Vulnerability as strength: San Antonio artist Mauro de la Tierra challenges patriarchal norms

Artist Mauro de la Tierra first held a spray can at age 15. This was the beginning of his journey with graffiti art, alcoholism and finding strength in being vulnerable.

By Kayla Padilla, Texas Public RadioJune 7, 2024 10:00 am, ,

From Texas Public Radio:

San Antonio artist Mauro de la Tierra was 17 years old when he was arrested for trespassing and painting graffiti art. It was the beginning of his troubled behavior and alcoholism that led him to a years-long battle with recovery.

This year, the City of McAllen invited the now-sober 28-year-old to paint graffiti as part of a public art project.

De la Tierra grew up on the East Side of San Antonio. He was always interested in art but never thought it was something he could pursue full time.

“I think because of the class that I came from, I didn’t necessarily feel like this is something I could do,” he said.

His mother, Ale Tierra, immigrated to the U.S. in 1995. Just a few weeks later, de la Tierra was born. Ale is a former Jehovah’s Witness who became involved with punk rock and social justice causes. As a child, de la Tierra and his siblings would attend protests with their mom.

“So we kind of were a part of this community that taught us to question the establishment,” he explained.

‘Be a better person’

As a child, Ale allowed de la Tierra to create murals on the walls inside their house, including in the living room and bedrooms.

“There were a lot of other situations where I was like, ‘OK, it’s your decision. Cut your hair. Shave your head. It’s your hair,’” she said. “It hurts me if they get hurt, obviously, but at the end of the day, they need those experiences to learn and be a better person.”

As he continued to develop his art, de La Tierra began incorporating indigenous symbolism and a motif of skeletons to bring awareness to social issues. Graffiti art gave him a sense of purpose.

“A lot of people associate it with gangs, but I definitely believe that graffiti street art is an extension of self-expression,” he said.

After a couple years of spray painting, de la Tierra was arrested at age 17 for trespassing while doing graffiti art.

“I got caught because I was painting this little polar bear wearing a swimsuit, and it had a gingerbread house. For me, I was like, ‘This is about climate change,’” he explained.

‘A fundraiser to bail myself out’

After his arrest, he needed money to pay his court fees. He decided to create a local art show with the help of his artist friends. “We threw kind of like a fundraiser to bail myself out,” de la Tierra added.

The court ultimately decided that de la Tierra could fulfill his punishment by doing community service instead of paying the fine. But his troubles didn’t end there.

De la Tierra became an alcoholic. His addiction got so bad that at one point he remembers waking up in some bushes on the other side of town, unsure of how he got there.

“I just remember I woke up, and I felt this severe pain in my chest where I was like, ‘What have I done? What did I do?’”

De la Tierra said he relapsed several times on his journey to sobriety, but now at 28 years old, he’s been sober for four years. And now he has his invitation to be a guest artist as part of the “Keep McAllen Beautiful” initiative — a project in the Rio Grande Valley that plans to convert abandoned irrigation pipes from eyesores into visual art.

Chris Lash, a program manager at Keep McAllen Beautiful (KMB), said her group has painted more than 180 pipes, 14 of which have been completed by de la Tierra.

“Each artist has their own unique style. I know Mauro’s style is very fluid. He combines paint with spray paint, which makes his colors pop a lot more,” Lash added.

Challenging patriarchal norms

Though graffiti art once brought de la Tierra legal troubles, now his art is on public display in the City of McAllen. He and his painting partner, Glenn Edinburgh, worked on five murals over six days.

One of de la Tierra’s irrigation pipes includes an image of a flamboyant rooster, which differs from the traditional masculine roosters depicted in Mexican imagery.

“I wanted to incorporate more fluorescent and feminine colors to challenge that patriarchal expectation that we’re meant to have as men that … we’re not supposed to be sensitive or emotional,” he explained.

As a recovering alcoholic, de la Tierra finds that art has become an integral part of his healing journey. He hopes that by showcasing his vulnerability through art, he can challenge patriarchal norms and destigmatize graffiti art.

Ale Tierra said she’s proud of her son and his journey. “He’s just showing that we can be good people — even though we’re immigrants, or have an accent, or I’m a single mom. I think he’s really proud of our family,” she said.

De La Tierra’s art has also been featured in showcases across San Antonio, including the Mexican Cultural Institute, the Mexic-Arte Museum and the Luminaria Contemporary Arts Festival.

De la Tierra is currently in college completing basic courses. He plans to earn a degree in social work to help others recover from addiction through the use of art.

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