Esperanza V. City of San Antonio: Politics, Power, and Culture

Article excerpt

I first visited San Antonio, Texas, in 1958, when I was seven. I remember a downtown with many houses and lots of people sitting outside on porches and stoops. My older cousin explained that the people we passed on the street were speaking Spanish. Crisp, spicy smells and lively music came from the homes and restaurants. I wanted to dance. My white relatives lived in a house that was air-conditioned and cold, even when it was hot outside. Everybody at my aunt's house was white except a man who mowed the lawn. My aunt took my cousin and me to the Alamo, and we learned that the Mexicans killed everyone. I was afraid.

I moved to San Antonio in 1993. The downtown neighborhoods have been replaced by huge buildings surrounded by manicured grass and cement, hotels, and restaurants for tourists. You rarely hear Spanish spoken in these downtown streets. (1) Songs such as "La Bamba" and other "crossover songs" boom from shops selling Alamo T-shirts and ceramic Mexican hat dancers. Burger King offers breakfast tacos. The people in my aunt's neighborhood, on the near-Northside of town, are still mainly white, but most will tell you that San Antonio is fully integrated and culturally diverse. Many white San Antonians will explain how racial equality has come to the city without the conflicts experienced in other cities. Indeed, many white San Antonians experience diversity as living near several Latino families in suburban neighborhoods, working with Latinos as professionals or trained staff, and having a favorite Mexican restaurant, staffed by working-class Chicanos and Mexicanos. Some may also interact in similar ways with black Americans and Asian Americans.

Remarkably, in San Antonio, the largest city in the United States with a majority Latino population--the "capital" of Mexican-America--few white people experience genuine cultural difference. Although different cultures exist in San Antonio, the city and its business leaders have successfully corralled genuine diversity and replaced it with a commodified, "feel good" version of cultural difference.

I do not mean to say that authentic cultural diversity must be painful. However, unmediated exposure to another culture will force one to realize that other intelligent, healthy, well-meaning, and clear-thinking adults perceive the world very differently and value aspects of the world very differently. And in the United States, unmediated exposure to minority cultures will require one to see the destructive effects of cultural imperialism and forced assimilation. These experiences can be painful. In The Color of Fear, filmmaker Lee Mun Wah asks David, a white man, what it would mean for him if he were to believe what the men of color were telling him about racism. With a trembling voice, David responds, "Oh, that's very saddening. You don't want to believe man can be so cruel to himself or to his own kind. I do not want to accept that it has to be that way or maybe it is." (2) For many white people in the United States, it would be very upsetting and disturbing to experience genuine cultural difference. This disturbing feeling will not sell hotel rooms and investment packages.

As Arturo Madrid observes, the dominant view in the United States embraces diversity as "desirable in principle, not in practice. Long live diversity ... as long as it conforms to my standards, my mind set, my view of life, my sense of order." (3) This is the kind of "cultural diversity" that sells airplane tickets, hotel rooms, and restaurant seats. This is the "cultural diversity" embraced by San Antonio's wealthiest business leaders and promoted by city policies.

But it is not easy to hide genuine cultural difference, particularly when members of a "minority" culture constitute a majority of the population, as in San Antonio. (4) Historically, public and parochial schools have subjected Chicanos and Mexicanos to mandatory assimilation. In the Westside barrio of San Antonio, for example, high schools have followed an "Americanization" curriculum since the 1930s. …