Jesus “Jesse” Treviño, a pioneering Chicano painter and cherished fixture of San Antonio’s art community, died on February 13. He was 76.
Treviño was celebrated for his photorealistic celebrations of Mexican American life, which he captured in towering murals around San Antonio and delicate portraits now housed in major art institutions such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the San Antonio Museum of Art.
San Antonio, where the Treviño family moved to from Mexico when Jesse was 4, was a lifelong muse, and Treviño filled his canvases with his mother and brothers, passing cars and strangers, and the city’s sun-lit skyline. His biographer, Anthony Head, describes him in Spirit: The Life and Art of Jesse Treviño as “an ambitious man with a herculean will: his dominant right arm was amputated below the elbow after he stepped on a land mine during the Vietnam War, so he trained his left arm to paint.”
“The thing about Jesse is that he captures the heart of his family and his communities,” Ellen Riojas Clark, professor emerita of bicultural-bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, told the Express-News in 2017. “So his work is very, very introspective, but yet resonates with everybody’s spirit.”
Born in Monterrey, Mexico, in 1946, Treviño was the ninth of 12 children. His father worked as a mechanic and milkman, and his mother ran the household. For a short time after moving to the West Side of San Antonio, he told the Texas Monthly, they lived in a two-bedroom home where attention was in short supply. In 1953, when Treviño was in first grade, he won a city-wide art contest with a drawing of two doves on a manila folder.
“I’ll always remember that because my family was there,” Treviño told Head in 2012. “Here I was, the first time in a public setting. I had won a contest and I was acknowledged and recognized and rewarded.”
After graduating in 1965, he earned a scholarship to attend New York’s prestigious Art Students League, where he studied painting under William F. Draper, a former combat artist and keen colorist. Less than a year into his education, Treviño was drafted to serve in Vietnam. As a Mexican immigrant, he was given the choice to repatriate to Mexico, or stay in the US and fight. Treviño, feeling as American as “any other son of San Antonio,” Head wrote, chose the latter.
His service was short-lived. Treviño was discharged from the US Army in 1968 with a Purple Heart and a right arm rendered unusable by a detonated land mine.
“The chaplains,” he told Head, “would come and pray and try to say something, and I was like, ‘Please, just leave me alone. I never did anything wrong. I feel like I’m being punished. I thought God gave me all this ability to paint and all that. Now I can’t do anything.’”
But another wounded veteran, Armando Albarran, began visiting him. Albarran, according to Treviño’s biography, was from the city’s West Side too, and he had lost his legs in the war. He encouraged Treviño to enroll in art classes at San Antonio College. It was a difficult re-education, but Treviño’s painting technique and imagination returned: he covered his bedroom wall with a dreamlike mural titled Mi Vida. In it, mementos of his service—his Purple Heart, a prosthetic hand, a painkiller—obscure his self-portrait. That painting was eventually extracted and acquired by the Smithsonian.
Even a quick drive through San Antonio reveals Treviño’s legacy. Spirit of Healing, a tiled mural depicting a child comforted by angel, decorates the facade of the Children’s Hospital. At the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, he created a massive ceramic mural in the shape of a votive candle, or veladora, with its brilliant red flame—visible for miles—facing the neighborhood.
“I want to do things with a lot of permanence,” Treviño once said, adding, “I’ve learned things as an artist.”