It all started with a mural.
“I just remember asking: What is the deal with this mural?” Tony Garcia says. “I mean, was there a message to it? What’s behind it?”
If you’ve ever driven (or more likely been stuck in traffic) near Oltorf and Lamar, you’ve probably seen the mural. A question reads, “Will you marry me?” and there are three options: “Yes,” “No” and “Hasta la vista, baby!”
Tony is a City Council aide, but like many Austinites, he makes money on the side driving for Uber and Lyft. He says he’d often park at the CVS right across the street from the mural, waiting for clients. And he spent a lot of time wondering what the story was, so he asked KUT's ATXplained project to investigate.
“My original guess was that it was one of the owners or someone related to the owners that was wanting to ask someone to marry them maybe back in the '80s, '90s, or whenever this was open,” he says. “I mean, who does taxidermy today?”
Yes, the mural was on the side of a taxidermy shop. And yes, they still do taxidermy today.
Pioquento Juan Martinez is at the center of the story. People call him PJ for short. He’s one of the two brothers in Martinez Brothers Taxidermy.
“What I’ll do is I’ll make repairs and then line the whole thing with leathers to give it another life,” he says, while restoring an old bear rug – face, claws and all.
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PJ is soft-spoken, with a relaxed air about him. While he explains his work, you can tell it means a lot to him.
“Just trying to get it back as close to Mother Nature as I can,” he says. “I guess that’s where the testament lies – how close can you get it to the way it was made?”
PJ and his younger brother Alex are the second generation of Martinez brothers.
Alex is short for Alejandro II. Their father, Alejandro “Senior” Martinez, opened the shop back in 1976. As the eldest of nine brothers and two sisters, he made sure to put everyone to work. But Senior is a master taxidermist – and he taught his sons everything he knows.
“Being tied to this family and this business – it defines you to a degree,” PJ says. “There’s kind of an expectation, 'Oh yeah, there’s so and so’s son.' So you have to meet that expectation.”
Over the years, the Martinez family has worked on countless animals. Birds. Deer. Bears. Lions. The family has even worked on domesticated animals like dogs and cats.
The Martinez family roots in this craft go back a long time, but the story is really just about PJ.
As much as he loved working in his family’s shop, PJ could never stay in one place for long.
“I was a certified bachelor for 45 years,” he says. “The older and older I got, the less and less I thought I’d get married.”
He was a nomad, but he always came back to Austin. There was always something in the back of his mind that he felt he needed to complete, he says. His whole family was here and the shop was the center of their orbit. But that wasn’t it.
“We actually met in second grade,” he says. “She was my second-grade crush.”
PJ says he’s not sure what first drew him to Celina Zapata.
“I guess it’s just the connection that you make,” he says. “I mean, you're kids, so you don’t know. But there’s something there that you know that someone's special.”
But PJ was shy and never told Celina how he felt. They both graduated eighth grade and went to separate high schools. They reconnected again in college, but PJ still never said a word. He went his way and she went hers.
Celina eventually got married and had four kids.
But as the years passed, PJ couldn’t stop thinking about her.
“This is going to sound bad, but I guess I was keeping tabs on her,” he says. “I would run into her father out and about on the town and I’d ask about her. ‘Hey, how’s Celina doing?' And he’d keep me up to date on what’s going on.”
It wasn’t until 2013 — 35 years after they first met — when he finally asked Celina to go out for a drink. She was single then and said yes, and they hit it off. PJ was living in Kansas at the time, but he eventually moved back to Austin so they could be together.
It wasn’t until they’d been dating for a while that Celina learned just how long he’d been waiting for this moment. They were at a big Martinez family dinner, and PJ’s mom was serving dessert.
“She turns to me and says, ‘Well, you know that you were his second-grade crush,’” Celina says. “Immediately, I feel the color rising, and everybody’s looking at me, and he looks at me and he just kind of smiles like, ‘Surprise!’"
Celina, a third-grade teacher at Cowan Elementary, holds PJ’s hand as she tells the story. Her smile is big, much like her personality.
Now, you’re probably expecting to hear the mural was how PJ finally asked Celina to marry him – a grand gesture for his decades-long crush. But it wasn’t.
“I think the proposal was kinda like, ‘OK, we’re doing this,’" Celina says. "And I was like, ‘OK, let’s do this!’ and … that was that."
Neither of them remember the marriage proposal; it was nothing ostentatious. The whole thing was as nontraditional as it gets. Celina says PJ planned the entire wedding and told her all she needed to do was show up.
The idea for the mural came in June 2017 – and it wasn’t ever meant to be a mural.
“We’re probably about a month away from the wedding and it just popped into my head," PJ says. "I was just like, ‘Hey, we need engagement pictures!'"
PJ called his brother Alex and asked if he’d get their friend Mike Trevino to paint “Will you marry me?” on the side of the shop. His brother agreed.
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PJ says he wasn’t expecting much – just some writing on the wall. But Alex had other ideas.
“I also wanted to give something back to South Austin,” Alex says. “I thought it would maybe ease the commuters' nerves of being cut off or road rage.”
So, Alex gave his friend full reign to do whatever his heart desired. Mike, whose street name is Cream, is a tattoo artist and you can see the influence in the final product.
“Real bright and vibrant and loud!” Alex says. “Not real soft and calm, but real loud colors.”
Alex says they knew they wanted three options for the question. One of the boxes was going to say "Yes." Another would say "No." But they were stuck when it came to the third one, so Alex asked his father.
“I said, 'Dad, we need to have something for that third box,' and he said put ‘Hasta La Vista, Baby!’ and I thought it was perfect!” Alex laughs.
When PJ saw the finished mural, he realized he might not have been totally clear about what he was picturing.
“I was like ... wow,” he says, mimicking his head exploding. He called Celina and told her to come by.
She was speechless.
“My proposal is on the side of the building in South Austin?” she says. “A building that I’ve known almost my entire life? This is weird – kinda Twilight Zone-ish. But then it was kinda cool.”
PJ and Celina got married, but the engagement photo wasn’t taken for another two years. But that doesn’t mean the mural went to waste.
“I hear that several other people used it in their proposals, so, hey, a public service to citizens of Austin,” Celina says. “You had your proposal on the wall!”
In fact, someone had already painted a check in the "Yes" box when Celina and PJ went to take photos. They had to paint it back over so Celina could be the one to spray paint her answer. While they were taking the picture, an older couple at a red light rolled down their car window.
“They were like, ‘You need to say yes! You need to say yes!’” Celina says. “So, I went like this, just showing them the ring and, you know, everyone is giving me thumbs up."
Celina says it was surreal. Her pseudo-proposal would be seen by thousands of people every day.
Tony says he liked the mural because it seemed personal.
“It got to the root of what brings people together: relationships,” he says. “And a marriage proposal – what can get any more personal than that?”
It was personal. Now, it’s an ad.
Rising property taxes are making it harder for the shop to stay on the corner, so Martinez Brothers Taxidermy started selling the wall to advertisers.
This is a family that preserves things for a living, that makes physical reminders of memories. But they couldn’t preserve this one for themselves.
“I was sad to hear that it was coming down,” Celina says. “But I also believe that everything has its time and its place, and it served its purpose, and now it’s time to move on.”
If you were to chip at the paint of that wall, you’d find so many layers still living underneath. In the 1980s, the wall used to be home to another beautiful mural depicting a Native American on a hunt. It was also painted over – for an ad.
When PJ was standing over that giant bear rug at the shop, he said he was giving it another life.
Perhaps, that’s what we’re doing here. Nothing lasts forever – but if you have people around to remember, is it ever really gone?
Got a tip? Email Nadia Hamdan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @nadzhamz.
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