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.