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Current 25: John Phillip Santos on how the SA arts scene prepared the way for the Current




When you live too close to a place, the city becomes an impressionist painting: it’s so close to your nose, all you see are spots of color, globs of light. It’s when you step back that forms take shape. For San Antonio author John Phillip Santos it was his time spent in New York from 1986 to 2005 that opened his hometown to him, from the distant vantage point that he was able to appreciate the forms and shades of our city, a city he loves. And his perspective is useful to understanding how the cultural events of the city made the Current possible.

Why 1986? Why not before, or after? How did the city suddenly became “ready” for an alternative newspaper? “For a long time, this was a two-newspaper town,” Santos, a Rhodes scholar, award-winning writer, and Emmy-nominated filmmaker told the Current. “There wasn’t much alternative culture before ’86, and the city was locked down politically by the Good Government League, a political bloc that controlled City Hall.”

But then, things started to change.

Santos recalls that, in the early to mid-’80s, the other San Antonio began to emerge. “There was an incredible dance scene, and George Cisneros had an amazing festival of experimental music and dance,” he said. “Some of the giants of electronic music would come annually for these experimental music and dance festivals, and I mean people like John Cage, Morton Subotnick, Jerry Hunt, and Meredith Monk. This was serious stuff.”

It was in ’84 that Sandra Cisneros arrived from Chicago to become a key figure in San Antonio letters. “In ’84 I applied to run the Guadalupe literary program, and it came down to Sandra [Cisneros] and me,” said Santos. “They chose her. Wise decision.”

With Cisneros as literary director, the Guadalupe became a reading center for regional and national writers, and it was around that time that noted Chicano poet Ricardo Sánchez (1941-1995) arrived in San Antonio for a university job and started writing a column for the Express-News.

“This is a city of great diversity, one wherein the arts compete for exposure and funds,” Sánchez wrote in his first column in 1985. “It is a city of different understandings of pride. I will seek out those artistic and cultural phenomena that are off the beaten track and approach them with a poet’s sensibility.”

But Santos has a special place in his heart for Naomi Shihab Nye. “She really looms large in terms of San Antonio writers, because in the ’70s she graduated from Trinity and she became a tireless poet in schools,” said Santos. “She was the great awakener of poets in SA. Virtually every poet you meet has a story of how they were basically switched on by their encounter with Naomi.”

Inspired by his own encounter with the poet, by the time Santos graduated from high school he was corresponding with major poets and novelists, and he wasn’t the only one. Slowly but steadily, the worlds of poetry, visual arts, and music formed an organic unit that changed the face of the city forever.

“In the ’70s and early ’80s the cultural scene was largely segregated,” said Santos. “It was very rare to find clubs or informal settings where Mexicanos and Anglos and African-Americans could meet and mingle. Los Padrinos on West Avenue, for example, was a multi-ethnic meeting place for the punk and New Wave scenes. What happened between ’84/’85 and ’90 was that there was a marked coalescence of all these different communities of musicians, painters, and writers. SAY Sí, Blue Star, Constellation Galleries, Gemini Ink … All that comes out of that period.”

While Cisneros always played a big role in that development, Franco Mondini-Ruiz was making the transition from lawyer to artist, and the botánica he bought on South Flores — Infinito Botánica — became a key artistic center. “It became a combination botánica, thrift shop, curiosities, art salon, hang-out scene ... Chuck Ramírez lived upstairs. There were all-night parties virtually every night, and it became the focus of this broad community of multi-ethnic artists. Jesse Amado, Anne Wallace … the community that crystallized around Blue Star. And the literary culture became closely involved with it,” Santos said.

Both Santos and artist Rolando Briseño were living in New York, but would eventually return: Briseño in 1992; Santos in 2005.

“Both of us, even living in New York, felt that our aesthetic struggle was here,” Santos said. “We both wanted to reconnect to our source, and all that period of ’84-’05 was very important, because it established in San Antonio a kind of community chemistry around new work. And visual artists, in lots of ways, led the charge.”

When Cisneros received the MacArthur Fellowship (the “Genius Award”) in 1995, Santos saw it as a revelation.

“That recognition reaffirmed the validity of voices coming out of this world, this frontera/borderland,” he said. “It confirmed what we felt and knew: that there was a niche, a place emerging in American culture connecting our work here to the national dialogue. There was the sense that we had something unique in America, rooted in the history that linked us both to the epic history of Mexico and the U.S.A. And that the Chicanos, even those who didn’t adhere to the word Chicano, had this unique perspective.

“The Current was able appear because [by 1986] an alternative culture in SA had taken root. I was familiar with a lot of East Coast alternative weeklies, and for me it was great to see it happening in San Antonio. And after all these years, [the Current] has been an important venue for everything we’ve been talking about. But there were seeds that were planted long before.”

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