Another University of Texas building is scheduled to be demolished. The Steve Hicks School of Social Work building on San Jacinto Blvd. is the target as it stands in the path of a new, must have, state of the art practice field for the Longhorn football team. There is talk that the School of Social Work will eventually be given a “new to me” home in the McCombs School of Business, once the McCombs School moves to a new abode. For the Social Work School, this is not entirely bad news, getting a newer, nicer home can be exciting.
What’s regrettable is that it’s another remnant of Austin’s history destroyed. The building has it’s own historical significance, but what’s within, painted on its walls in a panorama of brilliant colors, are images that inspire young minds and hearts to go out in the world, and work with understanding and compassion to help others have a better life.
In 1995 Raúl Valdéz painted “Heart and Soul”, the mural inside the School of Social Work. It’ll be gone along with the rest of the building by the end of the year to make way for the new training facility. The building itself is a relic. It’s a symbol of a time when segregation was alive and well in Austin. In fact, the building was built in 1933 and served as a Junior High School which became the city’s earliest desegregated school, before busing was mandated in 1971. As is characteristic of Valdéz’ murals, the building also is a reminder that a collective will to right a wrong can change lives and futures.
The concepts, inspired by students, faculty and staff, depict some of the main causes of human pain and suffering: pollution, contamination of food sources, brutality, mass incarceration of brown and black people, crime, drug addiction, poverty, disfunction. But in classic Valdéz style, these portraits of malaise are juxtaposed with those of healing, joy, healthy families and love. Hope. These are the very tenets that undergird a pursuit of social work.
While there are efforts afoot to try to save the building, the surrounding legacy oaks and the mural, the professed need for a practice field that will spare the Longhorn players a few steps (or short bus ride) and minutes a day may be too strong to thwart. An in-depth account by Bridget Grumet can be found in the Austin American-Statesman. The university’s justification is that it is imperative to have the best facilities to be able to compete for the best athletes. Lamentably, competition is not for students who value history and social progress.
When Walls Talk
Murals have power. They have the power to arrest our attention; compel us to look up from our addictive screens, and contemplate the revelations disgorged from the consciousness and souls of artists. With their imaginations and their brushes, they create expressions that convey both past and present truths.
Raúl Valdéz is such an artist, he is a documentarian, a historian, and a teacher. His murals reflect struggles endured through the colonization of the Americas by indigenous people—descendants of great civilizations. Within the visual context of elements that were the foundation of pre-Columbian culture and spirituality in Mesoamérica, Valdéz portrays the adversities faced by Chicanos, Mexican Americans and Latinos today.
For over forty-five years Valdéz has been conserving the essential nature of the geographical locations where he paints his murals by canvassing the residents, or the members of those communities to get their ideas about what they want to see in the murals. When asked if he has his own ideas about what he wants, he says, “I try not to think about it… I go by the survey and see what I got, I try to be faithful to what they’re talking about…what they’re requesting.”
Because each of Valdéz’ murals represents the nature and character of its vicinity, it becomes a self portrait of the community. The murals often include impressions of social plights because that is what the people that are from that place want to show, what they want remembered.
An example is a mural that Valdéz painted in San Juan, a town in South Texas. People there wanted “El Cortito”, the eight-inch, “short-handled hoe” that Mexican fieldworkers were forced to use from the end of the 19th century until it became illegal in the mid seventies. Its purpose was to prevent workers from leaning on the handle to rest. After years of protesting and fighting in courts, the diabolic hand tool was banned. To people who remember, the mural is a symbol of struggle and victory. For all who came later, it’s a lesson in history, civics, endurance, perseverance, and triumph. Valdéz balances images of workers in the fields with those of protest and resistance, and young graduates celebrating progress under the Aztec sun god, Tonatiuh, symbol of power, strength and courage.
One of Valdéz’ oldest surviving murals from the 1970’s, is the 3,000 square foot backdrop of the Hillside Theatre in East Austin located at the A.B. Cantu Recreation Center on E. 3rd Street. It’s the representation of a community almost half a century ago. The montage is a spillage of ideas produced by the people from there, at that time. It includes a low-rider car with a license plate emblazoned with the single word “Aztlan”— the mythic homeland of Aztec descendants, ballet folklórico dancers, Mexican Revolution icons and contemporary protesters. These concepts came from people who value culture and traditions, and are proud of having the courage to fight to keep them.
The neighborhood where the “Hillside Miracle” mural is located, has changed dramatically. Most of the people who inspired Valdéz are no longer living there. Many have passed away, others have moved, the few that remain are living in an altered world. But his creation prevails, not as a reminder of something that used to be, but of a people’s fortitude, resilience and valor.
Many of Valdéz’ murals still remain around town. They’re in various public spaces including schools, community centers, and parks. Some, however have not survived the unstoppable wave of reconstruction that comes with a growing and changing city. According to Valdéz, at least eight of his murals have been destroyed.
The first of these to meet its demise in 1983 was “Los Elementos.” It was on the walls of the Juarez Lincoln University building that used to be on the corner of Cesar Chávez and I-35, where I-Hop stands today—the gateway to East Austin, the Barrio. As Valdéz put it during a Civil Rights in Black and Brown (CRBB) Oral History Project interview, “It was a prime location….it was our Statue of Liberty.”
The institution that bore Valdéz’ mural, Juarez Lincoln University, was founded in 1971 as an alternative higher education center to fill a void in curriculums that did not include Mexican-American studies, nor balanced representations of faculty. By the time its premium location became a developer’s object of desire, Juarez Lincoln University had closed after its affiliate, Antioch University, withdrew its support. The building continued to be used by neighborhood groups including the League of United Chicano Artists and Mujeres Artistas del Suroeste.(link to Texas State Historical Association)
The story was the same then, as it is today. Someone needed/wanted the lot, for…fill-in-the-blank. “Los Elementos” was a succinct, but plenary view of Mexican history and culture. On one end, was a splendid rendition of Quetzalcoátl, the Feathered-Serpent of the Aztecs breathing out, an embryo whorl into a deluge of the life-giving elements—air, water, and earth.
From the center emerged a prodigious visage of an Indigenous woman with incisive, penetrating eyes. She seized a bolt of light and fire from the sun and offered it to the viewer. The interpretation is personal, the emotions evoked were visceral.
The day it was demolished, the wrecking ball was deliberately, and meticulously aimed. It found its target and pummeled her face repeatedly, until every brick crumbled.
The decimation was witnessed by dozens of protesters, the majority of them from the East Austin and Rainey Street neighborhoods. The predominate message was, our neighborhoods are being destroyed, but our culture will not be annihilated. Adjacent to this site today is the Rainey Street District. The dissident voices of yesterday were nothing less than prophetic.
Here’s how the Visit Austin website describes Rainey Street today, and how Austinites with no historical reference or memory of the past view it: “Renovated houses turned into bungalow bars reign supreme on Rainey, the increasingly popular tucked-away street. Day or night, you’ll find relaxed bar-goers strolling from bar to food trailer to bar again, often with their dogs in tow looking for a kicked back sip and a bite.”
Valdéz plans to continue painting his truths. “I’m going to continue doing it. I’m thinking of turning them into tile. I know they’ll tear those down too, but it’s all about resistencia, right?”
His work betrays an optimist, he remains hopeful that through thought and knowledge, people can make a better world for everybody. But, hope doesn’t blind him to reality. About the destruction of his murals he says, “Well, at Juarez Lincoln, I saw people crying. And over here, I saw people crying, at the University. Several people with tears in their eyes. I don’t get like that, I’m enough of a cynic. I gave up skepticism a long time ago. I’m a total cynic now, it’s going to happen again, I’m kind of ready for it. Ok, here we go again.”
In his own words, losing another mural will not stop Valdéz from recording what was, documenting what is, and hoping for what can be. “Talking about hope…. that’s exactly what we need. We just need to have faith that our kids are going be waking up, and so are all the other kids, hopefully, that all of them grow up the same. I hope that kids will start to think, “Oh man, this is the truth.”
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