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 White faces may have been replaced by brown ones, but diversity came in appearance only–all seats seem beholden to campaign checks and subject to the ambition for mainstream acceptance.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.