquivel had a leave of absence from Con Safo for much of 1973 in order to assist his pregnant wife and care for their newborn child. He returned just in time for the tumultuous November 5 meeting that led several artists to leave the group. As I noted in my first article on the group, Esquivel described the conflict as an “irreparable split…. the fences could not be mended. The dream of creating a shared new idiom was ended” (cited in C/S, p. 46). 

Watercolor of two wild turkeys in a field

José Esquivel, painting of turkeys (title unknown), c. 1970s, watercolor on board, private collection. Photograph: Open Plaza.

As noted above, when Esquivel quit the Con Safo group, he likewise quit making Chicano art. Long after the publication of the Con Safo book, Esquivel intimated to me that he already had misgivings that the mere association with Chicano art could negatively impact his job and his career as a commercial illustrator when he sought a leave of absence in 1973. 

When he left the group for good, Esquivel focused on wildlife painting for about twenty years, as in the painting of turkeys illustrated above. These works reflect his training under Warren Hunter and his admiration for Porfirio Salinas. The latter was a landscape painter best known for bluebonnet paintings. Esquivel met him when his father took him to do lawn work and other chores at Salinas’ house.  

Painting of a wild quail

José Esquivel, painting of quail (title unknown), c. 1980s, watercolor on board, private collection. Photograph: José Esquivel’s Facebook page.

This painting of quail (one is flying, and another is visible beneath the gnarled branch) is another example of Esquivel’s wildlife paintings. Mario Esquivel notes that his father bought a quail taxidermy mounted on driftwood as a reference for his paintings. Esquivel collected dozens of wildlife and nature photographs. He also took his own landscape photographs in order to depict the proper scenery.  

The Dále Gas Exhibition in Houston

While he was making wildlife paintings, Esquivel was included in Dále Gas: An Exhibition of Contemporary Chicano Art. This group exhibition, curated by Santos Martínez at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) in 1977, was the first major exhibition of Chicano art in a museum in Texas. Of the thirteen artists in the exhibition, eight had been in the Con Safo group: Mel Casas, José Esquivel, Carmen Lomas Garza, César Martínez, Santos Martínez, Amado Peña, Jr., Roberto Rios, and Jesse Treviño. Dále Gas was one of the first museum exhibitions in which Esquivel participated as a Chicano artist (he had been in many museum exhibitions as a watercolor artist before he became a Chicano artist). Esquivel would not be in another museum exhibition until 2003, when he was in the Arte Río Grande Group Exhibition at the International Museum of Art and Science in McAllen. Dále Gas was one of several important Chicano exhibitions that were staged at the CAMH during Jim Harithas’ directorship. These included retrospectives of Mel Casas and Luis Jiménez. Despite the exceptional exposure this exhibition brought him, Esquivel did not return to making Chicano art for many years. 

Esquivel’s Return to Chicano Art, 1992-2022

Painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe against squares of nature, portraits, and vegetation

José Esquivel, “Las Nubes,” 2016, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 inches, collection of the artist’s estate.

The second part of this article, “José Esquivel (1935-2022), Pioneering Chicano Artist, Part 2: The Return to Chicano Art, 1991-2022,” will feature a number of works that continue themes that first appeared in the artist’s Con Safo period. Las Nubes (2016), for example, features farm workers at the bottom of the painting, like several works discussed in this article. As in La Raza Growing Wings, it also features a cryptic UFW eagle. Additionally, like West of Town, it utilizes Mexican Marian imagery in an innovative manner.  

Update: April 17, 2023: The paragraph about José Esquivel’s Garcia’s Grocery Store has been updated with additional information discovered since the original publishing of this article. 


Con Safo Bibliography

Cordova, Ruben C., “Con Safo: San Antonio’s Chicano Artists’ Group and its Legacy,” Art Lies 25 (Winter 1999/2000): 18-21, 24.

_____, “Homage to Jesse A. Almazán, Chicano Painter and Graphic Artist, June 2, 1937 – March 31, 2002,” Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies 29:1 (Spring 2004): 285-292.

_____, “Con Safo,” in Ilan Stavans, ed. in chief, and Harold Augenbraum, assoc. ed., Encyclopedia Latina: History, Culture, and Society in the United States. Danbury, Conn.: Grolier Academic Reference, 2005, 4 vols.: I, 380 – 381.

_____, Con Safo: The Chicano Art Group and the Politics of South Texas. Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, 2009.

_____, (interview with Dr. George Jesus Meza), “Dr. Ruben Cordova: Regional Perspectives on Healing Through Chicano/Latinx Art: Focus on Texas,”

Healing with Dr. George: The Power of Chicano/Latinx Art podcast, 2022. 

_____, “Con Safo,” in Aranda-Alvarado, Rocio, and Deborah Cullen-Morales, eds., A Handbook of Latinx Art, University of California Press, Documents of Twentieth Century Art series, forthcoming, 2023.

José Esquivel’s Group Affiliations

Esquivel lists the following “Activities and Societies” on his Linkedin page: 

River Art Group- S.A. TX -1960, Men of Art Guild 1961-65, S.A. TX, Art League 1962-65, Artists and Designers Group 1962-63, Texas Watercolor Society 1962-71, Con Safo Pintores Chicanos de San Antonio, Tejas 1968-73, San Antonio Fine Arts Commission – 1977.


My thanks to Lana S. Meador, Associate Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art at SAMA for providing me information on West of Town.


Ruben C. Cordova is an art historian and a curator who has curated more than 30 exhibitions, including ten solo shows by Con Safo group members. He has written or contributed to 19 catalogs and books. His book on the Con Safo group was the first book written on a Chicano art group. 


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Philip Sawyer March 30, 2023 - 14:56

Great essay on Mr Esquivel’s oeuvre!
I’m lucky to own three of his works, including Garcia’s Grocery Store!

Ruben C. Cordova April 1, 2023 - 20:01

Thanks, Philip. I just saw two images of it that look great. I’d love to work a better image into the article. It’s so much richer, with all the color on the building and the signs, and all the nuance in the landscape.

The only reproduction available to me when I wrote the article was barely legible. Esquivel always lamented his lack of a good reproduction of this work, and he asked me to alert him if I ever came across the owner or a good image.


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