Arte y Corazon

Westside Cultural Institutions

In the early twentieth century San  Antonio’s Westside was a town within the city, a vibrant center of  distinct mexicano cultural traditions and media. Westside artistas  performed in carpas (traveling tent-shows), sang rancheras in community  theaters, and created and hosted shows on Spanish-language radio and  television. Their work speaks to lifelong personal and professional  struggles against racism, sexism, homophobia, and poverty.

At  the turn of the twentieth century, San Antonio had the largest  population of Mexican descent in the United States, with most living in  the Westside. Residents largely preferred Spanish language newspapers,  performances, radio and films. The Westside was at the cultural  crossroads of Mexico and the United States, and the center of unique  cultural traditions and practices. Many women in the Westside were a  part of this distinct cultural world.

One popular form of  entertainment were the carpas, tent shows that travelled across the  Southwest from around 1910 through the 1940s. Their audience was  Spanish-speaking and predominantly working class. Many of the performers  were refugees from the Mexican Revolution. These performances were  similar to both vaudeville and the circus. Performers included acrobats,  clowns, trapeze acts, as well as dance, live music and monologues.  Sometimes they also featured animals like small dogs as part of the act,  and occasionally featured monkeys and elephants, though this was rare.  Shows also featured skits that addressed current events, including  social commentary on class status, ethnic discrimination and  Americanization. One character, the pelado (underdog), offered humorous  critiques about social inequality and world events.

During the  performance season, troupes would pitch their tents in vacant lots in  the Westside, announcing their arrival with a convite (procession)  through the area, handing out cards saying when they would be performing  in the neighborhood. The best seats were 15 cents, cheap seats went for  a nickel. Even during the Depression, the tents would be full.  Audiences walked over from their homes, and when the crowds thinned, the  company moved a few blocks away to start over again. Sometimes they  would feature paid celebrity entertainers, like Lydia Mendoza. Troupes  such as Teatro Carpa Independencia, Circo Cubano and Carpa García were  based in San Antonio. La Carpa García, a troupe founded in 1914 by  Manuel Valero García and his wife Teresa, was the most well known of the  troupes. Carpa García grew to include more family members, including  Raymond and Virginia Garcia, Rodolfo, Consuelo and Pilar Garcia, and  Esther Garcia Robinson. La Carpa Garcia performed for more than thirty  years, traveling throughout neighborhoods in California, New Mexico,  Arizona and Texas. The root of carpas’ popularity is that they offered  both escapist entertainment, and also affirmed their audience’s  struggles against poverty and ethnic discrimination. During the 1940s,  new safety regulations made it more difficult for the carpas to survive,  but decades later they influenced the development of grassroots theatre  in the Chicano movement.

The Westside’s teatros were incredibly  popular among residents, and important cultural institutions in the  community as well. The first Spanish-language teatro in San Antonio was  Teatro Zaragoza on Commerce Street, which opened in 1912. Five years  later Teatro Nacional opened on the corner of Santa Rosa and Commerce,  just two doors east of the Zaragoza. The Nacional booked some of the  best known mexicano bands and singers, vaudeville acts and Mexican  films. The Progreso theater opened on Guadalupe Street in the late  1920s, featuring the new “talking”movies, including popular Hollywood  movies such as Tarzan. And at the dawning of World War II, Juan  Vidaurri’s tire shop was demolished to build the new Guadalupe Theater.  This was the Epoca de Oro (Golden Era) of Mexican film, when Mexican  movies were at the height of their popularity in both Latin America and  Spain, but largely ignored by Hollywood. In 1949, the Alameda opened on  Houston Street. The Alameda became the largest movie theater dedicated  to Spanish language films and the performing arts.

Spanish-language  radio in Texas was first established through a system where Spanish  language deejays would  purchase blocks of time from Anglo station  owners. These deejays included Manuel Davila, who would broadcast  country music alongside Willie Nelson at KIWW-AM. By 1941 an estimated  264 hours a week were devoted to Spanish-language programs throughout  Texas, Arizona, California and New York. These shows were primarily  focused on musical programming, but would also dedicate time to offering  information on immigration and citizenship, Mexican American businesses  and other issues of community significance.  

In 1946 San  Antonio radio broker Raoul Cortez set up KCOR-AM, using the slogan “La  Voz Mexicana.” This was the first full-time Spanish-language radio  station in the United States owned by a Mexican American. Cortez hired  Tejano actor Lalo Astol to work as an announcer and program host. The  station would feature traditional norteño music, boleros, corridos and  conjuntos. Astol developed a radio theater program called “La Hora del  Teatro Nacional,” a radio novella (drama) which became so popular that  it was broadcast throughout the United States. He developed a series of  other radio dramas featuring Mexican American actors in San Antonio.  These deejays could be quite influential, as they provided a rare forum  for Spanish-speakers to discuss politics. Mateo Camargo, for example,  ran a weekly political talk show called “Frente al Pueblo” that was so  popular that it received mail from Vietnam, and had requests that varied  from re-reading curandero recipes to how to acquire wheelchairs. KCOR  continues to broadcast to this day, both on FM and AM bandwidth.

Other  Spanish-language stations would also be created in the decades that  followed, including Manuel Davila’s KEDA “Radio Jalapeño” 1540AM, that  started in 1967. The radio broadcast in both English and Spanish, played  country music, rhythm and blues alongside traditional norteño, cumbia  and rancheras. Eventually this fusion would become known as Tejano  music.

In 1955 Cortez moved into the television era, founding  KCOR-TV, run by his son-in-law Emilo Nicolás. This would be the first  Spanish-language television station in the United States. It shared a  studio with the radio station, and also featured Astol as a principal  member of its production team. Astol wrote, performed in, and directed  various live-broadcast productions such as “Teatro KCOR” and “Teatro  Motorola.”  The station also rented and televised Mexican films. In  these early years the station was well known for tailoring its  programming to local community interests. In 1962 San Antonio was also  home to the Spanish International Network, the first national  Spanish-language television system in the country, and established  KWEX-TV as its station.

In the late twentieth century many of  these cultural institutions would no longer exist, or get bought out by  International Media Companies like Univisión. However, new cultural  organizations would emerge, often in these same spaces. The Guadalupe  Cultural Arts Center was founded in 1980 by a group of Chicano/a artists  to promote Chicano, Latino and Native American cultures. In the same  site as the historic Teatro Guadalupe, they created a multidisciplinary  cultural arts center that continues to showcase major Chicano/Latino  visual artists, filmmakers, playwrights, actors, writers, folkloric  dancer/choreographers, and musicians.

In 1987 the Esperanza  Peace and Justice Center was founded by Chicana activists seeking to  bring together diverse movements for peace and justice in San Antonio  and worldwide. They offered the first art exhibit in Texas to focus on  the Queer community and the AIDS crisis, and continue as a feminist,  politically progressive and outspoken multicultural coalition. They  serve over 70,000 people each year in arts and cultural events.