Remember the Alamo, Part II
The way it relates politics and art makes the Esperanza distinctive; it sets a standard for the transformative potential of the two in a way that other organizations are afraid of, given the climate of censorship and the real threat to their precarious funding. In so doing, Sánchez has taken up the Latin American tradition of art as an aesthetic vehicle for social change. The greatest artists in the Americas have always combined both, moving from artistic genius to cultural leadership to political confrontation as easily as they spoke several languages. Such were the lives of Pablo Neruda, José Martí and Latin America's Shakespeare, the rebellious nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who confronted the Catholic patriarchy. The great Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros was imprisoned for four years because of his trade union activism. Diego Rivera, returning home after a decade in Europe, realized that a simple wall was the best canvas for his political advocacy. Following in those footsteps are today's Chicanas, like artist Ester Hernández, who has depicted the Virgen of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint, as a feminist in tennis shoes.
In the past ten years, the Esperanza has presented a lineup of artists who are the equals of their spiritual ancestors. Like their forebears, they too will probably be much more respected upon their death: They include Venezuelan singer Irene Farrera, the late Mexican folklorist Amparo Ochoa, writer Sandra Cisneros, lesbianista comic Monica Palacios, playwrights Ntozake Shange and Cherríe Moraga, feminist Mexican activist Esperanza Rascon Córdoba, groundbreaking scholar Barbara Smith, female salseras Azúcar y Crema, Mexico's ranchera satirist Astrid Hadad, Borderlands' author Gloria Anzaldúa and a plethora of locally known artists like skirt-dresser David Zamora Casas, who makes paintings about men wearing lipstick and defending their raza at the same time. (As if his community would defend him in return!)
"San Antonio is Macondo," says Sandra Cisneros as she compares her adopted hometown to the magical realist setting described by Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez. Cisneros loves the cultural mestizaje of San Antonio, a city of racial and ethnic crossings that symbolizes the unique history of the Southwest. But San Antonio's public face is a fantasy of racial harmony, she says. Its "we are the people" image is crucial to a city that markets itself in the Disney style, offering Tex-Mex culture with no relevance to the present. Beginning with the Alamo's mythical status in the souvenir-laden downtown--"a monument to a loss that was a victory for the Anglos," shrugs Cisneros--San Antonio is scarcely what it appears to be. Although the city has a majority-Latino population, which is increasing by the day, the Latinos have little real power.
"We don't own our own culture," laments architect José Jimenez, who lived in Paris for nine years and returned home to a city he believes has cultural resources equal to any in the world. Although San Antonio sells its unique Mexican ambience as one of its tourist attractions, few Latinos gain from their heritage, he complains. Others have made a fortune from the products of that culture. "The Frito chip started here on Laredo Street," notes Ruben Munguía Sr., a printer and well-respected elder in the Latino community. "The Cheez-Whiz was first created by Sr. Genovevo Garcia, and the fajita started here on Produce Row," he says as he reminisces about the fading days of Latino business in San Antonio. Only two local corporations made the top 100 in the Hispanic Business 500, as reported by the magazine of that name, I tell him. The family-owned tortillas have gone to the billion-dollar H-E-B supermarket chain, and salsa recipes were sold long ago, he notes. There are many Latino lawyers and doctors in this city, but they do not run its cultural stores, like the museums, nor do they manage the historic districts--witness the furor that was created when Cisneros painted her house purple and was notified by the city that she had violated the historic codes in her district. (She fought back successfully, showing that early Tejanos used a richly colored palette that had been ignored when the codes were drawn up.)
We are not supposed to own anything, explains Dr. Antonia Castañeda, a prominent historian and an Esperanza loyalist. "San Antonio has always been a military town" because of the Mexican presence, she says. These people and their culture are the generators of culture and, paradoxically, the magnet for tourism. "From the Spanish missions that colonized the Indians, to the Alamo, which defeated the Mexicans, to Night in Old San Antonio, and especially the carnival week of Fiesta, we Latinos have contributed to our own demise" as we promote the tourism that celebrates our defeat, she says.
Castañeda believes tourism has devolved into entertainment. "It is another effort of assimilation, as people travel to a destination that is the same as the one they left behind...and culture is routinized." This way, she describes, culture is a box of Alamo cookies, omniplexed into American sideshows as if it didn't hurt anyone--even though the wounds are everywhere.
The most important culture is in the inner cities, Castañeda contends, because of the resistance there to massive homogenization. This is the place the Esperanza stands for, she says, "a safe place" where all those who have been left out of the mainstream can express themselves. "The [City] Council is a conservative one...and the Esperanza has been delegitimized for its resistance and challenge of the status quo."