With its colorful picados, strolling mariachis, and piñatas, Mi Tierra Café y Panaderia in San Antonio is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the appetite. Before and after digging into platters of enchiladas, pork tamales, and other Tex-Mex food, customers often lose themselves while admiring the vibrant paintings and historical photographs filling nearly every inch of wall space. Not to be missed is the American Dream mural dominating two walls in the back dining room.
Featuring portraits of more than 100 business leaders, cultural icons, veterans, politicians, and artists, American Dream was the idea of Jorge Cortez—the son of Mi Tierra founders Pedro “Pete” and Cruz Cortez—who runs the restaurant with his brothers and the extended Cortez family. “I wanted to honor my father and mother, who came to the U.S. as immigrants,” Cortez says of the mural.
Pete Cortez had big dreams, his son explains, and wanted to preserve the historic Mercado, the market space next to Mi Tierra that once housed a thriving farmers’ market and is now a popular tourist destination. In 1961, he bought the entire block next to the market and became an activist for preserving this downtown area that celebrates the city’s multi-cultural heritage.
“My parents turned this place around,” Cortez says. “They truly lived the American dream.”
The mural was started more than a quarter-century ago by Mexican artist Jesus Garza, who painted directly on the wall and also sculpted with cement and plaster to lift details of his images—farmers, Mexican Revolution leaders, Mexican American laborers—off the flat surface, presenting them in relief to create a three-dimensional aspect to the work.
When Garza passed away, San Antonio artist Robert Ytuarte took over in 2000 and began by working on portraits of Jorge Cortez’s parents. The scope of the mural expanded over time to include well-known personalities like musician Carlos Santana and entertainer Vikki Carr; but the mural predominantly showcases local Hispanic leaders, including former congressman Henry B. González; late Archbishop Patrick Flores; and Juan F. Vasquez, the first Hispanic judge on the U.S. Tax Court. “The mural cultivates and preserves our Mexican American culture, and to be honored in one’s hometown is truly humbling,” Vasquez says.
Being included in the American Dream has become a point of pride for influential members of the local scene and beyond. Although the people featured are overwhelmingly Hispanic, Cortez insists, “It’s more about what they’ve done for the community.”
Rosemary Kowalski, owner of Rosemary’s Catering and a prominent philanthropist, once helped Mi Tierra develop its catering business, becoming close friends with the Cortez family. “Being painted on the mural is an incredible honor since it celebrates the uniqueness of the Hispanic culture. I am forever grateful for the relationship their family and mine have shared for half a century,” she says.
Cortez says plans are in the works for another mural. “We’ve picked out a wall up front to begin a new mural exclusively celebrating the female leadership that’s shaped our city,” he says.