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Part 2: In the Beginning, the story of the creation of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, Texas


Before the Guadalupe, you must understand that there was a civil rights movement that made it possible.

It took the Voting Rights Act in the mid-sixties to transform the San Antonio City Council to single-member districts, allowing a representative number of Latinos and African-Americans to be elected. The new councilmembers in turn redistributed the city's money, which came from the people of San Antonio.

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The flagship of that change was the Guadalupe Cultural Center.

In time, the Guadalupe became the most revered cultural center of its kind in the country.

The Guadalupe began life with another name, the Performance Arts Nucleus (PAN),a visual and performing arts organization founded in 1979. Some of the boardmembers to this consortium included David Gonzalez, Rodolfo Garcia, musician Juan Tejeda, Darío Aguilar,and poet Angela de Hoyos.

After some debate, it was agreed that the Guadalupe’s mission would be to preserve, develop, present and promote the arts and culture of Chicanos, Latinos and Indigenous peoples.

After some early management turmoil, Pedro Rodriguez was hired in 1983 as executive director. By then the Guadalupe had purchased the Progreso Drugstore to use as its administrative offices across from the historic Guadalupe Theatre. In the heart of San Antonio’s barrio, this neighborhood is one of the poorest in the nation, and virtually 100% Latino. The reconstruction and re-opening of the Guadalupe Theatre as a performance center – a result of the City Council’s one million dollar loan to the Guadalupe - was central to the revitalization of the Guadalupe Street area.

The oldest program, and the one that many consider the Guadalupe’s forté – is the visual arts. Conceived as a showcase for Chicano art discounted by the mainstream museums and galleries in the seventies, a number of now-prominent artistas have received a significant boost at the Guadalupe, including César Martinez and Adán Hernandez (“San Antonio, Caras y Lugares”, 1985), along with photographer Kathy Vargas (“ContempoTejas”). Each Christmas season, the Guadalupe also offers a popular arts and crafts bazaar called “Hecho a Mano,” where artisans and craftsmen display their work for sale. In addition, the Guadalupe has a Visual Arts Annex with gallery space, classrooms and resident artist studios, located at 322 S. Salado.

Under the direction of accordionist Juan Tejeda who literally “took conjunto out of the bars and onto the stage,” according to Pedro Rodriguez, the Conjunto Festival has become a yearly event. Conjunto is the synthesis of the German settler’s button accordion combined with the Spanish guitar or bajo sexto (a 12-string bass guitar) that is central to Mexican-American culture. The Conjunto Festival is the largest of its kind in the world, playing to an audience of 50,000 over a six-day period in its heydey. It draws tourists from around the country, featuring the best accordionistas in the world playing in styles from traditional to the vanguard.

The GCAC presents a season of professional plays each year, ranging from the ever-popular “Las Nuevas Tamaleras” by Alicia Mena to “Real Women Have Curves to Cherié Moraga’s provocative “Hungry Woman,” which was scheduled for 2003, but then cancelled. In the beginning, says Rodriguez, the Guadalupe staged “progresista” theatre, like estas flores y marshmallow yellow peeps, written by Enedina Vasquez and Josephine Cásarez. The Center has two resident acting companies: Los Actores de San Antonio, and the teen-focused Grupo Animo.

Acting as a sustaining venue for Chicano and Latino films, documentaries and video, the CineFestival celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2002, presenting one hundred different films. “Senorita Extraviada,” Lourdes Portillo’s much-lauded film about the maquiladora murders, and Mexican filmmaker Maria Novaro’s (Danzón) “Sin dejar huella, ” were two of the acclaimed works offered that year.

The major literary event in San Antonio, and one of the most-anticipated events in Texas, has been, until its demise, the GCAC’s Inter-American Book Fair & Literary Festival. Beginning in 1985, then-Literature Director Sandra Cisneros and small press publisher Bryce Milligan, organized the 1st Annual Texas Small Press Bookfair as a way to build audiences and loyalty for small publishing houses. The Book Festival has evolved into a literary festival with world-class authors while supporting emerging new writers. Carlos Fuentes, Alice Walker, Larry McMurtry, Ernesto Cardenal, Elena Poniatowska, Donald Hall, and Maxine Hong Kingston are some of the writers who have headlined at the week-long event.

In 1990, the Guadalupe, in an initial collaboration with the Mexican Cultural Institute, joined forces to develop a professional dance company that would explore the evolving foclórico dynamic. “Rio Bravo (1994)” and “Santuario” (2001), became the Guadalupe’s signature pieces, expressing the complexities of immigration and identity themes via the modern dance and foclorico tradition. The Dance Program employs ten dancers in its company and runs a dance academy at the Instituto, the Mexican Cultural Institute, that serves as a training ground for the professional company.

Under executive director María Elena Torralva-Alonso, a former corporate executive with media and teaching experience who was hired in 1998, the Guadalupe embarked on an ambitious capital campaign. Along with purchases of real estate surrounding the Center. Under her tenure, the Guadalupe Center purchased real estate on Brazos Street, one half-block west on Brazos Street, to build a new visual arts complex.

The Visual Arts and Media complex, formerly an HEB property, is currently empty, and has been beset by controversy for its financial cost: $400,000, not including the extensive renovations required to turn the abandoned building into a state-of-the-art arts and media center.

Under Torralva-Alonso, La Veladora was constructed, a community mural project featuring a three-dimensional 40x20’ veladora honoring La Virgen de Guadalupe, designed by the artist Jesse Treviño. It is expected to increase tourist traffic to the city’s Westside, the oldest and long-neglected barrio in San Antonio, but home to the Guadalupe Center.

In 2003, the Guadalupe had a 1.8 million dollar budget, and 18 full-time staff.

A new director, with the new title of President, R. Bret Ruiz, was hired in July of 2005, after a two-year national search. Financial reports have not been released to verify funding levels, but the Guadalupe received $450,725 from the City of San Antonio for the fiscal year 2005-06, an increase from prior years.

Under Ruiz to date, a substantial downsizing has occurred, with only two artistic directors remaining out of six disciplines. No director has been hired to manage the 25th Anniversary of the Tejano/Conjunto Festival, scheduled for May of this year.

(This essay, in another form, was published in the new Latina/o Encyclopedia by Oxford University Press, 2005, written by me.)

Photo Credit: San Antonio's Skyline at Night, courtesy of Al Rendon, www.alrendon.com



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