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 White faces may have been replaced by brown ones, but diversity came in appearance only–all seats seem beholden to campaign checks and subject to the ambition for mainstream acceptance.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.”
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.”
The mistake we Chicano activists made in the sixties was to assume that the next generation would know the story, José Angel Gutiérrez, the undisputed leader of the Chicano movement in Texas, once told me. He was bemoaning the fact that the children of those embattled leaders have not absorbed the history of struggle–even though his Aztlán, the Chicano homeland, never had a place for homosexuals and has never admitted this mistake.
We are a family, said Baldemar Velásquez, a labor organizer and MacArthur fellow, at the groundbreaking reunion of Latino Macarturos a few months after the Esperanza was defunded. Co-sponsored by the Esperanza and originated by Sandra Cisneros, the meetings of the dozenish “genius” grantees have been taken on the road, to Ohio, and the Los Angeles Times has offered to sponsor the next gathering in California. “Maybe we’re a dysfunctional family,” he says as we sit around Sandra’s kitchen in his rage-channeled-into-peace way, “and we’ve been abusive to each other, but we have to reconcile our relationship. We have to be the conscience of this country…. Otherwise, we will be controlled by things we have sold our soul to.” Few of the City Council members attended the MacArthur reunion, though they were invited. Only the lone woman on the Council, Debra Guerrero, was a regular at the events.
Graciela Sánchez thinks genius is found in everyone, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity. To this end, she has created the Esperanza as a crossroads of critical thinking for the oppressions that wound us all. Despite her noble efforts, the public image is one of “gay issues versus justice issues,” says a professor who is typical of the Latino middle class, who support the Esperanza in principle if not in fact. “The creation of the Latino underclass in this city of tourism is the burning issue…one-third of San Antonio is poor…and the Esperanza needs to address this. What happened to peace and justice?”
“You can’t separate art and culture from justice and respect,” says Sánchez, who has received numerous death threats and the unheavenly notice of Christian talk-radio. To Sánchez, the issues of poverty, potholes and homophobia are inextricably tied to an economy that seeks to control how we act and think. “Art gives us an identity…and that’s why it’s such a threat…. It gives us a sense of being,” replies the artist-activist Angel Rodríguez Díaz. In a capitalist system, nothing is sacred, and culture is a product to consume. And, in an age of globalization, Castañeda says, capital is an economic system that seeks to control labor and culture.
To Castañeda, fighting for a living wage in San Antonio is the same as fighting for homosexual rights. They come from the same place, she argues, because both are symptoms of the historic colonialism of San Antonio. As she describes it, the Esperanza reality has always been one of looking at the larger context, not the fragments of oppression. If a people are denied their culture, they forget who they are and the struggle is lost. A family isn’t free as long as one member is forgotten or abused, she explains. Our hope for humanity relies on the stories of our struggle, and that comes from art.
Latinos are such fascists, former Austin American-Statesman columnist Jesse Treviño once told me. We are antigay at the core, he muttered, in reference to former attorney general Dan Morales, who traveled the state supporting Texas’s antiquated sodomy law. Our Catholicism has made us vulnerable to campaigns of hate, he would say in despair. “It’s all connected,” the Esperanza people say, in trying to explain how any kind of hate becomes an obstacle that prevents us from embracing the wholeness of our community. Isn’t that the journey of our lives, they ask–to know ourselves?
Mejor puto que joto. At least he’s not gay, my mother would answer when I would complain about a brother’spromiscuity. The consummate political rebel, my mother would let my brothers be men, sighing as she served them another velvety tortilla, which they devoured like their women. Our glorious Spanish language includes a bouquet of words, seductive as flowers, to pick from as we denigrate someone who is homosexual. I have heard these words all my life. If two tortillas stick together we call them tortilleras, the name for a lesbian. If a woman denies a man’s attentions, we assume that something must be wrong with her, and if she decides to be with a woman, well, there are plenty of men who want to teach her a lesson. Women are conquests, simple as tortillas.
That’s why the Esperanza’s decision to sue the city expresses a courage that can come only from those who have been less than those who are already nothing. It could only have happened in San Antonio, as the Esperanza proves it has the tripas to fight for its name in a battle that could prove to be bloodier than the Alamo. The center’s attorneys are engaged in discovery and a trial has been set for October. Amy Kastely, an attorney of record for the Esperanza, notes that pursuing the litigation renders the center ineligible to reapply for funding from the city.
It may become the first test of its kind since last year’s Supreme Court ruling in NEA v. Finley, which arose when a conservative Congress recoiled from provocative art. Karen Finley, you will remember, was the performance artist who smeared chocolate on her nude body, offending the sensibilities of Congress (they are a moral bunch), which didn’t understand the treatment of women as objects. Then there was Andrés Serrano’s crucifix in a jar of what appeared to be urine, Piss Christ, which Congress considered an obscenity against God. In the Finley case, the Supreme Court upheld Congress’s right to require the National Endowment for the Arts to consider general standards of decency in making funding decisions. The Esperanza based its lawsuit on the heels of the Court’s decision, arguing that the government, decency and all, could not discriminate against groups that promote “disfavored viewpoints.” It is the first such action nationwide since the Court’s ruling last June.
The cuts that the Esperanza has endured are not isolated incidents, remarked Dr. Yolanda Leyva, a historian who led a panel of poets and writers at the Esperanza in November. “The attacks on bilingual education, immigration, [on the arts,] all these are interconnected…. The things that are happening, happen over and over again, are a continuing conquest…costing silence.” Latinos may think the Esperanza is radical, and, indeed, that night artists challenged the status quo as they imagined a city built on something other than the past repeating itself.
Recently there has been better news: The Esperanza received a prestigious $50,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to bring diverse communities together through culture. That was followed with a Richard Nathan antihomophobia grant of $30,000, bringing the Esperanza’s budget to a total of $300,000. The Esperanza will continue its fight for hope in San Antonio. “It’s the principle of the thing,” says Sánchez. “We have absolutely nothing to lose.