Mary Agnes Rodriguez
Mixed Media Artist and Social Justice Activist
Like her Indigenous ancestors, Mary Agnes uses her art to tell the stories of her life and of her community. A mixed media artist, her work has been shown in seven major exhibitions and many public murals. Her work documents and empowers, showcasing the beautiful struggle of living in the Westside.
Mary Agnes was born on the 23rd floor of the Nix hospital on September 18, 1959. Her first home was right across the street from Rodríguez groceries, her grandparent’s home and grocery store on Leal street. Her parents had grown up in these two houses, and this is the place she would return to live years later.
Her grandfather, Simon Torres Rodríguez, had been orphaned as a baby in San Antonio, because his parents could not afford to take care of him. He was adopted, and grew up in Laredo. Mary Agnes’ grandmother, Rosina Alegria Benavides, had been raised on a ranch in Lopeño, Texas, but when her father died their uncle sold half of the ranch to pay for taxes. Rosina and her sister Olivia lost their home, but they were taken in by their grandmother Francisa and their aunt Fermina in Laredo, in about 1900. This is where Rosina and Simon met, and they married on April 19, 1908. They moved back to San Antonio when Simon was about eighteen years old, so that he could reunite with his biological mother, who was very ill. Today she is buried with a wooden cross with the last name Torres written on it in San Fernando Cemetery #1, along with Mary Agnes’ grandparents and two aunts.
Simon began working for a Chinese Grocer until he opened his own store. They had nine children, but tragically Rosina died two days after giving birth to her ninth child Olivia. Mary Agnes was close to her grandfather. She remembers helping out at his store, where he sold bread, canned goods, beer, sodas, chips, candy and pickled eggs. These store-front homes were very common on the Westside. Mary Agnes remembers a tight knit community where store owners knew and supported each other, directing customers to whichever store was selling what they needed. Just around the corner was another store run by the Aguilars, who sold meat and sewing materials. She remembers how these neighborhood stores gave credit, and were willing to let people buy only what they needed, like half a chicken, or just a slice of baloney. Store owners recognized to what their customers could afford.
Mary Agnes’ father, Simon Benavides Rodríguez, survived the flood of September 1921, when over twenty inches of rain fell in San Antonio. This flood killed over 220 people statewide, and 80 people in the city. It was the deadliest flood in the city’s history, with the vast majority of deaths on the Westside. Mary Agnes’ aunts and uncles told her about how they woke up in the middle of the night, their legs submerged in water that had already entered the house. Rescuers came to get the young kids, but they couldn’t find Simon, who was about four years old at the time. The family searched through the night, and feared he had been swept up in the water. Fortunately he had been rescued by a policeman on a horse, who had taken him to the elementary school, but the family didn’t find him until they went to the school the next day.
Mary Agnes remembers that the neighborhood was filled with animals. Her grandfather had a cow, and sheep grazed in the field around the Gioretti house by St. Agnes Catholic Church. As her grandfather grew older, two of her aunts stayed with him and helped him run the store. Her grandfather lived to be 99 years old. Her aunts Consuelo and Emilia continued to run the store for several years, but closed it when Mary Agnes was in high school, after they were held up twice at the store. In the second incident, a man put a gun to her aunt’s forehead, just to get a case of sodas.
Mary Agnes' mother, Delfina Ybarra Rodríguez, was born on December 24, 1928. She grew up across the street from Mary Agnes’ father, so this is how they met. Mary Agnes was an only child, and her pets became her companions. She had dogs, rabbits, lizards, turtles and cockatiels. As she said in a recent interview, “You would see me down at the creek when I was young. Looking for rocks or minnows,” Her parents told her stories of La Llorona wandering the creek at night, so she only went there during the day. She would ride her bike and fly kites, and jump rope with her cousin. She remembers filling big paper bags with pecans from the trees on the empty lot across from her house on Calle Perez.
She learned many lessons from her parents. From her mom, she learned how to be independent. After she was born, her mom established her own business as a seamstress, making dresses for quinceañeras, weddings, folklorico dances and mariachi uniforms. Her clients called her La Famosa Rodríguez. Mary Agnes remembers how her mom supported her in whatever she wanted to do, because she herself had been able to pursue her passion. From her dad she learned about community engagement and service. He had served as a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army during World War II, stationed at Guadalcanal with a platoon of thirty other men. After the war, her father became a custodian and maintenance man for the school district. He attended San Antonio College, which helped him get promoted to Head man. He worked for the school district for twenty five years. He also helped at the grocery store, and worked as a carpenter along with his brothers-in-law. Mary Agnes would tag along with him to his union meetings. She also went with him to deliver food through Holy Name Catholic Church and St. Paul’s Catholic Church.
During her elementary school years her family moved further west, to the area around General McMullen Drive, and Mary Agnes went to Cenizo Park elementary, Gus Garcia Middle School and Memorial High School. She was very involved in the band in middle school and high school, and her parents became active band parents as well. Her mom was president of the band booster club, and she made the shirts for all 125 members of the Memorial High School band. She was so valued that the band director asked her to stay an extra year to help. Mary Agnes played the clarinet. It was something she would return to twenty years after graduation when she joined the Alamo Community Marching Band, after she saw that they were going to do a mini-parade at Woodlawn Lake for the Fourth of July. She continued to play with this band for ten years (2002-2012), and they became another family for her.
As a child Mary Agnes remembers doodling a lot, and looking for the comic strips every Sunday in the newspaper, curious about how they created story with their drawings. When her mom taught her how to make cascarones, she began making her own designs on the eggshells, moving from drawing lines to flowers and images. Her grandfather let her sell them on the candy counter of his store. This is how she made her first money as an artist, selling each egg for fifty cents. Later, as she learned more about eggs as symbols of life, she started chronicling her life through her egg paintings. She would paint the people involved in her experiences and gift the eggs to them. She also began to take correspondence courses in art instruction and went to San Antonio Community College to take courses in jewelry, ceramics, and “anything that was there.” She couldn’t decide what kind of medium to focus on, because she enjoyed everything, from working with metal to cutting and polishing stone, to crafting wooden toys. Eventually she would define herself as a mixed media artist, because she liked working with all kinds of materials.
After high school she took a job at an advertising company, but when her father had a stroke, she left her job to help her mom take care of her father. While she was doing this, she was still painting portraits. The nurses who would come in to take care of her father admired her work, and so they began to commission her to make their portraits. Mary Agnes would continue to care for her elders and her neighbors. After her father passed away she remained at home to take care of her mother, and then took care of her aunts, driving them to run errands. After her mother passed away she began to work as a caregiver for the next door neighbor.
When her neighbor passed away, her cousin Cathy Garcia encouraged her to sell her art at her store, Alamo St. Garden and Market in the King William neighborhood. She sold her hand painted eggs there, and while she visited the store she would pick up El Placazo, a community newspaper published by the San Anto Cultural Arts (SACA). In the paper they promoted a contest for artists to design their masthead. Mary Agnes decided to submit several designs. One day she saw her image in the newspaper, and was thrilled to learn that she had won. She kept submitting her artwork, but she never visited the organization. Eventually SACA co-founders Manny Castillo and Cruz Ortiz, along with mural coordinator Alex Rubio, convinced Mary Agnes to show them samples of her art in person. They met at Inner City Development, SACA’s original headquarters on Chihuahua street. She brought a picture of a nicho. Rubio was so inspired by the piece that he asked her to create SACA’s first three dimensional mural. This was the beginning of her long involvement with SACA. In 2001, she collaborated with fellow artist Janie Tabares-Orñelaz to create “Nicho para La Virgen de Guadalupe” at the San Jacinto Senior Homes on 1512 El Paso Street. To create the mural, Ortiz and Rubio brought 4x8 birch panels to San Jacinto, where Mary Agnes led painting workshops for the residents. Much of the mural was painted by the residents, who became very attached to it. The mural was featured in a “Lo Mejor de lo Nuestro” segment on Channel 41. Though the mural was meant to be a rotating exhibit, the residents of San Jacinto Senior Homes refused to let it leave. They continue to care for the mural, keeping it clean, well-lit, and supplied with ofrendas.
Mary Agnes also continued to find new artistic work through SACA. The mural blessing received a lot of local media attention, and also caught the attention of renowned Chicano art collector Cheech Marin, who was helping to organize a major exhibit of his collection. SACA received a packet requesting submissions from Chicana muralists. Castillo put Mary Agnes in touch with the Marin exhibit organizers, who were looking for two Chicana artists to submit mural designs. Mary Agnes submitted a proposal with Tabares-Orñelaz; Mary Agnes designed a kitchen scene with a stained glass rooster in the center, and Tabares-Orñelaz designed a living room scene. Both were selected for the exhibit, and the artists were given two weeks to complete the murals. Mary Agnes noted the challenges of this work: they didn’t grid anything, just drew freehand. The exhibit “Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge”, premiered at San Antonio Museum of Art in December of 2001. Their murals traveled to fifteen cities in five years.
Almost immediately after the Marin exhibit, P.E.A.C.E. Initiative Director Patricia Castillo asked Castillo if they could design a mural on teen dating violence. Castillo then asked Mary Agnes if she would consider doing another mural, and she agreed. The P.E.A.C.E. Initiative is a private non-profit established in 1990 by the Roman Catholic Order of Benedictine Sisters. They became their own independent organization in 2003, dedicated to ending family violence. Mary Agnes agreed, and they began the process of searching for a building. Originally they wanted to paint the mural on a school, since it was about teen dating violence. However, the school was uncomfortable with this theme. Eventually they found a wall of a medical training school, where the mural was also relevant because victims often end up in the hospital. Mary Agnes met with community members and the building owners, and researched at workshops about family violence. Initially Mary Agnes drawings were considered a little too realistic, so they toned down the images but continued to include valuable information about signs of abuse and ways to prevent it, empowering the community through education. The mural, called “Breaking the Cycle,” depicts the physical, emotional and psychological impact of domestic violence. On both sides of the mural she painted a fist punching a heart, because, as she notes, “this is how it would look on the inside, when you are being hit.” As she was working on the mural one day, a car pulled up and a man started yelling “you’re a man hater!” Rather than being intimidated or discouraged, Mary Agnes noted that the mural must have touched something inside of him. “That’s what I like about working on location,” she said, “you know whether or not you’ve made an impact.”
Mary Agnes completed yet another mural in 2001 called “Mis Palabras, Mi Poder” at the Burleson School for Innovation and Education, at 534 Cordelia Street. This mural features Latina community leaders Emma Tenayuca, Olga G. Madrid, Margarita R. Huantes and Isabel G. Bazán and Lydia Mendoza. As Mary Agnes was setting up to begin the mural, students from the school came to help paint, and teachers continue to use the mural for their classes. In 2004, Mary Agnes created “Stained Glass Mosaic Mural Para Herbolaría La India” for a business that has operated on 2427 West Commerce for thirty years. For the mural, Mary Agnes integrated what she learned from her mother with her research on the medicinal values of various plants. She also used the style of Maya codices, painting the stories of her community in the style of her Indigenous ancestors . Over the years the mural deteriorated, but in 2017 a team of artists led by Crystal Tamez restored the mural, including reclaiming the glass from the original mosaic pieces.
In 2005, Mary Agnes worked with Jose Cosme to create “Seeds of Solidarity.” The building at 1711 Guadalupe was Hope Action Care, a clinic that offered HIV testing and addiction rehabilitation programs. The artists wanted their mural to combat the stigma attached to HIV and drug use, and celebrate community leaders. The mural incorporates traditional symbols of curanderismo to communicate health, well being and cultural pride. The central figure of the mural is poet and Westside native Raúl R. Salinas, who was incarcerated from 1959-1971 on drug related charges. He became active in the prisoner-rights and Indigenous rights movements, along with other social justice causes. Other community leaders in the mural include Emma Tenayuca, Rosie Castro, David Gonzalez and Patricia Castillo. The mural was drawn and painted entirely freehand. The bare trees in the background were copied directly from the trees behind the building, and Mary Agnes used her own hand as a reference for the hand releasing the doves. After Hope Action Care closed, the building was sold in 2014 and the mural was painted over, despite objections of the community.
“Our art has power. Art can heal. Art can save lives and can bring us together even while we are apart. It helps us through the storm. Public art can empower and build our communities. To bring awareness, prevention, protection as well as beauty, history, cultural, traditions and keeping it alive. By the people. It's like a museum and it's free to the public. It's important to have local community artists because they know their city and their community.”
-- Mary Agnes Rodríguez
“I see beauty in everything, even if it's a brown dry leaf falling to the ground, whereas other people see it as trash.”
-- Mary Agnes Rodríguez
(Photo courtesy of Mary Agnes Rodríguez)
(Photo courtesy of Mary Agnes Rodríguez)