José Esquivel, Pioneering Chicano Artist, Part 2: The Return to Chicano Art, 1991-2022

by Ruben C. Cordova April 16, 2023

This is the second part of this series. To read the first part, click here.

This is the concluding portion of a two-part article on José Esquivel, who was one of the earliest and most important Chicano artists in Texas. For the first part, which treats Esquivel’s artistic training and influences, his membership in the Con Safo art group in San Antonio, and the work he produced while he was affiliated with it, see “José Esquivel (1935-2022), Pioneering Chicano Artist, Part 1: The Con Safo Group Years.” 

Esquivel left the Con Safo group after a tumultuous conflict between other group members at a meeting held in November of 1973. He also had misgivings about his continued association with Chicano art, which he felt endangered his career as a commercial artist. Thereafter, Esquivel devoted himself to wildlife painting for about twenty years. Esquivel returned to making Chicano art in 1991 (according to an article cited in Part 1), which is after he had retired from City Public Service, San Antonio’s public utility company in 1987, where he had been the supervisor of the art department. His pension and benefits were fully vested, and he had provided a comfortable living for his family. His son Mario would complete his studies at the Pratt Institute in New York in 1992, which is where Esquivel had wanted to study. Esquivel’s website lists two exhibitions in 1993, at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, and at the Centro Cultural Aztlán. These exhibitions represent his public reengagement with Chicano art. 

Painting of a house with the virgin of guadalupe on the facade and a tiger on the side

José Esquivel, “Nuestra Señora,” 1995, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches, collection of the artist’s estate.

Esquivel has rendered a simple wood frame house that is perhaps warped as much by memory as by time. The Virgin of Guadalupe makes a supernatural appearance on the pediment of this humble house on a moonlit night. A giant tiger’s head also manifests itself on the side of the house. 

In the barrio, Guadalupe is revered as a friend and protectress. The tiger’s head, on the other hand, symbolizes the dangers that are lurking in the night, particularly drug addiction and drug-related violence. Tigers perform this symbolic function in a number of Esquivel’s other paintings, such as Victory at the Temple (2000) (discussed below); El Gusano (2002); Loose Tiger (2009); and Cemeterios de Niños’ — American Jungle (2015). 

I suggested in a 2021 Glasstire article that a tiger in Mel Casas’ Humanscape #58 (San Antonio Circus ‘69) symbolized “the righteous anger of the excluded people of color.” Casas’ giant, emblematic tiger, which looks like it was projected onto a screen, may have inspired Esquivel’s similar tiger in Nuestra Señora, though, of course, these tigers symbolize very different things. (Also see my discussion of Casas’ probable cinematic influence on Esquivel in Part 1.) Esquivel’s tiger’s head even functions like a cinematic projection: it is not visible against the light-emanating window. 

Henri “Le Douanier” Rousseau and Salvador Dalí, two other artists who influenced Esquivel, also utilized tigers in paintings he would have known in reproduction. Rousseau was a self-taught, “primitive” French painter who worked in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. He deeply impressed and influenced numerous modern artists, including Pablo Picasso, when the latter was creating increasingly simplified forms that would lead to Cubism. Rousseau was beloved by the Surrealists. Diego Rivera also drew on his work, and he was one of Frida Kahlo’s favorite painters. Rousseau was a source for several important modernist currents, and Kahlo was an inheritor of some of these traditions.  

Rousseau is best known for his jungle scenes, including a painting with a tiger called Surprised! (1891). Other notable paintings by Rousseau include: The Flamingos (1907), The Snake Charmer (1907), and The Dream (1910). 

Exotic plants, like those visible in Nuestra Señora, can be grown in San Antonio’s warm climate, though they are very unlikely to have been seen in abundance in the barrio. Esquivel renders them in a very naïve manner. They are disproportionately large and simple, in a very deliberate contrast to the plants he portrayed in his wildlife phase, when he would render single blades of grass in meticulous detail.  

Esquivel’s treatment of these plants was inspired directly by both Rousseau and Kahlo. Ironically, Rousseau falsely claimed first-hand familiarity with jungles in Mexico. Rousseau created his jungle scenes by layering a small number of giant plants, and Kahlo and Esquivel followed his recipe. 

Kahlo pays homage to Rousseau in several paintings. Kahlo, who had a wicked sense of humor, spoofs him hilariously in Self Portrait, Dedicated to Dr Eloesser (1940), in which she creates a background “jungle” simply by rendering a few gigantic leaves that are standing straight up. 

Painting of two women in a forest

Frida Kahlo, “Two Nudes in a Forest, ” 1939, oil on metal, 9 7/8 x 11 7/8 inches, private collection. Photograph: Christie’s.

Similar jumbo leaves appear in the center of Two Nudes in a Forest (1939), where an enigmatic jungle sprouts forth in a desert with two nude women. (In its own way, this painting is as strange as Rousseau’s The Dream.) Note how closely the pod-like plants in the far left corner of Kahlo’s Two Nudes in a Forest and those in the center foreground resemble Esquivel’s plants in Nuestra Señora

Detail of a painting of a tiger and flowers on a house

José Esquivel, “Nuestra Señora” (detail of right foreground), 1995, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches, collection of the artist’s estate.

In Nuestra Señora, Esquivel paints his plants even flatter than Kahlo, deliberately rendering them more “naïve,” more “primitive.” For two examples of Esquivel’s wildlife paintings with realistically depicted flora, see Part 1.  

In some of his subsequent paintings, Esquivel increases the number of tropical plants in order to suggest more forcefully that the barrio is a dangerous urban jungle. This implication is rendered most explicitly — in image as well as title — in Cemeterios de Niños’ — American Jungle (2015). 

Esquivel, who participated in many of the Centro Cultural Aztlán’s annual Celebración a la Virgen de Guadalupe Exhibits, included this painting in the twenty-first iteration in 2016.

Painting of a labor day celebration scene with a BBQ pit smoking, a hand on the font of a house, and a niche with the virgin of Guadalupe

José Esquivel, “Labor Day Celebration,” 1997, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches, private collection.

In Labor Day Celebration, the barbeque grill is emanating smoke, which attracts the attention of a cat. A large brown hand hovers over the front of the house, displacing the Virgin of Guadalupe that miraculously inhabited this spot in Nuestra Señora. Esquivel’s Chicano paintings from this phase of his career are purposefully rustic, crude, and/or naïve in comparison to his earlier wildlife paintings. By contrast, this fully articulated hand is rendered with relative precision and detail. To further emphasize its miraculous nature in Labor Day Celebration, a white halo shimmers around it.  

Otherwise, it is an ordinary day in this household. Clothes hang on the line, a giant air conditioning unit is situated at the window (a not-so-miraculous sign of San Antonio’s extreme heat), and a pair of plastic pink flamingos appears to attend to a brightly-tiled shrine devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe. 

The giant, disembodied hand is that of a Chicano laborer, such as José Sr., Esquivel’s father, who did mason and tile work. He crafted the Virgin of Guadalupe’s tile enclosure. Labor Day Celebration is an homage to physical labor. No workers need be depicted, because the hand stands in for them, as does the tile shrine and the laundry hanging in the background. 

The disembodied hand also relates to the Mano Poderosa (The All-Powerful Hand), an image of Christ’s wounded hand that appears frequently in Mexican popular devotional images. See my discussion of the Mano Poderoso in connection with a painting by Vicente Telles that addresses labor and immigration (“Crossing Borders: the Work of Ricardo Islas, Brandon Maldonado, and Vicente Telles,” Glasstire, June 8, 2022.) Viewed in this context, Esquivel’s giant hand is simultaneously a depiction of the religious/miraculous and “the real.”

Portrait of a man with flowers

José Esquivel, “La Luz Verde,” 2000, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches, collection of the artist’s estate.

La Luz Verde depicts a gang member whose assassination has been “green-lighted,” hence the green glow around his body. His tattoo depicts an eagle with a rattlesnake in its mouth that perches on a cactus, which is Mexico’s national symbol. This signifies that the man is a member of the Mexican mafia. 

Roses grow around the man’s body, as if it were a trellis. The leaves and vines cast strong shadows, as if to insist that they are indeed real and not mere symbols, though, in a paradox that suggests the contrary, the thorns do not pierce the man’s flesh. Ironically, the eagle even seems to be perched on the rose blossom in the center of the man’s torso. A rose vine is half-wrapped around the man’s neck, connecting it to the thorn necklace (which draws blood) in Kahlo’s Self Portrait, Dedicated to Dr Eloesser. Esquivel’s roses symbolize the fragility of youth and beauty at the precise point at which this man’s life is coming to an end. (See Part 1 for the origins of Esquivel’s use of rose symbolism.) 

Esquivel’s utilization of rose vines was inspired by Kahlo’s Roots (1943), a painting in which vines grow out of a cavity in her body while she reclines on a bed of volcanic stone. Though Kahlo was frustrated by her ability to bear children (symbolized by the stone head of a child that lies at her feet), she nonetheless presents herself as an emblem of fecundity. The red veins in the leaves become roots that flow over Kahlo’s Tehuana dress and the rocky landscape on which she rests. On a more sinister note, the vines have been identified as a poisonous plant. 

In La Luz Verde, the center of the man’s head has been sighted in the center of a square riflescope. In vernacular terms, the man has been “lit up.” Mysteriously, the man has one eye closed, as if he, too, were aiming a rifle. Perhaps this is a suggestion that his own similar actions are about to bring about his own death by gunshot. Strangely, this man’s open eye is behind a mask, or a flayed skin (including the head and the body), like that of the Aztec god Xipe Totec. The shape of the man’s open mouth, which is outlined with a greenish hue, also recalls such mouths in images of Xipe Totec, some of which were carved in green jade. Green was a sacred color for Mesoamericans, because they connected the color to fertility. Whereas sacrifices to Xipe Totec were made to ensure fertility, this man will be “sacrificed” for the purpose of profit. Because green is “the color of money” in the U.S., the man’s green halo is also fitting in the context of a drug cartel related slaying.

Portrait of a man with a tiger tatooed on his chest and the image of Christ above his head

José Esquivel, “Victory at the Temple,” 2000, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches, Santos Martinez Chicano Art Collection.

The man depicted in Victory at the Temple resembles the man in La Luz Verde. But whereas the latter is an instant from death, the former has renounced the deadly career of crime in favor of life. The image of Christ above him implies that he has chosen the path to resurrection and everlasting life. 

Victory at the Temple is a tribute to the Victory Outreach Ministry, which was founded by Freddie Garcia, a recovered drug addict. It represents the spiritual journey that enabled Garcia to escape from addiction. The man’s closed eyes and upraised arms symbolize release from the bondage of addiction. His arms form a “V,” which is echoed by visually rhyming shapes that likewise stand for victory (as in President Richard Nixon’s famous pose). 

Addiction is represented by the menacing, growling tiger that is emblazoned on the man’s chest. The tiger even emits flames that emphasize the pain of withdrawal. In El Gusano (The Worm), which is linked above, a man with a burning head (a burn-out) is green because he is “green-lit” for a drug gang-related execution. In addition to the menacing tiger in the background of El Gusano, the man bears a tiger’s stripes on his body. Esquivel utilized tiger imagery in several ways to express the dangers of drug addiction. 

The monkey and the other animals in the implied jungle depicted in Victory at the Temple represent animal impulses. Beneath the monkey (a favorite animal in paintings by Rousseau and Kahlo), two ghostly blue animals share a common eye and possibly a horn as well. On the left, one can see a goat, with a “billy” beard. In Christianity, the goat is linked to the devil. To the right of the goat, the bluish animal resembles a bull mask (perhaps African). The giant leaves grow stiffly upward, as in paintings by Rousseau and Kahlo. Three leaves (and portions of a few others) evoke a jungle setting with maximum efficiency. 

The man’s transformation was achieved by his belief in Christ, whose head is represented within a triangle, which is a symbol of the Christian trinity. The triangle, in fact, seems to cleave the man’s skull like an axe blade, penetrating deep into his head. This expresses how deeply Christ’s message in inculcated into the repentant addict’s brain. With his inward vision, which is similar to that of Christ (as represented above him) the man is able to ignore the animals and the exotic plants that mark the barrio as an urban jungle, with all their attendant dangers. 

Painting of a cluttered scene of a boy wearing a suit and standing in front of a house

José Esquivel, “Boxed in at 1638,” 2001, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches, collection of Zoe Diaz.

The text I wrote for the catalog of the Joe Diaz collection when it was exhibited in Corpus Cristi in 2004 is copied below in italics:

Boxed in at 1638 (2001) depicts the house in which Esquivel was raised. According to the artist, “It shows a clutteredness, a chaos — it shows poverty. People on the West Side never threw anything away — they always hoped they would find some use for it.” The miscellaneous accretions include cans, a tire, a broken washing machine, and part of a bicycle. Such objects functioned as working capital: someone who drove by might need a washing machine part, for which they could swap a bicycle part.

When he was a child, Esquivel’s family did not possess a telephone, a television, or a car. But the absence of such basic devices that we take for granted was normal in the barrio. Neighbors shared what they did have, and they assisted others when they were in need.  

Esquivel’s mother worked as a domestic in a wealthy neighborhood. The title of this painting derives from a maternal complaint: “Every time she would get despondent, my mother said: ‘We’re in this damn box — we’ll never get out of here.’ And, so, years later, all these things that are in your head become symbols.” This recollection caused the artist to enclose the house and the yard in a literal manner: they are boxed in; a long ladder serves as the sole means of escape. “My mother was always trying to get out, always trying to get us to escape our conditions. A lot of our people are trapped in poverty — there seems to be no exit.”  

On a personal level, young Esquivel did not feel deprived, because he had no contact with the more fortunate. The artist presents himself in front of the house at the time of his First Communion. It was a high point of his childhood because he was provided with a new suit. The twisted, dilapidated familial home is disproportionately small in comparison to the doghouse in the foreground. These conditions are mitigated by the ghostly portraits, which evoke familial warmth. As Esquivel puts it, “they seem to come out of the house, almost like spirits.” The stylized plants in the foreground — products of conscious primitivism — stem from the artist’s admiration for the Douanier Rousseau and Frida Kahlo. Their simplified forms symbolize the young man’s naïve view of the world (¡Arte Caliente!: Selections from the Joe A. Diaz Collection, Corpus Christi: South Texas Institute for the Arts, 2004, p. 34-35).

Significantly, under the ladder on the left, one can make out a funerary statue of an angel bearing a cross. The implication is that the inhabitants of the house will die without ever escaping the barrio. Esquivel will extend this theme in subsequent paintings by turning the small plot of land into a cemetery. 

Photo of five men standing together in front of a painting of the virgin of guadalupe

Rubio Rubio (formerly Alex Rubio), Pepe Serna, John Valadez, César Martínez, and José Esquivel. Group picture taken by Ruben C. Cordova at party for the exhibition ¡Arte Caliente!: Selections from the Joe A. Diaz Collection, Corpus Christi, 2004.

2003 and 2004 were watershed years in which Esquivel participated in several exhibitions. The Diaz collection was shown in Corpus Cristi in 2004, and it subsequently traveled to several other museums: the National Hispanic Cultural Center, Albuquerque (2005), the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Fort Wayne, Indiana (2006), the San Jose Museum of Art (2006), the National Museum of Mexican Art (2008), and Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro (2016). 

2004 was also the year of my Arte Contemporaneo exhibition at the Centro Aztlán in San Antonio, and I also co-curated another show that featured Esquivel’s work in 2004: Latino Expressions at San Antonio’s Central Library. 

The artist and friends standing together in front of an art museum

José Esquivel with Joe and Georgina Diaz with the banner for ¡Arte Caliente!, National Hispanic Cultural Center, Albuquerque, 2005.

After ¡Arte Caliente! introduced Esquivel’s work to the National Museum of Mexican Art in 2008, he was featured in one exhibition in that museum in 2011 and 2013, and in two shows in 2015.

Four individuals sitting on a couch

José Esquivel, Joe Lopez (an artist who ran Gallista Gallery in San Antonio), Gary Keller (symposium organizer), and artist Celina Hinojosa, Tempe, Arizona, 2005.

Esquivel participated in the Latino Symposium at Arizona State University in 2005, where I also gave a talk on the Con Safo group. 

Abstracted self portrait

José Esquivel, “Self-Portrait,” 2006, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches, collection of the artist’s estate.

Esquivel’s self-portrait is a picture within a minimalist landscape. A trace of the artist’s blue shirt escapes this picture-within-the-picture. On the left, the line made by the arm of his glasses eerily continues the landscape’s horizon line. The self-portrait itself is bifurcated down the middle. This horizontal and vertical centering within a square recalls that of the man’s head in La Luz Verde

In this self-portrait, the right half of the picture-within-a-picture is ghostly, increasingly dissolved into Impressionistic touches. It is as if it were painted on a metal sign that had long-term exposure to the elements, leaving it degraded and rusted, with traces of paint mixed with rust near the center, but only golden-orange rust on the far right. 

The left side of the artist’s face, by contrast, is broken up into distinct, streaky areas of bright colors that are arbitrary in nature, rather than descriptive, as in Fauvist paintings by Henri Matisse. The green areas above his eye Surrealistically morph into plant-like shapes. The round eyeglass reads like a hole in the picture, with a marble-like eye resting within a strange, geometric shape. In multiple ways, Esquivel breaks with illusionistic representational practices, while still delivering a particularized, recognizable self-image. 

Photo of the artist standing next to a portrait of a woman

José Esquivel with “Elenita Cruz’s World” (El mundo de Elenita Cruz), 2007, 30 x 24 inches, National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago.

Esquivel poses with Elenita Cruz’s World, a tribute to his grandmother (technically, she was Esquivel’s father’s aunt, but she raised José Sr. from a young age). Cruz emigrated to the U.S. from Bustamante, Nuevo León, which is about 70 miles North of Monterrey. She brought Esquivel’s father with her when he was nine years old. The desert landscape with distant mountains in Elenita Cruz’s World represents her native Mexico in the environs of Monterrey. 

Portrait of an elderly woman with flowers, a sacred heart, and religious iconography

José Esquivel, “Elenita Cruz’s World” (El mundo de Elenita Cruz, detail), 2007, 30 x 24 inches, National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago. Photograph: Google Arts & Culture.

Esquivel often referred to his grandmother as a “spiritual warrior.” She sprinkled holy water every morning throughout the house as an exorcism ritual, and she prayed obsessively, at all hours of the day. Esquivel, who always seemed somewhat bemused by her religiosity, did not strike me as a particularly religious person. Mario Esquivel recalls that the family “attended and was active in the Catholic Church” when he was growing up. Mario characterizes his mother as more spiritual than conventionally religious. Mario adds: “Later in life, José would read up on many different religious and spiritual philosophies.” In the 1990s, Esquivel attended church sporadically. During the period treated here in Part 2, Esquivel was less of a practicing Catholic than he was in his younger days, though, in his art, he is more of a cultural Catholic, since he deployed more Catholic iconography.  

Grandmother Cruz’s faith is reflected in the religious emblems Esquivel utilized in this symbolic portrait. The child with a staff, water gourd, and basket is the Santo Niño de Atocha, an image of the Christ child based on a medieval Spanish legend. According to the legend, when much of present-day Spain was under Moorish occupation, only children who were related to Catholic prisoners were allowed to bring them food. This legend holds that the Christ child was able to miraculously pass by the Moorish guards and sustain the prisoners, which is why he has a basket. The staff, gourd, shell, and hat are emblems of pilgrimage. The Santo Niño became a patron saint of pilgrims, as well as of people in need in general. Many miracles are attributed to him in Spain, Mexico, and even in New Mexico. Cruz had a special devotion to the Santo Niño de Atocha. 

The image Esquivel painted is taken directly from holy cards that are still utilized today, including the cherubs and the clouds. The clouds from the holy card are dispersed throughout the upper section of Esquivel’s painting. They serve as a bridge that interpenetrates the physical world of the secular (represented by the desert landscape) and the holy, miraculous world of the god-child. 

The Santo Niño is balanced by a yellow rose on the other side of Cruz’s head. The yellow rose is an emblem of Texas, as in the song The Yellow Rose of Texas. Esquivel even made a painting called The Yellow Rose of Texas that features a yellow rose superimposed over a bull’s skull (it has parallel lines at the bottom, as in Puffying Away, treated in Part 1). 

Importantly, the rose is also associated with the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the faithful believe that roses were intimately connected with the creation of the miracle-working image now housed in the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City. According to this story, roses miraculously appeared out of season, and were gathered by a convert named Juan Diego in 1531. He transported them in his tilma (an indigenous robe). When he dropped them before a skeptical bishop, the miraculous image of the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared on his tilma, without the intervention of human hands. This story is commonly referred to as “The Miracle of the Roses.”

The drops that fall from the yellow rose in Elenita Cruz’s World relate to the drops in Esquivel’s farm worker-themed paintings from the 1970s that are discussed in Part 1. By the time he made this painting, Esquivel was aware of how Frida Kahlo utilized liquid drops in many contexts. When she was at her most Surreal, Kahlo’s drops symbolized dew, rain, milk, tears, pearls, and sperm (sometimes multiple substances in the same painting). 

The yellow rose in Elenita Cruz’s World is tinged with red, which suggests blood. In Como Una Flor (Like a Flower), a tribute to Selena, the murdered Tejana singer, Esquivel made this connection explicit by depicting a drop of blood on a rose’s thorn (he later painted out the blood in an effort to make the work more saleable). Roses, for Esquivel, are emblems of beauty, fragility, and mortality.

Up above the rose, Esquivel rendered an image of a flaming devil’s head, complete with horns, fangs, and a protruding tongue. Its red, green, and yellow color scheme echoes that of the rose and its two leaves. The devil is essentially camouflaged by the colors of the rose. He is, in fact, connected to the rose by a reddish form that could read as a stem, vein, or umbilical cord. This emblem of connectedness references several of Kahlo’s paintings, including My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree) (1936) and The Two Fridas (1939). The Two Fridas, as Dawn Ades has pointed out, depends upon Rivera’s print Communicating Vessels, a linoleum cut made to commemorate an André Breton lecture in Mexico in 1938. (The example linked above is one of several extant hand-colored examples.)

The fact that the devil springs from a rose is an inside joke on Esquivel’s part. In her religious paranoia, Elenita Cruz always feared that the devil was lurking everywhere — so Esquivel has the devil make its appearance from a particularly unexpected source. As noted above, the miraculous image of the Virgin of Guadalupe was said to have originated while roses were carried in a tilma. So it is particularly diabolical for the devil to be birthed from a rose (much in the way Kahlo depicts herself birthed from her mother in My Grandparents, My Parents, and I). Thus Esquivel’s devil shares the same miraculous paternity as the miraculous image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. 

Below the rose in Elenita Cruz’s World, Esquivel rendered a sacred heart. It is the characteristic red color, surmounted by a cross that is engulfed in flames. Thus fire has the confounding quality of serving simultaneously as a sign of salvation (the purifying flame above the sacred heart) and damnation (the burning devil). But of course, one can’t have one without the other. The red, flaming heart is surrounded by a yellow nimbus. Astonishingly, the rays that emanate from it have a red, yellow, and green color scheme, which relate it to the flower and the flaming devil. I don’t recall ever seeing green utilized in this fashion in a sacred heart image.

Detail of a painting with a rose and religious iconography

José Esquivel, “Elenita Cruz’s World” (El mundo de Elenita Cruz, detail), 2007, 30 x 24 inches, National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago. Photograph: Google Arts & Culture.

Esquivel also utilizes this red, yellow, and green color scheme in parallel stitches in the sky that look like they were made by a sewing machine. (There is something uncanny in the ubiquity of this color scheme.) The stitches emanate above the Santo Niño’s head, then they make a ninety degree left turn, where they pass behind the flaming devil’s head. After some zigs and zags, they connect to the yellow rose. In the upper left corner, the stitching is unraveling. 

Both Rivera and Kahlo utilized the effect of unraveling/connecting threads in conjunction with strangely behaving plants in Surrealist-inspired paintings. In Rivera’s Mandrágora (Mandrake, 1939) and Maja Guarino (1940), a young woman holds a Day of the Dead object while a filament from a spider’s web on the left side of the painting connects to her silky and translucent white wedding gown. In Maja Guarino, a thread continues to the bottom of the painting, where it transforms itself into Rivera’s signature. Recall that in Greek myth, Arachne challenged the goddess Athena to a weaving contest, and was turned into a spider as punishment for her hubris. The linking filaments/threads in the Rivera paintings suggest that weaving is weaving, whether by a two-legged weaver or an eight-legged one. After all, all weavers attempt to ensnare the beholder, and all things are related, however mysterious the connection. 

On the right side of both of Rivera’s paintings, the root of a mandrake plant (a hallucinogenic associated with magic and witchcraft) makes a ghostly, enigmatic appearance. (For a short discussion of Mandrágora in connection with the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1940 in Mexico City, click here.) 

Kahlo ups the Surrealist ante in Self-Portrait as a Tehuana (a.k.a. Diego in My Thoughts, 1943), a painting in which multiple threads extend from her Tehuana blouse/headpiece, while numerous tendrils reach out from the bouquet on her head. Textile elements woven into clothing are thus as seemingly alive and energetic as living plants that are thrusting vines in all directions.  

The stitching in Esquivel’s painting, which bizarrely connects the Santo Niño, Satan, and the yellow rose, is becoming undone. We can only wonder if this unraveling of linkages between will reveal yet another reality or plane of existence that is presently unseen?

Finally, below the unraveled stitchery, we see what looks like an embroidered image of the yellow rose. Cruz herself was an embroiderer. Due to the state of impoverishment that pervaded her neighborhood, she often bartered her creations, and she even gave some away to her needy neighbors. 

Could this triangular section be folded over from the other side? Do the stitches that we see outline the backside of an embroidery that is otherwise invisible to us? The folded-back section of embroidery also makes a specific art historical reference: it mimics the Pointillist painting technique (made with tiny touches of unblended colors).

The four small round forms that float in the sky are buttons. Given their prominence and that of the stitches, sewing is given great prominence in this painting. Cruz was a seamstress who operated a foot-powered sewing machine. She made practical objects, such as curtains, aprons, and potholders, as well as the embroidery work noted above. Cruz taught her son to sew, so the stitching and the buttons represent a professional skill passed on from mother to son. 

Before he moved on to masonry and tile work, Esquivel’s father was a tailor who made men’s suits. Recall also that one of the highlights of Esquivel’s childhood is when he got a new suit for his First Communion. 

If we return to the full painting, Cruz is depicted in Mexico, rather than in the flat-as-a-board environs of San Antonio or South Texas. But Cruz is near the end of her life, rather than the much younger person she was when she began her pilgrimage to the U.S. Esquivel has rendered a late portrait of his grandmother in a dreamscape of memory and imagination. We might even compare the landscape to Dali’s Persistence of Memory (1931). Both paintings have bleak, flat landscapes, except for distant cliffs or mountains in the distance. 

The objects that hover around Cruz’s head are deeply personal, and, at the same time, highly conventional symbols of good, evil, and beauty. This use of symbolism is very different from the kind often found in European Surrealist paintings, such as Dalí’s Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening (1944). Dalí began with his own obsessions (the sexualized nude image of his wife Gala and a distorted rendering of Bernini’s sculpture of an elephant bearing an obelisk), to which he added wholly arbitrary elements (a ferocious female tiger emerging from a ferocious male tiger’s mouth, which in turn emerges from a fish’s mouth, which emerges from a burst pomegranate). The personal nature of Esquivel’s symbolism has much more in common with that of Kahlo.

The objects that float around Cruz’s head are anything but arbitrary. They are externalizations of her deepest beliefs. But, at the same time, they are hallucinatory images. They are not physically present, nor is she present in the landscape at this point in time. 

Cruz is unidealized, with the full effects of aging on display. Jesse Treviño’s Señora Dolores Treviño (1983), an un-idealized portrait of the artist’s aged mother hanging the laundry, was an important precedent for Esquivel. Treviño’s painting had been purchased by the San Antonio Museum of Art in 1994, and it has long been one of the most famous and accessible Chicano paintings in San Antonio.

The position in which the flower is superimposed over Cruz’s head recall the flowers commonly depicted on young women as an emblem of beauty and its transitory nature. That is the function of the rose in La Cruz (discussed in Part 1) as well as in La Poblanita (1971).

The sacred heart could almost read as an earring, but it is instead an article of faith (as is the Santo Niño and the devil). Cruz looks at us directly. She is resolute, as she prepares for her final journey.

Esquivel donated Elenita Cruz’s World to the National Museum of Mexican art in his grandmother’s memory. A zoomable image of this painting is available on Google Arts & Culture

Photo of artist and friends and family sitting around a table

José Esquivel, César Martínez, Jesse Treviño, Jesse “Chista” Cantú, and Felipe Reyes (seated); Rolando Briseño, Roberto Gonzalez, Ruben C. Cordova, Rudy Treviño, and Ellen Clark (Clark was a non-artist, communications member of Con Safo), Museo Alameda, San Antonio, 2009. Photograph by panel attendee.

The above picture was taken at a Con Safo panel and book signing in conjunction with the retrospective exhibition Jesse Treviño: Mi Vida at the Museo Alameda, which I curated. 

Drawing of the angel of death

José Esquivel, “Angel de la Muerte,” 2009, mixed media on watercolor paper, 14 x 19 inches, collection of the artist’s estate.

This angel, with one arm upraised and other bearing a cross, recalls a funerary statue one might find in an affluent cemetery. But, ominously, she has black wings and a skull for a face. She is an angel of death, who presides over the barrio (note the roofs of the simple houses). Fragmentary images of men with their hands behind their backs allude to men arrested for violent crimes. 

Angel de la Muerte is part collage and part collage-like drawing and watercolor. Headlines allude to death and arrests. Esquivel has inscribed the names of several barrio streets, including Perez, the street of his childhood home. In the bottom center, he has rendered a burning rose, his emblem of lost potential and senseless destruction. 

Painting of a hand with Mexican Iconography and a shackle of the US Flag

José Esquivel, “Alien Hand,” 2009, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 36 inches, collection of the artist’s estate.

Mexicans have been referred to as aliens for so long that Chicano artists began depicting them as brothers from another planet. Alien Hand, which is part human and part mechanical, partakes in that tradition of national — and perhaps even interplanetary — alienation. 

This alien hand is a Mexican native, which is why the Mexican emblem (the eagle on a cactus with a snake in its beak) is embossed on it. The area between the thumb and the first two fingers is red, white, and green, reflecting the Mexican national colors. Fittingly, the thumb is green, since so many Mexican immigrants are accomplished agricultural workers. 

Beneath the thumb, one can see mechanical components. Thus the green-thumbed alien is a cyborg: part human and part machine. This duality can refer to the repetitive, mechanical nature of much agricultural work — and thus it connects to some of the images of farm labor that are discussed in Part 1. 

On the other hand, the mechanical elements summon the character played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator film franchise, with implications of strength, power, and indomitable will. This is a veritable hand of power.  

The red, white, and blue chain and the star-patterned handcuff stand for the U.S. flag. This shows how the hand is constrained by the coercive, carceral power of the United States.

Drawing of a burning rose

José Esquivel, “Burning Rose,” 2010, mixed media, 10.5 x 14 inches, collection of the artist’s estate.

In Burning Rose, we have a view of the inside of a barrio house, like the one on Perez Street. When Esquivel’s family moved there, sections of it did not have drywall or internal paneling. Only the wood on the exterior served to keep out punishing cold winds. Consequently, on the inside of the house, the family glued newspapers onto the external wooden slats as a form of makeshift insulation. According to Mario Esquivel, his father eventually put cement in the areas that did not have interior walls.

The interior of the house depicted in Burning Rose is not Esquivel’s childhood home from the 1940s, because this example has internal wood paneling. Moreover, we can see packaging from Stovetop Stuffing, which was not introduced until 1972. As the artist noted to Mario: 

For practical reasons during the winter months or cold spells the inspiration came from the homes in the neighborhood that rarely had well-insulated walls. To remedy this, newsprint would be plastered to cover cracks in wood walls and drafty areas.

Most of the newspapers have been rendered semi-transparent by the glue, so we can see both the highly legible print and the grain of the wood beneath it. Mario Esquivel notes that the artist touched up the print with a very fine brush to ensure its legibility. The newspaper texts address voting rights, political issues, and miscellaneous local headlines. In addition to newsprint, various other scraps served as insulation, including fragments of images of U.S., Texas, and Mexico flags. 

Religious images, including Christ with the crown of thorns, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Santo Niño de Atocha, Christ Blessing, and St. Martin de Porres (a half-black saint) were then thumb-tacked on top of the newspaper. Unlike the newsprint, these religious images are opaque, though they are faded. In a few places, the paper has come off, and we have an unobstructed view of the house’s wooden siding. 

The “interior” portion of Burning Rose is a trompe l’oeil collage, one that references the papier collé techniques employed by Cubist artists such as Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris. But this is a papier collé of necessity. We can also view this work as an ironic commentary on American realist still-life paintings that obsessively reproduce a wall or section of an artist’s studio.  

Through the window, however, we glimpse an antithetical exterior vision, one that is symbolic rather than real. Once again, we have a large burning rose, hovering right behind the window. This image functions as an image of distress: it symbolizes the desperate poverty of the household. Mario Esquivel says this burning rose symbolizes the destruction of beauty outside of the walls of the home.

Photo of four men standing in front of three paintings

José Esquivel, Ruben C. Cordova, Jesse “Chista” Cantú, and Rolando Briseño after a Con Safo panel and book signing at the Centro Cultural Aztlán, San Antonio, 2011. Photograph by panel attendee.

The above panel and book signing took place on September 16, 2011 to commemorate Mexican Independence Day. See Scott Andrew’s article in the San Antonio Current. Paintings in the background are from an exhibition by David Blancas, who was not a Con Safo artist.

Painting of the front porch of a house

José Esquivel, “Los Angelitos,” 2011, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches, National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago.

Angelitos is a Catholic term for baptized infants and young children who die before they are deemed capable of committing sins. Catholic doctrine holds that they are automatically guaranteed eternal salvation in heaven, which is why the winged infants frolic in the cottony clouds that hover above and pass through the roof of this humble abode. The doll and toys are unused because the children have all departed. 

The front yard, in fact, has been transformed into a cemetery, with candles, obelisk-like trees, balloons, and four funerary monuments. The ground itself is a mosaic — not of tiles, but of tiny future burial plots for young, innocent souls. This is Esquivel’s ironic commentary on the children who are the unintended victims of drive-by shootings in the barrio.

Photo of four men sitting at table

José Esquivel, Jesse Treviño, Rolando Briseño, and Ruben C. Cordova, at a Con Safo panel and book signing, Texas A&M University, San Antonio, 2011. Photograph by panel attendee.

This was the first educational event after Texas A&M took over the Museo Alameda, which it renamed Centro de Artes (the name remained unchanged when it was subsequently taken over by the city’s Department of Arts & Culture). Esquivel’s topic was “Documenting the Con Safo Art Group.” His collection of Con Safo documents is in the green binder in the foreground. 

Painting of the front porch of a home

José Esquivel, “El Dimo,” 2015, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches, collection of the artist’s estate.

This simple home has a funereal wreath on the porch and a small cemetery between the tree and the house. Marijuana grows thickly around the tree. Large guns (the only active agents of human presence in the painting) protrude from the greenery and clouds. But they are not aimed at the exotic birds. They instead represent the violent means utilized by gangs to control their turf. The green concentric circles are “green lights,” deadly bull’s eyes that signify sanctioned gang hits. 

The large, archaic “Mercury” dime in the upper portion of the painting refers to “El Dimo,” a pachuco slang term that refers to the ten percent payment that local narco-trafficker bosses demand for the right to sell drugs in territories under their control. The barrio had been depopulated, so the Mercury head on the dime is the only depiction of a person in the painting. 

The red-leafed plants in the lower right evoke blood. They appeared several times in paintings by Rousseau. Palm tree leaves in the upper right, and a water lily pad at the bottom identify this scene as that of an urban jungle. In the distance, one can glimpse the downtown San Antonio skyline, visible over the roofs of numerous ramshackle houses. It’s a long way out of the barrio to a place of relative safety.  

Photo of four people sitting on a panel

Ruben C. Cordova, José Esquivel, Rudy Treviño, and Ellen Clark at a Con Safo panel and book signing, Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, San Antonio, 2015. Photograph by panel attendee.

This panel was in conjunction with the exhibition Getting the Big Picture: Political Themes in the Art of Mel Casas, 1968-1977, which I curated. Casas’s Humanscape #63 (Show of Hands), completed in December of 1970, is in the background. In this panel, Esquivel again addressed his role in documenting the group. 

Pastel painting of a hand in a surreal setting with religious iconography

José Esquivel, “Golden Hand,” 2016, mixed media, 20 x 26 inches, collection of the City of San Antonio.

Golden Hand is a tribute to Esquivel’s father, José, Sr., who was skilled at doing tile and masonry work. He was employed by many wealthy clients in greater San Antonio, and he also did a considerable amount of work on the house at 1638 Perez Street, where the artist grew up. 

Detail of a hand holding a palette knife

José Esquivel, “Golden Hand” (detail of left side), 2016, mixed media, 20 x 26 inches, collection of the City of San Antonio.

The giant brown hand with the trowel is his hand. It symbolizes the father’s ability to perform labor and make a living, as do the walls and the tile work (the tiles behind the hand, and those beneath the tree on the right side of the painting). This monumental sculpted hand is severely cracked. It was inspired by Frida Kahlo’s Ruin, a drawing from 1947 in which a large sculpture of her severely cracked head is held together by numerous supports. In Golden Hand, the cracking of the hand signifies mortality. People die. And even their mightiest works eventually crumble and fall. 

The sacred heart ringed by thorns and the Child of Atocha refer to the strong religious beliefs inculcated by Esquivel’s grandmother Elenita, as noted above. The Sacred Heart and the Child of Atocha were her favorite religious emblems. The Christ child sits on a small chair that rests on a voluminous expanse of clouds (like those that are usually rendered in the sky above him). Oddly enough, rain falls only on the right side of Esquivel’s painting. The desiccated tree trunk on the right is shorn of branches. It is dead, but it still serves as a habitat for creatures, such as the lizard that climbs it. People also live in houses made from dead trees. 

Two ghostly apparitions are visible in the sharply angled wall in the center of the picture. On the right side, one can make out a reddish demonic figure; the image on the right is more blurry and yellow. Mario Esquivel says the ghostly figures represent José Sr.’s “personal demons,” which stand for his struggle with alcoholism. 

Painting of a student wearing a graduation gown in the sky

José Esquivel, “Dreamers in Space,” 2014 – 2018, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 48 inches, collection of the artist’s estate.

Dreamers in Space was included in my exhibition The Other Side of the Alamo: Art Against the Myth, which was organized in commemoration of San Antonio’s tricentennial in 2018. Most of the exhibition featured Alamo-specific works. Esquivel’s painting was situated in the last gallery, which was devoted to the after-effects of the Alamo myth and the ensuing U.S. conquest of Mexico. I reproduce the catalog text below:

Dreamers in Space refers to the Dreamers, a popular term for people whose U.S. immigration status is currently in limbo. Esquivel notes: “The political reality for the Dreamers is not knowing where they belong, so they are suspended in space.” His Dreamers are all wearing graduation caps and gowns. Jeans and tennis shoes protrude beneath the gowns, indications of their youth and working class origins. The Dreamers appear to be in a trance-like state, frozen, as if they are in suspended animation. They could be dreaming. If so, their dreams are deferred until such time as their legal status is clarified.

Dreamers are people who came to the United States as children and are currently students, or have a G.E.D. or a diploma, but who are not citizens of the U.S. The 2001 Dream Act, if enacted, would have provided them with a path to citizenship. A program initiated in 2012 by President Barak Obama, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), blocked the deportation of these people, but did not include a pathway to U.S. citizenship. President Donald Trump ended the program, directly affecting 800,000 people, and potentially 1.8 million, most of whom were born in Mexico. Trump’s decision led to a temporary government shut down. Negotiations are underway to provide a replacement program for DACA, though Republicans are seeking concessions, one of which calls for approval of Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico.* 

The cruciform pose of each Dreamer is like that of a person floating on water. But this shape also recalls a crucifixion, which implies that they are martyrs to a larger political conflict. The concept of floating figures that Esquivel uses in Dreamers in Space was inspired by Golcome (1953), an oil painting by the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte in the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. Magritte’s painting features numerous men in black coats and bowler hats who seem to be floating in air. (The title Golcome refers to a ruined city in India known for its wealth.) Initially, Esquivel’s painting had a solid background. Esquivel felt that the painting was in need of more painterly depth, so he added clouds to produce a more Surreal effect that suggests a dream state.  

* See: Caitlin Dickerson, “What is DACA? Who are the Dreamers? Here Are Some Answers,” New York Times, Jan. 23, 2018, updated Jan. 25, 2018, and Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Michael D. Shear, “Senate Rejects Immigration Plans, Leaving Fate of Dreamers Uncertain,” New York Times, February 15, 2018. (The Other Side of the Alamo: Art Against the Myth, San Antonio: Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, 2018, p. 180-81.)

I provide an update to the DACA issue in a recent Glasstire article that features a long discussion of immigration (“Diez y ocho illegales Pressure-Cook in a Boxcar: Border Politics and Two Migration Hellscapes by Adan Hernandez”) While the Supreme Court prevented Trump from ending DACA in 2020, several states subsequently sued (including, of course, Texas), and that case will likely eventually go to the Supreme Court again, as noted by Politico in July of 2022. Thus Esquivel’s image of suspended dreamers will remain literally relevant for quite some time.

abstract painting with the virgin of guadalupe

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

One point of origin for this painting was the song Las Nubes (the clouds) by Little Joe y La Familia, in which a despondent man sings his sad song, causing the rain to cease. 

The Virgin of Guadalupe appears in the lower foreground of Las Nubes. The heads of four farm workers are behind her, descendents of those in Farm Workers and Raza Growing Wings, discussed above. Of these four heads, two look directly outward towards the viewer; one looks to the right; one looks to the left. Due to the directional positioning of these heads, they serve as a variation on the mestizo head motif, which was widespread in Mexican and Chicano art. The mestizo head motif features three heads that are fused or related in some manner, following the example in the center of Francisco Eppens’ mosaic Life, Death, Mestizaje, and the Four Elements (1952). (Eppens’ mosaic is illustrated and discussed in Part 1 in connection with another Esquivel painting.) Eppens’ image of mestizaje was influenced by tricephalous (three-headed or three-faced) images of the Christian trinity. (For several images and a discussion of the latter, see: Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen, “Not So Unorthodox: A Reevaluation of Tricephalous Images of the Trinity,” Theological Studies, 2018, vol. 79 (2), p. 399-426.) 

Amado Peña, Jr., who was a Con Safo group member (Nov. 1973 – Nov. 1974), made a version of Eppens’ tri-facial head that he called Mestizo in 1974. Other versions, less abstract than those by Eppens and Peña, were in wide circulation. I saw them made by everyone from velvet painters on the Mexican border to student friends. One common example featured a head with a visored conquistador’s helmet in left profile (like Esquivel’s man with a baseball cap), the head of an indigenous woman in right profile, and a Mexican or Chicano head (their mestizo progeny) looking directly outward. 

Painting of the virgin of guadalupe

José Esquivel, “Las Nubes”(detail of faces and base at the center of the painting), 2016, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 inches, collection of the artist’s estate.

Four heads is, of course, a crowd in a tri-facial image. I believe there is an explanation for Esquivel’s extra head. The woman’s head to the left of Guadalupe is larger than the others. Additionally, she wears a green mantle, which is very unusual for a farm worker. But it is strikingly similar to the one worn by the Virgin of Guadalupe. Separated by her larger scale, she is not part of the mestizo head motif. Esquivel instead suggests that she is a contemporary incarnation of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a migrant who works the fields. Her presence reminds me of the message conveyed by the song “If God Was One of Us.” 

Esquivel had made innovative use of the Virgin of Guadalupe’s iconography in a watercolor called West of Town (1970). As I noted in Part 1, he envelops a group of Chicanos with her mandorla. In Las Nubes, Esquivel casually slips a modern day Guadalupe into the middle of a mestizo head motif. This has the effect of obscuring the identities of both of these motifs, which is in keeping with other puzzle-like qualities of this painting.  

The Virgin of Guadalupe is highly relevant to this subject, because she played a vital role in UFW manifestations. She was always included in marches (along with the UFW banner and the American flag). Her image helped to attract devout farm workers. Additionally, it also served to deflect a central criticism directed against the UFW (and unions in general): red-baiting conservatives habitually accused the UFW of being a godless, Communist organization. 

Most of Las Nubes is a pictorial mosaic, made up of units that recall tiles, like the ones Esquivel’s father utilized. Esquivel referred to these squares as “visual snapshots that show the strong spiritual ties of the worker, their families, and the everyday environment they live in” (quoted in “… And The Barrio Did Not Devour Me,” Hispanic Theological Initiative Open Plaza).

The heads of two workers also float among the clouds in this mosaic, along with the crops they harvest: corn, oranges, pears, tomatoes, strawberries, grapefruit, cotton, nopal cactus paddles and fruit, grapes, and lettuce. Several creatures are also visible: a monarch butterfly (also a symbol of human migration), a grasshopper, a bird, a garter snake, a ladybug, and a caterpillar.

The butterfly feeds on a cempasúchil (marigold) flower, which is associated with Day of the Dead. It thus serves as a symbol of the duality of life and death. Migrant workers, of course, risk death in order to harvest the crops that sustain the lives of millions of people who depend on them. As noted above, the rose is associated with the miraculous image of Guadalupe. Stylized roses are traditionally embossed on her pink gown. Esquivel has also provided several roses on the right side of the Virgin, above the large grapefruit. 

Esquivel has cleverly portrayed a cryptic UFW eagle in this mosaic. Its head is above the Virgin of Guadalupe, with its sharply delineated beak directly above the grasshopper. The eagle’s outstretched wings terminate in the second register from the top. The areas with the bird and the grapes serve to define this eagle’s wings, which take the shape of an inverted step pyramid. The narrow band of brown and gray at the bottom of the painting forms the eagle’s base. One might even read the crescent moon on which Guadalupe stands as an evocation of the eagle’s talons. 

In Las Nubes, the explicit image of the Guadalupe figure serves to disguise the UFW eagle. It would be much easier to recognize if one could see its forms taper down to its base. Additionally, the traditional Guadalupe image splits up the tri-facial mestizo head, making it much harder to recognize. This difficulty is compounded by the “untraditional” Guadalupe (the head of a worker with a green mantle) that Esquivel interpolates into the lower center of the painting. 

Stylistically, Las Nubes has more clarity, precision, and bright color than most of Esquivel’s other paintings. But, at the same time, it is an extremely complex work, one whose meanings and basic forms, paradoxically, are not readily evident. Discrete parts of it insistently stand on their own. Only an observer who can put the individual pieces together can get the full picture, which is why I likened it to a puzzle. Las Nubes is a mysterious painting, shrouded in many fractured pieces of relative clarity.   

In this Surrealist mélange of people, crops, clouds, and creatures, Esquivel has created a field of cubic camouflage in which the eagle hides, even as it subtly dominates the painting. Las Nubes is a very striking and original reworking of the workers and the cryptic eagle found in Raza Growing Wings. This eagle, which hovers on a state of invisibility, functions like a supernatural force that symbolizes the collective will of the farm workers and that of the Chicano movement itself.  

Photo of the artist with a painting

José Esquivel with “Technoman 21st Century,” a painting dated 2007, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 48 inches, collection of the artist’s estate. Photograph taken at Humboldt University, Berlin, 2018.

The artist has long been concerned with environmental issues, including pollution and global warming, as noted in Puffying Away, treated in Part 1. Esquivel worried about the self-destructive tendencies of human society. In Technoman, a robotic-looking man has a deadly coral snake wrapped around his clasped (praying?) hands. The man is situated in an overheated habitat. It is unclear whether he is wearing a suit to protect him from the environment, or whether he has evolved into a partially mechanical man in order to survive otherwise deadly conditions. 

The sky is darkened with pollution. One of the red roses behind the man is smoking and bursting into flames. These are the means by which Esquivel conveys the dangers of environmental degradation and global warming. 

Photo of the artist with students

José Esquivel with the other artists in Eco-Connectivity, Humboldt University, Berlin, 2018.

Technoman 21st Century was one of the paintings featured at the Thaer-Institut, Humboldt University, Berlin in 2018 in an art-science exhibition called Eco-Connectivity

Painting of the front porch of a house

José Esquivel, “La Tiendita,” 2014, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 48 inches, collection of the artist’s estate.

Esquivel also had a painting called La Tiendita in the exhibition Xicanx: Dreamers & Changemakers. It closed at the Museum of Anthropology, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C. in January of 2023. 

La Tiendita depicts a simple house made into a small store. Signs advertise the usual products, such as beer, Coke, and milk. A sign also advertises pot plants. The setting is an urban jungle, with exotic flora, including water lilies. The two pink flamingos appear to be real (rather than plastic). A black jaguar stands on the porch, while a spotted jaguar is behind it. Monkeys cavort on the roof and in a treetop. An enormous elephant lurks behind the hanging laundry. 

Esquivel has again deployed the menagerie of the naïve French painter Henri Rousseau in a context that alludes to the barrio as a dangerous urban jungle due to drug-related violence. The intense red sun and orange sky are also likely homages to Rousseau’s suns and skies (unless, as in Technoman, they are allusions to global warming).   

Painting of a haunted house

José Esquivel, “Haunted,” state of the painting in 2020, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches, collection of the artist’s estate.

I close this discussion of Esquivel’s art with Haunted, a truly desolate vision, perhaps of a post-human age. The simple wood frame house is completely deserted, without signs of human habitation, and even without ghosts or apparitions of the lives that passed through it. It can be likened to the gnarled dead tree in the foreground, which likewise lacks visible tenants, such as birds, squirrels, or lizards. The tree does, however, have a vaguely anthropocentric quality, with holes near the top of the trunk that can read as eyes and a large, jagged hole beneath them that could be interpreted as a screaming mouth. The broken branch in the center can be viewed as the pointy nose of a Surreal monster, and the long branches on either side as outstretched arms.  

The background has nothing but the silhouette of a forest of dead trees, as in a landscape by the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. They are unresponsive to the sun, which continues to beat down through a haze of pollution. Rousseau’s jungle has been laid bare, without so much as a giant leaf or a blade of grass. Haunted is as empty as La Tiendita is full. It is a bleak image, in which all signs of life have departed. 

Painting of a haunted house

José Esquivel, “Haunted,” final state of the painting in 2022, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches, collection of the artist’s estate.

Esquivel reworked Haunted in 2022. In its final state, he rendered a darker and more textured background, which partially effaces the sun. He also strengthened and darkened linear elements in the house and tree, and added texture to those objects as well (perhaps primarily through varnish). 

Most importantly, Esquivel added a small black cat on the porch, in a pose that goes all the way back to ancient Egypt. The cat transformed the meaning of the painting, from an image of lifelessness to an image of bad luck. 

José’s son Mario Esquivel notes that the artist was referring to “the stigma of bad spirits that remain in a decaying home in the Westside. The dark hues and the haunting dead tree howl pain and trauma.” 


José Esquivel was a sophisticated and talented artist. He mastered multiple techniques and styles. Esquivel had a gift for narrative and for deploying complex symbols. Considering his complete body of work, Esquivel’s most important contributions to Chicano art were his paintings from the early 1970s of stylized farm workers (some of which were abstracted into virtual laboring beasts, others melded with the crops they harvested) and his allegorical variations on his parent’s simple Westside home that he painted in the 2000s (they allude to poverty, and to the threats posed by crime and drugs, but these factors were countered by images of familial warmth, spirituality, and the accumulation of simple possessions that seem to offer protection and hope).  

In spite of his mother’s fears, Esquivel escaped from the barrio. He also made an escape from Chicano art when he feared that an association with it threatened his livelihood and the good life he had provided for his family. César Martínez has informed me of an economic motive in Esquivel’s wildlife paintings. Esquivel told him that he could quickly crank out wildlife paintings by rearranging the same motifs in multiple paintings. This doesn’t surprise me, since Esquivel was always keenly aware of the highest prices various local artists commanded over the years. Additionally, the first time he showed me his binder with Con Safo group documents, Esquivel inquired about its monetary value.  

In his art, Esquivel was always most at home in the barrio. The logo he created for himself in the 1990s is barrio USA. It includes a cross in the dot of the “i” and a fragment of a UFW eagle wing attached to the “b” (for an illustration, see “… And the Barrio Did Not Devour Me”). Most of the artist’s Chicano paintings depict the barrio and its people. 

Despite the quality and the originality of his work, Esquivel is only represented in three art museum collections. Elenita Cruz’s World and Los Angelitos, discussed above, were donated by the artist to the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. As noted in Part 1, other donors gave La Sirena (1966) to the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio and West of Town (1970) to the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA). Apparently, neither watercolor has been exhibited in either museum. Esquivel was unaware that he was in SAMA’s collection, and he only learned of his inclusion in the McNay collection a couple of years before his death. 

Esquivel is not in the collections of the University of Texas at San Antonio or of Ruby City (which houses the Linda Pace Foundation). From information on the artist’s website, it appears that his work has never been included in a show at The Contemporary at Blue Star (I’m using the institution’s current name). 

As noted above, Esquivel’s art was curated into two international exhibitions in Berlin (2018) and Vancouver (2022). His website indicates that his work is in a number of non-art museum collections, including Arizona State University, the Lubbock Art Association, and Rice University. 

Esquivel clearly deserves more high profile exposure, as well as greater representation in museums and other collections. Esquivel didn’t make Chicano art from 1973 till the early 1990s. Therefore, he missed the heyday of Chicano art production and Chicano art exhibitions. This non-activity during a critical period for Chicano art likely contributed to his non-inclusion in the major traveling exhibitions of Chicano art. 

Critically, again according to the artist’s website, his last one-person show was in 1976. Thus there have been few opportunities to see the range of his work, as well as the manner in which it evolved. 

Hopefully, these two Glasstire articles will create more interest in his work. I have always liked Esquivel’s paintings, and I have even more appreciation for them now that I have looked at his oeuvre in a systematic fashion. 

The artist with his archive

José Esquivel with his art archives and records, 2022.

Esquivel donated all of his art archives and papers, including his green binder with Con Safo documents, to the Archives of American Art (AAA), Smithsonian Institution, in Washington D.C. Mario Esquivel told me that an AAA representative met with Esquivel in his studio in San Antonio in March of 2022. 

Mel Casas also donated his archives to the AAA (he told me they called him just before he was about to discard them — his widow, Grace Casas, recently informed me that she called the Smithsonian when she realized he was destroying important materials). The AAA consequently has the two most important collections of Con Safo-related documents. Moreover, they are complementary, since Esquivel’s primary documents the early history of the group, and Casas’ covers the late period. 

I traveled to the AAA several times, beginning in 1999, to research the Con Safo group, and on several occasions I urged the organization to record oral histories with a number of the Con Safo group’s cofounders, including Esquivel. They never followed my advice, and now, of the cofounders, only Felipe Reyes and Roberto Ríos are still alive. 

I endeavored to let these artists speak in their own voice in my Con Safo book through ample quotations, and I am continuing that project with individual articles on individual group members.  

Detail of the feet of a graduating student

José Esquivel, “Dreamers in Space” (detail), 2014 – 2018, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 48 inches, collection of the artist’s estate.



Corrections to & Thoughts about Recent Articles on Esquivel

I wouldn’t characterize Con Safo as “the San Antonio activist group,” as did Nicholas Frank in the San Antonio Report obituary (“Trailblazing Con Safo artist José Esquivel has died at age 87,” December 19, 2022). The group always prioritized art making over political activity, thanks in part to Esquivel’s influence. In a recent conversation with Felipe Reyes, he emphasized these points. Reyes recalls: “Whenever we were moving in a leftist direction, José would try to reel us back into the center.” Reyes characterizes Esquivel as “the least activist group member.” Jesse “Chista” Cantú had always wanted Con Safo to be an activist group, which is why he was excluded from it at the end of 1971 (see Part 1 for details).

The following is an excerpt from an email César Martínez sent to me on Feb. 23, in response to reading Esquivel, Part 1 in Glasstire

Me and the artists I brought in from Austin basically left C/S because we were more engaged with political activism and C/S was resistant and very unengaged, not to mention hardly having exhibits. We were willing to hang our work in politically engaged situations and venues but C/S wouldn’t. They had lofty ideas about venues, which is okay, but for us, all of that was beside the point of why we were artists and making the kind of art we did

Martínez, Carmen Lomas Garza, and Amado Peña, known as the Quemados, resigned from the group on November 6, 1974. Group regulations that called for fees and insurance were prohibitive for most Chicano and community organizations, which is why they had few exhibitions. Contrary to some sources, which stem from Jacinto Quirarte’s problematic essay in the CARA catalogue (discussed below) the Quemados were never a functioning group, and their departure did not cause the demise of Con Safo. (See C/S, 2009, p. 47-49, and notes 76 and 77 on p. 88-89.)

Martínez sent to me a second email on Feb 23, which is reproduced below in its entirety:

Actually, the truth of this is complex. On a personal level, all members were aware of racial and political issues and much of the art being produced bears that out. Not being engaged does not include being unaware or oblivious. Producing art that was in tune with the Chicano civil rights movement, el movimiento, is as far as it went. For myself, I’ve never tried to pass myself off as a political activist, but in reality, all things considered, I was in comparison to C/S members, and I wasn’t asking for much from others.

Additionally, a “manifesto” Frank quoted and attributed to the group was actually written by Mel Casas. Called “A Contingency Factor,” it was featured in the 1972 group catalog that utilized Esquivel’s logo and the group photograph reproduced in Part 1. “A Contingency Factor” is reproduced in my book (C/S, 2009, p. 67). 

Frank assumes Esquivel had a part in writing “A Contingency Report.” He did not. We should not regard it as a document that reflects Esquivel’s individual intentions, or as a programmatic agenda for the group. In fact, I was surprised to come across West of Town (discussed in Part 1), which features an explicit stereotype in the form of a detail with the Frito Bandito, because it is so uncharacteristic of Esquivel’s work.

More generally, journalists, often with little or no familiarity with an artist’s relevant body of work, often seize on something the artist said or wrote and take it as an interpretive keystone or blueprint for their oeuvre. That isn’t how artists work. A sentence or two rarely drives or explains decades of work, much less a long career. 

Take the example of Mel Casas, who actually wrote the phrase “to destroy stereotypes and demolish visual clichés.” Even Casas rarely dealt with ethnicity or stereotypes in an explicit manner in his 150+ Humanscape cycle of paintings (1965-1989). Two of his greatest paintings Humanscape 62 (Brownies of the Southwest) (1970) and Humanscape 68 (Kitchen Spanish) (1973), are brilliant and complex expositions of stereotypic attitudes. His Southwestern Clichés, the last 35 of his Humanscape paintings, of course deal with clichés, but only two include stereotypic images: Humanscape 135 (#2 Mexican Plate), 1984; and Humanscape 145 (SW Cliché), 1987. In the 800 or so paintings or so Casas produced during his long career, only a handful treat Chicano subjects, and of these, even fewer feature recognizable stereotypical images. He made over 600 paintings after the Humanscape series — mostly small drip paintings — and though some treat social issues, the vast majority are semi-nude females, still lifes, and fetishistic images of women’s shoes. 

So a better characterization of Casas’ Humanscape cycle might be the definition he gave on his CV: “Humanscapes: Visual Conundrums, images that are manipulated to create contradictory visual questions.” (quoted in Mel Casas Humanscapes, Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum, 1976)

Returning to the issue of putative group activism, Steven Santana’s article even has the word “activist” in the title: “Beloved San Antonio Chicano artist, activist José Esquivel dies at 87,” (San Antonio Express-News, Dec. 16, 2022). Article titles are usually chosen by editors, and nothing in Santana’s article justifies the description of Esquivel as an activist. More to the point, Esquivel disassociated himself from Chicano art for almost two decades because he wanted to avoid its association with radicalism and activism. 

Information travels more quickly than ever, and a newly minted Wikipedia article characterized Esquivel as an “activist” artist. The New York Times, in its first ever mention of the Con Safo art group, refers to it as “an activist-minded Chicano art collective called Con Safo.” (Alex Williams, “Jesse Treviño, Chicano Artist Whose Muse Was San Antonio, Dies at 76,” March 3, 2023.)

Ricardo Romo (“Jose Esquivel: A Chicano Art Trailblazer,” La Prensa Texas, Jan. 6, 2023) has Esquivel leaving Con Safo in 1974 instead of 1973. Moreover, Esquivel had a leave of absence for most of 1973, so he attended no meetings between January and November (C/S, 2009, p. 44; note 65, p. 86). Romo lists only four of the six group co-founders, and his account lacks clarity about the formation of the group, which I also address in my discussion of Romo’s blog directly below (see Part 1 for details). 

Ricardo Romo (“Ricardo Romo’s Tejano Report 7.09.22 José Esquivel Art Pioneer,” incorrectly places the beginning of the Con Safo group in 1967 at Almazán’s gallery (which did not yet exist) prior to the involvement of Felipe Reyes, who was the chief organizer of the group: “A group of local Chicano artists, notably Jesse Almazan, Jesse “Chista” Cantu, and José Esquivel, began meeting in 1967 at the Almazan Gallery in La Villita, and the art collective began taking shape. They formally organized when Felipe Reyes joined them the following year.”

When I first contacted Esquivel, he said he would talk to me only after I had interviewed Reyes, who he credited with the idea of forming a Chicano fine arts group (though others had previously discussed forming a commercial arts group). 

In this blog, Romo again has Esquivel leaving the group in 1974. 

Once I spoke to Reyes, it was clear to me that the group had to have been founded in 1968, and I have used this date since my first publication on the group in 1999-2000. As I note in my book: 

The El Grupo founding date most commonly cited by core members in interviews, in group publications, in the local press, and in scholarly works is 1967. Documentary evidence, however, suggests a mid-1968 date: the founding of the Galerias Almazán, the broadcast of the influential television program Hunger in America, and the first group exhibition all took place in 1968, not in 1967, as some members thought. Moreover, Garza was not discharged from the military until February 1968; he recalls that the group convened four or five months later. Esquivel’s notes indicate that the group began formal drawing sessions in 1968, before the first group show. He and Garza recall that members met twice weekly at Almazán’s gallery for about six months leading up to that show (C/S, 2009, p. 6; for documentation, see note 10, p. 79).

Additionally, Romo gets the initial name of he group wrong, and he gives the impression that Casas joined the group quickly rather than more than three years after it was first founded: “Initially calling themselves Pintores de la Nueva Raza, the members invited San Antonio College art professor Mel Casas to join.” (See Part 1 for the group’s chronology.)  

In “ABOUT THE COVER ARTIST: JOSE ESQUIVEL, A CHICANO ART PIONEER” (La Prensa, Jan. 6, 2023) Romo wrote: “In 1968 Esquivel joined a collective of ten San Antonio artists who chose to identify themselves as Chicanos.”

Clearly, in the publications cited above, Romo draws on Jacinto Quirarte’s garbled account of the group in the CARA catalog (“Exhibitions of Chicano Art: 1965 to the Present,” in Richard Griswold del Castillo et al., eds., Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965–1985, Wight Art Gallery, University of California, Los Angeles, 1991, p. 167) and Romo proceeds to garble the group’s history even more. Romo cites my book, but he doesn’t appear to have read any of my writings on the group. 

In Part 1 of this article, Esquivel says Quirarte “purposely and by design got everything wrong to destroy our [group’s] history. Felipe Reyes, the principal group cofounder, always refers to Quirarte as a “saboteur” of the group.

I quote just one line from Quirarte’s essay in the CARA catalog to show his palpable hostility to the group: “In September 1970, the group changed its name, first to Los Pintores de Aztlán and then to Pintores de la Nueva Raza because no one knew what Aztlán meant any more than they had known the meaning of Tlacuilo.” Quirarte is making an incredible claim: he says that the group twice used words in their own name whose meaning they did not understand, and, as a result, they changed their name. But the kicker is that they never used “Tlacuilo” as a group name: that purported group name is an error that Quirarte introduced into the literature, and one he refused to relinquish, because he was evidently unwilling to admit that he was wrong.

When I was at UC Berkeley, I would read the above Quirarte quote to my classes. They knew something was amiss, and some snickered because they understood the preposterousness of Quirarte’s claim. Quirarte’s uniquely harsh word choices and characterizations of the group belie a special animus — one that was clear to me even before I met any of the group members. I wish that the scholars who cited Quirarte on the subject of the Con Safo group had been aware of the problematic nature of his essay. 

Finally, I disagree with Mario Esquivel’s statement in the San Antonio Express-News (Elaine Ayala, “Ayala: José Esquivel, one of the earliest members of the Con Safo art collective, is dead,” Dec. 16, 2022) that, in terms of art history, Esquivel “could speak on the level of any professor.” He was not a scholarly artist in an academic sense. But, much more importantly for an artist, he utilized diverse sources to create complex and compelling art works. I hope that I have done justice to that body of work in these two articles. 


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 Con Safo: The Chicano Art Group and the Politics of South Texas (UCLA: Chicano Studies Research Center, 2009) was the first to be written on a Chicano art group. 


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Gaspar Enriquez April 19, 2023 - 22:21

Thank you Ruben for your writing on a good Chicano friend. I learned sp many things I didn’t know about Jose that adequate me realize how much I missed by not staying in touch with him more often. So thank you again Ruben! gaspar

Ruben C. Cordova April 23, 2023 - 12:40

You are most welcome, Gaspar. I wanted to take the opportunity to assess his complete career as a Chicano painter, since I had either focused on the Con Safo group or a particular painting of his in an exhibition.


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