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'They broke down the barriers': Latinitas honors trailblazing women of color with mosaic portraits

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
Janet Means Scott, right, of San Antonio, hugs Lolita Rodriguez at a ceremony Thursday at the Austin Central Library, where Latinitas honored trailblazing women of color, including Janet’s mother, Bertha Sadler Means, with mosaic portraits. Rodriguez is the artist who created the portrait of Means.

Earlier this year, Laura Donnelly, founder and CEO of Latinitas, a nonprofit dedicated to the empowerment of girls, was looking for a way to tell the stories about how women today gained their identities.

"What was the legacy of times before 'Me, Too,' 'Black Lives Matter' and 'Time's Up'?" Donnelly said Thursday. "There were the amazing, original, courageous women who came before. Latinitas is here because they broke down the barriers."

Her group led the effort to honor permanently and publicly the Austin women of color who blazed the trails. These efforts took the form of mosaic portraits, six of them now embedded on plinths in the landscaped plaza at the Austin Central Public Library.

Peggy Vasquez, right, talks to City Council Member Vanessa Fuentes at the Latinitas ceremony Thursday. She was one of the honorees. Vasquez created "Hispanic Today," a television program that has introduced Austin to many leaders in the Hispanic community.

The art was unveiled under clear skies at a ceremony Thursday morning. Dignitaries joined two of the living honorees, as well as the families and friends of the others celebrated that day. 

"This is another big tribute to a lady who led a fantastic life," said San Antonio resident Janet Means Scott, daughter of the late honoree Bertha Sadler Means.

The mosaics — which might move around to other Austin libraries — unveiled Thursday honor:

  • Teresa Lozano Long: A breakthrough leader, especially in education and the arts, Long came from a small South Texas town and earned her Ph.D. in kinesiology at the University of Texas. Her name adorns the Teresa Lozano Long Institute for Latin American Studies at UT, the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Center for Performing Arts and the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio. She died in March at age 92.
  • Sylvia Orozco: Co-founder of Mexic-Arte Museum, Orozco has led this arts group since its founding in 1984. As executive director, she has built the museum's collection of Mexican and Mexican American art while expanding its programs into the community. She was on hand for the ceremony.
  • Bertha Sadler Means: Educator and social justice advocate, Means was among the leaders, many of them women, who led the fight against segregation in Austin. Matriarch of a large and accomplished family, Means was a keen businesswoman and an activist as well. The Bertha Sadler Means Young Women's Leadership Academy is named for her. She died in March at age 100.
  • Cathy Vasquez-Revilla: The founder of La Prensa newspaper, Vasquez-Revilla co-founded the Olé Mexico Business-Neighborhood Association. For years, she crusaded against industrial sites in East Austin and served on the city Planning Commission. She was not able to attend the ceremony.
  • Peggy Vasquez: A producer, journalist and social justice advocate, Vasquez  — sister of Vasquez-Revilla — created "Hispanic Today," a television program that has introduced Austin to many leaders in the Hispanic community. Her father founded the iconic Tamale House. She also was present at the ceremony.
  • Martha Cotera: A founding memory of the Chicana Caucus, Cotera was instrumental in the building of the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center. She is now working to preserve the historic Palm School and turn it into an asset for the Hispanic community. She is the author of "Diosa y Hembra: The History and Heritage of Chicanas in the U.S." and "The Chicana Feminist." She was not able to attend the ceremony.
Sylvia Orozco, middle, is applauded at Thursday's ceremony. She is a co-founder of Mexic-Arte Museum.

Among the mosaic artists were Carmen Rangel, Lys Santamaria, Litzy Valdez, Lola Rodriguez and Veronica Ceci.

An additional Latinitas mosaic of activist Ana Sisnett, who lobbied for free internet in Austin libraries and technology for all, was revealed at Holly Commons in East Austin in June. Sisnett died in 2009.

"These women of color have been the backbone of this great city," said Austin Public Library President Roosevelt Weeks, "and I am excited that their stories will live on at the Austin Public Library.”

Among the sponsors who made this project a reality was the nonprofit Austin Public Library Foundation. 

"This is a place of inspiration," Tim Staley, executive director of the foundation, told the crowd of about 50 guests.

Austin City Council Members Natasha Harper-Madison, Greg Casar and Vanessa Fuentes read aloud the accomplishments of the honorees. They competed with the noise of traffic and construction among the towers rising on both sides of Waller Creek, in what is now a human-made echo chamber. 

"It's a great honor," Peggy Vasquez said. "And a good opportunity both to learn more about the women who have done a lot of work in the community, while also looking after future generations."

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.