The Esperanza Center for Peace and Justice is a place of hope for all those who’ve never worn a cowboy hat in their lives. Or wanted to. But that takes courage and huevos. The Center, which has both, sued the city of San Antonio last year, and is now waiting for a federal judge to decide whether the City Council discriminated against Esperanza in discontinuing its funding during an arts budget rollback in 1997.
City Hall observers predict that Esperanza will win—but also that the city will appeal the ruling at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. “They [the city] have an unlimited legal budget,” says San Antonio Express-News columnist Carlos Guerra, “and they will cut off their nose to spite their face.”
“Gente decente they’re not,” says writer and proud Esperanzista Sandra Cisneros, explaining why the Center is fighting back. “They don’t believe in being the stereotypical good folk who are polite, decent, and say ‘thank you’ for scraps.”
San Antonio native and Yale graduate Graciela Sánchez heads the 13-year-old center, and sees it as hewing to “the great tradition of Latin America, where art is not seen as separate from politics.” Housed within a nondescript beige brick building on San Pedro Street (whose interior is as alive with color and folk art as the exterior is drab), the center sponsors pottery workshops and film festivals. But Esperanzistas also attend City Hall meetings and speak out on issues affecting women, gays and lesbians, immigrants, and the community as a whole. Sanchez’s determination to confront her home town’s storybook melting-pot self-image, its Catholic fanaticism and its military conservatism, has earned her a dozen homophobic cartoons in the city’s newspaper, racist attacks, death threats, and even a night in jail on spurious (and later dropped) charges.
Back in the summer of 1997, Esperanza was the only arts and cultural organization that lost all of its city funding–after a protracted homophobic campaign by anti-abortion and anti-gay activists targeted the Center as controversial and obscene. Although the vanguard organization had received the highest possible ranking from a peer review panel, the Council voted unanimously to discontinue funding after a late-night, non-public meeting at City Hall, during which members played musical chairs to prevent the appearance of a quorum.
Immediately after the City Council decision, Amy Kastely, who would serve as Esperanza’s lead attorney, began recruiting other San Antonio women lawyers to assist in a First Amendment lawsuit. None of them, including Kastely, was a specialist in constitutional law.
The lawyers spent three years preparing the case, mostly at night and on weekends. Meanwhile, the Center never let up. In the first year alone after the lawsuit was filed, the center staged 24 events, including “Out at the Movies,” a lesbian and gay film festival that was at the center of the right wing’s attacks in the furious summer of 1997, a series of panels, plays, pláticas, dances, readings, a tour of the city’s poor and rich neighborhoods by a former city councilwoman, the Christmas Peace Market, a photography workshop reminiscent of the early downtown photographers, and art workshops and exhibits.
Esperanza also rallied the community and organized a year-long grassroots effort titled Todos Somos Esperanza (“We are all hope.”) In a typical demonstration of its political artistry, the Esperanza organized salons called cafecitos in some of the most humble and some of the most prestigious addresses in the city. A travelling street theatre, a teatro callejero, performed in front of the cathedral for Sunday mass, in downtown plazitas, at parties, and concerts. A milagros quilt was stitched by women who believe in the making of miracles. Throughout the city, bumper stickers, yardsigns, and shimmery 36′ wide banners featuring Esperanza’s golden sun against a red backdrop, repeated the proclamation “Todos Somos Esperanza: signs of pride, hope, and resistance.”
In the few months prior to the trial, MujerArtes, Esperanza’s pottery collective, staged a stunning exhibit and sale of ceramics in the Tejano tradition. And Lourdes Pérez, a trova singer who has been likened to Edith Piaf, performed a benefit concert for the organization that first introduced her to the public. The frenetic activity culminated with a vigil the night before the trial on the steps of the federal courthouse. With television cameras recording the event, the staff and community supporters prayed, lit candles, and sang. Afterwards, the attorneys and staff went back to work through the night.
In addition to devotions, prayer circles, and candelight, Esperanza had the support of the First Amendment. As Lucas Scot Powe, a professor of government and law at the University of Texas at Austin, told the Express-News, “You constantly see governmental bodies penalizing ‘out’ groups for their view, and you know in a real sense that the government was doing it because they didn’t like the group’s political views, but the government body will say, ‘Oh, no! Not us! To be sure, we didn’t approve of their views, but there’s lots of views we don’t approve of, and we did this for the best of all reasons.'”
At trial, basing their strategy on a spate of recent court rulings, Esperanza’s attorneys argued that the City Council cannot discriminate against groups that promote “disfavored viewpoints”–an obligation imposed by the First Amendment (and upheld by various court rulings, including the Supreme Court’s ruling in Finley v. NEA). The Center also maintained that the City Council had violated the Texas Open Meetings Act in its late night meeting prior to the vote.
Twenty-three witnesses gave 15 hours of testimony over two days. Federal court is a serious place, and the packed courtroom of gente from the barrio paid attention, took notes, sketched the proceedings, and listened, with mucho respeto throughout the trial. Federal Judge Orlando García has shown unusual interest in this case, calling it important and significant. Legal observers consider his engagement with the issues to mean that he wants his decision to withstand an appeal at the Fifth Circuit. “I would think that the evidence put on (by Esperanza) is undeniable,” says Texas Rural Legal Aid’s Judith Sanders-Castro. Whether the judge can withstand San Antonio political pressure, she added, is another matter.
In spite of the lawsuit, the Center is flourishing, having received new grants from the NEA, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. Shortly after the trial ended, Esperanza celebrated its independence by making the last payment of its building on September 16, 2000–Mexican Independence Day.
Judge García’s decision is expected sometime this spring.
Barbara Renaud González is a San Antonio writer and Esperanzista.