Few people know that one of the most iconic murals that reflects the struggles of Hispanic Americans during the 1960s and 1970s is located in the historic East End neighborhood of Houston. The creator of this massive 240-foot mural is a self-made artist from South Texas. His name, Leopoldo Tanguma, better known as Leo.
Artists and muralist Leo Tanguma was born to Texas farm workers with Mexican ancestors in Beeville, Texas, a small and underdeveloped town located right in the middle of Corpus Christi and San Antonio.
He started his life-long art career at the very young age of eight using a pencil and pieces of card boxes to draw promising portraits of his friends. But, the hardships endured by Latino-Americans inspired his art.
Leo describes his incursion in art.
Leo recalls creating his first mural in elementary school in the 1950s. While waiting in class for a substitute teacher, one of his classmates approached him and asked to draw the local sheriff’s assassination on a blackboard. The tragedy had caused commotion in his small town but according to Leo, the Mexican-American community regarded the staunch sheriff as a racist who abused his power.
As expected, the blackboard mural of the sheriff being stabbed drew attention and aroused emotion. The substitute teacher ordered Leo to erase the offensive drawing. Then she proceeded with the punishment: hit him on his back with a ruler.
This early childhood incident inspired him to get involved in community matters. Art became his voice for the oppressed and the means to protest peacefully.
By the mid-1950s, Leo’s parents were deeply rooted in their environment, which motivated his older sister to explore opportunities elsewhere. She encouraged Leo, who was 14 years old, to move to Pasadena, Texas.
Upon graduating from high school, Leo enrolled in Lee College located in Baytown, Texas. During this time, his awareness of Latino issues increased. At one point, a professor who assumed Leo was an immigrant questioned him about Mexican’s perceptions of Americans. Leo said, “In my country, we see you as racists, as invaders…”Then, Leo added he was born in Texas and, “that is as we in the U.S. and in the minority communities see you.”
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Chicano Movement was sweeping across the Southern states. The movement encompassed restoring land grants, farm workers’ rights, voting and political rights and more. The Chicano Movement also addressed reversing negative stereotypes of Mexicans in mass media.
The Chicano Movement set the right tone for Leo’s most iconic art piece in Houston: The Rebirth of Our Nationality.
After three years of planning, the 240-foot mural was completed with the help of a friend and local university students in 1972. During this year, the masterpiece spurred talk among the locals. The design encouraged the community to understand Mexican-American’s early struggles of adversity and racism as well as embrace the culture.
In the beginning, funding was a major obstacle. But, a local chamber of commerce and a private donor sponsored 100 gallons of paint and the wall on 5898 Canal Street. Supporters believed the mural would draw Hispanics to an annual festival celebrated during October in the local area.
Once completed, wiewers had the opportunity to appreciate the mural’s basic elements such as movement, balance and proportion. Following are some of the highlights:
- The center piece of the mural is a large red flower with two children inside who reach out and accept offerings. In the painting, people from both ends move towards the center with their struggles and hopes for a better future.
- A woman with her hands dismembered symbolizes violence and repression against women. Slightly above, the figure of a young girl breaking a sword in two pieces symbolizes resilience and rejection towards gender abuse.
- The two “campesinos” holding the “Plan de Ayala” manifesto makes a reference to the Mexican Revolution which took place in the early years of the 1900s. The manifesto made a call for land reform and freedom in Mexico.
- The book without pages reflects the talent and ideas that were lost with the arrival of European migrants to Texas. In Leo’s words, “Writers and artists lost their opportunity to develop and share their art when they were forced out of their land and discriminated against. The man without a face is precisely the artist who never developed and never had a chance to exist.”
- The man holding the United Farm Workers flag and a contract is Cesar Chavez, a direct reference of the Chicano civil rights movement of the 1960s.
- A man holding a book is a schoolteacher symbolizing the need for education in the community, an issue still present today.
- The images of the Latino soldiers who fought bravely in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
In 2013, Harris County bought the property with the mural. Then in 2018, County officials gave $70,000 to restore the historic mural. While Tanguma declined the restoration project, he guided Gonzo274, a famous Houston aerosol artist, on reviving the artwork.
In June 2018, the art community and civic leaders gathered on Canal Street for the unveiling.
Tanguma is astonished when he reflects on painting the historic piece freehand as no grids or projectors guided his work.
When asked about what makes art and an artist successful, Leo reflects on his views about the community and success.
At age 75, Leo resides in Colorado and continues to create murals. Recently, he completed “In Peace and Harmony with Nature” at Denver International Airport. This eye-catching piece has captured the attention of travelers and art critics who describe the mural as one that “eludes his Mexican heritage, world history, spirituality, and progressive social ideals.”