By RENE TORRES
Special to the Parade
One of the most recognized cafes in Brownsville for many years sat on the edge of the Market Square business district. More than anywhere else, The Texas Café gave you the pulse of the locals when you walked through its doors. In 1912, it was known as the Texas Lunch, but later changed its name to the Texas Café.
It was a 24-hour restaurant that attracted diverse clientele – from those that had too much to drink after they tumbled out of the surrounding cantinas, to the businessmen on their way to work and/or to the families that frequented after Sunday mass.
The interior was filled with the buzz of the crowd with a swirl of energy generated by the excitement of downtown Brownsville. You were attended to like an old friend, for few, if any, were strangers to the old café.
But beyond its great menu, you found yourself with a feast for your eyes – as its walls were adorned with several framed murals, the work of a local artist, Antonio Cisneros. The following is his story:
In 1946, Clarence LaRoche wrote, “Antonio Cisneros of Brownsville is a successful man. He hasn’t any great accumulation of capital or money; he isn’t a big property owner; he has not any personal power over industry, finance, or corps of workers. But definitely, he is a success. Cisneros, you see, is an artist. He has found happiness in his work—happiness and enjoyment and pleasure—priceless belongings, that materialistic wealth cannot purchase.”
His beginnings, in Matamoros in the early 1900s, were that of carpenter and house painter. His interest in art started when he began making simple decorations – which led to creating oil paintings on canvas.
When he lived in Matamoros, he couldn’t find the size of brushes he needed so he made them himself. “I made those brushes from cat hair, my drawing pens for ink sketches I made from quills. Later, I moved to Brownsville, there, I found more and better materials.”
Since those early days, Cisneros painted thousands of signs, executed hundreds of paintings and sketched reams of drawings all over South Texas and Mexico. But his name and his work here are most remembered for the paintings that hung at the Texas Café.
The historic paintings of the Washington Park Grammar School, the State Capitol, images from the Rio Grande of old pipero loading water, the old post office building and Market Square, became an integral part of Brownsville’s history.
Yes, the café was famous for its grilled biscuits, but it was also an art venue – a gallery that featured the work of one artist. The Café filled your appetite as well as your imagination of old time Brownsville – a unique cultural destination.
But unfortunately, the paintings, because of their location, were exposed to the evil elements of life – the daily doses of cooking grease, nicotine and those occasional splashes of beer and wine over the years altered the face of the original work. But regardless of the daily abuse, they navigated through the times and still remain with us today.
The paintings gained wide fame in the area. Like most of the observers here, Cisneros considered the images of the old post office and the Grammar School as his favorites.
The paintings were completed between 1929 and 1930 and were retouched in 1946, when the new Texas Café opened its doors. Speaking then, “In addition to the Texas Café paintings,” he explained. “I’m especially proud of the ones I’ve done for the Chamber of Commerce in McAllen and Corpus Christi.”
At Corpus, the painting that hung at the Chamber of Commerce is a scene of the famed King Ranch. The remarkable picture of Monterrey that he painted for McAllen was credited with helping better relations between that city and Monterrey.
“Another painting I’m proud of,” he said, “is a painting I made of the old wharves at Point Isabel in 1919. I have received many congratulations on it.” Aside from his own success, Cisneros was proud of the fact that both of his sons, Tony and Tito became well known commercial artists in Austin.
Where are they now? After years in storage, the Texas Café paintings suffered much neglect, but still survived throughout the decades.
It took another talented local artist, Pablo Noriega-Urbina, nine months to remove a multitude of foreign objects to restore the paintings to their original form. To view before and after photos of his restoration work, go to: www.fineart-restoration.com.
Today, the Grammar School, the State Capitol Building and the Old Post office paintings are on display on the second floor of the City Hall on Elizabeth Street. While another of Cisneros’ paintings of Market Square – greets you as you enter the Brownsville Events Center.
Antonio Cisneros did not become a world famous artist, but his work in South Texas and Mexico, especially in this area, was as pure as the soul and dialect of what Brownsville was.