Sunburned

by Published on

City in the Sun is perhaps the most important book about San Antonio you’ve never read. Written in the 1940s by a self-styled “newcomer,” novelist and journalist Green Peyton (a pseudonym; his last name was Wertenbaker) crafted a rich survey of the Alamo City’s past and present. I was blown away by it when I found a copy in the Trinity University library in 1981, weeks after I had arrived on campus. Engrossed, I didn’t leave the dusty stacks until I had finished. My enthusiasm was a partial consequence of Peyton’s beautiful prose, deft sense of humor, and barbed insight into the city’s hurtful politics. I was also struck that the community he described—the openness, complex history and sunny disposition that often masked deep social divisions—was as relevant as it was when he put words to type.

Imagine my muffled laughter as I read Peyton’s impression of the educational institution for which I worked, “an obscure little university with grandiose ambitions.” He mocked one of those aspirations: “San Antonio yearns with unutterable longing for a great university with a mighty football team” so it could revel in the “pigskin glory” Austin and Dallas enjoyed. He cheered another: If the school maintained its “aim to specialize in the liberal arts and sciences, reversing the trend in Texas hitherto,” the “mental climate in which Texans live will be cleared and refreshed.”

One of the book’s central themes was that neither the city nor the state was an invigorating place “for people who worked with their minds.” The lack of good schools for “less favored people” was another. Peyton understood that segregated and substandard education on the east, south and west sides made their residents second-class citizens. He got that labor organizer Emma Tenayuca’s appeal to oppressed pecan-shellers was a consequence of Anglos’ belief that Latinos were “an inferior race.” Confronted with the majority’s iron-fisted rule and indifference to their condition, the dispossessed knew that politics was no panacea, either: Hispanics “long ago learned from grim experience that the Anglo-Americans intend to run San Antonio anyhow.”

Peyton also trafficked in the upbeat and quirky, filling pages with pious friars, infamous gunfights and gunfighters, exotic dancers and a somnolent, mariachi culture. Yet because he wrote City in the Sun, as The New York Times observed, with “an absence of fulsome ballyhoo,” it continues to be an indispensable guide to 20th-century San Antonio.

 

Contributing Writer Char Miller is author of Deep in the Heart of San Antonio: Land and Life in South Texas.