The Chi Word

It must have been in the last years of the past century that a friend, a well-known academic in cultural and art matters, was supposed to lecture in my hometown of Laredo and was advised to stay away from the term 'Chicano.' Arrgh . . .

My quote above was never meant to be broad but it did resonate and addressed a certain type of generational gentility that was prevalent in Laredo which, after all, was the oldest, northernmost outpost of the Spanish empire during the colonization of the new world. This created a gentry, landed or otherwise prominent in the business sector—an aristocracy of sorts with a corresponding sense of entitlement and attitude of the haves to the have-nots. There are many common names in Laredo, of which Martínez is a prominent one and, when introduced to somebody in the Laredo area it used to be I'd be asked, "which Martínezes?" I was related to. Thankfully it hasn't happened to me in decades now.

One happy result of having a heralded exhibition, En Mi Casa, in my home town is that I now have no choice but to be fair and put an asterisk on the quote that opens this piece and add a footnote to clarify. An official proclamation from the Mayors office lauded my work and its significance and it actually mentioned its roots in "Chicano culture." Maybe somebody did their homework! I felt like I had come full circle and that this is a new day in Laredo.

To great fanfare and expressions of civic pride, my exhibition En Mi Casa opened on the 19th of November of 2021 at the Laredo Center for the Arts. I put together my own show and chose the art carefully to make it a good fit for the place of my origin, hence the title. It was a spontaneous show that came together after the LCA started an aggressive acquisition program of art by prominent area artists and purchased a significant painting of mine from the gallery that represents me in San Antonio and New York, the Ruiz-Healy Art, Inc. gallery. In short order, the LCA decided that a solo exhibition of my work would be a good idea. I readily accepted and after a truly great job of the LCA's coordination with local entities the show happened.

Upon arriving in Laredo for the opening, as we checked into the hotel, we noticed a big colorful banner for my exhibition in the lobby. Then, the next day, it all started with a tour of Laredo's old Martin High School campus from which I graduated in 1962 and being feted by the band, pep squad, majorettes, the irrepressible Tiger mascot and principal Mario Mireles. I almost expected jugglers and a high-wire act to follow. Needless to say, I was humbled but there is more. Then, at the Laredo Center for the Arts, during the opening reception for the show, I was first serenaded by the music of the Martin High School Mariachi group, Los Tigeres del Sur, and then greeted by Mayor Pete Saenz of Laredo and other dignitaries. After the official proclamation from the Mayor's office was read by His Honor and two city officials, I was graciously presented with the key to the city and given other honorifics.

It was a memorable occasion I'll never forget and never expect to experience again. Who ever expects to be presented with the key to any city at all? And, based on many interactions and conversations with those in attendance at the exhibition, my work was understood on its own terms on its own turf. Refreshingly, nobody asked what this or that meant. A grouping of six simple drawings that made reference to certain barrios in Laredo were a big hit and sealed the deal.

As a teenager, I was a bit cool towards being rah-rah about school spirit, but experiencing so much appreciation and graciousness overwhelmed and humbled me and I do now, finally, feel like "Once a Tiger, always a Tiger."

Originally from Laredo, Texas, César Martínez studied art at Texas A&I University in Kingsville and received his Bachelor of Science degree in All-Level Art Education in 1968. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1969 and, after serving in Korea, was honorably discharged in 1971. Since then, he has lived and worked as a professional artist in San Antonio. His interest and involvement in the Chicano political movement led his work to the Mexican American and Chicano cultural explorations and themes for which he is now well known. He has exhibited widely at the national and international level. In 1999, Martínez had a retrospective at the McNay Museum in San Antonio and his work is amply represented in many private and public collections, including the Art Museum of South Texas, the Houston Fine Arts Museum, the Austin Museum of Art and the McNay Museum, among others.

Photographs by Diana Molina.