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FEATURE Slumming: San Antonio’s Legacy of Shame BY CHAR MILLER During mid-January’s punishing coldjust days before Henry G. Cisneros would leave his job as Secretary of HUD for the bright lights of Univision, the Spanish-language television networkSere fino Castillo crouched over the only source of heat for the dilapidated, tin-roofed shack he rented on Monterey Street on San Antonio’s near-west side: a metal wash tub. s temperatures dropped below freezing on the evening of January 14, the 89-year-old man tossed a stack of wood into the basin, set it afire, then hauled the crude portable heater into his abode. It was a common technique: Castillo’s neighbors later agreed that he had regularly employed this makeshift fireplace to stay alive during this winter’s unusually numbing weather. Those sustaining embers would also be responsible for Castillo’s death. At some point during the early morning, sparks shot out of the wash tub, igniting a fire that gutted Castillo’s home. Whether it was the flames or fumes that ultimately killed him isn’t clear, and, to judge only from the intense media coverage his demise ignited, it doesn’t really matter. What mattered, rather, was that he had lived in such ramshackle conditions, surrounded by twelve other units equally tumbledown, without heat or other basic utilities, all sharing one outdoor toilet. Embarrassed, the city moved swiftly to condemn, then tear down, many of the eyesoresonly to generate new outrage for evicting the impoverished tenants in the midst of a cold snap. “We’re not in the business of throwing people out in the street,” City Councilman Juan Solis told the San Antonio ExpressNews, but “this decision is for their own good. It is important that we don’t have another tragedy at the location.” Surely Serefino Castillo might have preferred that the original tragedy had never occurred, that his life had been protected by a vigilant government that regularly and swiftly condemned properties exhibiting such flagrant violations of local building codes. After all, it’s not as if this shantytown were new or unique: Jesse Pantoja had owned these shacks for more than forty years, in a secthe norm. Not only would city compliance director Martin Rodriguez admit that similarly dangerous units existed throughout the west and south sides of San Antonio \(the ninth largest city in the track them all down.” Rodriguez’ admission was the most honest thing said during the entire tragic affair. Whether the politically ambitious Solis \(now running for the U.S. Congressional seat left vacant by the death of council will take Rodriguez’s words ,to heart, and shift badly needed funds into his office’s budget, is another matter. Certainly the city’s track recordincluding that of its most celebrated public Henry Cisneros as Mayor of San Antonio Don Walden servant, Henry Cisnerosdoes not lend confidence either that its leaders have ever fully recognized the historic dimensions of the necessary political will to effect change on the ground. Which means that the elderly Castillo probably will not be the last to die in such desperate conditions. WEST SIDE STORY He wasn’t the first, either. The scandalous environments in which many of the city’s poor Hispanics lived were a matter of public record in the late nineteenth century. In 1872, poet Sidney Lanier was struck by the premature aging of the city’s “Mexican men,” who resembled “Old Father Time in reduced circumstances.” Those circumstances had only deteriorated when in 1915 local physicians conducted a public health survey that covered a foursquare-mile area just west of downtownand that, by no coincidence, included Castillo’s future neighborhood. They stumbled past steaming mounds of “fresh horse manure” which “breed myriads of flies” that not only “swarmed over anything eatable, but into the eyes, noses and mouths of the children as well.” When they peered into the appalling jumbles of crude “stalls,” they discovered 8 THE TEXAS OBSERVER APRIL 11, 1997