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A Cultural Diamond in the Rough

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Come to this South Texas city, home of the Alamo and the birthplace of the fajita, and you’ll discover a place where, as many locals put it, “you feel good about being Hispanic.”

Mexican and Mexican American architects have designed the new downtown campus of the University of Texas and the new public library, a huge cube painted “enchilada red.” Artists with names like Rodriguez and Cisneros haunt the galleries and cafes, forming a sort of Latino salon that’s drawing away talent from New York and Los Angeles.

In May, voters reelected a Spanish-surname majority on the City Council, further cementing San Antonio’s reputation as a vanguard in the Latino search for political power.

“There’s more Mexican Americans in Los Angeles, but they don’t have the power we have here,” says Rolando Briseno, an artist and San Antonio native. “This is the capital of Mexican American culture.”

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A generation after Henry G. Cisneros became the city’s first Mexican American mayor this century, marking the climax of a decades-long quest for “Chicano power,” San Antonio is a flourishing Latino cultural and political mecca.

And yet another, older San Antonio also lives on, in which Tejanos still feel like second-class citizens, their neighborhoods eclipsed by the economic power of the mostly Anglo northside.

This other San Antonio is a magnet for potholes and junkyards, the second-poorest big city in the U.S. after Detroit. In its barrios, homes teeter and shed paint flakes like dirty snow. In countless vacant lots, mesquites and prickly pears grow wild.

“Outsiders [visiting downtown] see this beautiful city, but most of our people don’t benefit from it,” says Maria Berriozabal, who ran for mayor in 1991 but lost to an Anglo businessman. Indeed, a Latino hasn’t been elected mayor since Cisneros left office in 1989.

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In the other San Antonio, people with names like Rodriguez and Gonzalez work minimum-wage jobs in hotels and restaurants. They cater to the tourists at Fiesta, a weeklong spring celebration of the 19th century victory of Texas rebels over the Mexican army.

This is the paradox of San Antonio. It is a place where Latinos play an increasingly prominent role in cultural, economic and political life but can still feel abused and neglected.

A city of just over 1 million people, the eighth-largest in the country and one of the fastest growing, San Antonio is the undisputed center of Tex-Mex culture, host to half a dozen cultural gatherings, from the Conjunto Festival to the Tejano Music Awards. People here are happy to think of their community as a cultural hybrid, part Mexican, part Texan--in a word, Tejano.

Still, when two members of the new Latino majority on the City Council recently proposed naming the city’s airport for Cesar Chavez, they had to retreat in the face of staunch opposition.

Eduardo Diaz, a Los Angeles native who has been arts director for the city for the better part of a decade, summarizes the paradox of his adopted hometown this way: “It’s a comfortable place for Latinos to be. If you’re 60% of the population, you can do your thing, you can be yourself. Having said that, San Antonio is also a very conservative city . . . . It’s a double-edged sword.”

Nearly everyone who is Latino in San Antonio, from the newest immigrants to the oldest of the old Mexican American families, expresses the same ambivalence about their city.

They like the Latin American feel of the place, the odd Spanglish you hear on the radio, where even the traffic reports are bilingual--"There’s an accident on Nogalitos, mucho cuidado por alli [be careful there].” But they also wonder how far Latinos have really come. They wonder when, if ever, the renaissance will reach the barrios, where just about half of all children live below the poverty line.

The stories of several San Antonio Tejanos illustrate the tensions and the promise of a people on the cusp of true power, a phenomenon soon to be felt throughout the Southwest, where an emerging Latino majority waits its turn.

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The Artists

Angel Rodriguez-Diaz paints dreamscapes, finely detailed oils that depict Latinos against dramatic, iridescent skies. One of his paintings is in the National Museum of American Art in Washington, and some of his San Antonio neighbors think he’s rich. But Rodriguez-Diaz will tell you it only seems he is.

For most of his life he’s lived in New York, and all the money he saved there buys a lot more in South Texas. Along with his partner, painter Rolando Briseno, 47, he bought an old grocery store in the city’s Beacon Hill district and converted it into a home and studio.

“Out of all places in the U.S., it’s the place where I feel the most comfortable,” says Rodriguez-Diaz, 43, a tall, affable native of Puerto Rico. “I found an audience that was more receptive to what I had to say.”

The happy combination of low rents and a vibrant Latino culture has drawn a number of artists like Rodriguez-Diaz to San Antonio’s downtown neighborhoods. Their ranks include established painters like David Cabrera, a Southern California native, and younger people like Martha Martinez-Flores, a graphic artist who just moved here from Chicago.

“It seems to me that people enjoy life a little more here,” says Martinez-Flores. “I was born in Chicago, but I was raised in Mexico. San Antonio reminds me of Mexico. The people are friendly and warm.”

There are at least two dozen gallery spaces in the city, and several hundred artists, with new ones trickling in all the time.

San Antonio’s most famous immigrant is the writer Sandra Cisneros, also a Chicago native. Cisneros’ house in the historic King William District has become a landmark, an old wood-frame house she’s painted an eye-catching purple, as if to announce the arrival of an exotic force in the neighborhood. The city tried to get her to tone down the color. She refused.

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Cisneros also happens to be one of Rodriguez-Diaz’s best customers, having bought several of his paintings. She commissioned a portrait, and the unfinished work stands propped against a wall in his studio.

Not far away is Briseno’s sculpture “Tortilla Tower,” a rendering of the iconic UT Tower in Austin made of corn tortillas with a “real chile on top.”

The studio is a menagerie of Latino icons transformed into high art, Rodriguez-Diaz’s “Chupacabra” (a mythical goatsucker) in one corner, Briseno’s “The Birth of the Tuna” (a cactus pear) in another. It seems that nothing could be better for the two artists. But talk to them a bit longer and they’ll tell you that not all is well for Latinos and for the arts in San Antonio.

“I come from a colonized country,” says Rodriguez-Diaz. “And I recognize what one looks like.”

There are few Latinos on the boards of the local art galleries and museums. And Briseno says he’s been “blacklisted” by the city’s principal Anglo patrons because he’s been especially outspoken about Latino issues. Among other things, he opposed placing a new bronze monument of Davy Crockett and other defenders of the Alamo in front of the famed downtown battle site of the Texas war of independence.

Briseno opposed it because it was “insensitive to Mexican culture.” After some angry debate, the statue’s Anglo supporters withdrew their proposal.

“The city is more polarized. The racism is still strong, but everyone is in denial about it,” Briseno says. “There’s still a Southern politeness in this city. If you bring up the racial issues, you’re being divisive.”

With a growing number of artists like Briseno willing to take public stands, the role of the arts has become, in recent years, one of the most hotly debated issues in the city. For instance, the Esperanza Cultural Center, one of the city’s biggest Latino cultural institutions, lost its city funding after coming under attack for showcasing the work of gay and lesbian artists.

The cut was one of the most important acts carried out by the new Latino majority that was elected to the City Council in 1997, a move that pointed to a sharpening of the divisions existing within the Latino community itself.

The new council’s “back to basics” budget also abolished an ordinance that funded public art from the city’s hotel tax. In the barrios, several council members argued, fixing streets and long-neglected infrastructure was a greater priority.

The Entrepreneur

Ralph Velasco speaks fluent Spanish but pronounces his name with a broad Texas twang. He’s 72, the son of a Mexican immigrant and is an expert in the nuances of salsa and tortillas. His San Antonio factories have been churning out Mexican food for decades.

Sitting in the landmark restaurant Mi Tierra, he reaches into the obligatory bowl of tortilla chips on the table and picks one out. He gives the chip a dramatic crack, illustrating a point about the Mexican food business.

“You need a special kind of corn for that,” he explains. “Before, we made tortillas from the same corn you fed the hogs. Now there’s special varieties. It’s all changed.”

Velasco runs the Amigos Canning Co., founded by his father and operated out of a trio of properties in the westside barrio. Amigos has survived the battles that have driven other South Texas competitors out of business. “It’s because I’m stupid, hardheaded and I have a lot of pride.”

San Antonio has a long tradition of such family-owned Mexican American businesses. In recent years, a new set of businesses has joined the mix, responding to the growing purchasing power of Latinos. Sony has its Tejano record label based here. There are a half dozen advertising agencies specializing in the Latino market, including the nation’s largest such agency, Bromley, Aguilar and Associates.

“San Antonio has become, without any doubt, the new Madison Avenue of Hispanic advertising,” says Heberto Gutierrez, chairman of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and president of the ad agency Inventiva. “It’s phenomenal that this is happening in what’s supposed to be sleepy little San Antonio.”

Business leaders sell the city as a gateway to the Mexican economy. It was here in 1992 that President Bush joined the leaders of Mexico and Canada to mark completion of the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Velasco’s Amigos Canning doesn’t have the same cachet as the swankier downtown businesses. Still, it’s the kind of place where a person without much education can get a job, usually not much more than minimum wage but with benefits such as health insurance.

“We train them all here,” Velasco says. “Each one of these jobs is a job I used to do myself.” A core of employees has been with Velasco for years, raising families, working their way up. A handful of his 100 or so employees earn as much as $40,000 a year.

Latino and other “ethnic” entrepreneurs have long played this role in American cities, bringing opportunity and investment to otherwise neglected corners of the urban landscape.

“In this neighborhood, the level of education is pretty low,” he says. “I get better educated people out of Mexico than I do out of the local barrio.”

(At the Lanier High School, only 54% of 10th-graders passed the reading test last year, far below the state average of 78%.)

To keep up with the times, Velasco is contemplating taking Amigos Canning public. He’s also considering enrolling at the UT business school, which would make him one of the few 70-something students on campus.

Making a go of it in manufacturing has become harder than ever for a family business that has to compete with multinational conglomerates, he says. “Small business today, I don’t care what the ethnic group is, has the same basic problems.”

Gutierrez, of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, has a more sanguine view. He sees nothing but a bright future for Latino business in a place where “everyone from the cabdriver to the management consultant” has a Spanish surname. Among other things, city officials have made the granting of contracts to minority entrepreneurs a priority.

“You’re looking at 75% Hispanic representation in city government. Who’s setting policy for the city?” he asks. “Our own people.”

The Activist

Maria Antonietta Berriozabal likes to give visitors what she calls “the alternative San Antonio tour.” The two-hour drive through the city doesn’t include the Alamo or the River Walk, where tourists sip margaritas just a few shades of green lighter than the meandering stream before them.

One spring day, Berriozabal loaded a group of out-of-town students and professors into a bus and took them to the southside, open fields that look vaguely rural but which happen to be well within the city limits.

Finally, something came into view: rows of rusting jalopies parked on a dirt field, as if the soil had been fertilized with oil and sprouted cars instead of crops.

Berriozabal, 58, got her start in community activism at her neighborhood church. Eventually, she served for 10 years on the City Council. In 1991, she ran for mayor, made the runoff but lost with 47% of the vote, coming closer than any other Latino to follow in the footsteps of Henry Cisneros.

Her platform was solidly liberal, centering on improved housing and “investment in human capital,” especially in the city core. Her focus groups found that many Anglo voters thought she was “too Hispanic.”

Berriozabal won a majority of the votes in the city’s barrios--Latinos make up 44% of the city’s registered voters--and in the traditionally African American eastside. But she lost in three predominantly Anglo council districts.

“I didn’t pay attention to the people who run this city,” she says. “Ultimately, 17 white men run this city.”

But not everyone in Latino politics believes her loss is a comment on Latino empowerment.

Roger Flores, who served two terms on the City Council, says Berriozabal’s mayoral campaign faltered because “she didn’t get close enough to business . . . . They thought she was going to spend too much time with the neighborhoods.”

It’s a common dilemma for urban politicians, the tension between local allegiances and citywide imperatives, a tension exacerbated by San Antonio’s recent history. Until the 1970s, most city offices were filled by candidates handpicked by the mostly Anglo and conservative Good Government League. All City Council members were elected in at-large elections that were dominated, invariably, by northsiders.

Community pressure and a civil rights lawsuit finally led to the creation of council districts in 1977. When Cisneros ran for mayor in 1981, he turned traditional San Antonio politics upside-down, bringing liberal northsiders and Anglo businessmen into a coalition with a Latino leader at its head.

“I was proud of him. Henry was a star,” Berriozabal recalls. “He was smart. He had worked at the White House. He was our hope. I thought, now maybe we’re going to take care of the problems.”

Berriozabal was first elected to the City Council the same year Cisneros became mayor. But she soon found herself opposing Cisneros as he embarked on a series of grand projects, including the construction of the Alamodome arena. She thought the money would be better used elsewhere.

“Politically, we saw the world differently,” she says. “Henry already had his six votes. He didn’t need my vote. People wouldn’t even lobby me.”

Cisneros envisioned San Antonio’s woes being soothed by a steady diet of high-tech jobs. In the long run, however, most of those jobs went to nearby Austin, leaving San Antonio as dependent as ever on the low-wage tourist industry. And after the Cold War ended, the city lost several thousand jobs when two of the six military bases in the region closed.

A sense of impending crisis--or, at the least, lingering stagnation--pervades the thinking of many barrio activists. It’s made people like Berriozabal even more firm in their conviction that what San Antonio really needs is someone to lead them out of the morass.

“I’m still looking for the one who is going to really be an incredible leader,” she says. “A person who won’t give up el pueblo. That person is going to come.”

When that happens, Berriozabal asks, her eyes brightening, “Can you imagine what kind of city we could be?”


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