Remember the Alamo Part II

R. González

August 4, 1998 in San Antonio, the Alamo rumbled. This time, though, it was
not the typical lucha between Anglos and Latinos for power 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. The hate this time is
brandished at the other’s other, the homosexuals.

The object of this hate is
called the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, which believes that art can
change the world. Esperanza in Spanish means hope, but it means more than can
be translated: it means faith and the dreams of a people too. On a heatwave of
a Tuesday that some call the summer’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 would rather not talk about.
The lawsuit came after a long and protracted campaign that targeted the center
as a nest for gay and lesbian agendas. Couched as fiscal responsibility
versus the luxury of art, the majority Latino city council first voted to cut
the arts budget by 15 percent. Then, in a backdoor meeting, the city council
voted unanimously to eliminate the Esperanza’s funding—the only
organization to receive such treatment, despite high rankings from their peer
review panel and cultural advisory council.

We had such hope for the City
Council, a friend ruefully told me when she heard about the
Esperanza’s funding denial. Since the election of a historic Latino majority
on the City Council, San Antonians have been hoping for change more than for
the rains which finally came and flooded parts of the city. That’s because
the city is a tale of two: it is one of the poorest in the country, and it is
rich in tourism. It is like the third world, says Angel Rodríguez Díaz, a
Puerto Rican-born artist 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 new city council, the
choice was not about post-colonial theory, but something much simpler. In a
city that has long-neglected its barrios for the glitz of the riverwalk,
the council was anxious to show communities that repairing their pockmarked
streets was more important than the Esperanza’s Film Festival Out at
the Movies which has premiered the kind of films that don’t visit this city
often, like Strawberry and Chocolate; Chico Mendez, Voice of the
; The Panama Deception; and Men with Guns. But in a
city that allows each councilmember a pittance of $60,000 for discretionary
needs in their districts, the prospect of $350,000 in budget scraps to brag
about after the machete attack to the arts seemed juicy indeed. As one senior
councilmember told me, the overarching issue of budget policy—the fairness
of the budget—was never discussed. It came down to art vs. potholes, said
the ten-member council. And the potholes won. The Esperanza’s $76,000 yearly
funding was denied.

It’s a culture war against
the Esperanza, said the Texas Observer in an article by Stephen
G. Kellman published on October 9, 1998. Quoting Councilperson Robert Marbut,
a conservative who led the pothole mantra, Kellman writes that Marbut stated
that “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
destination either. Kellman also notes 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, is too abrasive for the mayor, writes Kellman. “That group flaunts
what it does…it is an in-your-face organization,” says the mayor 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 Sanchez, a
Chicana graduate of Yale and a media-labelled lesbian, the Esperanza is a
symbol of defiance known for promoting an innovative array of artistic and
cultural programs that form a political backbone which the city has rarely
seen. From the beginning, says Sanchez, 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 relationship between
politics and art makes the Esperanza distinctive as it sets a standard for the
transforming potential of the two in a way that other organizations are afraid
to address. In so doing, she has taken up the Latin American tradition of art
as an aesthetic vehicle for social change.

In the last ten years, the
Esperanza has presented a lineup of artists who are equal to such spiritual
ancestors as Pablo Neruda, Jose Marti, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, Diego
Rivera, and Siquieros. Like them, they too will probably be much more
respected upon their death: They include Peruvian singer Irene Farrera, the
late folklorist Amparo Ochoa, writer Sandra Cisneros, lesbian comic Monica
Palacios, playwright Ntozake Shange, Chicana playwright Cherié Moraga, San
Francisco’s Mango Jam, female salseras Azúcar y Crema, Mexico’s
ranchera satirist Astrid Hadid, Borderland’s author Gloria
Anzaldúa, and a plethora of visual artists like David Zamora Casas, who
paints stories 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 writer Sandra Cisneros, as she compares her adopted hometown with the
magical reality described by Nobel laureate Gabriel García Marquez. 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 story 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 city’s souvenir-laden downtown, “a
monument to a loss that was a victory for the Anglos,” shrugs Cisneros, San
Antonio is never what it appears to be. Though the city has a Latino majority
population, which is increasing by the day, the Latinos have no real power.

 “We don’t own our own culture,” laments architect José
Jimenez, who lived in Paris for nine years and returned home to San Antonio to
a city he believes has the cultural resources of any in the world. Though the
city sells its unique Mexican ambience as it positions its tourist
attractions, few Latinos gain from their heritage, he complains. Others have
made a fortune from the business of our culture. “The Frito chip started
here on Laredo Street, says 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
reminisces about the fading days of Latino business in San Antonio. Only two
corporations made the top 100 out of the Hispanic Business “500,”
as reported by the same magazine. One Latino, Council- person Roger Flores,
owns property on the Riverwalk district, that he is sure of. The family-owned
tortillas have gone to the billion-dollar HEB supermarket chain, and salsa recipies
were sold long ago. There are many Latino lawyers and doctors in this city,
but they do not run the city’s cultural stores, like the museums, nor do
they manage the historical districts.

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. Yet 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 that defeated the
Mexicans, to Old Night in San Antonio, and especially the carnival week of Fiesta,
Latinos have contributed to our own demise” as we promote the tourism that
celebrates our defeat, she says. Now we have the modern equivalent of [five]
bases scattered throughout San Antonio” that define what is American and
what is not, she explains.

Castañeda believes that
tourism has become 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. Perversely, Castañeda
reflects, it is the military that helped bring Latinos into the middle-class
with the GI Bill. But the influence of the military sets a patriotic tempo
that influences those Latinos who feel they have to prove how American they
are even if it means abandoning their history to tourism, she continues.

The most important culture is
in the inner cities, she contends, because of the resistance to massive
homogenization. This is the place that the Esperanza stands for, she says, “
a safe place” where all those who have been left out of the mainstream can
express themselves. “The council is a conservative one…and “the
Esperanza has been deligitimized 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,” says José Angel Gutierrez, the undisputed leader of the
Chicano movement in Texas. He bemoans 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, winners of the so-called
“genius grants” co-sponsored by the Esperanza and founded by Sandra
Cisneros. Maybe we’re a dysfunctional family, and we’ve been abusive to
each other, he said, 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.” Curiously, few of the councilmembers attended the
MacArthur reunion, though they were invited. Only the lone woman on the city
council, Debra Guerrero, was a regular at the events.

Graciela Sanchez thinks that
genius is found in everyone, regardless of race, gender, and 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 professionals who support the Esperanza in principle if not
in fact. “Unfortunately…the Esperanza comes across as a cover for gay and
lesbian issues,” says the professor. “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 Sanchez, who has received
numerous death threats and the unheavenly notice of Christian talk radio. To
Sanchez, 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 Angel Rodríguez Díaz. “In a capitalist system, nothing
is sacred, and culture is a product to consume. Tourism…has become
entertainment,” Castañeda repeats. In an age of globalization…capital is
an economic system of control—and it 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 the 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 columnist Jesse Treviño once told me. We are anti-gay at the core, he
muttered, after our attorney general, Dan Morales, travelled the state
supporting the state’s antiquated and unconstitutional sodomy law. Our
Catholicism has made us vulnerable to campaigns of hate, he would 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 my brother’s promiscuity. Let them be men, my mother would sigh as she
served them another velvety tortilla that they devoured like their
women. In Spanish, our glorious language includes a bouquet of words,
seductive as flowers, to pick from as we denigrate someone who is homosexual.
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.

Esperanza’s decision to sue
the city is significant and full of hope. It’s gutsy, 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. It may become the first test since the U.S.
Supreme Court ruling in NEA vs. Finley, the case rising from a
conservative Congress recoiling from provocative art. Karen Finley, you will
remember, was the performance artist who smeared chocolate on
her nude body, offending the sensibilities of Congress, who didn’t
understand the treatment of women as objects. Then there was Andrés
Serrano’s crucifix in a jar of urine, a statement of the crass
commercialization of religion, which Congress considered an obscenity against
God. In the Finley case, the Supreme Court upheld Congress’ right to require
the NEA to consider general standards of decency in making funding decisions.
Esperanza based its lawsuit on the heels of the Court’s decision that the
government, decency and all, could not discriminate against groups that
promote “disfavored viewpoints.” It is the first such action nationwide
since the Supreme Court’s ruling last June.

The cuts that the Esperanza
has had…are not an isolated incident, remarked Dr. Yolanda Leyva, another
historian who led a panel of poets and writers at the Esperanza last 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. The storytellers have been
silenced, because to silence culture is to take away their power,” she
emphasized. “Our rights, not as gays, etc., but as human beings, are being

If the Esperanza is to
be true to its mission of hope, it must love others even if they do not love
us, so that we take Jesus back—he was completely subversive, said one of the
panelists. Yes, echoed, Dr. Gloria Anzaldúa, a scholar and native Tejana. “How
can we act in a way that leaves the hate behind…” questioned Anzaldúa
that cold November night of warm corazones.

“Can we pay the enemy back…with compassion?”