Alex Rubio and Vincent Valdez in front of the Burbank High School Gym mural, 1996.
A great piece of art inspires, defines a community, and provokes...even if it depicts a giant hot sauce bottle and a soccer game. In 1994, Vincent Valdez created such an art piece (facilitated by a mural design contest sponsored by Tabasco McIlhenny), on the exterior wall of Luther Burbank High School, where he was then a 16 year-old student. Working with mentor, and current Blue Star Contemporary Art Center educator, Alex Rubio, Valdez spent his spring break creating the epic soccer match between an Aztec warrior and a Tabasco-wielding player above the title "Hispanic Soccer! Muy Caliente," visible on the South Side from I-35 near the I-10 interchange. There it stayed for 16 years, becoming a Burbank beacon, and a physical reminder of one of the school's favorite sons who went on to a full-ride scholarship at Rhode Island School of Design and critical success as a young Chicano artist known for taking on social strife.
And then, overnight, the mural disappeared. “I was just passing by I-35 on Friday evening,” said Arthur Valdez, Vincent's father, who still lives by Burbank, “it was still up. Then on Saturday around 12:30 or 1:00 p.m. I drove by and looked. It was gone. I did a double take.” Valdez, like many of his neighbors, was deeply angered by the mural's swift and quiet removal. To him and a group of 280+ people in the neighborhood and on Facebook, the mural's destruction symbolized yet another outsider imposing its will on the modest community. “The lifespan of a mural is never certain,” said Vincent Valdez, by phone from Los Angeles, “that's just the way it goes. But there's an underlying issue in the way the district handled the situation.”
To wit, we accompanied Arthur Valdez and two concerned Burbank alums, Fernando Velazquez and Pete Herrera, to the high school early Monday morning. Valdez wanted to tell the principal, Mona Lopez, his personal perspective. Among hugs and “don't let her get away with it,” from enthusiastic staff members to Velazquez, who spearheaded last year's effort to save Burbank from closure by SAISD, we learned Lopez would not arrive until 9 a.m. We killed time admiring Valdez's still-intact cafeteria murals of rock stars, also completed during his high school days, and a 1966 class photo showing a young Arthur and his future wife. When we heard a loudspeaker announcement that all faculty and staff would meet together at 9, Valdez inquired at the front desk if Lopez would actually be available to speak that morning or not. The staff didn't know, so Valdez said he would wait in the entrance lobby for Lopez. Just then, we were met by a police officer and an assistant principal; two other police officers appeared at the front door. “Can we help you,” asked assistant principal Roy Gregg. Valdez explained he wanted to speak with Lopez, and Gregg said Lopez would call Valdez after 4 p.m. Valdez, an affable man of slight stature, held his ground. “That was a gift to the school and all of a sudden it's gone,” he told Gregg, in an even tone “I'm very, very upset about it. `Lopez` never spoke to anyone in the community about it. This is our community, not her community.” Before we walked out the door, Valdez added, “I'm going to take this all the way to the top. I just want to know what her main reason is.” After we were safely outside, the two police officers at the doors left the campus. “They were here just for us,” said Velazquez.
The Valdezes, Velazquez and Alex Rubio's are primarily offended that neither Lopez nor school board district representative Adela Segovia nor anyone else in San Antonio ISD reached out to the community to gauge interest in preserving the mural, or contacted the artists about it. They point toward the painting contractors' seemingly overnight transformation of the westward-facing wall from vibrant art to blank slate as further proof that the paint job was meant to be completed with as little community interference as possible.
According to Segovia and SAISD spokesperson Leslie Price, had they known the mural was a Vincent Valdez work, this controversy may never had happened. Segovia said painting over the mural was part of a long-planned facelift for the school. “Our school had not been painted in 20 years,” she said. During the year-long process to flag what needed sprucing and what could stay, district and administration officials walked Burbank's campus, flagging important murals with signatures to stay and letting others go. Not seeing Valdez's signature on the soccer mural, they decided to whitewash it. Price seconded that explanation in a separate phone conversation. Segovia and Price also said both the wall and mural were weathered and chipped, though Rubio said if he were contacted, perhaps he could have arranged for a mural restoration. Velazquez and Rubio reported (and disputed) additional reasons stated by Lopez, who could not be reached for comment, that the painting-over had been approved by the Community Leadership Team of school department chairs and that the mural was a magnet for grafitti. Price disputed Valdez and Velazquez's characterization of painting overnight, since the contractors were only scheduled for 7 a.m. — 7 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. As for Valdez's missing signature, which is prominently featured in a photo belonging to Arthur Valdez, “maybe it fell off,” offered Segovia.
Actually, Vincent Valdez said the signature washed away in a rainstorm that started pouring just after he and Rubio signed their work in 1996. But all the parties we spoke to said many teachers, staff members, students or neighbors would have heen able to identify it as Valdez's work. In fact, it was part of a tour sponsored by San Antonio Museum of Art that Valdez led just last year. “All the `Burbank` teachers knew who painted it,” said Arthur Valdez. “The district decided it didn't matter.” Both Price and Segovia said they did not reach out to anyone to discover who painted the mural or whether it was salvagable. Segovia at least accepts partial blame. “It was a judgement call across the district,” to repaint the mural, she said, “maybe it's my fault for not doing the research.” Price said “it's very unfortunate that this occurred. There was no intention to disrespect the work of this artist.” She also said the district is taking steps “to avoid something like this happening in the future,” by catalgouing the several murals decorating schools throughout the district. Both stressed repeatedly none of Valdez's other murals would be touched.
To Burbank alums, “it's additional insult to the bigger injury of the City trying to shut down the school,” said Vincent Valdez, referencing an SAISD plan released last year recommending the closing of Burbank to help the district save money. During public meetings last fall, residents turned out in droves pleading to keep the school open and helped elect Segovia, who ran for her school board seat on a pledge to save Burbank.
If the alums are passionate about their alma mater, they're just as inspired by Valdez's mural. “What it demonstrated was that individuals are able to do more than their surroundings,” said Andro Mendoza, Burbank '86, a marketing professor at Northwest Vista. Albert Cruz, '02, said when he recently returned home on vacation from his New York banking job, he took a visiting friend straight to see the mural as an example of the community's Hispanic pride. “It's a symbol of Burbank, it's a symbol of community, and it's a symbol of an individual who has done great thingsâ?¦The decision to paint over it seems to have been done with malintention, or at least with a great deal of ignorance.”