El Corazón de Santa Barraza

Santa Contreras Barraza grew up in South Texas -- Kingsville, to be exact. The rough and dusty land of vaqueros, nopales, and javelinas influenced her so much that she has made it an important element in the wonderful and intense paintings she has created over the years. The harsh terrain taught her about survival and growing up poor gave her, ironically, her calling and a work ethic that would seem exacting and overwhelming to others.

"Since we were so poor, we really had nothing, like musical instruments, to express ourselves with," says Barraza. "So I spent a lot of time drawing and sketching. One of the easiest ways for me to survive was to express myself by creating something. If I hadn't been poor, I wouldn't have worked as hard as I did. I wouldn't have done the things that I have accomplished."

Barraza's seven-page résumé of commissions, exhibitions, awards, positions, and publications can attest to her hard work over the years; she has shown in galleries and museums across the U.S. and Mexico, and is chair of the Art Department of Texas A&M University in Kingsville. She is also the featured artist at this year's Toma Mi Corazón, La Peña arts organization's annual fundraiser, for which she has painted two hearts.

Barraza's vivid and colorful acrylic paintings filled with iconography drawn from the land and her culture have placed her solidly among the most important Latina artists in the U.S. today. Many of her works are contemporary retablo-style paintings done on metal, with beautifully crafted rolled tin frames she makes with painstaking care. Using magueys, La Virgen, the Sacred Heart, legends and mythology, and her family, she creates richly detailed pieces that are powerful and mysterious.

Barraza's recent work also includes "codices," paintings modeled after the pre-Columbian visual calendars or illuminated manuscripts combined with portraits of prominent Hispanic women, ancient and modern. La Llorona, La Virgen, Rigoberta Menchú, and others are depicted in personalized replicas of the ancient pages with large borders of hieroglyphs.

Of all the icons Barraza uses, the maguey is the most predominant and perhaps most important one for her. Not only does the plant provide food, drink, clothing, and medicine to the indigenous peoples of Mexico, it is considered a plant of power. "I see it as this magical plant that has all these properties of self-sustenance," says Barraza. "And [there are] these symbolic legends and myths about it, too. A goddess appeared over the maguey, and they say she had 300 breasts. I remember my mother saying that if you plant a maguey in front of the house, it brings good luck. When I first started working with the maguey, I was doing these very large drawings of it and I told my mother about it. She was very concerned and said, 'Oh, don't do that; working with the maguey is brujeria because during the Mexican Revolution the men didn't always have women around them. So it was very difficult for them and they would copulate with the maguey and when the new leaves would come out, there would be little images of fetuses on the leaves of the plants.'I thought it was a great story, so I started using the maguey even more in my work. I started drawing fetuses. There are little ghost images of fetuses onthe leaves of the maguey in the hearts for La Peña."

Barraza does a lot of Guadalupanas and sees her as an empowerment image for Latinas -- strong but humble -- so it was not a coincidence that she began working on one heart on December 12, the feast of La Virgen. She decided to dedicate it to the saint and painted a detailed close-up of her with the images of the first witnesses to the miracle depicted in the eyes of La Virgen. The other heart is the Aztec moon goddess Coyolxauhqui, with each image having exposed hearts and large magueys in desert landscapes.

Hearts also figure strongly in Barraza's work. The artist paints the exposed, physically accurate organ on the chests of her subjects, using it as a metaphor for more than just a body part that we can't live without. "I did a painting of my mother coming out of a maguey with her heart exposed," explains Barraza. "She died from a heart attack, but it's more than that. That piece actually talks about how women really sacrifice themselves for their families, for their husbands, for society as a whole, and if you look at South Texas women, they are very strong." Barraza uncannily takes all this folklore and history and rolls it into one, in the process creating a personal iconography that works well for her and the pieces she creates.

One of the most dramatic works in which this can be seen is Barraza's mural for the biosciencesbuilding at the University of Texas in San Antonio(UTSA). Shortly after she returned to Kingsville in 1996, Barraza was commissioned to create a mural for the building's rotunda, 43 feet in diameter. Working with acrylic on plaster, she painted Ollin, a work depicting the ancient Aztec symbol of that name, which stands for yin and yang, or enlightenment, and looks startingly like human DNA. Her colorful design also mixes the Mayan legend of the seven caves with Lower Pecos pictographs and contemporary scientific images submitted by faculty who will be using the building. In a third-floor hallway of the building, she also created a giant curved retablo, using bright, baked-enamel automotive paints on metal, to render ancient and modern symbols, reflecting the fusing of pre-Columbian culture with modern society. The works fit in perfectly with the "mestizo regional architecture" promoted by the building's architects and fulfills their desire to provide a connection to South Texas and an inspiration to students from the area, especially minority students, to let them see that there is hope and a place for them in the sciences. That theme was one to which the artista could really relate.

Barraza didn't get much encouragement from her family to pursue art. "My mother went to Texas A&I [now A&M-Kingsville] in the Forties," says the artist. "She was a schoolteacher in Armstrong, Texas, and she would tell me, 'Don't go into [art], because you won't be able to get a job, you won't be able to make a living.' So I majored in science and math my first year at A&I. Then I took an art class with Ben Bailey and after his class I thought, I don't know what I'm doing in math, so I switched over to art."

At that time -- 1971 -- Texas A&I had no BFA program, so Barraza left Kingsville and came to UT Austin to pursue her goal in life. She obtained a BFA and an MFA in painting and drawing, and quicky became involved in the local arts scene. She co-founded Mujeres Artistas Del Suroeste, one of the first Latino arts organizations in the city, and she opened Diseño Studios, one of the first galleries in East Austin. Although Barraza realized that she could create her own position in the community -- much as Sylvia Orozco has done at Mexic-Arte -- she wanted to teach in higher education, and positions in university art programs were virtually nonexistent in Austin in the early Eighties. She set her sights on an out-of-state position, and in 1985 landed an assistant professorship at La Roche College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That led to jobs at Pennsylvania State University and the Art Institute of Chicago. "Once you get prestige -- get a job outside Austin -- then they think you're something," says Barraza. "But in reality, you're not, [you're] just the same person doing what you've always believed in and other people are giving you opportunities. Every time I go to conferences or do lectures, I'm offered jobs. [But] I wasn't given the opportunity here. There was no opportunity."

Now, Barraza is making sure that future artists have opportunities to make their mark. She has established a scholarship at her alma mater, H.M. King High School in Kingsville, for an eligible senior to receive a four-year, full-tuition scholarship in art at UTSA. And every BFA graduate from Barraza's department gets a solo show with full-color invitations. She is also collaborating with Mexic-Arte Museum to bring some of its exhibitions to the Kingsville campus museum and has established an internship program at the museum for art students to learn curating and administration. She also collaborates extensively with museums and art institutions around the U.S. and Mexico to bring in works and lecturers.

Barraza makes light of her position, but the fact is that she takes it seriously and is having fun with it and with the freedom it affords her to initiate changes in the department. She sees the positive impact in the students who are as enthusiastic as she is and eager to learn. "We put together an exchange program with the National University of Oaxaca to bring a faculty member and a student here, and send a faculty member and a student there," says Barraza. "We created the Art Institute of Texas A&M at Oaxaca. It's a summer study program, and [our people] will study at the Rufino Tamayo Workshop there. Then we have a student painting a mural at the student union building here -- the first mural on campus -- and hopefully more will be done. I'm writing a proposal to get student activity money to put together a sculpture garden. These are all my ideas and all of these things we're doing because it's necessary."

Juggling teaching, administrative duties, and community involvement leaves Barraza with little time to devote to painting. She has another solo exhibition coming in the fall in Lubbock, Texas, and the prepared canvases have yet to be filled with stories and images. But it's standard for the artist who will squeeze hours out of the day to create. "I'm very glad I'm here, and there's a lot to be done," says Barraza.

Barraza has come full circle. After 25 years away, she is back in Kingsville and close to her family and the land that nurtured her as a child. "Being in Chicago was very different. The Mexican population there, they're very Mexican and they could not relate to Chicanismo, didn't really know what it meant. So I felt out of place. And the Art Institute was kinda difficult, too; it was not very supportive of what I was doing. They felt it was cultural, and as far as they were concerned, cultural is low art, versus high art, which to them is abstract expressionism. I felt very out of place."

"Coming back home, I didn't know what I was going to do. I didn't have a job. But now I see myself here for a long time. I want to be in a situation where I can contribute something and can make a difference with the students and the community. That's very important to me. I feel I'm needed here and I can make more of a difference and a contribution here. We have an 80% poverty rate. This whole area is economically deprived, yet the people are so strong. Without these people, the King Ranch wouldn't be here."

It is so easy to see Barraza's corazón -- not the painted ones belonging to others, but hers, the one that shows itself in her actions, her words, and the love she has for the people and the land she calls home. "It was very important [for me]to move back to Kingsville," she says, "because my work is all about the land and the terrain and the cactus and the myths and legends and people. Especially the people, the Mexican community. Yeah, it was important."

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle