COMMUNITY RESCUES HISTORY AND CULTURE IN ‘EASTSIDE S.A. THE FUTURE AND BACK’

Originally published on September 10, 2013 (Rivard Report)

In January 1970, African-American community leader Norva Hill organized more than 100 San Antonio women to stand in front of bulldozers preparing to demolish the Carver Library and Auditorium built in 1929. Those efforts would later contribute to the development of the Carver Community Cultural Center, which provides educational and cultural outreach programming and entertainment at the city’s premier Eastside cultural institution.

“It was the only place after the library closed for entertainment in the black community,” Hill wrote in notes about her campaign. “I didn’t want to see the first building that the city had provided for blacks on the Eastside destroyed, because it was and is the most beautiful city building on the Eastside.”

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The stories of the Eastside often include acts of local, grassroots heroism – Hill’s story has been well documented, but there are smaller battles and triumphs churning in the Eastside everyday, for as long as most residents can remember.

It is not just the buildings, activists or local talent that characterize this community. It’s everyday life, curator Ernesto Olivo said, like a tiny white house on North Palmetto street. The home blends into a montage of “faded paint, gated windows and rustic patio furniture.” The life lived inside that home is as singular as any other. In a setting reserved for her everyday memories, Margarita Mondragón – who has lived on the Eastside for more than 67 years – contributed her treasure trove of family portraits, religious altars, odds and ends that have proven their personal value over the years.

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“Vividly she described her life in detail as if all her memories were stored in a small vault inside her brain waiting for the day someone would simply ask her to share her great fortune,” Olivo said, describing his visit with Mondragón. “Looking plainly at the simple white house, neither one of us could have imagined what deep-rooted history would be protected behind those walls. On the drive back, I couldn’t help but wonder what other treasures lay hidden among all those weathered homes.”

She and countless others contributed her trove to “Eastside S.A.: The Future and Back,” the latest project from Olivo, a well-known musician, artist, community organizer, social activist and art educator. Olivo has set out to collect stories like Hill’s and connect them with lesser-known, “common-folk” tales like Mondragón’s that are emerging from Eastside neighborhoods everyday. Olivo elicited help from a few interns and received a grant from the city to initiate the project.

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The result is a continuing multi-media project that’s documenting the Eastside community one story at a time. The project was unveiled at a ceremony Saturday evening at the Movement Gallery located just east of I-37 on Commerce Street.

The Gallery, also home to a curated Libriotraficante Underground Library, is operated in partnership between the Southwest Workers Union and Centro Por La Justicia. The “Eastside S.A.” exhibit will be on display until December – but, Olivo says, the project will continue to grow as more stories are pieces are added. The project’s website, eastsidesaproject.tumblr.com will also serve as a digital, evolving rendition of the exhibit.

A steady stream of locals from all “sides” of San Antonio came to view photography, interviews, video and poetry that aim to capture and preserve the Eastside’s history via stories from all races, ages, and creed.

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With equipment ranging from smartphone to high-quality hand-held cameras, Olivo and his staff recorded stories from middle school students, neighborhood elders, educators, artists, and activists. The Eastside photography on display is a mix of historical and modern, of professional and amateur quality. “This is a community based project,” said Olivo. He knows the community well and can find these hidden stories that help define the Eastside. Many of the stories deal with historic segregation and racial tension. There also are recorded interviews with locals about the importance of education, favorite Eastside stomping grounds, and childhood memories.

“The Eastside of San Antonio has been an intersection of communities, histories, and voices that are integral to the collective story of San Antonio,” reads the project’s mission statement. “This project aims to amplify these stories and expand the dialogue about what they tell us about ourselves and our shared future as a community across racial, geographic and historical lines.”

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The gallery itself resides in a historical Eastside space, the former office of the first African-American woman to practice law in San Antonio, Hattie Briscoe, and the well-known Taylor’s Barber Shop.

The Movement Gallery opened as a community art space in 2011, but kept the barber-shop cabinetry, mirrors, and sinks as a homage to the cultural importance of area African-American barber shops.

During the gallery opening, Antoinette B. Franklin, a San Antonio native, local poet and writer, shared some of her thoughts on segregation in the city’s Eastside. She has self-published six books of poetry and holds writing workshops for all ages.

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“Back then, we didn’t always know that we were segregated from the community,” Franklin said of the strength of the historically African-American community. “We had everything we needed here … we didn’t know that we were ‘disadvantaged.’”

The project itself can be found along the walls and television screens at the Movement Gallery, but the foundation and inspiration for the project is dispersed throughout the community.

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A local radio station, Tha1radio, also provided support for the project went on the air live from the gallery. Olivo confessed that he stumbled across the local station while driving around the local neighborhoods. Nestled in a chain-link fence, he found tin cups spelling out the web-based radio station’s name and asked if they’d like to be a part of “Eastside S.A.” Station operators quickly agreed and some of them signed up to speak at the event, including radio personality and poet Mondrea Harmon.

“This project doesn’t belong to us – it’s not our property,” Olivo said to the crowd of more than 50 at the opening reception. “This belongs to everyone.”

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Through the use of oral histories aimed at providing conversations about the history and culture of this Eastside community, the story-telling projects bring to life those voices that otherwise might be lost or forgotten.

It is through that oral story-telling that 16-year-old summer intern Daija Wilkes found a new home among strangers.

“I got a sense of home. They (Eastside) make you feel at home. Everybody is just a big family, even if they may not know each other. There is a sense of one-ness in the community that makes you feel like this is your home even if you have not lived here or are just visiting,” Wilkes said.