The Neighborhood is Her Canvas

Muralist Crystal Tamez preserves history—and community—on the walls of San Antonio’s West Side.

For longtime artist Crystal Tamez, a mural on the side of J&J Ruiz Food Mart on South Trinity and San Patricio streets best sums up the role artists and community art groups play in San Antonio’s West Side. It’s called “Peace and Remembrance.”

At the center of the mural is a tree trunk whose roots, etched with phrases of love and passing, almost touch the sidewalk. A thick branch has been cut at both ends, turned parallel to the ground, and set behind the trunk to form a cross. From the tree, Jesus approaches the names of the deceased on the mural’s left side, where the sun also burns brilliantly. A candlelight vigil, the Virgin of Guadalupe, swans in a lake, and other imagery complete the mural, which pops with color.

As a 13-year-old in 2001, Tamez helped paint the original along with other kids from the neighborhood. They were young artists at San Anto Cultural Arts, a West Side youth arts organization established in 1993.

“That mural was made for a teen that was killed,” said Tamez, “and so there was this big outcry in the barrio, and everybody was upset over it, and there was all this kind of war. So we decided to do a mural that was calling for peace.”

Two years ago, San Anto Cultural Arts set out to restore “Peace and Remembrance,” which had faded almost entirely. They hired Tamez to lead the project.

Because kids painted the mural the first time, it was important for Tamez that kids restore it. She reached out to the San Antonio Children’s Shelter and other groups. They kept the basic design and imagery, but made some additions and embellishments with input from the neighborhood. When it was completed in 2019, the neighborhood came to see. Some brought flowers. Others brought pan dulce and other food. Tamez now serves as San Anto Cultural Arts’ mural preservation manager. It’s her job to ensure the community’s 50-plus murals stay in good shape—even if that means they change over time.

Each year on the Day of the Dead, a candle-lit procession takes participants and mourners from San Anto headquarters on El Paso Street to “Peace and Remembrance.”

“From there, we add two more names every year,” Tamez said.

“To this day, people still go by and they go with marker or nail polish or whatever … and they write a family member’s name,” Tamez said. “So that mural means a whole lot to them.

“If they were to get covered, I can just imagine the outcry that would come out of it, all the people being upset, because it has their family members that meant something to them.”

Her car as a canvas for Kids

A muralist since the age of 10, Tamez has aided in the West Side’s healing for most of her life. Tamez grew up at the Cassiano Homes, then at the Alazan Courts—two of the West Side’s largest public housing complexes. She’s either taken the lead or played a supporting role in creating or restoring many of San Anto Cultural Arts’ large-scale street paintings.

One day, while restoring “Peace and Remembrance,” kids from the children’s shelter were three hours late because one of them was expressing suicidal thoughts. When they finally did show up, as a way of getting their minds off the traumatic day, she offered her car as the canvas for the day.

These days, she drives around in a 2005 Mazda 6 that’s almost entirely painted in colorful Picasso-esque patterns by kids she’s shepherded while working on San Anto murals.

“Just to get their mind off of it,” she said.

Even before landing a gig with San Anto Cultural Arts in December, Tamez was a rising star in the local arts community, having landed two contracts with the City of San Antonio. One was in 2019, for a super-sized piece on the side of a fire station on Culebra Road, which was intended to bring awareness to traffic-related deaths.

Tamez wears a smile constantly, it seems, and exudes enthusiasm in a way that conveys she’s in a good and stable place with her new job after years of grinding as an artist while working other jobs to support her four children.

“She’s all about community, you know?” said Victor Zarazua, San Anto Cultural Arts’ mural coordinator. “I’m sure she told you guys about, like, her picking up needles in the neighborhood? That just speaks volumes. I think you know what she’s willing to do just to take care of and preserve her community.”

A large part of Tamez’s job as preservation coordinator is to engage the community on whether to decommission or repaint fading murals.

“She’s unofficially been doing a lot of the work throughout all of last year and the year before,” said Ben Tremillo, San Anto’s executive director. “She would take it upon herself to touch up on murals that had been defaced or starting to fade.”

San Anto’s origins date back to 1993, when artists Manuel Castillo, Cruz Ortiz, and Juan Miguel Ramos created the project from within Inner City Development, Patti and Rod Radle’s long-time West Side community center and outreach organization, which is located near “Peace and Remembrance.”

“Everything we put out has to be able to be viewed by the public, and the public has to be able to participate in that,” Tremillo said. San Anto’s art is primarily found on the West Side, but the organization has also completed works on the East and South sides, plus three murals at The Rim shopping center. San Anto also runs a youth newspaper and an after-school arts program.

A little nurture has gone a long way

Tamez’s journey with San Anto goes all the way back to 1996, when she was recruited by Patti Radle to work on a mural next to a community garden on West Commerce Street.

“Ever since then, I stuck around,” Tamez said. “I was their little chicle. I didn’t leave. I got stuck to them.”

Tamez was a teenager, homeless after a dispute with her family, and Radle took her in at Inner City Development. It wasn’t a homeless program, per se, but rather for those who logged enough volunteer hours at the center, which she was doing anyway. Tamez tells a story about how she took the liberty to paint her room, without permission.

“And Patti was all, ‘Crystal, you painted a mural?’ I’m like, ‘Sorry Patti, just cover it up!’ ” Tamez said. “I think she covered it up … I had this big ole Aztec god. I was like, ‘Patti, I’m being protected, Patti.’ ”

Radle gets excited when asked about Tamez’ growth to where she is now: a full-time artist and mother of four.

“You knew that there was a lot going on inside her,” Radle said. “I think it’s just such a delight to see her now and really in full expression. You knew what was in her … Just in watching her grow over the years, it’s been fantastic to see what she’s not afraid to say and to see her say it so well.

“And then, of course, her art has grown so magnificently. It’s amazing. Just really is. I just think that the way I see her now, it’s just so obvious that she took in so much of what she experienced.”

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