“She’s watching, you know,” says performance artist Marisela Barrera as we prepare for our Q&A with San Antonio’s infamous Donkey Lady. “Well, actually, it’s probably too hot for her right now. If she’s around, it’s gonna take some convincing before she wants to come out.”
The legend of the Donkey Lady is hyperlocal—hegemonic in San Antonio, practically unheard of in other parts of the state. While the details of the myth are varied, the general story goes that the Donkey Lady began as a woman on San Antonio’s South Side who earned her moniker after her head and hands were disfigured in a fire, causing them to resemble a snout and hooves. For the last several decades—how many, to be exact, is disputed—she’s been cursed to haunt those who dare trespass on her onetime home. The stories diverge from there; in some versions, the fire was set by the vengeful son of a merchant after she berated him for assaulting her pet donkey. In others, it was set by a dastardly husband. Some say she’s been haunting San Antonio since the 1950s, others that she’s existed since before the Mexican Revolution. While conventional wisdom places her on the “Donkey Lady Bridge” on Old Applewhite Road, alternate versions of the legend place her in Windcrest and by Churchill High School in north San Antonio. Regardless, if you grew up in San Antonio or have lived there for any considerable amount of time, you’ve heard of her.
Barrera, who gained a following for pieces celebrating Tejana identity, has been performing as the Donkey Lady for five years now. Most recently, Regeneración, Barrera’s first short film as the Donkey Lady, screened at CineFestival in July. The half-hour film sees the Donkey Lady launch her talk show, The Donkey Lady Show, after mystically reviving Ricardo Flores Magón, the Mexican anarchist and journalist jailed for his support for the revolution, to be her inaugural guest. Magón, also played by Barrera, arrives horrified to find South Texas in worse shape than he left it.
A native of the Rio Grande Valley who settled in San Antonio in 2002, Barrera finds in the Donkey Lady a prime opportunity to connect with locals and transplants alike. By incorporating new traits and a personal history into the existing legend, she’s also crafted a character that feels modern and real.
“There are so many ways that I relate to her. She thinks she’s misunderstood. She’s a single lady. She doesn’t have health care.” (The latter is, as Barrera explains, why her donkeylike appearance settled in after the fire.) More than an urban legend, for Barrera, the Donkey Lady is the quintessential burra Tejana. “The Donkey Lady lives at the epicenter of Tejana culture here in San Antonio,” she explains. “She’s essentially the heart of the city. She’s a publicly disregarded woman. For me, that’s the central misunderstanding of Tejana identity, being othered, and being the outcast, when actually the Tejana is the soul—the ánima—of Texas.”
Barrera signaled that the Donkey Lady was ready to talk.
Texas Monthly: Even within San Antonio, there are so many different stories that fall under the umbrella of “the Donkey Lady.” From your origin story to your stomping grounds, everyone seems to have their own take on the legend. Do you want to set the record straight? How did La Donkey Lady become La Donkey Lady?
Donkey Lady: There’s no “straight” to my story, mija. I enjoy the ambiguity of my legend. That is how stories go. You ever played that little telephone game? The chisme spreads, and it transforms from one person to the other. I embrace that. Why? Because then my legacy, and my legend, lives. Setting the record straight is asking yourself, “Are you a believer? Have you sought out my energy? Am I watching you?” Well, you, probably not—I’ve done my research—but I keep a good eye on los necios in this town. So, there are plenty of different versions of my story, and that is my strength. I keep reinventing myself for every new generation. Embrace the legacy of La Burra in San Antonio and beyond.
TM: The first episode of your new talk show, The Donkey Lady Show, recently screened at CineFestival. What inspired you to enter the talk show sphere?
DL: Pos, Drew Barrymore! Ricki Lake! We have some badass legends out there, conducting their talk shows. I needed a platform.
TM: Why invite Ricardo Flores Magón as your inaugural guest?
DL: Being La Burra, I’m a little magical, so I could have any guest, living or dead, and I knew that I needed to have a platica with Magón. He is an anarchist, writer, publisher who was imprisoned by the U.S. government for his writing. He believed there is power in the pen. There are so many issues that need to be addressed now in our state, so I knew he would be my first guest. I brought Magón back from his resting place for his first platica in modern times on the very day that the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. That part was actually an accident, but Magón thought it was meant to be. The way I like to present things, mija, is that humor breaks the ice to talk about some of the very difficult issues where we need to embrace revolutionary thought. That revolutionary thought was actually very surprising for Magón. He was quite shocked to see the status of mujeres, in particular en los Estados Unidos. If nothing else, I’m relieved it was recorded. Judging by the audience reaction, I believe I’ll have another episode in the works.
TM: You recently made the move from the original Donkey Lady Bridge, on Old Applewhite, to the Hays Street Bridge on the East Side. Can you talk more about that? Why the move?
DL: Actually, I alternate now—that’s my weekend abode, because I still have to maintain the Old Applewhite Bridge. Pero, I thought it was very important to stay connected to a growing San Antonio. Not to say we don’t have a lot of growth happening in the South Side, too. The Toyota Corporation is encroaching on my home, pero thank goodness it’s a protected area. Not too close, pero they can have their lunch break with me, if they’re interested. So it was important for me to be closer to la gente. Studies have shown the East Side is one of the fastest-gentrifying areas in the nation. We’ve seen a lot of change here, and we’re seeing a lot of new neighbors, and they should get to know the Donkey Lady up close and personal, don’t you think?
TM: Speaking of your move, you’ve been getting out and about more often in the last few years. You created the Donkey Lady Hotline, posed for holiday photos, and even made an appearance at H-E-B. What has it been like to get back out in public?
DL: Well, you brought up the H-E-B, mija. I went out in broad daylight, during quarantine, and I stood in line outside of H-E-B, just like thousands of other people in San Antonio during that time. When I made it into the H-E-B, I knew I was loved. There were a ton of photo ops, gente embracing me, no estaban asustados ni nada. Honey, there was a plague going on. Of course the Donkey Lady is making an appearance. What’s next, aliens? Everyone just thought, “That’s nice, but I have rent to pay.” These weren’t necios. I loved it. I’ve been rebranding myself for a TikTok world. Unfortunately, I was kicked out by security. They just weren’t used to handling a celebrity. So I left, but there were lots of opportunities to talk with la gente, and that’s what it’s all about. I love sharing stories, and I want to know what their stories are. We meet around folklore and how we connect to the identity of our city. We build the identity of San Antonio together, through storytelling, which is why my story as La Burra is very important today.
TM: On that note, you’ve been haunting San Antonio for at least the better part of a century. You mentioned the gentrification of your neighborhood—how has the city changed since you first started haunting?
DL: Wow, has the city changed. If folklore holds true, I’ve been here since the late 1800s, and that was a very different world. This was Indigenous land before the gente who lived here were displaced. There was some violence I saw then, and continue to see now, which saddens me, but that’s how I know that my participation in San Antonio is important. I’ve seen San Antonio transform over the years from horse and buggy to Teslas, for those who are advantaged enough to have access to the growing economy. But there are many of us who aren’t—I’m a displaced Donkey Lady myself, with shelter that’s been upcycled from the blue tarps I found at Brackenridge Park after Easter. I relate to the working class; I relate to that heartbeat of San Antonio. The corazón remains the same, after all these hundreds of years. San Antonio is México Americano, truly. With that, there’s a choque of cultures. There’s beauty in that choque, but there’s also violence in that choque. That’s what I need to keep in check. Part of my job is to let people know that I’m watching, and I might appear cuando están necios.
TM: What’s next for La Donkey Lady?
DL: Hopefully some tacos later. I will solve the long-held debate over where to find the best tacos: aquí, en mi cocina. But, when I don’t have time for that, you can find me at Con Huevos Tacos on the East Side, close to my new place. Pero, in terms of la onda, I do have a big announcement. I am teaming up with mi comadre, La Lechuza, to support her work. I’m going to be a guest star on her show, Lechuza’s Guide to the Lone Star State. Think about it: La Lechuza has the magical onda to take flight, and to observe from above. She doesn’t need a drone, mija. She sees the onda, and she keeps a keen eye on Texas. She’s been all over the Southwest, and Mexico, and all of Latin America, but she’s been focusing on Texas since the nineties, and she’s gonna give that aerial point of view. No one else gets to see the real Texas like her. I’m so excited that she’s diving into this process of guiding us through the Lone Star State. I’m all here for it. So, look out for that. For me, I’m continuing to get to know my neighbors, and I’m working on my special guest for the second episode of my talk show.
TM: Well, thank you for speaking with me today.
DL: Thank you, mija. Let the people know that the main thing is being a believer, and really getting to know the stories of the city where you dwell. Really get to experience them, and ask people about them, because you’ll find that those stories transform based on the storytellers’ own lived experiences. I look forward to meeting more Texans. Sometimes I talk [in a Texan drawl], and sometimes I shape-shift. I could meet you in a dance hall. I could meet you in the taco stand. I could meet you below the Tower of the Americas. I could meet you at a Spurs game. You take care out there.
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