Daniel H. Pink, author of best-selling book, A Whole New Mind (2006), must have had the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center (GCAC) in mind when he argued in that work that “the future belongs to creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers.” In fact, the founding artists, board, and staff of the GCAC, organized, developed, and operated this community based cultural arts institution on concepts integrally similar to those that Pink elaborates: Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. But they did so in the 1980s out of the lived experience, aesthetics, and struggle for survival of the Mexican American communities in which they were born and raised in Westside San Antonio and South Texas, and out of the political groundwork laid in the late 1960 and 1970s.
In the 1980s too, GCAC artists, staff, and board members were equally prescient in their discussion of a “Guadalupe Corridor,” which this present proposal frames, in keeping with “SA’s Cultural Corridors” idea current in Mayor Julian Castro and the City of San Antonio’s Vision 2020. Long before the city’s public officials articulated the ideas for the City, the GCAC was well aware of its important role as an economic generator in the Westside. In 1984 the GCAC reported that it “employs more artists than any other organization funded by the City of San Antonio,” and noted that it provides employment for visual and performing artists, for writers, for part-time music instructors, and lecturers. The GCAC was ahead of the curve! What generated the inventiveness, creativity, energy, and foresight evident in all aspects of the organization’s work since its founding?
Art, Culture and the Chicano Movement
The generative forces that shaped the GCAC derived from the long-lived struggle for justice and equality– for civil/political, economic, cultural, educational, gender, and other human rights that the Chicana/ o Movement of the 1960s-70s fought to achieve. In San Antonio, as in all locales, art and culture were inherent to the Civil and Human Rights Movement. Due to the virulent legal (de jure) as well as the customary (de facto) racial segregation and related injustices of the era, and despite the Supreme Court’s historic Brown v Board of Education decision of 1954 that outlawed racial segregation, public facilities, including schools, swimming pools, cemeteries, and other public spaces were still segregated in San Antonio and in Texas more generally.
Precisely because of educational inequalities and the fact that most people of color were not formally educated, poster art announcing organizing meetings, picket lines, rallies, demonstrations, and community gatherings proliferated precisely to ensure that if those who could not read, could readily understood the message that a meeting was taking place.
Visual artists responded to the exclusion of Mexican American history from Texas textbooks, to the reality of brutal poverty in San Antonio, one of the poorest cities in the U.S in the 50s and 60, to systemic racism and denial of Mexican American’s civil rights, with a virtual explosion of public art, especially murals, which visually represented Tejano/Mexican American/Mexican history and culture. Countering historical erasure, Chicana/o artists drew on Mexican and Latin American intellectual, cultural and artistic traditions, including that of art as social critique, and painted public murals throughout San Antonio’s Westside, a composite of numerous Mexican American neighborhood and communities.
Brilliantly colored murals depicting important moments in the history of Mexican descent peoples, local and national heroes of Mexican origin, religious and cultural icons such La Virgen de Guadalupe, Lydia Mendoza. César Chávez, and Benito Júarez portrayed in barrioscapes or scenes of every-day life of working class Westside neighborhoods, began gracing entire walls of public buildings, businesses, public housing projects, and other structures. Literary artists drew on historical tradition to publish bilingual newspapers, chapbooks, and collections of poetry; they drew on oral tradition to hold public poetry readings and declamacion events. Performance artists, actors, dancers, musicians, composers and lyricists performed traditional Mexican folkdances, played Tejano conjunto music in public and private venues, sang traditional corridos and composed new ones to document contemporary struggles and leaders, César Chávez, Dolores Huerta and other Movement heroes. .
Always there was rhythm and music, whether from local musicians practicing in the neighborhood, religious alabanzas the family sang in the morning, Mexican big band concerts, or simply the rhythm of the frijoles simmering on a wood-burning stove and the slap, slap, slap of the palote, rhythmic testament to the artistry of a mother’s cooking. Always too, there was humor, much of it in sophisticated word play, called albures in Spanish, often with double-entendre, but also jokes, comedic as well as didactic dichos, and adivinanzas (riddles) for the kids.
Above all, there were the rhythms of every-day life where, despite poverty and marginalization, people saw, created and lived with beauty–delicate wax flowers for confirmation and wedding coronas, intricate crotchet hangings to cover broken windows; carved santos, bultos, because the store bought ones were unaffordable, painted and decorated lard and coffee cans for flowers, herbs, and spices–rich textures, colors and designs from the natural world and the one they created from working class sensibilities, aesthetics, knowledge, experience, and resourcefulness. “Hacer de tripas corazón,” as our parents referred to making the most out of difficult situations, and of creating beauty out of the everyday.
Democratizing the Arts and Humanities: National and Local
Yet, until the Chicana/o and other social justice Movement of the 1960s, and the intervention of federal legislation, neither the artistic sensibilities, talents, aesthetics, visual or other artists of Westside communities had access, representation, inclusion, or acceptance in the cultural institutions of San Antonio, including the art museums, music and dance venues, which were available only to the symphony and the ballet. The democratization of arts and cultural institutions, and more generally of political life, of education, and of the institutional fabric of the United States, is based on Presidential Executive Orders, Supreme Court Decisions and Federal legislation passed from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. President Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981 (1948) decreeing integration of the Armed Forces and by extension of civil service, begin to rent racial and other exclusionary structures of the United State’s institutional and social fabric.
In Hernandez v. Texas (1954), the Supreme Court case that defined Mexican Americans as “a class apart” due to racial and other institutional discrimination that resulted in denial of service on juries, the Court ruled that Mexican Americans could not be excluded from serving on juries. The other land-mark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education (1954) desegregated the public education system in the U.S.; the Civil Rights Act (1964) guaranteed equal protection under the 14th Amendment and protected the voting rights guaranteed by the 15th Amendment; the National Voting Rights Act (1965) outlawed discriminatory voting practices that disenfranchised African Americans, Mexican Americans, and others.
In the realm of arts and culture, Congress stated that “Democracy needs wisdom,” and in 1965 created the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), two independent federal agencies, to fund arts and humanities projects and programs on the basis of proposals and peer review panels. Locally, the San Antonio City Council crated the Office of Cultural Affairs which, like the NEH and NEA, provided grants for cultural arts projects and programs, also on the basis of proposals and peer review panels. Similar changes occurred in the field of education when, for example, the State of Texas reversed the “English Only” decree, in place since 1918, and passed the bill establishing bilingual education in Texas in 1968, which mirrored the national bilingual act. Until then, even through the mid-1970s, Mexican American children in Texas were corporally punished for speaking Spanish on school grounds.
Westside San Antonio: Cultural Legacies and Foundations
Federal legislation and the socio-political ferment of the Civil Rights, Women’s and Anti-War, movements begin to shatter discriminatory racial and other policies and practices across the socio-political, educational, cultural, and social spectrum, reconfiguring preexisting boundaries, opening and creating new, more equitable space in all realms. By the mid to late 1960s, the Westside of San Antonio, “el hueso,” el barrio, rife with socio-political and cultuirall activity, became the seedbed in which flourished diverse Chicana/o arts and cultural groups, activities and programs that laid the foundation for the establishment, almost twenty years later, of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center.
Historically, the GCAC has been thought of as a primarily “Westside” institution in spite of the fact its programs serve residents from all parts of the city and tourists from all over the globe. Today, the Guadalupe’s programs are designed to strike a balance between the local, the national, and the international. Presently, the Guadalupe’s constituents (artists, audiences, and donors) represent every age and income level. The GCAC has programs tailored for children as young as 8 years old, teens, young adults, professionals, families, and senior citizens.
Since its founding over 30 years ago, the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center:
- Has become one of the largest, and one of the first, culturally based arts centers in the US
- Is a leading voice of multidisciplinary Latino art and culture in San Antonio
- Owns 108,000 square feet of facilities and property in the heart of one of the city’s historic neighborhood.
- Serves over 100,000 people each year from all over city, region, state, and the globe through artistic, educational, and community programming.