A Wave of Emotions: Performances at “Soy de Tejas” in San Antonio

by Jessica Fuentes April 30, 2023

Para leer este artículo en español, por favor vaya aquí. To read this article in Spanish, please go here.

At the time of writing this, it has been about two weeks since I was in San Antonio and witnessed three powerful performances by artists whose work is on view at Centro de Artes as part of the exhibition Soy de Tejas: A Statewide Survey of Latinx Art. Though I’m familiar with Christian Cruz, Cande Aguilar, and José Villalobos, I had never seen any of them perform and didn’t know what to expect. What I encountered was a rollercoaster of emotions, including joy, sorrow, desperation, and ultimately, release. 

Prior to the start of the performances, I walked through Soy de Tejas again — I had first seen it about two months prior. All three artists scheduled for the evening had pieces on view in the gallery, so it felt necessary to re-familiarize myself with their work before watching them perform. The galleries were filled with visitors, refreshments were laid out in the lobby, and there was a joyful mood to the night. Around 6:30 pm, we were herded just outside of Centro de Artes, to the Historic Market Square in which the building is situated. In February, when I visited the space on a Saturday afternoon, the market was brimming with activity: vendors were open and greeting guests, patrons crowded the walkways, and musicians performed on a central stage. This Thursday evening, the square seemed to be winding down; there were people scattered throughout, but the space was much quieter than it had been before.

The audience walked down the few steps from the doors of the building to a much larger, open cobblestone area and formed a circle around Christian Cruz, who wore a colorfully layered and flowing dress and tall white high heels. A large piñata attached to a thick rope was positioned on the ground, and as an upbeat Spanish song played, Cruz joyfully danced around the object. The music shifted to the traditional ¡Dale Dale Dale!, and Cruz hoisted the giant piñata, twirled it around, and then as the music became more frantic, hurled it to the ground, smashing it open. A look of concern came over the audience as Cruz began to throw herself on top of the piñata, at times stumbling in her heels. 

A photograph of artist Christian Cruz dancing around a large piñata in an open air market.

Christian Cruz, “The Piñata Dance,” at Centro de Artes, April 2023. Photo: Jenelle Esparza.

The music slowed and she removed the top layers of her dress and walked up a few steps to a small stage-like space overlooking the area where the first part of the performance took place. Again, the music shifted, fading as a recorded speech began to play. Cruz then grabbed a second rope and tied it around her waist. As a non-Spanish speaker, the specific words of the recorded voice, which was of a distraught woman speaking in Spanish, were lost on me. But the emotion was clear: the voice was exasperated and demanding. Cruz began to throw her body around the stage, falling to the ground and getting back up as if she were the piñata being hit. This jarring dance intensified as the anger and fervor of the woman’s voice increased. (Cruz later confirmed my suspicions that this was the righteous anger of a mother calling for justice.) Cruz fell to the ground one more time, before changing her demeanor, standing up, and walking off the stage and back into the building.

I was on the verge of tears; what I had just witnessed was a rollercoaster, the all too familiar experience of women struggling in this world. The performance started with such joy, using a familiar object that many associate with family gatherings and celebrations, and slowly, as it unfolded, the audience became unwilling voyeurs to a vivid embodiment of the violence that women (particularly Mexican women) face. (In 2022, a study by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography, known by its acronym in Spanish as INEGI, indicated that violence against women and girls in Mexico had increased over the last five years, with as many as 70% of women and girls over the age of 15 having experienced some kind of violence.) 

The lingering silence among the crowd was palpable, and it was difficult to know what to do or how to feel in that final moment. Finally, Cruz came back out to address the crowd and give some context to the piece, titled The Piñata Dance. She also encouraged the crowd to take the piñata candy that now littered the grounds of the market. Children, followed by a few adults, swooped in to gather candy and pieces of the piñata. With that, we all went back inside the venue to see the next performance.

A photograph of artist and musician Cande Aguilar playing an accordion in front of a large mural-like painting.

Cande Aguilar, “De Uvalde al Cielo,” at Centro de Artes, April 2023. Photo: Jenelle Esparza.

In front of his wall-size mural-like painting inside Centro de Artes, Cande Aguilar soloed with an accordion under a blue spotlight. The painting, reminiscent of a graffitied wall with various layers of images, text, and paint, each obscured by the next, served as a perfect backdrop, giving the sense that Aguilar was performing in a neighborhood rather than an arts venue. Aguilar grew up playing music with his dad in his godfather’s conjunto band, Gilberto Perez y Sus Compadres, and later was in the Latin Grammy Award-winning Tejano band Elida Reyna y Avante. 

The song, De Uvalde al Cielo (From Uvalde to Heaven), was an improvisation, which similarly to Cruz’s piece began in a more lighthearted manner and swirled in and out of other emotions, becoming somber and slow with singular notes, meditative and repetitive, and then festive and full again. The song personified grief — the dizzying array of emotions that are tied to loss — but also provided space to breathe. The stretching and compressing of the accordion reminded my lungs to expand and contract. As I watched I was amazed at how the music from a single instrument could be so expressive, could fill the gallery space, and could captivate the audience — we hung on Aguilar’s every note. The ordering of Aguilar’s performance following Cruz’s also provided an emotional break for the audience to process The Piñata Dance before heading upstairs for the final performance of the night.

On the second floor, three assemblage sculptures by José Villalobos were repositioned from their original installation to create a long, narrow pathway. The pieces, from Villalobos’ QueeRiders series, playfully combine elements of vaquero, lowrider, and queer cultures. For the performance, Lo Que Faltó (What was Missing), the artist fashioned a long rope to the white gallery wall. Dressed in a cowboy hat, button-up shirt, jeans, boots, and gloves, Villalobos stood near the rope, addressed the audience, and began telling a personal narrative about being raised in a traditional and religiously conservative family that was steeped in machismo; he was “always corrected, never embraced.” His words hung in the air as he unfurled the rope, attached it to his ankle, and began to walk across the open path, away from the wall. As his walk extended the rope to its limits, his body lunged forward, trying to continue on its straight path, but strained as it was being held back by the rope. 

What ensued was a series of movements in which he used the length of the rope to return to the wall only to again walk away from the wall and be confined by the rope. With each pass, Villalobos struggled in new and different ways. First he removed his gloves, boots, and socks, and laid on his back, grasping the rope with his bare hands and feet to pull himself across the floor toward the wall. I marveled at the physical strength and endurance of the act. Then, he removed his shirt, revealing a white tank top underneath, and put his gloves back on. He lowered the straps of the undershirt and placed the rope on his shoulder. As he walked away from the wall again, he pulled the rope over his bare shoulder, making the audience visibly uncomfortable as they watched the formation of rope burns and heard the sound of the rope pull across Villalobos’ flesh. 

A photograph of artist Jose Villalobos walking across a gallery as he pulls a rope across his bare shoulder.

José Villalobos, “Lo Que Faltó,” at Centro de Artes, April 2023. Photo: Jenelle Esparza.

He continued to move back and forth across the room with the rope until ultimately he created a sort of noose, which he placed around his torso, with his arms pinned to his sides. He walked away from the wall and the rope tightened around his body as he reached the end. At this point Villalobos turned to walk back to the wall, as he did throughout the performance, but this time he violently flung his body back away from it. The rope continued to tighten around him, and I couldn’t help but wonder if we were meant to endure this, or if part of the performance was about stepping in and freeing him.

I fought the urge to intervene, but was relieved when Rigoberto Luna, the curator of the exhibition, stepped forward to embrace Villalobos and loosen the rope. Villalobos was in tears as he and Luna walked back toward the wall, and Luna removed the rope from the artist’s body. Villalobos narrated throughout the performance, sometimes in English and sometimes in Spanish, giving the audience glimpses into his experiences. He spoke of abuse, neglect, and struggle. As he walked away from the performance, I took note of the bright red rope burns on his shoulders and squirmed at the thought of enduring that pain, essentially reliving trauma publicly and vulnerably. 

As someone who worked in museums for a decade, I have seen my fair share of performances and activations in art spaces. However, I have never witnessed a trifecta of performances with such painfully poignant messages. Living in Fort Worth, it is not often that I have the opportunity to be immersed in culturally-specific institutions like Centro de Artes, which is a City of San Antonio-run gallery focused on showcasing Latino artists. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the experiences of people of color in the predominately and historically white art world. In conversations with others, I’m hearing about the common experiences of feeling on edge, hyper-visible, and consequently, the need to be silent in these spaces. 

I know that Villalobos has performed at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin and the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, and that Cruz has performed at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and The Momentary in Bentonville, Arkansas. But, over the last few weeks, I wondered how these performances might be different when seen in a predominately white institution or in front of a predominately white audience. Would the artists feel more vulnerable? Would aspects of the performances be lost? Would the works be more powerful in these places where people of color often feel silenced? Could these performances provide an opportunity to share experiences and develop empathy? Should they have to fill that role?

I don’t have answers for my questions — instead, they just prompt more questions: Are other institutions throughout Texas taking notice? Are they asking themselves these questions? What will they do to ensure that all people feel welcomed, represented, and heard in their spaces?

As a whole, Soy de Tejas has already done a remarkable and consequential thing of bringing together Latinx artists from across the state, and through the presentation of these performances together, Luna is amplifying the voices and stories of Latinx artists in a way that we do not often see. The narratives of Cruz, Aguilar, and Villalobos are specific and relevant to Latinx communities, but they are also universal and need to be heard by all. And though each of these artists has exhibited and performed in traditional museums and galleries, there is a power in their pieces being presented together in a culturally-specific institution.

Watch the performances via Presa House Gallery’s YouTube channel.


Soy de Tejas: A Statewide Survey of Latinx Art is on view through July 2, 2023 at Centro de Artes in San Antonio.

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