Kick off Hispanic Heritage Month with exhibit honoring Austin muralist Raúl Valdez

“Hillside Miracle” mural at the A.B. Cantu Pan-American Recreation Center. Jay Janner/American-Statesman 

For 50 years, his murals have nourished Austin’s soul. They’ve awakened our spirit and fed our minds.

But for artist Raúl Valdez, the countless murals he’s uplifted us with, which can be found anywhere from schools to the streets, aren’t about the finished product.

“It’s always been about the process for me,” he says. That’s because he’s never made painting a solitary experience. Over the years, Valdez has engaged community in his work by inviting neighborhood input and involving youth and residents to be part of his projects.

In 2012, the City spent $52,000 to restore one of Valdez’ iconic murals, which sprawls across a 3,000-square-foot-canvas in East Austin. Valdez’ original 1978 piece, which features images inspired by Chicano culture and Mexican history, serves as the backdrop to the outdoor Hillside Theater at the Oswaldo A.B. Cantu/Pan American Recreation Center.

“Hillside Miracle” mural at the A.B. Cantu Pan-American Recreation Center.  Jay Janner/American-Statesman 

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Now, after half a century of producing artwork and inspiring a new generation of Austin artists, the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center will honor Valdez’ life and work. The exhibit “Vida y Obra: 50 Years of Art and Activism” opens at 6 p.m. on Sept. 15 at the cultural center’s Sam Z. Coronado Gallery. The prominent exhibition kicks off a weekend of events celebrating the MACC’s 10th anniversary.

“It’s very humbling,” Valdez says of the exhibit, which will include archival photos, documents and articles that’ll give a holistic view of Valdez’ life from his rock band days to his encounters with farm worker movement leaders including Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

In 2011, Valdez lost his home in the Bastrop wildfires. “It was a tragic loss,” he says. Manuscripts of books he’d started to write vanished and artwork turned to ashes. Now, Valdez has rebuilt his life and career in downtown Austin and has no plans to slow down. Often he’s asked to name what mural he’s been the most proud of creating over his lifetime, but he always has the same answer: “My next one.”

Visit austintexas.gov/esbmacc to learn more about the MACC’s 10th anniversary events, which include an open house with family activities starting at 4 p.m. on Sept. 16, followed by music and dance performances.

MORE CULTURAL ARTS: Check out the Cultura en Austin blog

‘Taking to the Road’ exhibit gives inside look at farmworker life

Artifacts, oral history interviews and photos, like this one of Mary Montoya Hohenstein's brothers, will be part of the upcoming "Taking to the Road: The Austin Migrant Farmworkers Connection" exhibit. Photo contributed by Mary Montoya Hohenstein
Artifacts, oral history interviews and photos, like this one of Mary Montoya Hohenstein’s brothers, will be part of the upcoming “Taking to the Road: The Austin Migrant Farmworkers Connection” exhibit. Photo contributed by Mary Montoya Hohenstein

In my hometown on the Texas border, I grew accustomed to my classmates leaving the school year early or enrolling late. As seasonal migrant farmworkers, they followed the harvest to northern U.S. states with their families and worked in fields or canneries to provide the fruits and vegetables that would eventually end up on someone’s kitchen table.

Although I stayed behind and watched as they left each year, eventually my father began leaving to work in the fields, too. As a kid, places such as Michigan and Illinois seemed like a world away, but the seasonal pilgrimages my father took provided for our family. I didn’t realize it then, but the connection to the migrant farmworker life would later help shape my identity as a Mexican American woman.

I recently shared some of these experiences during an oral history interview tied to the powerful upcoming exhibit and event series “Taking to the Road: The Austin Migrant Farmworkers Connection.” The multi-layered program examines various angles of the farmworker experience and includes community and national exhibits, documentary screenings, panels and a keynote presentation, all at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center throughout July.

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The “Taking to the Road” community exhibit, which opens with a reception at 6 p.m. on July 9, shines a light on Central Texans who moved throughout the country to work as migrant farmworkers during the 1940s-70s. Pieces of their farmworker pasts will be stitched together through photos, artifacts and oral history interview clips, which will be on display through Sept. 3.

“Very little has been documented or preserved regarding Mexican Americans in farm and ranch life whether in Austin, Travis County or Central Texas much less as migrant farm workers,” said Gloria Espitia, an outreach representative at the MACC. “(The exhibit) gives a historical perspective of the roles that twelve families contributed in the area of agriculture…In some cases, some of the exhibit contributors have not told their stories to their own children or other family members. The reasoning for this is not because of the negative feelings and stigma as migrant farmworkers, but rather because they did not feel that it was an important story to tell.”

The Guzman family works in the fields of Wisconsin. Photo contributed by Gloria Guzman
The Guzman family works in the fields of Wisconsin. Photo contributed by Gloria Guzman

“Bittersweet Harvest,” a bilingual exhibit that gives a national view of the farmworker story, also opens on July 9. It explores the bracero program, which brought millions of Mexican nationals on short-term labor contracts between 1942-1964.

But what’s farmworker life like now for children? Visitors can check out the 2011 documentary “The Harvest/La Cosecha” at 3 p.m. on July 9 at the cultural center’s Black Box theater. The film follows three teenagers whose families travel from Texas to Florida and Michigan for seasonal work. A discussion will follow the film.

RELATED: Find out about more Latino cultural happenings in Austin.

Tying these experiences together will be the keynote presentation, “Taken by the Road: Migration from Montopolis to Muskegon,” from 2-4 p.m. July 23 at the cultural center’s auditorium and theater. Retired professor Raymond Padilla, will give insight into his life as the son of a bracero who then moved to Austin and traveled to work in the fields throughout the country. A panel afterward will feature Austinites highlighted in the “Taking to the Road” community exhibit.

Keep an eye out for another panel discussion from 2-3:30 p.m. on Aug. 27 at the cultural center’s auditorium featuring the St. Edward’s University College Assistance Migrant Program, which is the longest running program of its kind in the nation. CAMP students, alumni, former counselors and the current director, Esther Yacono, will share the experiences of the program, which has helped thousands of students obtain their higher education dreams.