In March 2019, before the sun rose, Eva Marengo Sanchez would make the pilgrimage to a wall on St. Mary’s Strip, a San Antonio street famous for its nightlife. The artist would spend the early daylight hours painting the exterior wall of a catering company. A scene soon emerged; breakfast tacos at a 25-foot-by-14-foot scale. In The Morning After: Plan A, grease has leaked from the tacos and is soaking the bottom of a brown paper bag, coffee dribbles from a Styrofoam cup, and containers of red and green salsa are strewn across the surface. The mural, which she completed in nine days, serves as an homage to the culinary ritual that typically follows a night out in San Antonio. Commissioned by the San Antonio Street Art Initiative (SASAI), it was one of the most exhilarating murals of Marengo Sanchez’s career. Sore and sunburned, she would drive her father’s truck home after a twelve-hour workday and find herself sobbing. Marengo Sanchez laughs when telling this detail. “I was so emotional,” she says. “I don’t even know why.”
Marengo Sanchez grew up on the southeast side of San Antonio in a Mexican American family, and painting always captivated her. She has vivid childhood memories of mixing paint—letting the concoction dry, then trying to match the pigment. After high school she went on to study human development at a university in Indiana. While pursuing her degree, she continued to indulge her artistic curiosity, but she didn’t think she could make a career of it.
After college, she spent time in Mexico City studying Mesoamerican art and the Spanish language and apprenticing in art conservation. During these periods away, her pangs for home would arise, typically as cravings for Tex-Mex. Even in Mexico City, a culinary mecca, she missed enchilada plates and bean and cheese tacos. “Mexico City has some of the best food,” Marengo Sanchez says. “But it’s not about that. It’s about what home feels like.”
When she returned to San Antonio in 2015, she continued to paint while holding a job, eventually landing her first solo show at the SMART gallery in 2017. It was around this time that she started to explore food as a subject in her art. Because of the show’s success, Marengo Sanchez was able to leave her day job as assistant to Emily Strayer of the Chicks and focus on her art full-time starting in 2018. Today, cultural culinary staples are the primary focus of her works, which are largely oil on wood. In her First Person series, a bottle of Topo Chico, a lemon paleta, H-E-B tortillas, and a church fund-raising plate are among her subjects. Of course, there are tacos too.
Marengo Sanchez takes tacos—specifically San Antonio tacos—seriously. While she appreciates how tacos have become trendier in recent decades, San Antonio’s tacos evoke something personal. “There’s no metrics of what is a better expression or what is a better taco,” she says. “My interest is: this is what my life looks like, and this is what I crave. And this is part of my identity.”
Prior to her mural on St. Mary’s, Marengo Sanchez had never produced work at that scale. But Shek Vega wasn’t afraid to bet on her. The muralist and SASAI founder believes fostering the work of promising San Antonio artists may encourage them to stay there.
“Her work is phenomenal,” Vega says. “It’s not only technically well done, where it’s like, oh my God, is that real? It hits certain central chords for her community where they feel super connected.”
As Vega suggests, The Morning After seems to evoke strong emotions in its viewers. Last fall, an anonymous person tagged the mural with a simple message: “I love tacos.”
Marengo Sanchez was unaware of the tag until she received a message from an Instagram follower offering to cover it up—she just needed to know the right paint to use. A wave of conflicting feelings ensued. The mural, which has been a physical and professional feat, was now defaced, but with a sentiment so pure it almost felt like an exclamation point.
Prior to her public art projects throughout the city (of which there are three, including Rise of the Concha at the San Antonio airport), Marengo Sanchez primarily worked on private pieces. After conversations with other San Antonio muralists and the organizers behind SASAI, it was clear that while tagging is somewhat of an occupational hazard for muralists, it’s also a major part of street art culture.
“A lot of my life force went into this mural,” Marengo Sanchez says. “So then for someone to come in, in like two seconds, and write ‘I love tacos’. . .” she trails off. For a moment, the instinct for justice emerged. “It’s a part of me that I don’t agree with, that is like an emotional response that I have thought about and kind of rationalize like, no, that’s not who I want to be and that’s not where I want to come from.”
SASAI took buckets of paint to the site to try and restore the mural. But the vibrant pink was so distinct that no shade matched. Marengo Sanchez also calculated what it would take to return the mural to its former glory, but ultimately decided, for now, that covering it up would be concealing a sort of truth.
In recent years, taco art has left the walls of local taquerias and entered the zeitgeist. Taco imagery has been manufactured into dog toys, children’s toys, punny T-shirts (“Let’s Taco Bout It!”). Op-eds have been published decrying the oversaturation of the taco emoji on dating apps. In Taco Bell’s e-commerce “Taco Shop,” one can procure anything from taco slippers and swimsuits to hot sauce packet–print luggage.
“I think that everybody’s expression and cultural representation is all net positive,” Marengo Sanchez says. “If we can be more aware of each other and what is important to each other, that makes the world a better place. And if that’s more pop-y, like ‘taco culture,’ that’s ultimately a positive thing.”
Currently, Marengo Sanchez has two sets of paintings on display at San Antonio’s McNay Art Museum, as part of “The Art of SA Eats/Sabor a San Antonio” exhibit, which runs through November 6. In one set, three fruit cups are arranged alongside one another (one is on loan from local chef Johnny Hernandez) as a triptych honoring San Antonio’s fruterías. On an adjacent wall, Marengo Sanchez details the cracked surfaces of conchas from panaderías around the city. The shades of the classic Mexican pastry vary, from bright yellow to orange, and the work has such technical precision you feel like you could lick the sugar granules off.
The exhibit’s curator, Edward Hayes Jr., wanted to shine a light on the comfort and cultural significance of the city’s food scene. He saw a level of dedication in Marengo Sanchez’s work that spoke to what he was trying to explore. When he visited her in her studio, she told him how the yellow dye at each bakery is different, giving the conchas, which sat alongside her paint, a slightly different hue.
“You can go to Pinterest and find a T-shirt that says ‘I heart tacos’ or ‘Conchas are life’ or something like that. That’s fun too, don’t get me wrong. But there’s also this closer look,” Hayes says. “There’s so much time spent and attention by many of these artists, including Eva, that really landed something a little extra special here.”
Marengo Sanchez lists Vincent Valdez’s The Strangest Fruit 9—part of the museum’s permanent collection—as an influence on her work. “As a Latina, as a Texan, as a woman, and as a painter, I put a lot of pressure on myself,” she says. “I want to perform at the top of whatever my genre is. And I feel a responsibility of what I’m representing to be taken serious in the highest level. I feel like my intention is to be here, alongside this type of art, this type of expression.”
Her paintings now hang alongside her inspirations turned contemporaries. The names of the San Antonio panaderías, like La Esmeralda and La Poblanita, that provided the conchas that served as her muses are written on the panels beneath their respective pastries. “Food experiences are attached to people,” Marengo Sanchez says. “By highlighting just the food it kind of creates icons, but ultimately it reminds you of the people you’ve experienced or where you come from.”