Conjunto pioneer Bene Medina loves to reminisce about San Antonio’s Westside music scene of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. The legendary accordionist describes a flourishing circuit of venues boasting renowned players week after week, greats like Eva Ybarra, Henry Zimmerle, Valerio Longoria, and Esteban “Steve” Jordan. Medina began playing in 1965. At the time, it wasn’t uncommon for him to gig locally four nights a week before heading out to Houston, Dallas, Lubbock, or the Valley for weekend shows. Demand was high for the uniquely South Texan musical style — which fuses German and Czech influences with Mexican ranchera — and the money was good.
That was then. Evolving musical tastes and the closure of several notable clubs and dancehalls in recent years have taken a toll on the musicians struggling to make a living playing the music they love most. It’s also inspiring others to endeavor to preserve this indigenous music and pass along its wisdom to a younger generation. Today, the effort to rescue one of the longest-running conjunto clubs from the wrecking ball is reviving interest in the music of South Texas and working to delineate the center of conjunto’s musical universe on a sprawling checkerboard Westside dance floor.
Lerma’s first opened around 1951 and became a Westside institution by feeding patrons a steady diet of polkas, rancheras, and cumbias for more than 60 years. The rotating cast of musicians onstage was consistently top-notch — A-listers who’ve since joined the ranks of the Conjunto Hall of Fame and the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame. Naturally, Lerma’s became a cultural gathering place where everyone knew one another and fights were unheard of. “I’ve always appreciated Lerma’s for giving my compañeros and I the work we needed to survive, even when times were hard,” said Ybarra, Saytown’s long-reigning conjunto accordion queen. “I make my living from playing, and that’s the way it’s been all my life. If the clubs don’t make money, the musicians go down with them. We need more clubs to survive.”
City code inspectors paid a surprise visit to the club and adjacent businesses on July 6, 2010. The strip center, located in the 1600 block of North Zarzamora, was cited for numerous code violations and an immediate evacuation was ordered. Damage was so extensive that the city recommended demolition, and the Dangerous Structure Determination Board brought it to a vote during a late July meeting. Fortunately, Lerma’s owner Gilbert Garcia showed up armed with supporters (see “QueQue,” July 28, 2010), and the outpouring of community interest was enough for the DSDB to grant a 60-day reprieve to allow Garcia to assemble a repair plan. At the board’s next hearing, Garcia was granted six months to try to raise money for the repairs.
Santiago Garcia of the Westside Development Corporation reached out to Lerma’s immediately. So did the San Antonio Conservation Society. The two helped the club secure a small intervention grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation early on, while the city’s Historic and Design Review Commission designated Lerma’s as a historic landmark on September 15. Rollette Schreckenghost, president of the Conservation Society, called the cultural history of the club “unparalleled” and said her organization became involved in response to Lerma’s growing community support.
Though the current extension has given Gilbert Garcia and his supporters some breathing room, money is obviously the bottom line. While the SACS recently passed along a grant for $15,000 to go toward roof repairs, community activist Susana Segura, project coordinator for Save Lerma’s, said the lowest bid she’s received for repairs has been $700,000. However, she believes the work can be done for much less. “I’m having trouble with contractors giving me reasonable bids,” said Segura. “I think many are upping the price because they know Lerma’s is a historical landmark. But the responsibility of the repairs falls square on our shoulders, and there is no city money coming to us. If we were in a historical neighborhood, we would be able to get help. But we’re not.”
When asked if Lerma’s is worth saving, Gilbert Garcia laughed heartily. “Nobody ever asks me that!” he exclaimed. “What they ask me is when it’s going to open back up. When I run into our patrons at other clubs, they complain. When you feel comfortable in a place that you’ve been going to for so long, you don’t feel right anywhere else.”
A saxophone player himself, Garcia bought the property in the early 1980’s from Armando Lerma, the son of original owner Pablo Lerma. Garcia kept the conjunto tradition alive by regularly bringing in the legends his loyal patrons asked for. “People expect conjunto at Lermas,” said Garcia. “No exceptions. Button accordion, bajo sexto, bass and drums: that’s all they want.”
Many supporters call Lerma’s the longest-running live conjunto music venue and dancehall in the region and, by default, the world. Segura says she has not found a venue built before Lerma’s that is still in operation. Juan Tejeda, co-publisher of Aztlan Libre Press and director of the Conjunto Music Program at Palo Alto College, echoes sentiments regarding Lerma’s cultural relevancy. He says the club has played a very important role in the preservation of San Antonio’s music and culture, continually providing a place where the community could gather for parties, dances, and celebrations of life. In his opinion, Lerma’s literally helped people survive. “People went there to dance, have a good time, and get charged up so they could go back to work for another week,” said Tejeda, a founding member of the Movimiento-rooted group Conjunto Aztlan. “It was an important meeting place for people. We went there to reinforce our friendships, our culture, and our identity.”
While Lerma’s now-recognized historical status won’t fend off demolition forever, it does help supporters in their quest for monetary support. Save Lerma’s is working to get the building listed with the National Register of Historic Places and Texas Historical Commission, exploring alternative lenders, and working to establish itself as a registered non-profit. Applying for grants is a time-consuming process, however, and some funding cycles don’t fall within the city’s six-month deadline. But without wealthy private donors stepping forward, substantial grants and additional extensions from the city may be Lerma’s only hope for survival.
As for musicians displaced by San Antonio’s suffering conjunto scene, they are fighting to impart their musical traditions through instruction. Ybarra has given lessons throughout the years. Medina teaches the squeezebox to an inter-generational crowd at the Conjunto Heritage Taller, a Southside non-profit dedicated to preserving the genre. And Tejeda continues to reach students through his conjuto classes at Palo Alto. But with more traditional clubs battling to stay alive and no new venues springing up, how will the new generation of conjunto musicians hone their craft?
If there is a silver lining around the Lerma’s debacle, it lies in the newfound interest in Westside history that is bringing preservation dollars and research. “It feels like there is a new focus in the Westside, especially since the `Lerma’s` presentation at the DSDB meeting,” said Garcia of the Westside Development Corporation. “The San Antonio Conservation Society has been taking the initiative to call meetings concerning the club and, in a separate project, the city is doing a cultural survey on the Westside to identify cultural assets.”
Elizabeth Porterfield of the city’s Office of Historic Preservation describes the upcoming Westside Cultural Resources Survey as an effort to proactively identify historically significant properties and areas, which will greatly assist in preventing demolition of previously non-inventoried historic resources. Though the OHP has conducted similar surveys in other parts of the city, this will be the first to take place on the Westside. Porterfield said the initial community meeting will be held in February 2011. Both she and Garcia said the survey relies heavily on input from community volunteers who help relay insider information about existing structures, such as when they were constructed and significant alterations made since.
“The OHP is very strategic in how they connect with the community,” said Garcia. “The `February` kickoff meeting will introduce the survey in detail, and provide all the information interested community members need to get involved and utilize existing preservation resources.”
Garcia sites the involvement of SACS as key to preservation action on the Westside. Asked if he thought the explosion of attention in the Westside could turn the area into a new Southtown, Garcia said, “That would be a great outcome. I definitely think we have the assets to do it. We’d have our own flavor, of course, but I think the potential is there for that kind of art- and culture-based development.”
And we’ll have Lerma’s to thank for that, too. •
Lerma’s Nite Club, 1612 Zarzamora, served as one of San Antonio’s premier Westside conjunto venues from the late 1940s through the summer of 2010.
While a definitive construction date is uncertain, the building first appears in the San Antonio city directory this year.
Operates as El Sombrero Nite Club, though is soon renamed Lerma’s after Pablo Lerma takes over management.
Operated by Pablo Lerma’s son, Armando.
Current owners Gilbert and Mary Garcia take over the lease from Armando, agreeing to retain the family name.
The Garcia’s purchase the property from original owners Harry Wise and Mark J. Sideman for $60,000.
A portion of the movie Selena (1997) is filmed at Lerma’s.
Girl In A Coma film their “Clumsy Sky” music video here.
July 6, 2010
City code inspectors order an immediate evacuation of the property and recommend demolition after citing the club and adjacent businesses for several code violations.
July 26, 2010
Lerma’s is granted a 60-day extension by the Dangerous Structure Determination Board.
September 15, 2010
The San Antonio Historic Design and Review Commission recommends designation of the building as a historic landmark.
September 27, 2010
DSDB grants Lerma’s an additional six months to find funding for repairs.
October 21, 2010
The San Antonio City Council unanimously approves city landmark designation for the building.