Generations before San Antonio was "a city on the rise," it was a Chicano city. It still is. And our Chicano heart lies in the West Side.
The West Side is home to three universities (UTSA, OLLU and Saint Mary's), two cultural arts organizations (the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and San Anto Cultural Arts) and chingos of restaurants where I can still find a $4.95 breakfast plate of huevos rancheros, coffee included. I can also find a $2 domestic beer and live conjunto music. I heart the West Side.
And you do not have to wait for the Guadalupe Cultural Art Center's Conjunto Festival in May to get your conjunto on. The West Side's Cupples Sports Bar, on Cupples Street across from the cemetery, offers live conjunto music year-round every Friday and Saturday from 8 p.m. to midnight.
Conjunto is San Antonio's roots music. You should know this. Think Piñata Protest without the punk. (Wait. You don't want to do that. Piñata Protest is puro San Antonio.) Think tejano music without synthesizers. Puro button accordion and bajo sexto. Botas dancing in a big circle, cheek to cheek. Umpa Umpa ay ay ay. Czech and German and Mexican and American: the music of San Antonio's mestizo blood.
When Lerma's, a West Side conjunto institution, was forced to close in July 2010, regulars looked for another place in the neighborhood to dance.
"These couples were regulars at Lerma's," says Raul Perez, owner of Cupples Sports Bar who took ownership of the bar eight years ago. "I started with the live conjunto, and they started coming."
"Who plays here now?" I ask.
"Pues. Los Trovadores. The Moon Dogs. Conjunto Cruz. Henry Zimmerle. These are experienced players," he answers.
According to Perez, Cupples first opened in 1952 as Cupples Drive Inn.
"They had picnic tables outside. It was a place for neighbors to get together after work. Back when Kelly was open, workers hung out here after their shift. I hear lots of stories of back when," he explains.
I arrived solita-alone at Cupples on a recent Saturday night; I had been to Cupples twice before on dancing dates. (A dancing date means I have my dancing botas on. There is live music. I expect you to dance. Punto.)
The short drive to Cupples from downtown San Antonio along Guadalupe Street took me past a few of my favorite places: the Guadalupe Theater, Ray's Drive Inn and La Fiesta. No te asustes: San Fernando Cemetery is right across from Cupples Sports Bar.
This particular Saturday night I wore my Vans instead of my botas and had $10 in my pocket. Cupples takes cash only, no debit or credit cards. You won't be breaking the bank, either — Mexican imports and wine coolers are $3, domestics come in at $2 and you can take it easy with chips and a soda for $1.
I was prepared. If someone asked me to dance, I could say no and blame it on the shoes. I love to dance. Ask me to dance. But this night was reserved to observe the onda that is Cupples Sports Bar. I wanted to hear some way-back-when stories.
A live conjunto band, El Conjunto de Larry Garcia, was playing when I entered. No cover. Also, nowhere to sit. I could tell that all the empty seats at the bar were taken by people who were dancing. If you go, watch out for that. Still-cold wine coolers lined the bar. Fortunately, at Cupples, the gente are old school.
The place makes me feel like I am the youngest one around, and I am not a millennial.
"Here, take my seat," a viejito wearing a smooth hat and Stacy Adams shoes insisted.
I felt like a nerd with my red Moleskine diary in my hand, so I sat on it between my note-taking.
"Quieres bailar?" The same viejito who gave up his seat now asked me to dance.
I point to my Vans: "No tengo mi dancing botas." I love a place where I can code-switch from Spanish to English, especially with a $2 Bud in my hand.
A back-when story came to me quick. The viejito started talking: "Back when I was a kid," he said, "my father would bring me here for a Big Red and a bag of Frito's. It was a friendly place. Still is."
Perez agreed: "Cupples is friendly."
I got a sense of that. People look out for each other, respect each other.
Cupples: Not a place for your Tinder meet-ups or your Android Pay. Cash only. Go with a dance partner — you'll want to dance.