The Chicano Art Movement

The Texas Story Project.

“Work so hard that your skin falls off… you’re all red and toasted,” are the words of Roberto Rios, born December 14, 1941, as he describes his time being a migrant worker. The conditions he endured were very rough and unforgiving as he would be “living in a room with 15 people,” 13 of whom were his family. Every summer, his family was loaded into a van to go across Wisconsin and up to Green Bay. They worked in a cherry orchard with shaved heads waking up to the sounds of freighters passing by at 3 am on Lake Erie. This hard labor at a young age would go on to influence his career in art.

During junior high school he met a librarian who introduced him to books about the lives of artists creating art and how the elements in the art worked and affected their lives. Later on, he graduated from San Antonio Vocational High School in 1960. Senior year, he entered a world-wide poster contest. 69,000 entries. He won 2nd place in the world and received a 50-dollar savings bond from Congressmen Henry B. Gonzalez. He then had the opportunity to work for City Public Service Company to do commercial art. During 1961-1963, he competed in the River Arts Show three times and won the top prize all three years. He attended Warren Hunter Art School in La Villita, San Antonio, Texas for 6 years and had classes at San Antonio College from 1970 to 1971. During his time at SAC, he ventured to the library once again to enhance his knowledge about various artist of different periods in art. He was influenced by the art elements that Picasso presented in his work.

He had his first show with six other artists in Houston, Texas, called “The Cowboy Series” which showcases his group’s surrealistic western-themed art. Around this time he started getting into political painting. He decided to make protest art and became an activist artist. When he did this, he claimed that “people would stay away from me” because his art was controversial. His painting was during the time of Cesar Chavez’s activism and movement. He went to Mission, Texas where he loaned 20 paintings to the farm workers headquarters. His works and his group’s work that were loaned had been stolen. Cesar Chavez farm workers union had threatened to take over the Texas United Farm Works. To avoid controversy and chaos, the receptionist started to sell his works of art for five dollars each.

One of the paintings of the Chicano Movement started with “Chicano Gothic” a painting by Roberto Rios. It depicts a Chicano couple suffering in poverty. They have five starving children in a barrio with ragged clothes. There are dogs eating out of trash cans. There are trash cans with one sign over each of them. The signs read “Walter Is a Racist” and the other “Pete Torres for Mayor”. This was featured in the Texas Watercolor Society Exhibition. Despite the harsh depiction of the Chicano lifestyle and praise by political figures and Chicanos themselves, this painting almost ended his career as an artist in San Antonio. Ironically, the wife of Mayor McAllister was on the board of the Watercolor Society Exhibition. She was in charge of the show and censored this painting of passion and hope for the Chicano people to create change. This created a domino effect of him getting kicked out of various galleries in San Antonio due to different political interests and desire for paintings of “Bluebonnets, Cowboys and Indians”.

He was a part of the group CON/SAFO which was a politically-based art group in southern Texas focusing on the politics and concerns of Mexican Americans. His work focused on the poverty, inequality and despair that many Mexican Americans faced during this time. The name of the group was a term used in the barrio which basically translates to “forbidden to touch,” meaning you cannot harm a person’s actions or words. This group kickstarted the Chicano Art Movement. His paintings were graphic as they showed the horrible the wage disparity that Mexican Americans suffered during this time. He eventually left the group as the FBI started investigating them as the other members wanted to take a radical stance by using more aggressive and illegal methods to raise attention to this injustice. One of these actions was going to Cuba, a communist country at the time, to cut cane for Fidel Castro. The group was leaning toward communism where there was a lot of arguing and bickering over the next move. To protect the security and well being of his family, Roberto Rios left CON/SAFO and ended his period of political art as the group began to deteriorate from the inside.

As his period in political art closed, he designed a catalog for the first Chicano Art Exhibition put together by Santos Martinez. They named it “Dale gas” which means “A new acceleration in art.” This was his last political art involvement. The next period in his art was spiritual because he became a Deacon March 31st, 2008. He created a new series called “The Journey of Our Souls” which is still ongoing till this day. Today Roberto Rios and his wife Christine Rios are proud grandparents of 18 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren. “It’s like this, my story is my father’s story and my mother’s story and my father’s father’s story and my mother’s mother’s story and I am just extending it.”

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