Decoding the tinsel and bling at Don Juan on the Square

And a sneak peek of the restaurant's future home

I eat at Don Juan on the Square so often that one of the friendly servers knows my order by heart: four chicken mole enchiladas, rice and beans, and a glass of horchata. But every time I go, I find something new to stare at on the walls—or hanging from the ceiling, or carved into the restaurant’s wooden benches. Every corner feels like a shrine—but to what? I’ve always wondered whether there’s secret meaning embedded in all that tinsel and bling.

Recently, East Texas photographer Jamie Maldonado and I toured the restaurant with Arturo Barron, the man behind the look of Don Juan on the Square, one of three Mexican eateries in Tyler owned by the sprawling, close-knit Barron family. It was good timing: Arturo told us that later this year, this location is moving up the square into the three-story former Levine’s department store at 107 N. Spring. Every piñata, fútbol jersey, Frida homage, and Dia de Los Muertos flag will be taken down, and Arturo will have a brand new—and far bigger—canvas to work with. What’s he planning? Where does he get his inspiration? And what’s the deal with the frogs? In words and pictures, Arturo explains it all.

Arturo Barron is a skilled wood carver just like his father, the legendary Don Juan Barron himself, who decades ago made and sold his own guitars in Mexico before founding his restaurant empire here in Tyler. Arturo is also the design eye behind nearly every inch of space at Don Juan on the Square. His inspiration comes from Mexican folklore and his family’s border-crossing history. For instance, he purchased the horde of ceramic frogs climbing the walls of the restaurant’s second floor as an homage to Guanajuato, the central Mexican state his family hails from. Guanajuato’s name derives from an indigenous phrase meaning “land of frogs.” The frogs, like much of the restaurant’s decor, were picked up during a family vacation to Guanajuato. Other items are found closer to home: one of Arturo’s newer acquisitions, a huge pink oil-on-canvas homage to Frida Kahlo, was spotted in Canton.

When I ask about the restaurant’s signature seating, Arturo softly sucks his breath between his teeth. “Ay, you don’t wanna know,” he tells me, throwing up his palms. “Too much work.” It took Arturo and his crew five months to carve, sand, and paint the restaurant’s dozens of wooden benches. The assembly-line operation occupied both floors of the restaurant before doors opened to the public in 2002. Like nearly everything about the Don Juan empire, it was a family affair, with Arturo’s siblings and many nephews and nieces pitching in. To show me how the carvings were done, Arturo pulls a thick pocketknife out of his jeans pocket, flicks it open, and slices the air a few times. “The knife, it’s gotta be really sharp,” he says, “or else your body’s gonna hurt the next day. But when your knife is really good, it’s like you’re cutting queso.” 

This tiled mosaic is modeled after the restaurants’ business card, which itself features recreations of old photographs of Arturo’s father, Don Juan, and his mother, Prisca. Arturo hired a tile printer in San Miguel de Allende to make the mosaic during a family trip to Guanajuato.

Most of the day, Arturo runs around between the family’s many commercial and residential properties across Tyler, taking care of business. To make time for his art, he wakes up at 5 a.m. each morning and heads out to his wood shop. “When I see something when I’m out walking—a piece of wood, a nice stick—I pick it up and start thinking about how I want it to look,” Arturo tells me. Right now, he’s working on a collection of totem-like carvings. He etches symbols and patterns from Mexican folklore into the soft wood and caps each stick with a charming painted animal. Before he’s halfway finished making one, he’s mapping out the next in his head. “My brain flies like a bird,” Arturo says.

The first bit of decoration on the walls at Don Juan on the Square was this neon rendering of the state of Texas. The shape was already carved into the wall by the building’s previous tenant. Arturo decided not to hide the marred bit of wall—just the opposite. He loves bright pops of color. He wants people to feel like they’ve escaped to another planet when they walk into the restaurant. He’s proud that many people have held their weddings and quinceañeras here. “If you’re feeling depressed, having problems with your boyfriend, your girlfriend, you can come here and feel happy,” he tells me.

This door was recycled from one of the Barron family’s rental properties and given a new paint job. Musicians and celebrities making appearances at La Invasora 96.7 FM and other East Texas radio stations often end up at Don Juan for lunch, and over the years, the door has gathered dozens of notable signatures.

At the end of the day, Arturo walks us across the square and unlocks the glass doors of the old Levine’s department store, which the Barron family has secured as the future home of Don Juan on the Square. He says much of the current decor will migrate into the new building, but he has new ideas, too. He shows me pictures he took on his phone of an enormous wraparound mural at San Antonio’s famous Mi Tierra Cafe and Bakery, which features portraits of notable Mexicans and Mexican-Americans (think Selena rubbing shoulders with former state senator Leticia Van de Putte). He wants to find an artist to do a similar mural here, with notable Latinos in Tyler and East Texas. He also wants to honor the history of the building, preserving exposed brick and old signage. He set aside a bucket full of old nails pulled from the department store’s ceiling to use in an art installation of some sort.

The new building gives Don Juan on the Square something it’s never had: space for a full bar and a proper dance floor. It’s thrilling to imagine the possibilities, and a little daunting. Arturo looks exhausted just talking about all of the work that needs to be done before the reopening, which he hopes will happen before the end of the year. Then he remembers one of his other ideas, a floor-to-ceiling wall of colorful tequila bottles like one he saw during a recent visit to a mezcaleria. He instantly lights up and starts searching for photos on his phone, and I tell him I look forward to admiring his new creations over future plates of chicken enmoladas

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Tasneem Raja is the Executive Editor of The Tyler Loop, a nonprofit journalism startup that explores policy, history, and demographics in Tyler, Texas. She is an award-winning journalist who has reported for NPR, The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Mother Jones, and other national outlets. A former senior editor at NPR, she launched a popular podcast exploring issues of identity and race with NPR's Code Switch team. At Mother Jones, she specialized in data visualization and led a team that built the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She's a pioneer in the field of data-driven digital storytelling, a frequent speaker on issues of digital journalism, and a die-hard fan of alt weeklies, where she got her start as a local reporter. She lives in Tyler with her husband, her stepson, and two imperious terriers.
An East Texas native, Jamie Maldonado has worked as a visual journalist and copy editor for the Longview News-Journal, The Denver Post, and other publications. He serves as the campus photographer and graphic designer at Kilgore College, and moonlight as a fine art photographer (complete with a Master’s degree). Taking to heart Dorothea Lange’s quote, “a camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera,” Jamie has turned my lens on his hometown and its people to see it all anew.
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