Remember the Alamo, Part II
On the fourth of August last year in San Antonio, the Alamo rumbled. This time, though, it was not the typical lucha for power between Anglos and Latinos in this southernmost mecca of Mexican heritage. Instead, it was a battle against the latest enemy in a city whose history is defined by war. And the enemy this time is called the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, whose crime it is to believe that art can change the world.
Esperanza means hope in Spanish, but it implies more than can be translated: It means faith and the dreams of a people, too. On a Tuesday amid the heat wave that some call the city's curse, the Esperanza, as it is commonly known, filed an unprecedented lawsuit against the City of San Antonio, alleging the kind of discrimination most Latinos take for granted. The lawsuit came after a long and protracted campaign that targeted the arts center as a nest of jotos, or homosexuals in polite English, and that alleged gay and lesbian agendas as an excuse to slash the city arts budget. The majority-Latino City Council first cut the budget by 15 percent, couching the act as a fiscal responsibility measure that pitted potholes against the luxury of art. Then, in a backdoor meeting, the Council voted unanimously to eliminate the Esperanza's funding entirely--it was the only organization singled out for such treatment, despite high rankings from a peer review panel and cultural advisory council.
"And we had such hope for the City Council!" a girlfriend ruefully told me when she heard about the boot-kicking given the Esperanza. Since the election of a historic Latino majority to the City Council (another election is coming round this May), San Antonians had been hoping for change as much as they hoped for the rains, which finally came in the fall and flooded parts of the city. That's because San Antonio is a tale of two cities: It is one of the poorest in the country, and it is rich in tourism. The one does not exist without the other. It is like the Third World, says Angel Rodríguez Díaz, a Puerto Rican-born artist who lives locally and whose work has been purchased by the Smithsonian. "It takes a person coming from a colonized country to recognize a colonized city...and that's San Antonio."
For the City Council, though, the choice was not about postcolonial theory but something much simpler. White faces may have been replaced by brown ones, but diversity came in appearance only--all seats seem beholden to campaign checks and subject to the ambition for mainstream acceptance. In a city that has long neglected its barrios for the glitz of the River Walk, the Council was eager to prove that repairing pockmarked streets was more important than the Esperanza's film festival. In a bicultural city like San Antonio, which has no Spanish-language theater but where Latinos are avid fans of Seinfeld, Esperanza programs like "Out at the Movies" and "Other America" premiering films like Strawberry and Chocolate; Chico Mendes; Voice of the Amazon; The Panama Deception; and John Sayles's Men With Guns lost out to a few truckloads of asphalt. The prospect of $350,000 from the arts budget to divide among ten Council members was too tempting. As one senior Council member admitted, the overarching issue of budget policy itself was never discussed. In one stroke, the efforts of the Esperanza's dozen years of work came to nothing, its annual funding of $76,000 denied. Potholes.
It's a culture war against the Esperanza, said Steven Kellman in an article in The Texas Observer this past September. Quoting Councilman Robert Marbut, a conservative and former Henry Cisneros protégé who led the pothole campaign and echoed arguments about the arts occurring nationwide: "Esperanza's problem is a lack of tourists. Any group that is not producing any tourists should not get any money." Interestingly, Marbut did not move to defund the San Antonio Symphony, which is not exactly a tourist attraction either but an island, sinking in its cultural isolation, for the city's elite.
Kellman also noted in his article that Mayor Howard Peak didn't like the Esperanza, to say the least. The Esperanza, founded in 1987 to help create a world where everyone has civil rights and economic justice, where the environment is cared for, where cultures are honored and communities are safe, was too abrasive for the mayor, wrote Kellman. "That group flaunts what it does--it is an in-your-face organization," Peak confided to the New York Times. "They are doing this to themselves."
If you know what the Esperanza stands for, then you understand that this battle was inevitable, say its ardent supporters. Led by the "in your face" attitude of Graciela Sánchez, a Chicana graduate of Yale and a media-labeled lesbian, the Esperanza is a symbol of defiance known for promoting an innovative array of artistic and cultural programs that form a political backbone the city has rarely seen. From the beginning, says Sánchez, the Esperanza Center was founded "with the recognition that art is a symbol of a people's culture, and therefore a political act." She doesn't believe in "the separation of arts and politics that is the common experience of this country, because both are about making the world a better place."