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Lydia Motion

San Antonio in the late afternoon sunshine... for a US city, SA's remarkably relaxed and very beautiful. For a Texan city even more so - Dallas, Houston, even funky lil' Austin are ugly urban deserts stuffed full of ostentatious skyscrapers advertising the oil money that rules the state (and the current US administration). San Antonio avoids overt displays of Anglo avarice, instead feeling more a sister city to Arizona's gorgeous Tucson. Indeed, both possess a down-home quality now largely lost in corporate America. That these metropolises are dominated by Chicanos lends them an engagingly laid-back Latin soul - neither border towns nor junk-food-drenched outposts of urban brutalism - simply unimaginable in most US cities.

San Antonio's home to the Alamo, the mission/ fort complex where Davy Crockett and 179 others held out for 11 days in 1836 against a much larger Mexican army. The Alamo sits in the US psyche as way more than a monument to the war dead, instead, to the nation's John Waynes, it represents a psychological fortress buttressing the invading hordes of migrants from Latin America. Considering how the entire US South West was once Mexico, there's a painful, powerful paradox loose here. So it's interesting to note how Chicano culture has reinvented San Antonio. I mean, even the cops and the once notoriously racist (and brutal) Texas Rangers are brown. At some point, at some time, Texas and the South West will find itself facing a Chicano future.

Arriving in downtown San Antonio I head straight to the Alamo, marvelling at how small the legendary edifice is, while revelling in the cool offered by thick stone walls against 5pm heat. Somewhere in the distance I can hear a mariachi orchestra strike up. I start wandering in the direction of the music but the humidity and a river that runs through the centre of the city distract me. I follow a paved footpath, marvelling at the lush vegetation and flowing waters, until my ramblings end at The Esquire. I'm thirsty alright, yet upon entering The Esquire it's my eyes that start drinking things in: I've found a perfectly preserved tavern of the sort I imagined only now existed in the films of Sam Peckinpah and John Ford.

The Esquire has a long wooden bar free of seats, instead a brass rail proudly invites those who stand to rest their boots on. Little booths with leather seats and frosted glass partitions shield drinkers from one another while a jukebox blasts blues, soul and tejano classics. After an afternoon's wandering, The Esquire is the perfect place to kick back and soak up draft beer and South West spirit. When three mariachis enter (guitar, violin, an enormous guitarron), the bar staff kill the jukebox and acoustic music, fresh and languid, fills the room. Requests are taken and patrons rise to throw a dollar on the tip table. The drinkers are largely working class Chicanos who dig dollars out of jean pockets and bra cups, saluting these street soldiers of song. As the mariachis' high, tenor voices swell and carry forward, I get to wondering if Lydia Mendoza ever sang for tips in The Esquire.


This feature first appeared in fRoots 261, March 2005

 

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